Almost 75 years ago, Robert Menzies gave his famous “Forgotten People” address that balanced classical liberalism with social conservatism. He spoke of the middle class as the nation’s backbone, individual enterprise, governing for everyone, and family as the cornerstone for society. This blueprint was to become the animating philosophy for the Australian conservative movement.
All these years on we live in an age of disruption. From Trump to Sanders, from Corbyn to Brexit, the tectonic plates of the political landscape are shifting. There is a loss of faith in public institutions, the political class and its program.
Establishment parties overseas are perceived as being on a unity ticket of big government globalism, crony capitalism and minority fundamentalism. The frustrated centre is rejecting this elitist agenda and looking elsewhere for solutions, ending up in the arms of reactionary parties. Much of their success is owed to a willingness to challenge political correctness and be a voice for the dispossessed. Australia has seen the minor party vote surge — a shot across the bow of the conservative establishment.
Our problems start with a lack of clarity about our purpose. No one is under any illusions about the Left’s goals. Their original aim of helping the working class has been left far behind. Today they cloak their politics in the rhetoric of fairness, equality and tolerance, but their agenda is far from benign. They are motivated by a burning hostility to our culture and heritage. They are not seeking reform but revolution. It’s no coincidence they want to redesign our flag, rewrite our anthem, remove Anzac Day, replace our Constitution, repudiate our Judaeo-Christian heritage and rename our national day. These are the things that make us who we are.
So what is our purpose? It is not merely to oppose the agendas of others. Freedom, faith, flag, family and free markets — this is our core and we should not be ashamed of preserving it. This is the essence of conservatism — the Burkean partnership between those who have gone, those who are present and those who are yet to come.
Labor is a legacy party, wedded to outdated structures and weighed down by public sector unions. In this sense, we are the true progressives, arguing for a future that works, built on the success of the past. We know what a future left-wing society would look like because they keep telling us about it. The reality is, the Left does vision well. I was one of the people who panned Kevin Rudd for his 2020 summit but at least he had one. We need to paint our compelling vision. When there is no vision, the saying goes, the people perish. The same applies to political movements.
Too often we accept without question the ideological premises of the Left, unwilling to mount a counter-argument. This is why, even when we are in government, we are rarely in power. We need an “ideas boom” in the conservative movement, and it cannot be an abstract exercise.
Our poverty of ideas is reflected in a poverty of language. We used terms like “lifters and leaners”, the “taxed and taxed-nots”. These may go down well at a Liberal state electoral council meeting but they strike the average punter as sterile and heartless.
The Left talks about emotion, fairness, hope, change — and we talk about economies, tax rates and gross domestic product. We are not just an economy — we are a community, a nation, a people — but, listening to us, people may think money is all we care about.
By only talking in economic terms, we risk being seen as just the clean-up crew for Labor’s economic mess. All we become is the funding arm for Labor’s cultural Marxism. We must change our language to speak to hearts as well as minds. We must talk about people first — how we empower individuals, families and communities to reach their potential. In other words, we must share what is written on the conservative heart.
Sometimes our movement also seems too willing to surrender its principles on key issues. Increasingly what we are seeing is the mobilisation of state power to attack the sacred foundations of our democratic contract, things such as thought, speech, expression and association. It’s telling that modern-day conservatives can stand by and do nothing about section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. What happened to Bill Leak and the students at Queensland University of Technology is not a peripheral issue; it goes to the core of what we believe in. We live in a pluralistic society and I have zero tolerance for racism. But I also have zero tolerance for people being subjected to secret trials by highly paid government bureaucrats for simply expressing opinions with which others disagree.
It is a Liberal government that is presiding over this system and seems unwilling or unable to end it. The rights to life, liberty and property are the foundation on which everything else is built. Conservatism gives liberty its virtue. Classical liberalism gives us the freedom to be conservative. If we do not stand for these values, we stand for nothing.
As the home of the centre-right tradition in this country, the Liberal Party is most susceptible to the disruption we are seeing overseas. While many in the Republican Party complain about Donald Trump, he is a product of their creation: they embraced an elite big-business agenda, shut out their base and did not respond to growing disillusionment around them.
Here we are in danger of forgetting the forgotten people. There is, and always will be, a centre-right vote in this country. That doesn’t mean the Liberal Party will always be its natural home. The world is changing around us. A new political force is rising in this landscape. We can tap into the energy and the passion of those calling for change or we can be overwhelmed by it.