Liberalism & Egalitarianism

I have an opinion piece in the Australian today, continuing to prosecute the case that Labor is the true party of small-L liberalism in Australia (on the same theme, see also my first speech, this Global Mail article and this speech to Per Capita).
Liberals are conservatives while Labor is the true party of Alfred Deakin, The Australian, 10 January 2013

In the United States, if you want to insult a right-winger, call them a ‘liberal’. In Australia, if you want to insult a left-winger, call them a ‘Liberal’. In both countries, liberalism has become detached from its original meaning.

It’s time to bring Australian liberalism back to its traditional roots. Small-L liberalism involves a willingness to protect minority rights (even when they’re unpopular) and a recognition that open markets are the best way to boost prosperity.

In Australia, Alfred Deakin is the politician most closely associated with liberalism. As a Victorian legislator, Deakin supported the rights of trade unions to organise, and campaigned for better factory conditions. After Federation, his party was closer on many issues to the Labor Party than the conservatives. Yet there was little desire among Labor members to make common cause with Deakin, so when Fusion took place in 1909, it was a marriage between liberals and conservatives.

Today, we’re seeing the divorce. On many issues, the modern Liberal Party of Australia has lost its commitment to minority rights. The Howard Government could not bring itself to apologise to the Stolen Generations. Liberal frontbenchers today routinely describe asylum-seekers as ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’. No Liberals in the House of Representatives voted for same-sex marriage last September.

The same is true of markets. Liberal Party members criticise market mechanisms to deal with climate change and salinity in the Murray-Darling. They now oppose fuel tax reforms introduced by Peter Costello in 2003. Many Liberal politicians criticise the foreign investment that brings jobs to Australia.

The shift can be seen in Liberal leaders’ speeches. Robert Menzies described his party’s philosophy simply as liberalism. John Howard said he led a party animated by liberalism and conservatism. Tony Abbott now says that his party’s philosophy is liberalism, conservatism and patriotism. Liberalism’s share in the Liberal Party is 33 percent and falling.

Since the Liberal Party leadership has shifted from Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott, theirs is more a party of Edmund Burke than John Stuart Mill. Everyone knows what the Liberal Party stands against, but what does it stand for? As political commentator Peter Van Onselen argued recently, ‘It is high time the Liberal Party changed its name to the Conservative Party’.

This creates a new – and surprising – opportunity for the Labor Party. Ours has always been the party of egalitarianism. Labor is the party that believes too much inequality strains the social fabric. Labor introduced Medicare, universal superannuation and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. But there is now the chance for us to meld this with a commitment to social liberalism.

Surprising as this may sound, there is much in modern Labor that draws on small-L liberalism (Deakin minus the racism and protectionism). Labor is the party that introduced laws to ban discrimination by race and sex. Native title laws came about under a Labor Government – and despite fierce opposition from the other side. Only Labor is fully committed to the liberal notion that our head of state should an Australian: against the conservative position of ‘it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. My friend Macgregor Duncan likes to say that ‘Labor is Australia’s true liberal party’.

On markets, Labor’s commitment is a practical one. Where markets improve wellbeing, we should use them. Where they don’t, we shouldn’t. To borrow a phrase from the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel, Labor believes in a market economy, not a market society. When Whitlam, Hawke and Keating brought down the tariff walls, they did so because they knew it would make products cheaper for consumers, and spur innovation as firms engaged internationally.

In the realm of social policy, liberalism is the belief that tax cuts are preferable to middle class welfare. It’s also an acceptance of good policy evaluation. Many of Australia’s greatest successes in fields such as farming, sport and medicine have been grounded in practical experimentation and rigorous evaluation. There’s something very Australian about being willing to try new things, honestly admit failure, and learn from our mistakes.  I’d like to see more randomised trials in Australia – testing policies using the same tools we use to evaluate new pharmaceuticals.

Good policy evaluation isn’t just a better feedback loop, it’s fundamentally about a more modest approach to politics. As judge Learned Hand once noted, ‘The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right’.

Labor will never abandon its passion for egalitarianism. A belief in a means-tested social safety net, a healthy union movement, and a great education system are central to Labor. But the question today is whether we should seize the opportunity presented by our opponents’ abandoning social liberalism. A century on, is it time to redo Fusion: making Labor the party of egalitarianism and social liberalism?

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and his website is www.andrewleigh.com.

Update: My friend Dennis Glover responds.

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