catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

Another confused Deakinite

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I have remarked before on the odd meme that reconstructs Robert Menzies as a force for enlightened liberalism. The argument gets another run in The Age this morning, where Liberal staffer turned academic Norman Abjorensen tells us that:

There were the social liberals descended from the Victorian protectionist Alfred Deakin (now an endangered species), the devout conservatives with nowhere else to go, and the free-market radicals descended from the NSW free trader George Reid, predominantly from Reid’s home state but with adherents across the country.

Under John Howard’s leadership and policy direction, it is the third group that has prevailed, with the acquiescence of the second at the expense of the first.

In effect, the NSW Liberals, a very different breed, have hijacked the party and steered it away from its largely Victorian roots of social liberalism, which by and large informed the ideas of Robert Menzies when he helped found the party in 1944.

I suppose it all depends on how much emphasis you give his ‘by and large’. Menzies supported the White Australia policy, something entirely consistent with the views of the Deakinites from whom Abjorensen claims Menzies was descended. The Deakinites introduced the White Australia policy over the objections of Free Trade MPs (though Reid himself reversed his earlier opposition to racist migration policy). Menzies supported conscription, one of the worst violations of civil liberties during peacetime. On these to my mind very significant matters, Howard has a much stronger claim to be a ‘social liberal’ than Menzies.

But presumably all this is swept under the ‘by and large’ carpet. Abjorensen’s main point seems to be that :

Menzies the lawyer and Menzies the politician often looked askance at business, seeing it as just another interest group, albeit an important one.

No so John Howard. He has consistently delivered to the business community, from the GST to the workplace relations changes, and the strident voices of the business lobby, such as the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and the Institute of Public Affairs appear to have merged into the Liberal Party.

But what does Abjorensen think that protectionism was if not the favouring of particular business interests? Though still far too generous with other people’s money, Howard’s record on such corporate welfare is better than Menzies’. And the GST is not something that benefits business, which bears the compliance burden. The Democrats were the only people who knew what they were doing in the GST debate, ensuring that the cash would keep flowing to sustain the welfare state without highly controversial increases in marginal income tax rates. It may have been a suicide mission on their part, but it achieved their ‘social liberal’ goals.

Even if Abjorensen was right about Menzies vs Howard, it doesn’t make much sense to say that Howard’s grip on the party has ‘created problems for the future in what amounts to a fundamental betrayal of the man he professes to admire most, Robert Menzies.’ Why should anyone follow the views of a man who has been out of office for 40 years and dead for nearly 30 years? Menzies was the best of the available options for his time, but that’s a time that few contemporary Australians would want to return to – least of all ‘social liberals’.

Nor can the demise of the Deakinites be regarded as a problem for the future. Most of the Deakinites left for Labor and the Democrats in the 1970s, long before Howard became PM. That’s where they would have been from the early 20th century, except for their class background. Howard’s mix of populist conservatism and big-spending government has been a electoral winner – something free traders lament on both counts, but social liberals on only one. The danger for the Liberals is not the loss of Deakinites, it is the loss of the conservative working class if Costello takes over.


Written by Admin

July 10, 2006 at 9:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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