Monday, August 27, 2007

Australian Perspective - Why I am not a conservative

Now this post is triggered by a comment Neil Whitfield made: As my in many ways quite conservative friend Jim Belshaw says.

Neil, old friend, I am not conservative. Old fashioned sometimes, a tag I actually wear with some pride, but not conservative. I just belong to a different minority tradition, perhaps several traditions, in Australian thought.

To illustrate by an example.

If I had my way, I would tear NSW down, limiting that state to just Sydney and the Blue Mountains so that the Sydney Government could get on with what it does best, representing Sydney. This view may be wrong, but it's hardly conservative because it involves fundamental change.

Before going on, a definitional note. The Wikipedia story on conservatism is not bad. It says:

Conservatism is a term used to describe political philosophies that favor tradition and gradual change, where tradition refers to religious, cultural, or nationally defined beliefs and customs. The term is derived from the Latin, conservāre, to conserve; "to keep, guard, observe".

Now I do like the idea of conserving appropriately defined. I am also not opposed to tradition. But sometimes the established order has to be torn down. Sometimes, it is necessary to mount a counter view.

If you look at my attacks on the intellectual orthodoxy that came out of the seventies, and this includes some of my comments on multiculturalism, I am opposed to its rigidity, the way in which it has shut out alternative views.

But this does not mean that I am opposed to Australia as a pluralist society. Pretty obviously, I support this.

If you look at my attacks on some elements of Howard Government philosophy, I am opposed to what I see as the rigid orthodoxy and the little nationalism of what has become the alternative orthodoxy.

Now my position here is a little complex in that I do have some sympathy with some of the elements in that position as originally articulated.

For example, I actually think that there are many good features in the New Zealand model of public administration as articulated by the New Zealand Treasury. I supported and still support the way in which it tried to break down an imperfect system. It's just that the application in practice, and especially in NSW, is a gross distortion of the original principles.

When it comes to values, I am an old fashioned liberal. My support for individual liberties, for the values of what is now called civil society, is profound. But it also reflects my fairly limited but still influential study of ethics as part of Philosophy I at New England.

Take a question that I have not discussed on this blog, my views on gay marriage.

I support civil unions for gays. I support legal recognition of the joint rights of gay couples. I do not support gay marriage because the term "marriage" carries very specific connotations linked back to our Christian heritage, so that the application of the term "marriage" creates tensions and problems among much larger groups in society.

This may change. But for the present, my view is that we need to find a solution that gives gays the legal and indeed symbolic things that they need, while recognising the views of the larger group.

I have a profound love of and respect for our core institutions. Perhaps I can be classified as a conservative in this area, although the views I hold are very much minority views even among those classified as "conservative".

I have a profound respect for Parliamentary government. To me, Parliament along with the courts are key institutions in our system.

Too many of our current politicians see Parliament as a hoop to be gone through on the way to power and control. Here they are no different from the divine right monarchists. I see little difference between King Charles and his views of the divine right of executive Government and current Australian Governments, although we can at least still get rid of these.

The NSW Country Party leader Mick Bruxner articulated this well in his belief that when you became an MP you had an obligation to Parliament as an institution.

So far as the courts are concerned, lawyers and the legal system are the independent umpires standing between us and the unbridled exercise of executive power. If you look at Hicks and more recently Haneef, the legal profession has played a powerful role in forcing us to look at questions of liberty and principle.

Turning now to my continued focus on our history and the need to understand this.

My argument here is simple. If Australians are cut off from their broader past, then they lose sight of the very foundations of our civil society. In so doing, they risk becoming victims of those who wish to use the past to support their current nostrums. And I put the citizenship test in this class.

To finish with Ted Wheelwright, the part subject of my last post.

I did not start preparing a post on Ted because I agreed with him. I do not, although I accept that he was a gifted teacher. But I also accept that he occupied a valuable and legitimate place in Australian thinking. I accept that that place needs to be explained.

And I find it sad that I, who did not generally agree with him, should be more worried about preserving his place in the history of Australian thought than those who I would have expected to articulate the story.


I was pleased that this post was picked up by Club Troppo's Missing Link review and that, as a consequence, a number of people have visited. Welcome. Do feel free to comment.


Lexcen said...

It is always dangerous to put labels on people.

ninglun said...

True, Lexcen. In reply to Jim's comment on the post he refers to I clarify: I used the term to distinguish between the assumptions about "conservatism" that seem current on many US blogs and the rather different political spectrum we have in Australia.

Anonymous said...

Oh too true! I agree with you, Lexcen,although I do not think that we should be hard on Neil because he made a comment that needs to be put in the context of the post.

Neil, one of the difficulties with the word "conservative" is that it is used in different ways. As in the term "conservative" parties. John Howard and some of those in the Liberal Party are clearly not conservers in the original meaning of the word conservatism.

I know of no real equivalent in the US to the "conservatives" in the British tradition. If we were to apply the term to the US at the moment, I suspect that most of the "conservatives" might well be found in the Democratic Party!


jim belshaw