Tony Abbott MP
Federal Member for Warringah
Civic Virtues and the Future of the Centre-Right
First published in Quadrant December 2018 Edition
This is the age of disruption, in politics as much as in business, and political parties must respond or fail. In France and Italy the long-established big parties, of the Left and of the Right, have largely been swept away. In Germany, the main parties, of the Right too but especially of the Left, are much diminished. In the United States, Donald Trump smashed the Republican establishment to grab the nomination, and then smashed the Democrat establishment to grab the presidency—after the Democrat establishment had itself been rocked by Bernie Sanders. In Britain, the governing Conservatives are convulsed over Brexit; while an out-and-out Marxist has taken over the Labour Party, and quite conceivably could become prime minister. Even here in Australia, more than a quarter of the electorate is refusing to support the two main parties that, in one guise or another, have always held office.
Post-GFC low economic growth and quantitative-easing-induced asset price inflation have meant stagnant wages, less affordable housing—and more cranky voters. The big political fights are now about cultural and identity issues, not just economic ones; and the fights within political parties are becoming just as intense as those between them. On the Left, the supporters of bigger government and the opponents of tradition seem everywhere ascendant. Even on the Right, there seem to be fewer economic liberals; and, at least among the establishment, more social progressives. The decline of traditional media and the rise of social media make it easier than ever to live in echo chambers of the Left or the Right, so that anyone who doesn’t share your view seems not just wrong but alien, even immoral. In this fragmented and polarised discourse, antagonists advance alternative facts, not just competing interpretations. “Things fall apart”, so it seems, and “the centre cannot hold”. Our challenge is to re-create some common ground, as did the generations after Yeats.
Back in the Reagan–Thatcher era, it was easy enough to know what characterised the Centre-Right of politics, at least in the English-speaking world: lower taxes, smaller government and winning the Cold War. In the face of suffocating officialdom and punitive tax rates, it seemed that the conservative side of politics had become free marketeers. Only now, we conservatives can’t decide whether it’s more important that trade is free or that it’s fair. Then, there was near unanimity on the need to oppose communism; and few things unite people like a common enemy. Today, even an increasingly cold peace with China and with Russia has yet to reproduce that glue. Fading memories of “real existing socialism” plus the excesses of big business, the perceived limitations of markets, and declining trust in institutions have sapped enthusiasm for limited government. In these more trying times, what might the Centre-Right collectively stand for?
Enter Stephen Harper, the former conservative Prime Minister of Canada, to give us his judgement on what’s really happening, and where things should go from here. There have been thousands of think-pieces and dozens of academic books seeking to understand the rise of populism but this is the first from a senior political leader. That’s why it’s a must-read.
As a political disrupter himself from the 1990s, Harper is well placed to analyse today’s disruption. He was originally part of Preston Manning’s Reform Party that briefly governed a province or two after the collapse of Canada’s Progressive Conservatives. Then he helped to drive the formation of a new Conservative Party at a time when the Canadian Liberal Party appeared to be all-conquering. In early 2006, he won an unexpected victory, and subsequently two more, to become one of the country’s longest-serving Centre-Right leaders. The Harper government increased defence spending, brought the budget back into surplus, stopped illegal immigration, finalised free-trade agreements, and successfully campaigned against a carbon tax. It was a highly competent, orthodox, Centre-Right government; but now Harper is critically re-examining conservative orthodoxies in the light of Trump and Brexit. He notes that:
A large proportion of Americans, including many American conservatives, voted for Trump because they are really not doing very well. They are not doing well in the world that we conservatives created after the Cold War. And they are not doing well, in part, because of some of the policies we conservatives have advocated … The world of globalism is not working for many of our own people … We now have a choice. We can keep trying to convince people that they misunderstand their own lives, or we can try to understand what they are saying … Conservatism is successful over time because conservatism works. We have to make it work for the mass of our citizens once again.
According to Harper, the right response to populism is not to denounce it but to engage with it. Conservatives, after all, are “leery of large scale change by edict and its inevitable, unforeseen consequences”. In government, he says, he found that “small but constant steps” were the best way to get things done. This incrementalism “was both good philosophical conservatism and effective political pragmatism”. Conservatism, he says, with its “preference for the empirical over the theoretical, predisposition to freedom and choice, and mistrust of large institutions and centralised planning, is especially important in the populist age”. But to be politically effective, contemporary conservatives—“reformicons”, he calls them—need “to bring conservative ideas to bear on the real life challenges facing ordinary folks”.
Harper certainly hasn’t given up his preference for smaller, stronger government; for lower, fairer taxes; and for more freedom for people who are having a go. He still advocates for the family, small businesses and the institutions that have served us well. But his stress is on strengthening a social fabric that’s under pressure—in part, because of the strains of globalisation. Like all conservatives, Harper is at heart a pragmatist. He wants to solve problems through the application of commonsense remedies based on values that have stood the test of time.
Mercifully, Harper spares us the anti-Trump hysterics that are still so routine from establishment figures, even conservative ones. He’s clear that Trump isn’t an accident. He won the nomination and the presidency because, unlike his rivals, he listened to what was bothering real people: those whose jobs were at risk because of unfair foreign competition; whose sense of self was being eroded by identity politics; and who thought that the Washington elites had everyone’s interests at heart but theirs. Because these concerns cross normal party lines, Trump was able to harvest enough of the previously-Democrat-voting “deplorables” to more than make up for the progressive Republicans whose votes he lost.
Harper focuses on trade and immigration, the subjects where voters are most at odds with their established political representatives. Although freer trade undoubtedly produces more total wealth, it’s little comfort to an unemployed car worker that his Chinese-made flat screen television is now cheaper. So far, the economic rise of China has indeed been good for the world, but it’s been much better for China than for the countries whose manufacturers have been undercut and whose technical secrets have been stolen. Likewise, the many benefits of immigration are less clear to the long-time residents who now feel like strangers in their own neighbourhoods, or to the former workers whose jobs have been taken by newcomers ready to work for less. On climate change, Harper notes that saving the planet from a speculative threat decades hence isn’t very appealing to householders whose power bills are going through the roof or to workers whose factory is relocating to a country with fewer green scruples.
Because voters will ultimately make up their own minds about what’s really in their best interests, left-wing parties that believe in open borders and right-wing parties that believe in ever freer markets are at risk of losing their base. Obviously, this is an opportunity, not just a threat—to be seized by the side of politics that first wakes up to what’s happening. In the United States, thanks to candidate Trump, that was the Republicans. The challenge now is suitably to update the party’s political philosophy from the age of Reagan when the benefits of free trade in goods and free movement of people were much more taken for granted. What’s wanted is a coherent underlying rationale beyond catchphrases like putting the country first.
Harper doesn’t lay down a new political program to replace Reaganism and Thatcherism. That’s what he wants his readers to think about. Yet based on this book, these seem to be his broad prescriptions. He’s for: tax cuts, provided they don’t damage the budget; freer trade, provided it doesn’t undermine your own country’s competitive strengths; immigration, provided it doesn’t undercut wages or change a country’s character; and spending restraint, provided it doesn’t remove people’s legitimate expectations of support. Conversely, he’s against: big government, because it saps initiative; uncontrolled borders, because they surrender national sovereignty; and free market dogmatism, because it overlooks the human factor and devalues character. If the market, for instance, were failing to deliver an essential service, in Harper’s view, government would have to step in.
For Harper, I’m sure, “whose side you are on” is at the heart of it. Rootless, cosmopolitan intellectuals parading their moral superiority, or masters of high finance dressing up self-interest as economic correctness, are not for him. His people, the people he thinks the Centre-Right must promote and protect, are: members of the armed forces and the emergency services; small business operators mortgaging their homes to invest, employ and serve the community; and parents making sacrifices for their children. He salutes everyone and anyone who’s creating something. It’s really a moral vision that he’s articulating. Centre-Right politics should foster the civic virtues: duty, service, thrift, responsibility and, above all, love of country.
From Harper, Australia wins two honourable mentions: John Howard gets a tick for being both “a committed nationalist” as well as an “effective globalist”; and the Abbott government, likewise, for finally stopping the people-smuggling boats.
Reading his book irresistibly brought to mind Sir Robert Menzies’s “We Believe” statement of what the Liberal Party stands for; not the sanitised, modernised versions that appeared in the 1990s, but the original that was recently re-adopted by the Tasmanian division and is now routinely recited at state council meetings by the Young Liberal president:
We believe in the Crown … in the individual … in the rule of law … in the spirit of the volunteer … in encouraging the strong and protecting the weak … [and] in the great human freedoms to worship, to think, to speak, to choose, to be ambitious, to be independent, to be industrious, to acquire skill … [and] to seek and earn reward … We believe that rights connote duties … that the real conflict of our time is between the iron discipline of autocracy and the self-imposed discipline of the free man … that national … power and policy … are to … create a climate in which people may be empowered to work out their own solution … [and] that under the blessing of divine providence … there is no task which Australia cannot perform and no difficulty that she cannot overcome.
There is a difference between beliefs and ideas. Beliefs are deep convictions that move the heart and soul as well as the mind. Ideas are just thoughts; often very important ones about improving people’s lot in life, but they’re the stock-in-trade of academics, not leaders. Over the past couple of decades, as our ideas have multiplied, our beliefs have diminished. That’s the big gap in Centre-Right politics which Harper’s book is striving to fill. People crave a moral purpose, and if we don’t offer them any inspiration, others will fill that vacuum, but not necessarily to our countries’ good.