The advantage of being on the backbench is that you have the time to reflect, and the freedom to speak. The advantage of being a former frontbencher, party leader and prime minister on the backbench is that your reflections are informed, perhaps uniquely informed, by the good and the bad of a long public life.
I owe so much to the party that gave me the privilege of leading the opposition for four years and the country for two. I want the Liberal Party to go from strength to strength. I want the Liberal National coalition to be re-elected. I want it ever to be the case that to be an Australian is to have won the lottery of life.
And the best way for me to help to bring all that about is to speak candidly, based on what I’ve learned and how I’ve changed and how all of us can improve.
When you don’t have to manage a party, run a country and win an election, it’s easier to see the failings of our political system because it’s no longer all your fault and your responsibility instantly to fix.
In government, none of us like to admit that there are problems and that we might be contributing to them. But beyond any shadow of doubt, the Australian people feel less connection with their leaders. At last year’s election, 23 per cent voted for minor parties and independents, 5 per cent spoiled their ballots and 9 per cent didn’t even turn up.
The fact that more than a third of the electorate voted “neither” to the big parties that have governed our country from the beginning shows that people aren’t happy.
Put simply, there has rarely been such a gulf between insiders and outsiders; between what most politicians and what most people think that politics is about. To the Labor Party, politics is about winning. To many Liberals, it’s about managing. But to the Australian people, when it’s not about practical help in their daily lives, it’s about values. It all comes back to values. What do you believe? Whose side are you on? And what are you going to do to help? And the answers to everything begin with the things you believe in.
If you are an Australian, you have to believe in Australia. You don’t have to believe that everything about our country is perfect but you do have to believe that our country is at least worthy of respect. And most of us do. In the marrow of our bones, the vast majority of Australians are proud of our country. Not because we’re flawless, but because we’re good and because we’re usually striving to be even better.
But all too often, that’s not how the people in authority see things. Whether it’s official persecution of Queensland students for a bit of justified sarcasm, state governments promoting gender fluidity in schools, or a federal government-approved activist being disrespectful of Anzac day, there’s this pervasive ambivalence verging on hostility to our country and its values from people who should know better.
The most talked about person in Australia over the past week or so has been Yassmin Abdel-Magied. Of course, she shouldn’t have tweeted “Lest we forget” only to make a political point. Of course, she was wrong to claim that Islam was the most feminist of religions. Of course, you should be able to express any opinion you like; but why is it that only some opinions get you sacked, or investigated by the Human Rights Commission?
Still, an over-promoted, politically correct 26 year old is merely a symptom of the cultural cowardice that’s penetrated to the very heart of our institutions. While officialdom wrings its hands in nervous self-doubt about anything that might be labelled anti-youth, anti-women, anti-black or, perhaps worst of all, anti-Muslim, Australians show what they think of our country’s knockers by turning out in ever increasing numbers and ever greater enthusiasm on Anzac day.
At the Dawn Service I attended, the padre denounced political correctness as shutting the mouth, twisting the mind and warping the soul – to a ripple of applause from 15,000 people. At the Anzac day services I attended, young and old, rich and poor, Asian and Anglo, immigrant and indigenous, male and female seemed much keener on our unity than our diversity in a great affirmation of pride in Australia. If there were any complaints, it was not that we spent too little time lamenting our failures but that we spent too little time counting our blessings.
There are many causes of our present discontents: jobs are less secure; families are less stable; our personal and national security and our personal and national prosperity is less assured. There’s economic disruption. But there’s values disruption too and that’s even more unsettling. Overwhelmingly, our people believe in our country – but it’s hard for them to have faith in politicians when the politicians and those they promote don’t believe in the things they do.
There are two fundamental points to be made here: Australians have every justification for pride (and political leaders have more reason than most to be proud, as success doesn’t happen by accident – it owes at least something to long periods of good governance); and we should equally be proud of the broader Western civilisation of which we are part.
Australia is the world’s 12th largest economy. We’re close to being the world’s largest exporter of coal, iron ore and gas; and the third largest exporter of education. We’re one of the world’s top re-settlers of refugees; and, as the Prime Minister often reminds us, we’re probably the world’s most successful immigrant nation. We enjoy a combination of freedom, fairness and prosperity that rightly makes us the envy of the earth.
We are part of a civilisation which has exported scientific learning, material prosperity, and concepts of democracy, justice and freedom to the entire world. We don’t discriminate on the basis of race, creed or gender. We do our best to judge people by the content of their character. Taught by faith and instinct, we are convinced that every human being has God-given equal rights and responsibilities; and our basic rule of conduct is to treat others as we would have them treat us.
The modern world is unimaginable without this legacy of Western civilisation. As Ayaan Hirsi Ali declared last year, “women’s equality, the abolition of slavery, individual freedom, religious tolerance (and) freedom of expression” are the West’s gift to the world. “One cannot dismiss the sum total of Western civilisation” she warned, “without losing one’s moral compass. And one cannot participate meaningfully in the battle of ideas raging in the world today while dismissing the value of Western civilisation as a whole”.
The other day a friend sent me a 1966 speech by the one-time US attorney-general Robert F Kennedy to university students in South Africa. “At the heart of that Western freedom and democracy”, said Kennedy, “is the belief that the individual man, the child of God, is the touchstone of value; and all society, groups, the state, exist for his benefit. Therefore the enlargement of liberty for individual human beings must be the supreme goal and the abiding practice of any Western society”.
He went on: “The first element of this individual liberty is…freedom of speech: the right to express and communicate ideas…to recall governments to their duties and obligations; above all the right to affirm one’s membership and allegiance to the body politic, to society, to the men and women with whom we share our land, our heritage and our children’s future…”
And further: “It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope; and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression”.
But almost no one talks this way anymore. Especially the leaders of centre-left political parties no longer even mention, let alone celebrate, the abiding virtues and benefits of Western civilisation. The march of identity politics has rendered today’s left-of-centre politicians incapable of appealing to the West’s high culture as the best antidote to racism and to all other forms of discrimination.
Indeed in scarcely a generation, at least on one side of politics, discrimination has gone from a fundamental evil to an actual necessity in the fight against racism, sexism and Islamophobia.
So it’s good that Prime Minister Turnbull has recently taken to emphasising Australian values and is proposing to ensure that all new citizens are left in no doubt whatsoever about our demand for their commitment to the rule of law, parliamentary democracy and recognition of universal rights and freedoms.
It’s good that the government is not further funding the insidious and corrupting so-called Safe Schools programme which is social-engineering masquerading as anti-bullying.
It’s good that, after the Howard government’s inaction and my own government’s tactical retreat, the Turnbull government has recently asked the parliament to remove “offending” and “insulting” from speech prohibited by section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
But what does it say about our collective commitment to Western freedoms and Western values that even the ultra-minimal change of a reasonable person test was rejected by the Labor opposition, the Greens and about half of the Senate cross bench?
When the head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet thinks that his decisions may have been tainted by “unconscious bias”, when the newly appointed ABC chairman thinks that his organisation has no objectivity problem, when dozens of big companies are more ready to campaign for same sex marriage than for economic reform, when shareholder activism has intimidated big banks against investing in coal, and when it’s all-but-impossible to discuss race, gender or religion in our universities without “trigger warnings”, the long march of the left through our institutions is almost complete.
Once, the political left was focussed on economic opportunity; on giving bright kids from poor families a better future and on giving honest workers a decent living. But these days, it’s the conservative side of politics that best represents Australian working families.
When it’s not making excuses for militant unions or welfarism, Labor is consumed by the Green left’s theology of climate change and identity. Indeed, the one senior Labor figure still demonstrative about making it better to work for a living is Mark Latham who’s now more welcome at Liberal Party meetings than Labor ones.
It will help the Liberal Party if we place ourselves firmly on the side of Western civilisation against its critics, and of Australian values against the politically correct wreckers and cynics. But we shouldn’t do so to win elections; we should do so because it’s right.
Years ago, I came across the Liberal Party’s “We believe” statement. When I first became active in our party, this short compendium of beliefs was taken so seriously that some branches used to recite it at the start of meetings. It’s still on the federal secretariat’s website and is well worth studying – even though, sadly, it no longer states “we believe in the constitutional monarchy” – because it shows our party’s understanding that effective politics needs good values as much as good management.
It’s true that most people, most of the time, are focussed on “real world issues”: work, family, friendship, sport and trying to ensure that each year is better than the one before. But they know that nothing happens in a vacuum. They know that our parliament and legal system, inherited from Britain but improved here; the rule of law, a free press, and an honest administration are part of what’s made our country great.
Believers or not, they know that Gospel values are the best way to live. They appreciate that freedom of speech might not create a single job; because it’s done so much more than that. It’s created a civilisation: the only one yet in human history that’s provided every citizen with the necessities of life.
It’s not just those who call talk back radio or who join the twitter sphere that have a strong sense of right and wrong. Most Australians have a clear sense of values.
I reckon this could be said of almost every one of us: that we try to get on with our neighbours because they’re having a go, just like us; that we admire teachers and nurses because they work long hours for modest pay to serve the community; that we appreciate business people, especially small business people, because they take risks to provide us with our daily bread; that we always support the police even though they will sometimes make mistakes; that we revere the armed forces because they are prepared to make the supreme sacrifice for us; that we respect the Christian church even though its adherents are all-too-human, because it turns our minds and hearts and souls to the higher things; and above all else, that we love our country because it has given us every opportunity and, in whatever way we can, our duty is to make Australia stronger and more successful.
This is what most of us believe. But only some of those in authority believe it; and those that do, don’t state it nearly often enough.
As prime minister, I tried to stress what Australians have in common over our differences. I sought to be less a party boss and more a national leader. I tried to avoid giving offence in the full knowledge that, on some issues, offence will still be taken and there is little common ground to find. Often enough, indeed, a leader’s job is to take a stand and to wear the consequences.
The Abbott government stopped the boats because no self-respecting country can expose itself to peaceful invasion. The Abbott government finalised trade deals because we owe the businesses on which our communities depend every chance to succeed. The Abbott government built roads and commenced airports because daily life shouldn’t be blighted by a failure to plan. The Abbott government staked its political life on budget repair because governments that practice intergenerational theft are as contrary to the natural order as parents living on their children’s credit card. We did all these things because they made economic sense but fundamentally we did them because they were morally right.
Rightly, conservatives value courtesy but we can’t avoid being strong and clear on all the big issues of our day. The risk in trying to be “all things to everyone” is to end up “nothing to anyone”. It’s to earn the withering put down: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing – a judgment to be avoided at all costs!
Finally, it’s worth recalling that tomorrow marks the 75th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea. We must avoid the conceit that we are somehow morally superior to the generation that saved Australia and, indeed, secured Western civilisation against barbarism. Our challenge is less to find fault with our mighty forebears than to be worthy of them.