True conservatism is pragmatism based on values
Originally published in the Weekend Australian, 2 September 2017
The mark of a conservative politician is a preoccupation with finding practical ways to deal with the nation’s problems. The conservative’s focus is not so much articulating a vision because that can easily become mere rhetoric; and not merely proclaiming beliefs (important though they are) because that misses the essential question: what is to be done? Sometimes, the answer is nothing because conservatives don’t share the activist illusion that government is always the solution let alone the perfectionist dream that all ills can be fixed.
Going into the 2013 election, I kept telling people, over and over, what an Abbott government intended to do: stop the boats, scrap the carbon tax and the mining tax, fix the budget and build the roads of the 21st century. This is what matters to voters: getting things done. Values and beliefs are indispensable for anyone who wants to make a difference but it’s the actions that values and beliefs prompt which really matter because they demonstrate that our beliefs mean something.
Conservatives are down-to-earth people who want to make the best of things. But wanting to make the best of things implies a set of values and beliefs against which everything can be judged. That’s the essence of conservatism: practical action driven by the right cast of mind; or, my own favourite tag-line for conservatism: “pragmatism based on values”.
A good place to find the values and attitudes that underpin Australian conservatism is the Liberal Party’s “We believe” statement. When I first joined the Liberal Party in the late 1980s, this was taken so seriously that it was included on the NSW division’s membership forms. Every division of the Liberal Party continues to enshrine a version of this statement as the essence of what it means to be a Liberal – although the practice some branches had of reciting it at the start of meetings seems, sadly, to have been dropped.
“We believe”, says the party’s federal secretariat website today:
- in the innate worth of the individual… and in the need to encourage initiative and personal responsibility;
- in the basic freedoms of thought, worship, speech, association and choice;
- in equality of opportunity with all Australians having the opportunity to reach their full potential in a tolerant national community;
- in a just and humane society where those who cannot provide for themselves can live in dignity;
- in the family as the primary institution for fostering the values on which a cohesive society is built;
- in the creation of wealth and in competitive enterprise….;
- in the principle of mutual obligation…;
- in the importance of voluntary effort…;
- in parliamentary democracy…;
- in the separation and distribution of powers….;
- in a federal system of government and the decentralisation of power….;
- in government being sufficiently responsive so that it can meet its proper obligations to its citizens;
- in government keeping to its core business and not competing with the private sector;
- in the rule of law giving all citizens equal rights under the law, responsibilities to maintain it, and the freedom to change it; and
- in Australia playing a constructive role in the pursuit and maintenance of international peace in alliance with other free nation
The only material difference between the “We believe” statement today and that of the early 1990s is the omission of “We believe in constitutional monarchy as a symbol of unity and continuity and as a guarantee of our freedom”. Happily, this continues to be part of the Tasmanian division’s version, which in other respects mirrors the federal secretariat’s one.
John Howard used to describe the Liberal Party as the political representative in this country of both John Stuart Mill’s liberalism and Edmund Burke’s conservatism. Howard often said that the basic disposition of the party was to be economically liberal and socially conservative. For my part, I’ve frequently spoken of the “mostly happy marriage” of liberalism and conservatism in the English-speaking tradition, well captured by Tennyson’s portrait of England as:
A land of settled government
A land of just and old renown
Where freedom slowly broadens down
From precedent to precedent
that so aptly celebrates the framework of order and tradition without which freedom can’t exist.
After nearly 30 years of Liberal Party membership and 23 years as a Liberal MP, I have no doubt that “We believe” is an accurate compendium of the Liberal mindset. Plainly, “big L” liberalism is quite different from the liberalism of “On Liberty”. It’s a lot more than lower taxes, smaller government and greater freedom. As “We believe” makes plain, there’s support for the family, for small business and for attitudes and institutions that have stood the test of time. Above all, there’s a love of country and a desire to make it stronger by building on what works. Only someone who doesn’t really know the Liberal Party or who has only selectively met its members could imagine that it’s simply the political manifestation of “small l” liberalism or libertarianism. There are certainly philosophical liberals in the party but the people who fit most comfortably into it are conservative as well as liberal; and often far more profoundly one than the other.
Sir Robert Menzies’ oft-cited reflection: “We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise and rejecting the socialist panacea” is sometimes used to make conservatives look like interlopers in the party he formed. Much less familiar is Menzies’ despairing 1974 observation in a letter to his daughter Heather about the party’s Victorian state executive: “dominated by what they now call ‘Liberals with a small l’ – that is to say Liberals who believe in nothing but who still believe in anything if they think it worth a few votes. The whole thing is tragic”. It is indeed noteworthy (and surprising) that Menzies seems never explicitly to have talked about conservatism. Even so, it’s obvious from the “We believe” statement that the party is much more than simply liberal. And Menzies’ most heartfelt speeches and statements invariably evoked home and hearth, kith and kin, and the faith, flag and family attachments that epitomise political conservatism.
It’s not surprising that conservatism has had a bad press in Australia and elsewhere because it’s often confused with being reactionary (or opposed to all change) and change is what fascinates the media. In fact, the only change that conservatives always oppose is change for change’s sake. Conservatives are often eager for change especially when change is required to preserve a value, an institution or a way of life that they cherish.
Another reason for the media’s hostility is conservatism’s philosophical diffidence. Howard once described a conservative as someone who doesn’t regard himself as morally superior to his grandfather. Conservatism is not so much learned as lived. We don’t glean it from books so much as imbibe it from life. The conservative instinct is to improve rather than to start from scratch; it’s to repair rather than to replace; it’s to leave well enough alone; it’s to fix only what needs fixing. It draws inspiration from the past and wants the future to be a better version of what we know and love, preferably what we’ve always known and loved.
The conservative approach is not the application of a philosophy to problems; rather, it’s the emergence of a philosophy or a pattern of values from study of the way problems are most effectively addressed. To put it another way, it’s not theory driving practice but practice driving theory. The past is undoubtedly our best teacher because the only way to avoid its mistakes is to learn from it.
A conservative instinctively wants individuals and groups to make the most of their situations; to be “our best selves”, as my friend the late Christopher Pearson used to urge. But it must be based on reality, not wishful thinking or ideology. In discussing indigenous recognition, for instance, I often described Australia as having “an indigenous heritage, a British foundation and a multicultural character” because it was true and also because it gave just about everyone something to be proud of.
A phrase I’ve used over the years is “social fabric conservatism”. A conservative can’t shrink from hard decisions and their consequences but should be aware of how we collectively bleed whenever anyone is wounded. I’m sure this is what Margaret Thatcher was driving at when she said that there’s no such thing as society. Individuals can only realise themselves through relationships but they aren’t lost in them either. You can’t build a brave new world on the misery of millions of people. We can hardly discharge our duty to our country, for instance, by neglecting our duties to our fellow citizens.
A conservative is conscious of his neighbour – and like the Good Samaritan of the Gospel – appreciates that his duty to his neighbour is personal. It can’t simply be palmed off onto government. Hence the conservative preference for individual and group self-help over well-meaning government programmes wherever that’s feasible; and corresponding anxiety over change that might make sense in theory but in practice might amount to breaking faith with people. For a conservative, practice always matters more than theory and ideology must never be allowed to trump common sense.
There’s a big difference between conservatism and populism. Conservatism draws on people’s best instincts; populism plays on their fears and prejudices. Conservatives draw on the past to build a better future; populists usually want to tell the world to stop or even to turn back the clock. Inspired by the achievements of our civilisation, conservatives should consistently be optimistic; populists invariably think that we’re on the verge of some catastrophe.
There’s no doubt that freedom is at the heart of contemporary Australian conservativism. Still, for conservatives, it’s a lived experience of freedom and an awareness of the context and order in which freedom comes about; rather than an inviolable principle and starting point from which all else logically flows. My instinct has always been for the personal over the collectivist or corporatist; for informal action over the processes of government; for the common sense of the plain man over officialdom’s rules; for freedom over regulation; and for what’s tried and true over what might just seem like a good idea at one particular time. Still, context is nearly everything and what matters is getting the best possible result. That, in any event, is how I have tried to approach the task of government.