Labor and Liberalism

My opinion piece today is on the ALP and small-l liberalism.

Labor and Liberalism, Australian Financial Review, 26 October 2010

Are the Liberal Party the true defenders of liberalism in Australia? In his 2009 Deakin lecture, Liberal Senator George Brandis argued that liberalism was the golden thread that ran from Deakin to Menzies to the modern-day Liberal Party.

Yet the job of speaking out for individual liberties has often fallen not to the Liberal Party, but to their political opponents. The Sex Discrimination Act and Racial Discrimination Act were both passed by Labor governments – over the quibbles of some Liberal members of parliament. It took the current Labor government to remove from the statute books much of the explicit discrimination against same-sex couples. And that most liberal of ideas – an Australian Republic – finds 100 percent backing only on one side of the House of Representatives.

If we in the ALP have sometimes been coy about our liberalism, it is because modern Labor stands at the confluence of two powerful rivers in Australian politics. We are best known as the party that believes in egalitarianism – that a child from Aurukun can become a High Court Justice, and that a mine worker should get the same medical treatment as the bloke who owns the mine.

But we are also the party that believes in liberalism – that governments have a role in protecting the rights of minorities, that freedom of speech applies for unpopular ideas as for popular ones, and that all of us stand equal beneath the Southern Cross. In this, the modern Labor Party is the true heir to the small-L liberal tradition in Australia.

Alfred Deakin was one of the earliest Australian leaders to make the distinction between liberals and conservatives. Deakin argued that liberalism meant the destruction of class privileges, equality of political rights without reference to creed, and equality of legal rights without reference to wealth. Liberalism, Deakin said, meant a government that acted in the interests of the majority, with particular regard to the poorest in the community.

As for conservatives, to quote Deakin’s description of his opponents, they are:

‘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.’

While liberalism derives from a deep belief in individual freedom, conservatism depends on where one stands. In defending the established order of things, conservatives may find themselves supporting different institutions according to time and place. As Brandis noted in his 2009 lecture, conservatism ‘lacks the moral clarity to make the most fundamental judgments about right and wrong’.

Perhaps the Liberal Party could once claim to be the defenders of small-L liberalism. But today’s party has shed the livery of liberalism – and donned the crown of conservatism. Leaders such as John Howard and Tony Abbott are defined less by their support for individual liberties, and more by their defence of long-established institutions. Theirs is more the political philosophy of Edmund Burke than John Stuart Mill.

This approach can readily be seen in the modern Liberal Party’s hostility to the work of the independent Murray Darling Basin Authority and its opposition to using market-based mechanisms to address climate change. In both cases, the Liberal Party’s position is to defend the status quo.

Parties will continue to argue over the values that inspire them. John Howard fuelled the notion of ‘Howard’s battlers’ – the idea that working-class voters had deserted Labor. This was a daring rhetorical grab into Labor’s heartland – though one backed by little evidence, since low-income voters have always been more likely to support the ALP.

Yet in the process, Howard also placed himself and his party firmly in the conservative tradition. This was reflected in the Howard government’s stance on everything from reconciliation to refugees, the monarchy to multiculturalism. Although Brandis and other moderates in the Liberal Party would like to distance themselves from this, the party of Howard and Abbott is very much a party of conservatism: instinctively suspicious of social change.

A century on, it is hard to escape the conclusion that if Deakin were in the federal parliament today, he and his brand of progressive liberalism would find a natural home in the Australian Labor Party.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser. Parts of this article draw on his maiden speech, which is available at

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.