Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Reflections triggered by Mr Turnbull's London speech

Australian Prime Minister Turnbull's speech in London accepting the Disraeli Prize has been much reported. It has also been much misreported. This piece by John Lyons in the Australian, Not the time to pick this fight,  is an example of the second. I do wonder if Mr Lyons undertook more than a very quick and rough scan before writing. 
The tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history.
In a way, this line set the tenor for Mr Turnbull's speech, a justification for some of what was to follow.

Mr Turnbull went on to attack labels. "The truth is", Mr Turnbull said,  that political labels "have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose." This provided an opportunity to restate what he perceived to be the key principle espoused by the UK Conservatives and the Liberal Party:
respect for humanity not in the mass, as the Left like to see us, but as individuals and families, Edmond Burke’s small platoons, Robert Menzies “forgotten people”.  
So what we admire about our distinguished predecessors, from Churchill to Thatcher, from Menzies to Howard, is not their label but their dogged devotion to the principles of a free society under the law.
From here Mr Turnbull went on to discuss the issue that attracted so much attention in Australia:
In 1944 Menzies went to great pains not to call his new political party, consolidating the centre right of Australian politics, “conservative” - but rather the Liberal Party, which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics. 
He wanted to stand apart from the big money, business establishment politics of traditional “conservative” parties so styled of the right, as well as from the socialist tradition of the Australian Labor Party - the political wing of the union movement. Menzies said at the time: 
“We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
He then stated that the "sensible centre, to use my predecessor Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be and it remains the place to be now."
Sovereignty. Law. Security. Liberty.
This line came a little earlier in the speech, but I have included it here because it captures the rest of the speech. Context is everything,. Mr Turnbull suggested. What Disraeli or Churchill or Menzies said had to be seen in the context of their time:
But a strong thread of principle, of value, connects our party, the Liberal Party, to that of Menzies - one that combines both the liberal and conservative traditions - John Howard’s broad church. 
And it is best summed up in this way. 
From its foundation more than sixty years ago, the Liberal Party has stood for freedom.     
From this point, the Prime Minister attempts to mount a case linking the Government's approach to terrorism,  internet control and border protection. One quote will capture the flavour:
Terrorism is the starkest and most urgent enemy of freedom. Terrorists seek to disrupt our freedoms and disable our societies based on trust through fear. They seek to create a society in which people are neither free nor secure. 
It is in the very pursuit of freedom that we seek a stronger role for the State in protecting citizens against the terrorist threat. By fighting terrorism - with proportionate means - we are defending liberal values. 
In order to be free a person must first be safe. 
The reality is that individual freedom, liberty, the rule of law, and indeed national sovereignty, are under threat. 
In a world of rapid change, we must constantly review and improve the policies and laws that will best keep us safe.  To set and forget would be easy, but it would not be right.
 I will leave you to read the whole speech to determine whether my reporting is accurate.

Fairly obviously,  "the tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history" is political hyperbole and is, in a factual sense, grossly incorrect. Equally, the idea that in "order to be free a person must first be safe' is both incorrect and dangerous. How much freedom must we give up in the name of safety?

All this said, the desire to restate the role of the Liberal Party as a party of the centre right strikes me as sensible, although just what constitutes the "sensible centre" is open to dispute. All organisations need to restate their culture and traditions as the world changes if they are to stay relevant. In his own way, Mr Abbott has been doing this as well. In doing so, they will reach back into their past to heroic figures, although coming from a Country Party tradition I am hardly likely to agree with the deification of Mr Menzies or indeed some of the Liberal Party assertions about being a broad universal church. There is too much history there.

At the same time, just being at the centre is not of itself a good thing. During the professionalisation of Australian politics, both Liberal and Labor moved to the centre, becoming in some ways indistinguishable apart from points of emphasis. In turn, this opened the way for new political movements. Now we see all the parties including the newer forces seeking to articulate approaches and differences, to reconcile internal conflicts of values, to restate their positions.

In the case of the Australian Greens, for example, the conflict over Lee Rhiannon is in part about ideology (watermelons versus tree huggers), in part about the desire to operate at a national level in an integrated and professional way to maximise the vote. It also reflects fundamentally different beliefs about the way the Party should organise itself. In the case of the National Party, there has been a drive to re-state the Party's separate identity and policies, most noticeably the renewed focus on decentralisation.

In all this, commentary has tended to focus on the immediate political conflicts, with an underlying message about the need for stability in Government. I just don't share this position. Disunity may damage individual parties, but in a practical sense Government is no more unstable than it has been in the past.

What is more interesting is the way the changes might work themselves out in shaping new political arrangements. Perhaps in all this, I should allow the last word to Mr Turnbull:
The genius of Australia is that we define our national identity not by race or religion or ethnicity but rather by a commitment to shared political values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law, equality of men and women, mutual respect - values accessible to all.
I agree.

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