Australian liberalism is conservative in sense Disraeli would appreciate

Australian liberalism is conservative in sense Disraeli would appreciate, by Henry Ergas.

Malcolm Turnbull was …  right, in his recent Disraeli Prize oration, to raise the fundamental question of what the Liberal Party stands for.

New Labor no longer has that problem:

As a coalition of rent-snatchers — going from the thugs of the CFMEU through to the interest groups that live off the taxes of others — the only dilemma that seems to torment it is how to extract the resources needed to fund its many promises.

Little wonder then that any real thought perished long ago, smothered in the rhetoric of fairness, with Julia Gillard’s effort at articulating the ALP’s raison d’etre highlighting the intellectual collapse: Labor, she famously declared, is as it is because “we are us”. …

Liberalism avoids the fatal conceit prevalent on the left, taking a tragic rather than an idealistic view of people:

It is hard to conceive of an approach more antithetical to liberalism than the belief that, as Isaiah Berlin put it, “somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of the uncorrupted man, there is a final solution” to the practical problems of governing.

It is precisely because liberalism dismisses that Promethean conceit that it respects institutions that have stood the test of time, rejects grand projects of social transformation and accepts the inevitability of trade-offs between equally meritorious ends. …

Rather, in resisting the temptation to put too high a hope on political achievement, it contents itself, as Michael Oakeshott suggested, with providing a framework for “the gradual readjustment of human relationships by fallible men”. …


In the postwar world, the threat of communism created a natural fault line; today’s adversaries are less sharply defined. Australian society is also far more heterogeneous, and has lost all sense of a shared past or a common future.

Moreover, although liberalism is not tied to any religion, its underlying premise — that men are not gods, and that salvation, like ultimate truth, is not of this world — clashes with the unbounded self-assurance of a secular age.

Yet the threats Liberals need to confront are as great as ever. At one end are the jackboots of the unions, whose lawlessness has been condoned by the ACTU secretary; at the other, the new totalitarians whose belief in the ability to reshape the messiness of human affairs along “rational” lines, whatever the cost, reaches its peak among the climate change zealots.

Benjamin Disraeli, British PM 1868 and 1874 – 80:

How Benjamin Disraeli would have reacted to all of that is impossible to know. What is certain is that many viewers would have felt an element of irony in watching Turnbull receive a prize honouring a man of whom it was said, only slightly unfairly, that “he never thought seriously of anything except his career”.

That Disraeli coined the phrase “the greasy pole” was therefore unsurprising …

Whatever his flaws, he forced the Tories to adapt to a society reshaped by the Industrial Revolution; and his greatest political achievements — the Reform Act of 1867, which gave ordinary working men the vote, and the avalanche of social legislation that followed it — reflected a conviction that workers, far from wishing to destroy society, were natural conservatives, united in their respect for national institutions and in the aspiration for a better future.