QUARTERLY ESSAY 37 What's Right?



George Brandis

Those who brought the Liberal Party into being in 1944 did so with the deliberate intention of creating a liberal progressive political movement which would offer an alternative to the state socialism which they correctly apprehended would define the post-war Labor Party. Liberalism and conservatism had shared much the same political space in the thirty-five years since the Fusion in 1909, under a variety of names and structures – the Commonwealth Liberal Party (Deakin and Cook), the Nationalist Party (Hughes, Bruce and Latham) and the United Australia Party (Lyons, Menzies and once again Hughes) – but none of those precursor parties, beyond a commitment to private enterprise and opposition to socialism, had articulated a clear, well-developed philosophical position. 

It was Robert Menzies, after his loss of the prime ministership in 1941, who embarked upon the task not only of reorganising the structure of non-Labor politics, but of giving it an intellectual basis. In the five years between the first of the “Forgotten People” speeches in early 1942 and the first post-war election in September 1946, Menzies, often in collaboration with C.D. Kemp of the Institute of Public Affairs, identified and developed the elements of political liberalism of which the new Liberal Party was to be the custodian and champion.

Waleed Aly describes Menzies’ position as “liberal conservatism” and quotes the famous remark, “We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party.” No doubt Menzies was conservative by disposition and temperament, and liberal conservatism, in the sense Aly uses the term, is a reasonable retrospective characterisation of Menzies’ political values. But at the time, the convergence of liberalism and conservatism, which became increasingly evident in the second half of the twentieth century – the “modern marriage,” as Aly charmingly describes it – was not as apparent as it is today. Menzies, the senior Victorian in non-Labor politics, saw himself as the legatee of the Deakinite tradition, which certainly owed nothing to conservatism. As Sir Paul Hasluck, the closest thing Menzies had to an intellectual equal in Cabinet, later wrote of him:

Menzies’ political thinking was in accord with the liberalism of Alfred Deakin and the liberalism of late nineteenth-century England … [A]lthough a traditionalist, Menzies was not a conservative in any doctrinal sense. I do not know what part he had in choosing the name “Liberal” for the new party he formed and led but the name would certainly fit his political creed.

The “Forgotten People” broadcasts – Menzies’ most notable testaments of political faith – draw directly upon the English liberal tradition. In the second of the broadcasts (there were thirty-seven in all), he quoted extensively from On Liberty, which he described as “full of freshness and truth,” and expressly adopted Mill’s self-protection principle (“the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection”), describing it as “a pregnant truth … a good rule, not only of common law but of social morality.” By contrast, I have not been able to locate a single occasion when, in a lifetime of speeches and writings, Menzies described his position as “conservatism.” Hasluck is incontestably right when he points out that, like Deakin, Menzies drew his political inspiration and values from the liberalism in nineteenth-century England. He was a Gladstonian, not a Disraelian – indeed Menzies’ older brother, Frank Gladstone Menzies, was named in honour of the Grand Old Man. 

Until the 1980s, all of the subsequent leaders of the Liberal Party essentially accepted the Menzian version of liberalism, which had become canonical. There are two qualifications to that proposition. William McMahon, a more intellectually able man than his parodic prime ministerial image would suggest, was the first significant Liberal to seek to shift the party to a more market-oriented focus. In that respect, McMahon departed from the traditional liberal interventionism which had characterised Menzies’ public policy and reflected his Deakinite economic views. In this sense, McMahon anticipated the “dries” by more than a decade, and sounded a distant echo of his fellow New South Welshman George Reid. Secondly, Malcolm Fraser – who, paradoxically, has in recent years come to symbolise small “l” liberalism – was originally, at the time of his clashes with Gorton and his subsequent ascendancy over Snedden and Peacock, seen as a somewhat conservative figure. As prime minister, Fraser was the first Liberal leader to speak of liberalism and conservatism in the one breath. Yet he authored no fundamental departures from the Menzian tradition.

It was John Howard who broke the mould of Menzian liberalism. As the party went through the necessary catharsis of philosophical re-evaluation in the 1980s, Howard changed the Liberal Party’s values in two fundamental ways. First, heavily influenced by Thatcher and Reagan as well as by the economic views of Milton Friedman, and eager to distance himself from the quietism on economic reform which had characterised the Fraser government, he adopted the radically pro-free-market agenda of the “dries.” This marks the point at which, in Waleed Aly’s terms, the Liberal Party shifted from “liberal conservatism” to “neo-liberalism.” The principal beachhead was industrial relations reform, then being championed by the H.R. Nicholls Society, with which Howard associated himself. Ironically, it was at the 1986 Deakin Lecture, ten months after he became leader, that Howard delivered the quietus to Deakinite liberalism. 

The second fundamental change that Howard wrought was to claim conservatism for the Liberal Party as a philosophical co-parent with liberalism. 

Howard was the author and advocate of the “broad church” theory of the Liberal Party. Aly appears to equate Howard’s conservatism with neo-conservatism. I agree with Aly that, in its sometimes histrionic and belligerent expressions, neo-conservatism is fundamentally discordant with the conservative tradition at its best and most civilised. Although there are some aspects of Howard’s policies and rhetoric that fit within Aly’s description of neo-conservatism, in my view it is too narrow a characterisation of his social views. Howard constantly invoked the Burkean tradition, and I believe he did so with sincerity. As I argued in my 2008 essay “John Howard and the Australian Liberal Tradition,” the governing idea of Howard’s social conservatism was his belief in the importance of social cohesion in a society based upon shared values. As he said in his 2006 Australia Day address:

In the twenty-first century, maintaining our social cohesion will remain the highest test of the Australian achievement. It demands the best Australian ideals of tolerance and decency, as well as the best Australian traditions of realism and balance.

Australia’s ethnic diversity is one of the enduring strengths of our nation. Yet our celebration of diversity must not be at the expense of the common values that bind us together as one people – respect for freedom and dignity of the individual, a commitment to the rule of law, the equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need. Nor should it be at the expense of ongoing pride in what are commonly regarded as the values, traditions and accomplishments of the old Australia. A sense of shared values is our social cement.

There is nothing culturally belligerent about sentiments such as those. Social cohesion is an essentially Burkean concept, as is another dimension of Howard’s social philosophy: the idea of society as a coalition or partnership. The clearest expression of that view is in Howard’s first “headland” speech in 1995:

One of the defining characteristics of our modern conservative approach is the use of the leadership role of government to actively forge a new social coalition to address modern social problems in a modern way. We believe that Australia’s capacity for compassion is not measured by the size of government. Our approach does not entail any winding back of support for individuals and families in need, but it does call for a broader community partnership. Our purpose is to build a new social coalition of government, business, charitable and welfare organisations and community groups … This approach rejects an older view that governments could fix all society’s ills if only they allocated more resources … It upholds the responsibilities of government, but acknowledges their limits. It promotes the view that a community most effectively addresses its social problems when all groups, working with government, co-ordinate their strategies and complement their particular strengths.

The social coalition model was seen in a number of the Howard government’s policies, for instance the delivery of welfare services through private-sector agencies and the charitable sector. It combines Burkean social theory with liberalism’s traditional belief in limited government. 

Just as the view of society as a coalition of mutually interdependent elements was traditionally conservative, so was another of Howard’s fundamental values: the idea of a mutual obligation between the individual and the community:

I came to office with a very strong personal commitment to the principle of mutual obligation. Society, in my view, has a responsibility to look after those who are deserving of help. They, in turn, have a responsibility to meet reasonable … requests from society to contribute in return for the assistance they have received.

From this belief grew work for the dole and similar social programs. Once again, there is nothing inconsistent with orthodox conservatism in these beliefs.

It was in some aspects of his cultural politics that Howard came closest to embracing the neo-conservative agenda. Although I think it absurd to claim, as Waleed Aly does, that Howard’s view of Australia was as a “monoculture” – it was, after all, on Howard’s watch that the number of non-European migrants exceeded those of European immigrants for the first time – I do share Aly’s concern that the frequent invocation of “the mainstream” can run the risk of marginalising minorities and playing the dangerous game of suggesting that some citizens are more truly Australian than others. As I wrote in 2008:

[The] danger is that when the mainstream is identified with the nation, the implication may be that those who are not part of the mainstreams are not in the fullest sense members of the nation … In an ethnically diverse and culturally pluralistic nation, the danger of the rhetoric of the mainstream is that it involves assuming that some are in the mainstream and others are not, and presupposing which is which. For instance, when Pauline Hanson attacked Asian Australians in 1996, Howard’s disappointingly leaden-footed response appeared to suggest, although not sympathy with her point of view, the assumption that her views were legitimate because widely shared. Was Pauline Hanson part of the Australian mainstream? Were those she attacked not?

It is at this point that the Howard era drew closest to the unattractive face of neo-conservatism, which, as Aly rightly argues, is inconsistent with conservatism in its admirable Burkean form. 

It is also in their different attitudes to the relationship between minorities and “the mainstream” that neo-conservatism comes most sharply into conflict with liberalism in the classical sense embraced by Menzies. The most fundamental public value of liberalism is the paramountcy of the right of individuals to live their own lives in their own way, without being either preached at and interfered with by the politically correct Left, or bullied into conformity by the belligerent Right. As I argued in my 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture, the points of tension between liberalism and conservatism occur when the rights of individuals or minorities come into conflict with existing laws and prevailing social customs. When this happens – as it did, on occasions, during the Howard government – merely weighing the rights of the individual in a balance against the mainstream attitudes of society is not an adequate response for a liberal. 

As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty 150 years ago, in words which could just as well describe the Rudd government:

[T]here is … in the world at large an increasing inclination to stretch unduly the powers of society over the individual, both by the force of opinion and even by that of legislation; and as the tendency of all the changes taking place in the world is to strengthen society and diminish the power of the individual, this encroachment is not one of the evils which tend spontaneously to disappear, but, on the contrary, to grow more and more formidable. The disposition of mankind, whether as rulers or fellow citizens, to impose their own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others, is so energetically supported by some of the best and by some of the worst feelings incident to human nature that it is hardly ever kept under restraint by anything but want of power; and as the power is not declining, but growing, unless a strong barrier of moral conviction can be raised against the mischief, we must expect, in the present circumstances of the world, to see it increase.

The future for the Liberal Party lies in continuing to provide that “strong barrier of moral conviction.” To the extent to which Waleed Aly is saying much the same thing, I agree with him.


George Brandis is the deputy leader of the Opposition in the Senate. Before entering parliament he worked as a barrister and university lecturer, and co-edited two books on liberalism, Liberals Face the Future: Essays on Australian Liberalism (1984) and Australian Liberalism: The Continuing Vision (1986).


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 37, What's Right?. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 38, Power Trip.


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