This article originally appeared in the Spectator Australia on 22 July 2017.
Malcolm Turnbull’s speech to London think tank Policy Exchange on 11 July provided an insight into his government’s ideology, and there was little to like for conservatives.
In a speech dedicated to Benjamin Disraeli, one of the founders of the United Kingdom’s Conservative party, Turnbull mounted an argument for the state’s role in securing the borders and fighting terrorism, rightly framing this as necessary for defending liberal values. The speech, though, ultimately showed a government bereft of sound philosophy and trapped in the language of its opponents, its leftward drift distinguished by vague gestures towards pragmatism.
At the start of his speech, the Prime Minister dismissed the importance of political ‘labels’, arguing that they have ‘lost almost all meaning’. But labels matter. Most people do not have the time or inclination to follow politics closely. Instead, they rely on finding representatives who broadly share their values, often by looking at the way they describe themselves. In politics as in any market, people look for brands they trust. Given this, a repudiation of labels like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ can only indicate a desire to evade scrutiny.
Having eschewed labels, Turnbull claimed for himself ‘the sensible centre’, and described the Liberal Party, by reference to founder Robert Menzies, as a ‘party of progress’, born at a time when classical liberalism was ‘out of fashion’. Nonetheless, he went on, the lodestar of his party has always been freedom, ‘based in a deep, instinctive respect for the dignity and worth of every individual’. For Turnbull, Australia is a nation united by universal political values, like democracy and the rule of law, and these stand apart from ‘religion and tradition’. In the defence of this vision ‘there is no space for the mush of moral relativism’ because ‘in order to be free a person must first be safe’.
Read together, these statements indicate that Turnbull’s centrism is really a progressive liberalism of the American variety. There is no principled commitment to limited government. Instead, the interests of the individual and the state are to be ‘balanced’ with a focus on ‘getting results’. But the long, productive marriage of convenience between conservatism and liberalism has been based on the shared conviction that an expansive, managerial state will interfere with their cherished institutions and values, whether the family or religion or the freedom to operate in society unmolested by, in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase, the dreams of others. Turnbull’s utilitarian balancing act challenges this conviction. In doing so, it shatters the centre-right’s historical consensus, and, in a trend already apparent, forces both conservatives and classical liberals out of the Liberal Party.
Calling this centrism is a cheat. Appeals to pragmatism are just a way of smuggling past voters ideological positions that ought to be out in the open. A party that asserts it is only interested in solutions begs all of the important political questions: what are the problems, for whom are they problems?, is it the role of the state to solve the problems?, and so on. These appeals also trade on the fallacy of moderation, the unsupported assumption that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. The centrism to which Turnbull’s government aspires presents itself as a reasonable compromise, but it is itself an ideological position, hidden behind its very unreasonableness.
This evasiveness enables the Government to leverage the historical association of liberalism and the Liberal party with the cause of limited government while showing no such commitment. Measures like the bank tax can be presented as noble compromises, aberrant but justifiable, rather than as manifestations of the government’s true progressive ideology.
It also helps to obscure the growing conflict between the theory of liberalism propounded by the Government and the facts of the world. Turnbull’s sketch of liberal institutions standing somehow apart from a country’s traditions is increasingly belied by, among other things, the threats that the Prime Minister discussed in his speech.
It was quite striking that the only conservative achievement of this government was framed by Turnbull in left wing terms: border security is good because it helps to win public support for multiculturalism. But the only reason to have borders is if it is true that the institutions of a country depend in some way on the culture of the people who live there. Liberal institutions depend upon acculturation to liberal norms—our formal freedom of speech, for example, depends on the norm of toleration, lest speech be drowned out by heckling and intimidation. We have borders because not everyone shares these norms, and because these norms originally arose through the trust created by a shared identity.
Liberal values are products of Western civilisation. They are rooted in universal principles but this should not fool us into thinking they are universally held. If they were, then Turnbull would not have also been discussing the threat terrorism poses to our country.
By contrast, a few days before Turnbull spoke in London, Donald Trump spoke in Warsaw. Trump situated liberal democracy and the pre-political norms on which it depends within our national traditions, stating that ‘The world has never known anything like our community of nations’ and that ‘Our adversaries… are doomed because we will never forget who we are’. The unique identities of Western countries are the source of our freedoms, and our best shield against the threats to them. This truth would not have been forgotten by Menzies or Disraeli.
In his speech, the Prime Minister shrugged off the importance of ideological labels so that he could present his progressive liberalism as high-minded, results-oriented centrism. He presented a vision of government in which individual rights are to be traded-off against the needs of the state, supposedly in defence of liberal institutions but not the culture upon which they depend. Behind all the posturing was an ideological conviction increasingly at odds with reality, which probably explains the desire to obscure it. This government’s faux-centrism is John O’Sullivan’s law in action: any institution not explicitly right wing becomes left wing over time.