QUARTERLY ESSAY 19 Relaxed & Comfortable



David Kemp

Judith Brett has once more shown herself to be one of the foremost commentators on the Liberal Party’s political role. It is really the fact that her essay is so good that has prompted my response, because it would be too easy to take Relaxed and Comfortable as an assessment of the Howard years, which it is not. There are important aspects of the Howard record that are omitted or, I believe, misinterpreted, and it seemed useful, perhaps, to put some of these on the table for future discussion.

Brett herself is quite explicit about her purpose. Her essay, she says, is basically directed at the left, and aims to defend the Australian people from unfair charges levelled against them from the left because of their support at several elections for the Howard government. Part of her defence of the electorate is that the Howard government is much more in the mainstream of the Australian Liberal tradition than its critics from the left are often willing to concede. In this I agree with her, and welcome her sensible decision to recognise that there is such a Liberal tradition, and that it simply will not do in this day and age to keep talking about “non-labour” parties, as if the parties so characterised were not as central to the Australian political tradition as Labor.

Brett is clearly correct in her general assessment that the Liberal Party and the political tradition it represents has long seen itself as representing the national interest over sectional interests. This was the stated position of the first Federal Liberal Party formed after the Fusion of 1910, and it has been a consistent theme ever since. Indeed, Brett undervalues the importance of the Liberal organisations and liberal thought of nineteenth-century politics – the organisations and ideas that produced the Australian Federation. 

Yet, not surprisingly, the article still carries intellectual baggage from the left, and I thought it would be useful to identify some of this baggage as a contribution to pushing along the debate about the Liberal Party’s role in the national life.

First, at the risk of seeming to niggle, there are times when Brett seems unwilling to concede active agency to the Liberal Party in influencing national life for the good – when good outcomes happen, it is not Liberal policies that are responsible. When Australia prospers under the Menzies government, her comment is that “history has been kind to the Liberal Party”, not that Menzies’ policies contributed to prosperity. Or that his education policies expanding the university system were a key factor in the rise of the “new class” of the tertiary-educated, or that his school policies helped to bring an end to sectarianism. Horne’s comment from The Lucky Country is to the same effect – that “little of what [Menzies] did seems to matter much …” 

It hardly needs saying that a completely different interpretation is not only possible, but also more plausible – that Menzies’ reassertion of an economic system based around private enterprise and limited government was absolutely key to the Australian experience after 1949. His housing policies, health insurance policies, education policies and rejection of dirigiste economic planning had a profound effect in producing the Australia that entered the 1970s. Contra Horne, Menzies’ role as an international leader who was greatly respected in Britain and the United States was a factor in Australia’s national self-confidence during those years, and the significant openings to Asia that occurred during his period were clearly with his support.

These niggles apart, Brett runs with a number of other left mythologies. One is that the Liberals are more ruthless than Labor. There are enough “walking wounded” on the Labor side to throw serious doubt on any claim that Labor is not internally ruthless. The ruthlessness of the New South Wales Right is legendary. Hughes, Lang, Santamaria v. Evatt, Keating v. Hawke, and Mark Latham are names to conjure with. Whitlam’s attitudes to South Vietnamese immigrants, the Baltic States and East Timor could be regarded as pretty ruthless. Was there ever a more ruthless moment in Australian political debate than when Eddie Ward accused Menzies during the Second World War of treachery over “the Brisbane Line” – a charge for which there was never a scintilla of evidence produced, and which Labor did not disown? It was one of the most disgraceful moments in Australian political history. From the point of view of a Liberal, there can have been few more ruthless debating assaults than Keating’s attack on the GST in the 1993 election – an attack which, though much lauded at the time as politically “brilliant”, was nevertheless nonsensical vituperative rubbish in its claims about the horrendous impact such a tax would have socially and economically (particularly since he himself had failed to bring in the reform). 

Again, Brett states that the Liberals “used communism” against Labor. It is hard to deny that, but then isn’t the main historical fact that Labor was seriously compromised by communism – so much so that Chifley set up the Industrial Groups to rescue the unions from communist control? The party was ultimately to break up over the issue. It is scarcely surprising, and certainly not reprehensible, that the Liberal Party repeatedly drew attention to Labor’s (and Australia’s) problem.

Again, Brett takes the traditional left stand that the Liberals were in breach of parliamentary convention in 1975. It would be closer to the truth to say that it was Whitlam who was in breach of convention, attempting to bring about in Australia a constitutional change in the role of the Senate, as had occurred in England with the House of Lords in 1910. He tried to change the constitution and he failed. Upper Houses in Australian history had acted just as the Senate had done in well-known historical precedents. One may argue about the merits and the politics of the refusal of supply to the end of time, but it is simply not true that the Liberals were in breach of convention in denying supply, and it is plain that Lionel Murphy in the Senate thought that it had the power to act in earlier days and was ruthless in using it.

One of Brett’s repeated comments that I strongly refute is that “the first casualty of Howard was Australia’s indigenous people”. I would have thought it was all too clear now that by the time the Howard government came to office indigenous communities were sustaining massive damage from the imposition on them of a welfare system that was destroying jobs and self-respect. The “practical reconciliation” policies of the Howard government (for some of which I was responsible in the areas of education and training) have opened up many opportunities for young indigenous people, vastly increasing the numbers in training and focusing for the first time on literacy and numeracy and school retention in remote communities. That is certainly the feedback I get from many indigenous people that I know. It may be a Liberal defect to look closely at the impact of policies on individuals, and to be less enamoured of collective symbolism, but I don’t think so. It is in the end individual people who suffer.

The final point with which I will take issue with Brett in this brief response is her statement that Howard has “no interest” in the cultural and educational elites. It is true he expresses scepticism from time to time about views he thinks are out of touch with reality, but he has great interest in the role of these “elites”. Indeed, he has time and again emphasised the importance of the “battle of ideas” in politics, and has been a very conscious supporter of those whom he sees as effective advocates of better policy for Australia, and who criticise views he thinks are out of touch with the successful character of Australian institutions and with the positive identity that most Australians share. The left disagrees with this interpretation, but then that is what the debate is all about. 

On a related matter, I doubt that any prime minister since Menzies has taken a closer interest in education and science policies. Howard has attended and actively led discussion in many meetings of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, and in the development of the big research funding packages that went under the name of Backing Australia’s Ability and that doubled funding to the Australian Research Council.

All this having been said, I hope that Judith Brett will continue her interest in the Liberal Party. Of all the left writers, she is the one from whom even Liberals can learn.


David Kemp was a member of federal cabinet from 1997 to 2004, and held portfolios in the areas of Education, Employment, Training, Youth Affairs, Environment and Heritage. His academic work on Australian politics includes the book Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia: A Study of Three Decades.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 19, Relaxed & Comfortable. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 20, A Time for War.


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