The Death of the Old Right: when conservatives become radicals

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of "Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War" (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005).

One night about 30 years ago I drove in a battered car with a comrade through the darkened streets of inner Sydney, spray cans at the ready. That night we endlessly painted a slogan on brick walls, fences and the side of factories. The slogan read 'Stop Work to Stop Fraser'. It was just a few days after the notorious sacking of the Whitlam Labor Government by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, and the abrupt installation of the leader of the Liberal Party, Malcolm Fraser, as Prime Minister. The response of the Communist Party, of which I was a member, was to try our hardest to organize a general strike by trade unions to protest the assault on democracy represented by the sacking. Politically, lots of things have changed since then but I don't regret for one minute trying to help organize that strike.

One of the things that has changed is Malcolm Fraser's political outlook and therein lies a significant key to understanding the new politics of social change. One of the trade unions which supported the strike was the metalworkers' union. Recently the same union invited their former foe to address their national conference about the issue of asylum seekers and their detention in detention camps. Trade union delegates interrupted Fraser's speech with applause several times and after the speech, the metalworkers' leader, Doug Cameron, commented that Fraser 'had grown in stature since his period as Prime Minister. He is a true statesman for this country and a great spokesperson for the issue of humanity for all people around this globe.'

The wheel has turned for the former Prime Minister who, for seven years had headed one of the most disliked governments in Australian history. Today Fraser is a changed man. Gone is the bluster and bullying of yesteryear. His government is seen to have failed according to the new orthodoxy of the Liberals and their economic rationalist philosophy. Fraser is in a philosophical no man's land. He is no longer a reactionary conservative nor is he an economic rationalist. He laments, 'our generation is without a political philosophy relevant to our time and circumstances. We have a theory of globalization but, baldly stated, it is cold and technical -. We need an idea of how our society will develop and how, in a more global society, people will relate to each other. We need a philosophical framework.' As we shall see, Fraser's pin pointing of a crisis of political philosophy is accurate.

The journey that he made beyond the Right is not unique. From 1990 to 1997, another conservative, Robert Manne, edited Australia's premier right wing intellectual journal, Quadrant. In his time Manne penned many attacks on left wing causes. In 1990 he celebrated the collapse of communism but warned about the 'fashionable new orthodoxies' of 'radical environmentalism, feminism, gay liberationism, multiculturalism and animal liberationism'. But soon after this he began to genuinely re-think his position and that of the magazine in the new post-Cold War world. This lead to deepening disagreement with most of his editorial board and to his highly public resignation from Quadrant. Today Manne supports many causes usually described as left wing. He supports a republic and feminism and he has championed issues concerned with indigenous people. He mounted the most effective attack on the Right's denial of the 'stolen generation' of indigenous children. He has become an outspoken advocate for a more humane policy toward refugees. He now describes himself as someone on the Left and is regularly (and bitterly) attacked by conservative commentators.

Fraser and Manne are two examples of what one writer on the journal Lingua Franca called the diaspora of the 'ex-cons' --- conservatives who have cut themselves adrift from the Right. Lingua Franca also focussed on John Gray, professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. Gray was once a house intellectual for Margaret Thatcher and a darling of the New Right. He wrote a book on John Stuart Mill and another on the theoretical godfather of the New Right, Friedrich Hayek. Of the latter, Hayek himself was effusive in his praise. It was 'the first survey of my work which not only fully understands but is able to carry on my ideas beyond the point at which I left off'. Today Gray is a savage critic of Hayek and of market-driven globalization which he regards as a form of fundamentalist utopia. Gray's ideas, which were touched on in the last chapter, will be examined in more detail and represent a new kind of conservatism which has a place in the reconfiguring a new politics beyond Right and Left in the 21st century.

Neo-liberalism is more radical than conservative. Its trajectory is corroding much of the social fabric. Genuine conservatives like Gray therefore become its natural and effective critics.

Another critical voice was that of Charles Kemp, the founder of the oldest think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs. By 1991 he had had enough of the simplistic nostrums of the economic rationalists. In Quadrant, he warned that the 'great danger of extreme market philosophies is that they enthrone profit, greed and self-interest. After the horrors of the eighties it is not surprising that the restoration of decent ethical standards is figuring high on the agenda of the nineties.' His ironically titled article 'Those Terrible 80 Years?' points out that the era before market economics had enjoyed full employment, low inflation and a booming economy. By that time both of Kemp's sons, David and Rod, had rejected their father's position and become militant economic rationalists. Both became ministers in the Howard Government and the latter spent the 1980s at the head of the institute which his father founded unravelling his father's work and rebuilding right wing philosophy.

Finally there was the populism of Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party, not so much a remnant of the Old Right as a new force prompted by its dissolution. Part of her appeal to many country people was her attack on economic rationalism which had closed banks, government offices and railway lines in country towns. One Nation's rural policy argued that Australia's competitors 'have continued to protect their industries and national sovereignties while Australia has exposed itself to deregulation, free trade, globalisation and economic rationalism.' To One Nation's constituency (8.4% of voters in 1998), a seamless connection existed between their fear of cultural globalisation and loss of national identity and their fear of economic globalisation and the loss of national sovereignty.

Social liberalism in Australia

The Old Right in Australia was often seen as a single force, labeled 'conservatism' but it was actually an amalgam of different political ideas and trends, some of which now oppose the current neo-liberal and neo-conservative hegemony. The great icon of Australian Right, Sir Robert Menzies, for example, supported social justice and the welfare state. The Liberal MP who now holds Menzies' old parliamentary seat, Petro Georgiou, points out that 'pro-market purists' in the modern Liberal Party damn any notion of social justice as a 'Labor plot' when it was in fact a foundation stone for the Liberal Party. Georgiou cites Menzies' colleague, Paul Hasluck, who said, 'Although a traditionalist, Menzies was not a conservative in any doctrinal sense - His political thinking was in accord with the liberalism of Alfred Deakin and the liberalism of late nineteenth century England.'

In a similar vein, the former Liberal Party minister Peter Baume, argues that 'liberals welcomed measures, and continue to welcome measures, which empower people. Free public education empowered young people. Extension of the franchise empowered adults. Home ownership and income support empowered families. Anti-discrimination legislation empowered people otherwise powerless-' Retired Liberal Party president, John Valder, actively campaigned against the war in Iraq on quintessentially liberal 'human rights' grounds while former Liberal cabinet ministers, Fred Chaney and Ian McPhee together with former leader of the coalition, John Hewson, deplore the Howard Government's xenophobic attitude to race.

People like Petro Georgiou, Peter Baume, Ian McPhee and others were the first victims of the neo-liberal takeover of the Liberal Party in the 1980s. But they are more than this. The liberal tradition which they inherited had been deeply affected by 'social liberalism', a radical variant of liberal thought at the turn of the last century. Deeply influential in Australia, especially at the time of the federation of colonies, social liberalism became part of the conservative amalgam and its values and achievements are being studied anew by researchers such as Marian Sawer. Her work and that of others emphasises the gulf between social liberalism and modern neo-liberalism. Advocates of the latter, like Hayek, claim to be the inheritors of the true tradition of liberalism but this can be strongly contested. In my view acknowledging a vital social liberal tradition is important in trying to establish new philosophies beyond Right and Left and I deal with this in the final chapter of this book.

What is social liberalism? It is the name given to an important development of liberal thinking in Britain and in Europe which placed great emphasis on what is called 'positive liberty'. In the latter half of the nineteenth century social liberals argued that the era of liberalism as a philosophy opposed to the privilege of the aristocratic state had passed. These 'New Liberals', as they were then called, believed that there was an important distinction between private and public spheres. In the latter it was possible to speak of a public good and a common interest. They argued that the abstract liberal notion of rights-bearing individuals and freedom of contract could become oppressive. 'Freedom of contract' for example, meant one-sided and unequal bargains between employers and workers. 'The social liberals,' notes Sawer, 'did not seek the abolition of the market economy but believed that it must be subordinated to the democratic state which put the welfare of its citizens before the sanctity of contract and the rights of property.' The 'New Liberalism' was influential in Britain and elsewhere well into the twentieth century. Discrediting it and seizing the mantle of liberalism was one of Hayek's main motivations (discussed in Chapter 3).

In Australia the popularization of these ideas influenced Alfred Deakin, who was Prime Minister of Australia in the decade after federation and instituted a number of reforms with the support of the young Labor Party. This early Left-Right alliance between labourism and liberalism was vital in defining Australia as one of the most progressive democracies in the first half of the twentieth century.

The reforms included the establishment of a system of industrial arbitration, age pensions and, eventually, the vote for (white) women. In this context social liberalism was expressed specifically in Justice Higgins' 1906 famous 'Harvester' judgement. This legislated a minimum wage based, not on market forces, but on a conception of workers as 'human beings living in civilised communities'. (Overturning the Harvester judgement was one of the early goals enunciated by John Howard who said in 1983: 'The time has come when we have to turn Mr Justice Higgins on his head'. ) A similar commitment to fairness and of the obligations of a state to its citizens was behind the introduction of old age pensions and what grew into the welfare state, said Sawer. As well, she points out, social liberalism provided an obvious framework for early feminist ideas and activism. Because it helped set a intellectual and practical agenda in Australia's formative years, social liberalism was a major element in the ideological make up of both the non- Labor and Labor parties. As Sawer said, it was translated into the Australian notion of the 'fair go' .