QUARTERLY ESSAY 37 What's Right?



John Hirst

John Howard was the first Australian prime minister to call himself conservative. In Australian political commentary, conservatism is usually seen as laughable or sinister and Howard’s espousal of it made denunciation of him easier. It is refreshing, then, to find Waleed Aly and the Quarterly Essay taking conservatism seriously and even quoting Howard approvingly. But this is merely a softening-up process; the criticism of Howard soon resumes because, according to Aly, Howard was not a true conservative: he was a neo-conservative. Following other critics, Aly posits a fundamental contradiction between Howard’s so-called conservatism and his commitment to a free economy, or neo-liberalism in Aly’s classification. An unrestrained capitalism will have a destructive effect on the social order, so conservatives who are also neo-liberals are undermining what they should be protecting and nurturing. Faced with social dissolution of their own making, they respond with strident nationalism and pressures for conformity, and thus show themselves to be not true conservatives but neo-conservatives. This is neat, but it won’t survive scrutiny. 

Consider these measures of social policy, which Howard implemented: 

  • Work for the dole
  • Tough on drugs
  • Against gay marriage
  • In favour of fathers having better access to children after divorce
  • Intervention in Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory
  • Single mothers to re-enter the workforce sooner
  • Better support for families and mothers wanting to stay at home with children

How many of the situations to which these policies were directed were the result of neo-liberal policies in the economy? On my count: none. In different ways they were responding to the libertarian social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which was strong in Australia while the economy was still closely regulated. These policies were properly conservative in that they were not trying to restore the status quo but to limit the revolution’s effects. So single mothers are not to be stigmatised or denied government help, but they are not to model for their children a life lived on welfare. Homosexuals are not again to be criminals; they can have partners recognised by the state, but they cannot marry. Divorce is to continue on a no-fault basis, but the feminist bias of the Family Court is to be controlled.

Aly makes only one reference to what he calls the sexual revolution, although of course it was a much wider revolution than that. He considers the argument that the recent sexualisation of children might be an effect of the sexual revolution of several decades ago. He rejects this view because the effect is so long delayed; it must therefore be the result of neo-liberalism, which allows business to break any taboo for profit. Of course business has been making money out of the social revolution since it manufactured Che T-shirts and pre-faded jeans. And it is an odd view of a social movement to think its effects must be instantaneous. Social systems have a huge inertia. First a man and a woman might live openly together without being married; after two decades two men may live openly together; after another delay the two men might be able to adopt children; eventually they may be allowed to marry. The libertarian revolution is now meeting resistance but it is not yet a spent force. It is not just business pushing the boundaries with the sexualisation of children; the arts, the entertainment industry and the media are still looking for taboos to break. 

I prefer a regulated to an unregulated capitalism, but you can’t regulate away capitalism’s central dynamic, which is always going to have disruptive social effects. In the long run, as the critics of capitalism long ago predicted, all social relations may be reduced to a cash nexus, but for the moment it is evident that capitalism can operate in a variety of social settings, and it is not wasted effort for economic liberals to have a conservative concern for social health. In times of social disintegration, social democrats should be equally concerned, though some of them have not yet realised it and want to kick on with the social revolution.

Aly makes his contradiction between neo-liberalism and conservatism sharp by assuming that Howard did in fact operate in the economy as a neo-liberal. Though he recognises that ideologies seldom remain pure in politics, he considers WorkChoices as pure a distillation of neo-liberalism as politics is likely to provide. But in actual operation WorkChoices was a massive Commonwealth statute still regulating and limiting the operation of the labour market and providing a variety of entitlements to workers. Aly sees Howard treating workers as little more than units of labour. So whence came the Fair Pay Commission, which continued to set a fairly generous minimum wage? We used to set the minimum wage according to the needs of a man to support a wife and three children in decent comfort. The demands of capitalism have seen that off, but this victory can be offset by supporting through the welfare system those workers on the minimum wage who have family responsibilities – which Howard did in spades.   

The Howard policies that most disturb Aly and represent most clearly neo-conservatism and not true conservatism are the putting of pressure on migrants to assimilate and adopt “Australian” values, and the dropping of multiculturalism. Again it is a strain to interpret these moves as a response to the disruptions of neo-liberalism. Aly gives far too little weight to the threat of Islamic separatism. He cites John Stuart Mill against these illiberal insistences on conformity, but how quaint Mill now seems wanting all ideas to flourish so that the truth might be established when we face young men who will blow us up if we don’t agree with them or do what they want. The home-grown Muslim bombers in Britain do not overly worry Aly; he considers that there was an “apocalyptic” over-reaction to their exploits. He mentions global terrorism as something that has strengthened the hands of his neo-conservatives, but he will not say “with good reason.” Aly is upset that peaceful Muslims in Australia are linked to extremists on the other side of the world. I agree with him that there is less ground for concern about the Muslims in Australia, but he himself makes the point that geography now means little for the formation of identity and cites the emergence of home-grown Islamist terrorism as a prime example. So though Muslims in Australia’s suburbs are in a very different social setting from the Middle East or the decaying cities of Britain’s industrial north, that gives Australia no guarantee of safety from Islamist terrorism. Aly makes no mention of the conviction in Australia of Muslims for planning terrorist acts. Nor does he address the question to which we all want answers: Is Islam compatible with secular liberal democracy and the rights it protects (including the right to criticise Islam)? Given the tension – to put it no higher – between Muslims and the societies of western Europe, it is quite perverse of Aly to characterise the intensified concern of governments for social cohesion and adherence to the values that sustain a liberal polity as some beat-up to hide the social havoc wrought by neo-liberalism. 

Aly is prepared to trust liberalism rather than concocted Australian values, even if embodied in Simpson and his donkey, to hold our diverse society together. He is a great admirer of the civic liberal tradition of the United States and urges us to imitate it. He fails to notice that this tradition is at the core of American nationalism with the heroes, defining moments and soaring rhetoric to make it endlessly appealing and invigorating. Australia has no such national civic tradition; its nationalism has altogether different roots and expression. I could wish otherwise, having worked at the thankless task of civics education in schools. 

A new national identity is unlikely to be created by the urgings of a Quarterly Essay. Much better to work with what we’ve got, which is a strong egalitarian tradition which Howard successfully appropriated with his use of “mateship” after the Left stupidly abandoned it because of its past associations with racism and sexism. Egalitarianism can and is being given a stronger civic dimension and is at the heart of Australia’s compelling story as the great integrator of migrants. 

Aly writes as if there is nothing distinctive about this place; that there is nothing in what we have made of life here that is to be valued or passed on to new-comers. Our past is of no account; there is to be no cultural unity; we are to be merely campers here with the cold comfort of civic virtue. Aly is not true to himself. I saw him on the SBS TV program Salam Café, a chat show run by young Muslims, which was knock-about, irreverent and good-humoured in a distinctive Australian way, the successor in this generation to Wogs Out of Work. Watching Islam in an Australian idiom made me much more relaxed and comfortable about the future of my country than the formulas Aly advances in his essay. 


John Hirst’s recent books include The Shortest History of Europe (2009), Freedom on the Fatal Shore (2008), Sense & Nonsense in Australian History (2005) and a forthcoming collection of essays, Looking for Australia. Until recently he was reader in history at La Trobe University in Melbourne.


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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