Quarterly Essay 37 What's Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia by Waleed Ali
Waleed Aly is a commentator who is in sync with a wide range of Australian opinion. His cultural instincts meld with his academic and media credentials to offer a lucid insight into Australian public life. This retrospective on his acclaimed 2010 Quarterly Essay ‘What’s right? The Future of Conservativism in Australia’ finds his insights to be sharp and prophetic.
The Quarterly Essay is longish (25 000 words) in format and has two general approaches, examining public figures and contemporary issues. The QE’s record for critical timing in, for example, David Marr’s essays on Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, and George Pell is almost creepy and the broad analysis of issues and the subsequent impact these essays have had on the public debate is substantial. Aly’s essay is the second approach: an insight into a how conservative political thinking has changed over fifty years.
Before embarking on his thesis, Aly reflects on a Mark Kenny article, noting that he too found himself “in agreement with much conservative philosophy, yet in consistent disagreement with politicians and commentators who call themselves conservatives”. Starting with the emergence of Conservatism after the French Revolution, Aly derives from Edmund Burke that “human society is organic” and “so much about them is intangible and mysterious that they cannot be altered by design in the way one alters a machine”. Government is not a forum for experimentation. He quotes Lord Coleraine that “conservatism is an attitude of mind, not a corpus of doctrine or a carefully worked out system of political theory” and “it is not in itself ideological”. Throughout the essay, Aly promotes traditional conservatism as a buffer against excess change and as a protector of heritage and the environment.
In the chapter “Notes on a modern marriage”, liberalism is defined by John Stuart Mill as the need, in implementing democracy, that neither society or the State has any right to interfere with an individual’s thought or conduct, unless it is to prevent harm to others. Liberalism was at that time quite radical and not at all conservative. It can be argued that conservatism stands against something whereas liberalism is a stated ideal. “Neither” says Aly “accepts the right of a person or polity to impose radical utopian designs on society, and neither proposed a scheme to rid the world of evil. Both are inherently pluralistic”.
Enter the market and neo-liberalism. Economist Friedrich Hayek saw post-war centrally planned economies because government should be kept as distant as possible from economic activity, an anti-collectivist which sat neatly with the West’s fear of communism. Aly sees conservatives tolerating past (gradual) growth and progress but, with the advent of large and powerful corporations, this tolerance waned. Neo-liberalism precipitated the ‘market society’, and markets are amoral. Neo-liberal Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, making the point, says Ali, that it was not for the state to solve people’s problems such as homelessness.
Move forward to the arch Australian neo-liberal abomination, WorkChoices. Myopian focus by the Howard government on the market neglected to register that voters want “security and good working conditions, and were not interested in arguments about how they might reduce unemployment by sacrificing these”. Aly plots the rise of “a new kind of conservatism”, one articulated by Reagan decades earlier, “a crusade for freedom that will engage the faith and fortitude of the next generation.” Read ideology.
The drive to privatisation changed the roles of the IMF and the World Bank, which were originally emplaced to avoid economic downturns when the market failed, to evidence-free ideologues, the roles of which were totally at odds with the conservative tradition.
Forward to the WorkChoices era. Aly shows that the insecurities inherent in neo-liberal globalisation have “revitalised the twin forms of cultural belligerence: ultra-nationalism and religious fundamentalism”. Here members of society seek continuity, groundedness, stability and a sense of historicity, albeit through an unauthentic world view. Howard appealed to these reactive cultural notions, along the earlier lines of Thatcher, Reagan and George W Bush. This, and his embrace of market-based social reform, means he was not conservative at all. Howard’s prime ministership was that of a neo-conservative. Ali identifies this transition as the crux of his essay because it says a great deal about the state of Australian conservatism today.
Aly describes neo-conservatism as a state of siege. Commentator Kristol erects a barrier between the moral majority and “college-educated people” who are “not much interested in money but are keenly interested in power”. This new class is comprised of “scientists, teachers and education administrators …. “, the liberal media are to be blamed for “everything from spreading the myth of global warming to derailing the vice-presidential campaign of Sarah Palin and delivering Barak Obama to presidency”. This characterisation, by a neo-con himself, has shades of Stalin and Pol Pot (this reviewer’s view). People must be assimilated into the mainstream, the antithesis of liberalism. Believe anything you want, provided what we say defines Australianness. Aly sees that neo-conservatives “posit a clear, identifiable, unproblematic, national culture; a culture that was comparatively homogenous until the relativism of the Left tore at its fabric. This is an ossified, nostalgic fiction”. In examining the commentary of Liberal Party spokespeople from the era of this essay (2010), hindsight reveals that cultural conservatives such as Pyne, Hunt and Turnbull have persisted in leadership roles better than, say, the neo-conservative Kevin Andrews.
Climate change is a key issue in this “fight to the political death”. “Denial quenches the neo-conservative thirst for an enemy elite, dividing the world once more into friends and enemies, and turning the discussion into an ideological contest”. “Climate change is the most ideologically charged issue we are likely to witness for generations”. Yay the debate, alas the planet.
Aly has argued that “by embracing neo-liberalism, conservatives have backed themselves into an ideological corner that has forced them to violate the philosophical tenets of both liberalism and conservatism and to adopt a thoroughly reactionary form of politics”. Aly’s 2010 essay speaks to the present with the implication “liberalism and conservatism will have their best chance of thriving through the disavowal of neo-liberalism”.
The length of the Quarterly Essay format enables Aly to make and support his case. It is compelling. No argument can be complete, this reviewer would have liked to see population policies at least raised as they are directly relevant to many of Aly’s issues. Fans of this format may notice that Aly’s title bookends with Clive Hamilton’s 2006 Quarterly Essay “What’s left? The Death of Social Democracy”.