Sunday, October 11, 2015

POLITICS: Cory Bernardi gets in touch with his inner conservative

Tony Abbott is gone. Malcolm Turnbull is in power. This apparently means conservatives in the Liberal Party have or soon will be vanquished. The "wet" or small 'l' liberals have won the day.

Little wonder the likes of South Australian Senator Cory Bernardi are making noises of leaving the Liberal Party and forming a new conservative party, perhaps similar to Britain's Conservatives.

But things have never been so cut and dried. The "Right" don't see each other as all being Right, let alone right. The Liberal Party founded by Menzies represented a political compromise, a somewhat uncomfortable marriage of liberals and conservatives.

 But what does it mean to be conservative in Australia anyway? Does it mean you worship God on Sunday and the free market every other day? Does it mean you support traditional values but insist they can only be Judeo-Christian?

In my final years of law school, a friend and I were invited to dinner with John Howard. It was 1993, and Mr Howard was the opposition spokesman on industrial relations. John Hewson had just lost the unlosable election, and had stunned many colleagues by "coming out" as a social progressive. I asked Mr Howard whether he thought the Liberal Party was or should be necessarily more conservative than the ALP. In those days I was thinking with my undergraduate binary political brain, typical of many in the highly factionalised NSW Young Liberal conservative faction.

In those days, the 'Group' (as the small 'l' liberals were known) had a winner-takes-all mentality, refusing to share power with any but a handful of conservatives. My education as a conservative young liberal included recognising dangerous 'wets', among them Marise Payne, John Brogden, Robert Hill, Christopher Pyne and George Brandis. That's right, campus left-wing activists. Christopher Pyne and George Brandis were on the Liberal left. No doubt many current Young Liberal lefties would be wondering what on earth happened!

Back to dinner with Mr Howard. From memory, Mr Howard's reply to my question was that the essence of conservatism is respect for tradition and the status quo. Change needs to be done gradually, not hastily or in a radical manner. Evolution always works better than revolution.

In that respect, Howard said the Liberal Party was a "broad church". He admitted that many policies pursued in his own portfolio in those days could hardly be called conservative. Indeed, the idea of seriously curtailing the dominance of the union movement and the award system in Australia was regarded as revolutionary. For decades, centralised wage fixing through an independent umpire was the norm.

Howard had a much clearer understanding of what the role of conservatives in the Liberal Party was. He realised you had to take the electorate with you, and you had to use big events to your advantage. The rule was respecting things as they are and making minor changes here and there (or at least major changes when no one was watching). Events like the Port Arthur 'massacre' (conventional racialised wisdom won't allow us to label this an act of terrorism) gave Howard the catalyst to introduce gun laws against the wishes of many in the National Party.

But there was one lesson Howard and other self-styled conservatives today have not learned. When conservatives are guided by prejudice instead of reason, they risk giving birth to a political monster that could go out of control and come back to bite all of us.

The free market is built upon people acting in rational self-interest. This means looking out for commercial advantage regardless of linguistic, ethnic, religious and other differences one might have with others. There's no point accusing the ALP of anti-Chinese xenophobia for having reservations about the proposed preferential trade agreement with China when there are people on your own side using the existence of violent Muslim extremists in the Middle East as an excuse to punish cattle farmers and put our export markets at risk.

And if refugee policy is built upon ease of integration, do we really think an Arabic-speaking Christian refugee named Nabil Youssef tortured by Islamic State and/or Assaad will find it easier to integrate than an Arabic-speaking Sunni or Alawite refugee named Nabil Youssef traumatised by IS and/or Assaad?

John Howard would have wished his last press conference as prime minister could be devoted to his long record of achievements. Instead, he had to deal with a fake pamphlet of racial and sectarian content distributed by members of the Liberal Party (including a NSW State Executive member) in a Western Sydney marginal seat. He went on to lose not just the election but his own seat.

Conservatives who dabble in irrational prejudice will never succeed in the long term. If Mr Bernardi and his fellow travellers wish to establish a conservative party on narrow foundations, they might consider doing so in North Korea.

Irfan Yusuf is a PhD candidate at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University. First published in the Canberra Times on 20 September 2015.

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