What's Right?

What's Right?

The future of conservatism in Australia

Waleed Aly


Andrew Kenny’s brilliant essay in the 5 February 2005 issue of the Spectator should be made compulsory reading for anyone interested in contemporary political discourse. It is a swift, clinical, devastating demolition of the twin terms that are so relentlessly and unthinkingly used to frame our discussions of politics. Those terms, of course, are Left and Right, and in spite of their ubiquity they are utterly meaningless and should be abandoned by anyone interested in having a substantial political conversation. Here is Kenny’s first paragraph:

Is Osama bin Laden left-wing or right-wing? How about Robert Mugabe? Who has a more left-wing approach to women’s sexuality: Pope John Paul or Hustler magazine? Consider Fidel Castro. He persecutes homosexuals, crushes trade unions, forbids democratic elections, executes opponents and criminals, is a billionaire in a country of very poor people and has decreed that a member of his family shall succeed him in power. Is Castro left-wing or right-wing? Explain your answer.

The terms Left and Right derive from the French Revolution. In 1791, when the French Legislative Assembly sat, those loyal to the king sat on the right of the chamber. Those who supported the revolution sat on the left. It is a seating pattern that continues to this day in our own parliament. The party in government, being the established power, sits on the right wing; the opposition on the left. But it is lamentable that this historical quirk has so captured our lexicon. Even in revolutionary France it told us nothing about questions of substantive policy. At different times, the Left included socialists and supporters of laissez-faire economics. There are many things that are worth importing from France: cheese and fashion, for example. Political nomenclature is not among them.

Kenny raises, then eviscerates, every possible definition one might use to try to give meaning to these terms. Do we say Attila the Hun was right-wing because he was violent and cruel? Lenin outdid him in both respects. Is Lenin to the right of Attila? Is it left-wing to believe in individual freedom – like the right to carry guns? Is it right-wing to believe in economic freedom – like the right to unrestricted freedom of movement across national boundaries to find work? Does the Left believe in centrally planned economies, such as in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa? Does the Right believe in free trade, as did Adam Smith and Karl Marx? Is it left-wing to hate capitalism, like Hitler? Is the Left internationalist, like McDonald’s and the World Trade Organization? Is the Right racist, like the early communist party of apartheid South Africa, whose motto was “Workers of the World Unite, and Fight for a White South Africa!”?

The point is that these terms do not facilitate thought. They merely “replaced rational argument with a playground division into two gangs who understood nothing clearly except how much they hated each other.” That is the crux of the matter. Wherever you encounter Left and Right, you are likely to be encountering political vitriol. You are almost certainly not encountering a discussion of anything substantive.

Our political discourse is drenched in Left and Right because it is so deeply impoverished. Left and Right are the hallmark of a political conversation that is obsessed with teams and uninterested in ideas. That is the way things tend to proceed in this country: we report politics as though it is sport, and sport as though it is politics. The sports pages are full of ideas – about team development, about long-term recruitment strategies, about philosophies of coaching and the psychology of players. The news pages obsess over winners and losers, over political strategy (but not political thought), and, of course, our commentary is full of Left and Right, good and evil, us and them. Yes, there is good and evil in politics and much in between, but at the heart of it all, even if unconsciously, are ideas. Ideas are the engine of political history. In the long run they matter more than short-term winners and losers. It is in many ways irrelevant which party wins the next election – except perhaps for those barracking for a particular team. It matters far more what ideas they use to govern.

In February 2009, Kevin Rudd offered his analysis of the causes of the global financial crisis in an essay for the Monthly. At the core of it was an (emphatically negative) assessment of neo-liberalism – one of the most important ideas of the last thirty years of Western politics. No doubt it was a calculated political tactic, designed to establish in the public’s mind that the global recession was to be associated with the Liberal Party. Nevertheless, it was a shock to our political discourse: a prime minister analysing at length what neo-liberal ideas meant in practice, and how they had triggered the near-collapse of the global economy. This is not what politicians have tended to do in recent times. Ours is the age of the soundbite, an age hostile to the public discussion of ideas, especially from those seeking election. It elicited entirely predictable responses. Those on team Right derided it as a shabby piece of work, full of perversions of history and grand, vacuous theorising, while those on team Left hailed it as an incisive, honest and much-needed account of our present predicament. 

The Right’s criticisms seemed, broadly speaking, to comprise the following: 1) Rudd had contradicted himself by claiming to be a “fiscal conservative” and then rejecting neo-liberalism; 2) Rudd had misdiagnosed the causes of the financial crisis; and 3) Rudd was being inconsistent because the neo-liberal policies of the Howard government were in fact only continuing the economic reforms of the Hawke and Keating governments, which he continued to praise. The last point is undoubtedly correct, the second point is highly debatable, and the first point strikes me as ridiculous. But what none of these responses did was to engage with the idea in question. The critics of the Right were concerned to defend neo-liberalism, apparently accepting that they were irrevocably associated with it. That much was clear. Far less clear was what they thought neo-liberalism actually meant. If the only way to be a fiscal conservative is to be a neo-liberal, then this involves a very odd definition of at least one of those terms. Neo-liberalism is about much more than balancing budgets (though it does support this), and, as it happens, many of the Western political leaders to have been most influenced by neo-liberal thought also left office with extremely large deficits.

There were a handful of notable exceptions. Oliver Marc Hartwich from the Centre for Independent Studies, for example, wrote a lengthy paper in response arguing that Rudd had mischaracterised neo-liberalism. In fact, insisted Hartwich, the kind of commercial behaviour that triggered the financial crisis was caused by the abandonment of neo-liberal thought. In Hartwich’s view, neo-liberalism was actually quite close to the very thing Rudd was suggesting as a solution to the financial crisis: a middle path between rampant capitalism and communism. This was a welcome intervention, but overwhelmingly the concept of neo-liberalism itself went unexamined in a frenzy of Left/Right trench warfare.

For Andrew Kenny, the two key political ideas are not Left and Right, but liberalism and socialism. Put simply, these are competing ideas of what – and especially how big – the State’s role should be in economic and social affairs. Socialists want an activist State, liberals want a limited one. These are certainly defining political ideas of the past two centuries, but Kenny makes one more enticing comment in passing: “The term ‘conservative’ is much more complicated and deserves thoughtful investigation.” He’s right. Liberalism/socialism is not the only fundamental division in our politics. Conservative and its opposite, progressive, are critical too.

In the December 2005 issue of Quadrant, Tom Switzer and Neil Clark wrote an illuminating criticism of the decision to invade Iraq, describing it as “most un-conservative.” The central justification of that invasion, they argued, was to remove a dictator from power and to establish in place of his rule a democratic regime. This was unjustifiable on conservative grounds. Saddam Hussein posed no threat that could not have been handled through a continuing policy of containment, the campaign was always going to be unduly costly in blood and treasure, and conservatives have no business trying to export democracy. And yet, in Australia, conservatives almost without exception supported the war and continued to spruik for it, even after the disastrous consequences became plain. This was, after all, a war launched by the conservative side of politics in the United States, and eagerly followed by its conservative counterpart in Australia. Britain was a different case. It was under the control of Tony Blair’s Labour government, and the war was a more comfortable philosophical fit. Blair had long accepted the progressive tradition of humanitarian military intervention. He took Britain into the Balkans conflict for humanitarian reasons and recently stated that he would still have invaded Iraq had he known Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction. But that is not the language of conservatism, which by its nature eschews utopian designs and adopts far more modest and pragmatic approaches to policy. Indeed, in Britain, conservatives were far more likely to oppose the war than either British Labour voters or Australian conservatives. Even in America, there were conservative voices raised in opposition. But in Australia, there was a rigid pro-war consensus.

Switzer and Clark argued that the reason for this was that Australian conservatives had subscribed to American neo-conservatism en masse, and it was the neo-conservative ideology that had introduced such un-conservative ideas as the export of democracy. British conservatism had been less affected.

The article resonated with me because I had long felt something was amiss with Australian conservatism. For a long time I have been intrigued by the fact that I find myself in agreement with much conservative political philosophy, yet in consistent disagreement with politicians and commentators who call themselves conservatives. As this essay will show, the concept of neo-conservatism has been a crucial one for me in understanding this disjuncture, although I am quite sure Switzer and Clark would recoil from several of my conclusions.

Ours is an age of inverted politics. The Iraq war and the War on Terror show that most clearly. Here, it was conservatives trying to argue for humanitarian intervention, for the implementation of democracy through military force, for sweeping, radical political and legal change. Meanwhile it was those they described as the Left arguing that political systems cannot readily be exported to foreign societies with different histories and traditions, and that we should not be so rash in our resort to political and legal measures that depart so far from well-worn precedents and may have unpredictable consequences. The Left/Right divide was easy to identify in this debate, of course. The conservative/progressive one less so. The same might be said of the liberal/socialist division.

This essay is about conservatism as a political philosophy: where it came from, where it has been recently, and where it might go next. The sharpest focus is on Australia (and for that reason the British, rather than the Russian conservative tradition, will be the starting point), but the nature of ideas is such that they cannot be neatly contained by national borders and often have to be discussed in broad terms. It is definitely not about Right and Left, and those terms will be assiduously avoided in this essay unless they are intended to capture the sense of trench warfare that remains their only intelligible meaning. It is written out of a conviction that conservatism is a rich tradition that is indispensable in the maintenance of a healthy political culture, but out of a fear that it might be disappearing or evolving into something far less enriching. Naturally, some will dispute the very premise of conservatism’s worth. It is common in progressive political thought to dismiss conservatism as no more than an excuse for the preservation of privilege and power inequalities. And indeed, it would be naive to assume that conservatives are immune to such motivations. But to take that position is to take a reductive view of conservative political thought and make any serious conversation with conservatism impossible. It leaves conservatism as little more than an enemy to be defeated, rather than a worthwhile philosophical tradition to be engaged. I do not believe such an approach is useful. Nor do I believe it is correct. 

My argument necessarily requires us to engage with a host of other ideas along the way: liberalism, neo-conservatism and, of course, neo-liberalism. These have been among the most important ideas in Western politics over the last century, particularly as far as the conservative political tradition is concerned. And particularly in the case of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism, I will argue that they have done considerable damage.

As it happens, the future of conservatism is a question of great political moment, particularly in Australia. As the closing weeks of 2009 showed, the conservative side of Australian party politics is presently in the midst of an identity crisis. That is not uncommon in political parties only recently ousted from a long term in government, but the nature of the leadership instability in the Liberal Party is close to unprecedented. The extraordinary circumstances that led to Malcolm Turnbull’s axing stunned even the most seasoned Canberra correspondent and revealed that there was something more at stake than party leadership. At base, the current struggle within the Liberal Party is one over ideas. This is not an essay about the Liberal Party, but about these ideas. And for that reason, it is necessary to go back to first principles.


This is an extract from Waleed Aly's Quarterly Essay, What's Right?: The future of conservatism in Australia. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Waleed Aly is a writer, academic, lawyer and broadcaster. He is a lecturer in politics at Monash University and a co-host of Network Ten’s The Project. He is the author of People Like Us and Quarterly Essay 37, What’s Right? With Scott Stephens, he co-hosts Radio National’s The Minefield program.


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