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Australia’s Liberal Party no longer ‘liberal’

Much is said about the clash between the liberal and Conservative wings of the Liberal Party of Australia. Usually leading figures will speak of a ‘broad church’ which includes a diverse membership. But the truth is that the Liberals continue to drift ever deeper into the hard Right. Liberals will stand up for religious liberties (which there may be some kind of argument for); but John Stuart Mill would turn in his grave if he was aware of Liberal policies on trade unions, charities, and attempts to shut down grassroots mass organisations such as GetUp!

The Encyclopedia Britannica identifies various rights as central to Classical Liberalism. Freedom of association, assembly and speech amongst them. Also: “freedom from fear of reprisal”, and of arbitrary arrest and punishment. It also identifies free industrial organisation of workers as a necessary counter-balance in the marketplace.

Interestingly, iconic British liberal John Stuart Mill was even in some ways sympathetic with the socialist social experiments of Robert Owen in the 19th Century. (See: ‘On Socialism’, J.S.Mill, Prometheus Books, New York, 1976.)

And while free markets are crucial to classical liberalism, various liberals are divided on the balance between public and private. All liberals would oppose a ‘command economy’, and would demand a central space for ‘personal determination of needs structures via markets’. For some liberals, however, Hayek and Rand are seen as occupying ‘the extreme end of the spectrum’; but those theorists’ ideas are exactly those promoted by the Institute of Public Affairs – which has a powerful role influencing Liberal Party policy. Before the 1970s, Hayek and Rand were ‘on the fringes’ in most Liberal and Conservative parties. Fanatical commitment to the progressive and open-ended dismantling the welfare state, social wage, social insurance and public sector would have once have been ‘out of place’ in ‘the Party of Menzies’. Now those ideas are in ‘the mainstream’. And for Conservatives, adherence to economic neo-liberalism has eclipsed ‘compassionate conservative’ tendencies.

By contrast with the original liberals, today’s Liberal Party of Australia is committed to the total dismantling of the power of organised labour. Its ‘Ensuring integrity’ Bill has several aims. Firstly, the bill (if passed) will take non-protected industrial action as being ‘criminal in nature’; and union leaders could thus be charged and imprisoned; and unions themselves deregistered and ‘dismantled’. It will enable government to “sack” union officials convicted of criminal offences: which includes ‘industrial’ offences such as unprotected industrial action, and entering workplaces to organise or inspect working conditions without notice. Also: even ‘protected’ rights to industrial action will be able to be withdrawn if an ‘interested party’ argues it affects their interests. The legislation will establish in many ways arbitrary punitive powers for government against workers and union officials. While freedom to withdraw labour is a liberal right so too is freedom of association.

The Liberal Party is also now endeavouring to have mass-based progressive lobby group ‘GetUp!’ considered a branch of the ALP and the Greens ; and hence to restrict its rights to campaign in the lead up to elections, and on election day. With a membership base of over a million Australians ‘GetUp!’ is obviously much broader than the ALP or Greens, and has organisational independence. But these days the Liberal Party is simply interested in shutting down all opposition in a display of crude power politics. This is the opposite of liberalism ; even if defined narrowly as ‘classical liberalism’. True, the Liberals abrogated liberalism when they attempted to ban the Communist Party under Menzies as well. (‘Doc’ Evatt’s defence of the liberal rights of Communists was an important victory for Labor at the time.) But the Communists never had over a million members: mums, dads, students, retirees. People who want a political voice: but many of whom are not ready to join a Party.

Another example of Liberals abrogating liberal principles regards their treatment of charities and other organisations who must fear their tax-deductibility status being withdrawn if they criticise the government. ‘Political’ speech is seen as compromising the work of charities by the Liberal-National Coalition; but in fact this is just another rejection of real free speech: sacrificed on the altar of brute power politics. Despite a decision by the High Court upholding the right of civic organisations like charities to engage in political advocacy, the Liberals and Nationals are still looking for ways to shut-down resistance. Arguments have been made to ‘withdraw support’ for organisations ‘out of step’ with majority opinion (whatever that is).

The other side of this involves calls on the Left to tax churches; which may include lay organisations at the grassroots level. While the Liberal Party has largely abandoned liberalism in practice, the Left could do worse than to integrate liberal and socialist principles.

Finally we must consider the treatment of refugees and the unemployed by callous governments of the Australian Right-Wing. Open-ended incarceration with the effect of breaking the spirit and the will to live of those affected has no place in any account of liberal human rights.

Meanwhile, ‘Work for the Dole’ comprises a form of labour conscription, and we must consider the real power relationships underlying these arrangements – as opposed to the fantasies of Hayek and Rand who only see ‘individuals freely entering into voluntary economic relationships’. Sophisticated liberals deal with ‘the world as it is’ and not merely as it is supposed to be in the theories of the economic hard right. In reality, both major parties are supportive of a policy of a “non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment” (ie: unemployment of approximately 5% with the point of containing inflation and wage pressures). The point of this is exactly to restrict workers’ bargaining power at a time when the unemployed are vilified, wages are stagnant, and there is restricted consumer demand in the broader economy (in turn impacting on growth).

In times past liberals would be capable of recognising the real-world imbalances of power in economic relationships: and hence support rights for trade unions, and a decent welfare safety net without punitive, unfair and unrealistic mutual obligation provisions.

While some Conservative figures like Barnaby Joyce are finally recognising the threadbare and punitive nature of ‘Newstart’ unemployment insurance in Australia, Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, is determined to keep existing policies as a wedge against Labor. While ‘Robodebt’ policies drive innocent people to desperation and suicide, the hope of decent bipartisanship has been cruelly crushed. An ugly sentiment against the welfare-dependent and job seekers has been whipped up in the monopoly mass media in Australia for decades. But the Liberals have all-too-readily seized upon the consequent public sentiment ; and have exploited it.

While progressives should always prefer a Labor Government to a Liberal Government in Australia, it is to be hoped that genuine liberals like John Hewson – who have not been ideologically captured by the Institute of Public Affairs – improve their fortunes in internal debates. While this author is opposed to Blairite ‘Third Ways’ it would nonetheless be a relief to have bipartisanship on issues of basic human liberty and decency. While the Liberals increasingly embrace Hayek and Rand on the economy, on social liberty they are effectively against libertarianism (eg: on the rights of organised labour).

In Australia the nominal party of liberalism is anything but liberal. Even in the narrow sense of classical liberalism they fail to uphold core principles. Labor could reconceive of itself as a liberal Party ; and occupy that space abandoned by the Liberal Party. But for social democrats and democratic socialists that is not the answer if it means abrogating our own historic principles, and the rights and interests we defend. But a more libertarian position on liberal rights on the Australian Left would apply significant pressure to the parties of the Australian Right. To some degree this is already happening. It is a trend that needs to be developed further.

This article was originally published on ALP Socialist Left Forum.

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  1. Jack Cade

    The Liberal Party started with a lie in its very name. But Menzies – God rot him – would probably not be a member of the modern Libs, just as Jesus Christ would not be a Hillsong tongue-twister.

  2. Phil Pryor

    I’m glad you discovered this. The “Liberal ” Party turned sour in 1971-2 and never recovered. Once Whitlam nobbled the old DLP, the right wings of various actual and potential parties and groups became more fixated on power actualities, while media grabbed greater overbearing strength in daily affairs. With catholic ratbaggery, old school tie incrowds, conservative intensification of greedy attitudes in corporations as they grew huge, the days of Australia being a workers’ paradise were doomed. Hawke and Keating faced a reality, workers got superannuation, started checking the numbers regularly and thinking like petty greedy capitalist wannabes, so the doom seemed assured. The Rudd success was a shock and shortlived, for all forces on the right have coalesced. This is still a nation of primitive greedy attitudes, where mining, money manipulation, media maggotry and righteous self focus dominate. The right wing have huge money power, corner the lawyers and accountants, have fellow insider old boy types on benches, in governments, on boards, in media. They control so much more than before, including new outlooks and means on internet and electronic services. From a democracy with enough liberalism in the major parties to a monolithic conservative plutocracy, or worse, is our spectre.

  3. Robin Alexander

    Its terrible feeling at 82yrs age my husband & I always hard workers justbasic wage now widow live solely on pension own my home but never expected inmy life to reach this age feel fearful of my government? they have no compassion for less fortunate?our PM worships in his sect? the wealthy only! All others are of devils making?worthless? Imagine been regarded as that after living a hard working respectable life?

  4. Terence Mills

    The term Liberal is getting more confusing as time goes by : the US consider progressives to be Liberal and the Obama administration was criticised by the Republicans as being too Liberal.

    The current Australian version of Liberal is way to the Right and is more correctly described as Conservative with a capital C.

    John Hewson and Malcolm Turnbull are in the true Liberal mould but are reviled by the Liberal party ; very confusing !

    Strangely, Tony Abbott got up at the recent CPAC love-in and espoused Liberal beliefs as small government, minimal regulation and slashing redtape at a time when the building industry is in chaos due to shoddy workmanship and cutting corners due largely to lack of adequate government regulation and oversight : go figure !!

  5. Terence Mills

    Robin Alexander

    We’re here for you !

  6. Karen Kyle

    Really good article Tris.First rate and scary. Having reduced Unions to a rump of their former militance and effectiveness I thought they would leave us alone. Apparently they haven’t finished yet and won’t be happy until we are obliterated. A sort of political and industrial genocide. I despair.

    I watched The New Right in it’s infancy…….it was like a small black cloud on the horizon. I didn’t dream that it’s crazyness would ever become mainstream. Remember the Employment Contracs Act in New Zealand? Kiwi organisers flocked to the VTHC to warn us about it. I will never forget the stone cold fear of those days

    Hayek visited Melbourne as a guest of the IPA at some point. The IPA said it was a great day for Australia and the Liberal Party.
    Thank goodness Rand no longer has any support in the US Congress, the last Rand disciple has left according to what I read in the US press.. She has no support to speak of among ordinary Americans. Is the tide beginning to turn? Will the outrageous actions of Trump kill off the Republican Party? Or is this wishful thinking?

  7. Karen Kyle

    If the Republican Party sinks as it deserves to do, that would be a hell of a slap to Right Wing Governments in the UK and Australia and Europe. Fingers, toes and eyes crossed.

  8. John Boyd

    I agree with Jack. It was never a liberal party. Menzies was a tory through and through. “Rather than that Australia should fail to pay her honest debts to her bondholders, I would prefer to see every man, woman and child in Australia die of starvation in the next six months” (May 3, 1931). Brilliant! His trick, later emulated by Howard, was to move the point of attraction down the social scale just far enough to attract enough votes from the ‘forgotten people’, the same as Howard’s ‘aspirationals’; in Menzies case the ‘two bob capitalists’, having saved up enough for a deposit, were now proud home owners, and moved up a rung or two. I see the same thing out here in the ‘bush’. The pensioners who put on their Sunday best to go to the polling booth and chat with the representative of the local Natocracy as they go in to vote.

  9. New England Cocky

    The secret to controlling the power of the IPA is to require public disclosure of all donations over $100 by natural persons and corporations listing the Boad members who authorised the donation. Then remove tax deduction status for good measure.

  10. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Ian MacPhee and the old Wets weren’t as bad til they were driven out in the 1980s ; and then there’s Don Chipp and the Australian Democrats who at times seemed to the Left of the ALP. So yes the ‘Liberal Party’ had significant liberal elements ; progressively driven out since the 1970s.

  11. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Karen ; then again Biden isn’t very impressive ; but I have a feeling he’ll get the nomination ; though I’m hoping for Sanders or Warren.

  12. Karen Kyle

    Tris…….Biden at least has eight years experience in the WH. I hope that counts for something. I like Warren…and I always thought Bernie too far left for the US. I still do. I feel he could expect no mercy from Republicans who would call him a Communist and run a terrific scare campaign.. And along with Gerrymandering and voter suppression and help from Comrade Putin it might work


  13. Dr Tristan Ewins

    Warren getting up and adopting some of Sanders’ policies to pick up his support base wouldn’t be a bad result. They say she hasn’t got much African American support ; don’t know how bad that is or what she could do about it.

  14. Karen Kyle

    Tris…..Hopefully African Americans would swing in behind her if she won the nomination.

  15. Stephengb

    Great article Tristan
    One should read the objectives of the Liberal Party Constitution. It is a l9mg way from the LNP.

    Phil Pryor, Sir you should read the -1971 Memorandum by Lewis Powell Jnr to the American Chamber of Commerce. If you haven’t already it is bloody frightening?

  16. Andrew Smith

    Still remember the Vic Hamer govt. of the ’70s, where would he fit nowadays?

  17. John Boyd

    A key to the US Democratic Party is for the unsuccessful nominees to swing their support behind the candidate, which didn’t really happen for Clinton. I worry that Biden is another Hillary; too close to Wall St for one thing.

  18. wam

    70 years ago the liberal party was another name for pig-iron bob, as he was still called in our house.
    Like now there was only media agreement and no opposition. Menzies slipped in 61 and Arthur
    flogged the libs but the country party held on to 17 seats and ming 45 to calwell 60 and calwell’s results got worse. Whitlam hit the boards in 67. What euphoria 72-75.
    At my aunt’s place I put heaps of butter on a slice of bread and reached for the jam. She said ‘butter or jam’ not both and don’t be so liberal with the butter. I scrapped the excess of and put it back into the butter dish. She put it back onto my plate and said it is your use it on the next slice. A lesson on frugality.
    Glad hewson got a run. Oh how we suffered from that mongrel question from willisee?.

  19. John Iser (the NSW one)

    Quick point on the NAIRU (“non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment”)…

    The collective semi-conscious of the economics profession has recently decided that the NAIRU, which used to be guesstimated to be around 5%, has been re-guesstimated as being closer to 4.5%.

    Reason being that when the unemployment rate dropped below 5%, inflation didn’t take off. Which was due to the fact that wage growth has been strangulated with extreme prejudice. Which in turn is because, as an American singer observed more than 20 years ago, “the unions have been busted, their proud red banners torn”.

  20. John Iser (the NSW one)

    The “last Rand disciple” that Karen Kyle refers to was Paul ‘Dan’ Ryan. (I call him ‘Dan’ because if that had been his real name, his full name would have been an anagram of ‘Ayn Rand’.)

    Ryan didn’t re-contest his seat in the 2018 election because he decided that he had achieved all he wanted to, by reducing the corporate tax rate to 15%. (Or, increasing the Federal deficit to $1 trillion p.a or about 5% of GDP. You say ‘to-may-to’, I say ‘to-mah-to’…)

    He was a fan of Rand’s, up to a point. He used to insist on his staffers reading one of Rand’s books (Atlas Shrugged, if memory serves). But when someone pointed out to him that Rand’s personal philosophy of ‘Objectivism’ forcefully rejected religion, Ryan, who was a devout Catholic, did a quick 180 and insisted that he just liked the book. She being such a stellar fiction writer and all.

    (I’ve never read any of Rand’s books. However, I’ve seen the movie version of her novel The Fountainhead starring Gary Cooper, for which she wrote the screenplay. ‘Stodgy’ doesn’t begin to cover it.)

  21. Jack sprat

    Prior to his death in1978 Bob Menzies told B.a .Santamaria that he was no longer a menber of liberal party and no longer voted for them .That was when Fraser was prime minister and Menzies toady John Howard was treasurer .

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