When you’re prevented by law from having large gatherings, for the best part of three years, these surely have been dispiriting times.

Certainly, it’s been hard to practice freedom and enterprise, locked up in your house, and with your business closed on account of a virus.

And with our country, two hundred years on, from being a penal settlement, once more turned into prison island.

For the other side, though, there’s been no such vexation.

If your instinct is for a big state, what could be better than awaiting instructions, following orders, dobbing in transgressors, and treating normal life as a health hazard?

So as the pandemic mindset slowly subsides, it’s vital that we recommit ourselves to the instincts and understandings that have long under-pinned the conservative side of politics.

Naturally, I am a lifer for the Liberal Party of Australia.

John Howard famously described us, as the custodians in this country, of both the conservative tradition of Edmund Burke and the liberal tradition of JS Mill.

Alternatively, as a party that’s economically liberal and socially conservative.

And in our English-speaking tradition, it should be stressed, the relationship between conservatism and liberalism has mostly been a happy one, beautifully encapsulated in Tennyson’s lines about “freedom broaden(ing) slowly down; from precedent to precedent”. 

As liberals, we support greater freedom, smaller government, and lower taxes.

As conservatives, we support the family, small business and institutions that have stood the test of time.

And as Australians, we believe ours is the best country on earth, and want to keep it that way.

That makes us the freedom party, the tradition party, and the patriot party.

But it’s not enough just to have the right instincts; we need the right actions too. 

In opposition, we have to oppose bad policy, based on what we stand for; and in government we have to propose good policy, based on what we stand for. Above all else, we must address the practical obstacles that people face in making their lives as good as they could be.

That was always my mission as party leader: first, to try to ensure that government did no harm; and then, to try to ensure that government did what it reasonably might, to nudge the country in better directions, and to do the good that only government could.

As a conservative monarchist and climate sceptic I was supposed to be unelectable, yet in two elections took 25 seats off Labor.

Incidentally, we always take seats off Labor, when we make climate an economic issue that will cost jobs and raise prices; rather than a moral issue requiring swift change to a survivalist lifestyle lest the planet self immolate by 2030.

It wasn’t the opposition’s task, I said, on my first day in the job, to make weak compromises with a poor government; but to be a clear alternative.

To this day, some can recall the mantra, reflecting the changes to make the country different and better under a Coalition government: we’d “stop the boats, scrap the taxes, fix the budget, and build the roads of the 21st century”.

And in just two years in government, what was supposed to be mission impossible was largely achieved: the boats did stop, the carbon and mining taxes did go, the biggest infrastructure build in our history did start (as anyone who’s got here using Westconnex or Northconnex or come down the Pacific Highway lately knows), and the budget repair did at least begin (despite senate sabotage).

As well, the three big trade deals that had languished for a decade finally happened; and Vladimir Putin was at least shirt-fronted, although sadly not deposed.

I don’t think that the art of politics has fundamentally changed just because, in fear of a virus, governments around the world have put billions of people under virtual house arrest and spent volumes of money that were completely unprecedented outside of wartime.

We still have to be the freedom party.

That means getting taxes down, which means getting spending down, which means at the very least a “no new spending” rule (apart from economic infrastructure and national security) that’s not paid for by savings elsewhere, as practised by the Howard and Abbott governments.

That means getting regulation down, so that good people can make the most of their lives without having to answer to officialdom on everything from the colour of their heat-reflecting homes to the pronouns they use.

That means making government stronger, not bigger, by keeping authority in the hands of elected and accountable MPs, rather than so-called experts, accountable to no one, who may have more technical knowledge but no better judgment than anyone else.

We still have to be the tradition party.

That means honouring people in uniform and respecting the job they do.

It means admiring all the lives of quiet faithfulness that bless our neighbourhoods, workplaces, schools and churches.

It means only changing that which needs to be changed, and even then weighing the inevitable costs of change against its likely benefits.

And we still have to be the patriot party.

That means finding the good, as well as the bad, in our past and in our present.

It means honouring our heroes, even if none of them were perfect.

It means giving our country and our allies the benefit of the doubt. 

And it means building on our strengths, to make a great country even better.

As a former party leader who’s out of the parliament, I’ve tried to avoid running commentary on the issues of the day.

But as a former national leader, I think I’m allowed a public view on big changes to the way we’re governed.

Being against an anti-corruption commission doesn’t make you anti-honest government; just as being against an indigenous voice doesn’t make you anti-Aboriginal; and being against ditching the crown doesn’t make you less Australian.

The conservative instinct is that stronger characters will create higher standards in our public life, far more surely than new bodies with a vested interest in finding fault.

Has the advent of integrity commissions increased respect for state parliaments and state politicians?

To ask the question is to give the answer.

By all means, let’s have royal commissions to probe better ways to handle disasters.

But if public officers may have broken the law, they should be investigated and prosecuted in a court; not be made accountable to a star chamber for something as hard to pin down as “breaching public trust”.

If that’s happened, shouldn’t the remedy be defeat at an election?

And if indigenous people are under-represented, more should be elected to the parliament in the normal way, by voters who appreciate that this country has an indigenous heritage to be proud of, no less than our British foundation and our immigrant character.

How would a separate indigenous voice, though, not offend the sacred principle that every individual has equal rights and responsibilities; and not become, as even Malcolm Turnbull thought, a third chamber of the parliament?

And if our country is thought to be lacking in national pride, the answer, surely, is to strive to be better at all we do, rather than sunder our links to an institution that has been with us every step of our way as a nation, and which adds a grace note to our public life.

In the absence of some gross defect in our system of government, wouldn’t becoming a republic be an act of cultural vandalism as well as a step into precedent-free constitutional dark?

Conservatives should never be afraid of saying no; even if there might sometimes be a pragmatic case for making change for the worse less bad.

We should never allow ourselves to be morally bullied into changing what works.

And if something doesn’t work, let’s fix it before we throw it away.

The mark of a conservative is respect for what’s made us.

It’s precisely because we don’t find our country an embarrassment –  it’s not inherently unfair; it’s not irredeemably racist;  and it’s not institutionally flawed – that we’re better placed than the other side to bring some inspiration and hope back to our public life.

I don’t want to sound impossibly idealistic, but we need to focus less on next week and more on next year; less on the drama of the day and more on what’s really going to make a difference; and yes, less on attacking the other side and more on what builds our country up.

When the other side succeeds, we should quietly congratulate them; and when the other side fails, our task is to explain where they’re wrong, not why they’re bad.

As I said at the beginning, these are dispiriting times, but we should never lose heart, because the facts are conservative, as Margaret Thatcher observed, and sooner or later, reality will always trump ideology.

The virus hysteria, has finally dissipated, because yearning to live normally eventually overcame our neurotic fear of death.

Likewise, the emissions obsession will eventually end, when weather-dependent power can’t keep the lights on.

And the cultural self-loathing will finally stop, when people have to choose between liberal democracy and its alternatives.

Things might get worse before they get better, but we will be vindicated, provided we keep the faith.

Fight the good fight, stay the course, keep the faith – that’s our mission.  

1 October 2022