Liberalism and Egalitarianism, Conservatism and Communitarianism

Mark Latham's Quarterly Essay discussed the opportunities and challenges facing modern Labor. Here's my response, published in Australian Policy Online.
Response to Mark Latham’s Quarterly Essay

It’s occasionally been forgotten since he left the Labor leadership nearly a decade ago, but when he chooses to engage in policy, Mark Latham has a lot to say. He is optimistic about the intellectual and organisational future of the Labor Party, and appropriately proud of the role we have played in opening up the Australian economy in the 1980s and 1990s and dealing with climate change today.

One big question Labor thinkers are always willing to wrestle with is how the party’s guiding philosophy should evolve. Political parties invariably adapt as society changes, but Labor’s options have particularly opened up as the Coalition has shrunk into what Anthony Albanese has tagged ‘the noalition’. When Tony Abbott calls for a ‘people’s revolt’ against a market-based mechanism for dealing with climate change, it’s hard to know whether to criticise him for abandoning conservatism or trashing liberalism.

The same holds for other issues. A true Burkean conservative would acknowledge that Australia’s minerals belong as much to future generations as to ours, and that we have an obligation to our successors to tax mining profits appropriately. A true liberal would support the fuel tax reforms that were introduced by Peter Costello in 2003, rather than back-flipping at the last moment to win a tabloid headline. And it’s hard to see how either conservatism or liberalism justifies the opposition’s relentless critique of means-testing. Each time the government has reduced the welfare paid to millionaires, the Opposition has sprung to their defence.

In delivering the Deakin Lecture in 1973, Deputy Liberal Leader Phillip Lynch said ‘It is naively believed by some people that the one and only job of an Opposition is to oppose. This is a gross oversimplification. An Opposition’s function is to compose as well as to oppose; it is a constructive as well as a destructive role. An Opposition is the alternative Government and, as such, must initiate and promote positive and constructive policies if it is to be regarded as a potential Government by the electorate. No electorate can be expected to endorse a political party which has become expert at criticism at the expense of its own initiative.’

Indeed, it is Deakin himself who best pegged today’s Opposition. In 1906, he spoke of ‘a party less easy to describe or define, because, as a rule it has no positive programme of its own, adopting instead an attitude of denial and negation. This mixed body, which may fairly be termed the party of anti-liberalism, justifies its existence, not by proposing its own solution of problems, but by politically blocking all proposals of a progressive character, and putting the brakes on those it cannot block.’

A century on, there is a good case that the mantle of social liberalism, carried by Deakin in the early twentieth century, rests most easily on Labor shoulders. Latham mentions my own arguments to this effect, but he might also have noted Chris Bowen’s excellent 2008 speech to the Sydney Institute: ‘Reclaiming Liberalism for the Left’. Labor’s liberal legacy includes trade liberalisation, competition policy, carbon pricing, and the publication of test scores. These sit comfortably alongside our party’s egalitarian legacy: fiscal policy that saved jobs in the GFC, a school system that wants everyone to finish school (not just ‘the right kids’), Medicare and Disability Care to protect all Australians.

Latham is very comfortable with market liberalism, but worries that social liberalism might not be matched with appropriate responsibilities. He gives the example of multiculturalism, where he argues ‘Labor celebrates diversity for diversity’s sake’, and contends that laws to address discrimination and prejudice can harden public attitudes against the intended beneficiaries. And he goes on to argue that one of the reasons for the decline in social capital is the ‘free exercise of human rights’.

In each case, I’m not sure the evidence is as strong as Latham proposes. Multiculturalism, as philosopher Tim Soutphommasane argues, draws on both liberalism and egalitarianism. It recognises that everyone has equal rights, but also that different cultures are valued. As to the hardening of public attitudes, I’m not aware of any evidence that racism or sexism increased upon the passing of the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 or the Sex Discrimination Act 1984. And on social capital, my own exhaustive analysis (Disconnected, UNSW Press, 2010) concluded that the key drivers were changes in technologies and working patterns.

Latham worries that liberalism could undermine community values, but in some cases, it might serve to strengthen them. For example, my own support for same-sex marriage is partly grounded in my belief that the institution of marriage exerts a stabilising effect on society. Indeed, a good case for same-sex marriage can be made from the standpoint of egalitarianism, liberalism or communitarianism.

That said, the communitarian strand to Latham’s thinking is one we shouldn’t ignore. Like British parliamentarian Jon Cruddas, Latham articulately taps into the needs for modern Labor Parties to connect with strong local communities, and traditional values. This is about understanding our history, and shaping policy solutions that work for regional and outer suburban Australia, as well as the inner city.

Since Mark Latham’s piece appeared, the Labor Party has endured what Prime Minister Julia Gillard described as an ‘appalling’ week, with the loss of five frontbenchers and three whips. (As both Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd can attest, attention from the Quarterly Essay – like the appearance of oranges in a Godfather movie – is not a good omen.)

The media have picked over the minutiae of those circumstances exhaustively (and perhaps quite rightly so), while the Opposition have looked on keenly. But they have been less keen to fulfil their responsibility as the nation’s alternative government. There is no evidence that the Opposition is any closer to putting forward properly costed policies on which the Australian public could judge their credentials. Those shards of Coalition policy that get announced are frequently illiberal. From Scott Morrison’s call for ‘behavioural protocols’ for asylum-seekers to its relentless campaigning against Keynesian economics, this is a Liberal Party in name only.

In this environment, I welcome Mark Latham’s desire to drop in on the Labor family for a Christmas drink. Ideas have always been the lifeblood of Australia’s oldest political party, and his – along with many others – will help to shape Labor’s future in decades to come.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. His latest book is Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia (Black Inc, 2013).

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