Constructing a viable conservative governing coalition with a coherent plan of action for the problems of today is fundamentally complicated by the conflict of visions within the conservative camp at present.
In a discussion with Kevin Andrews, a key minister and policy architect in both the Howard and Abbott governments, Andrews gave his thoughts on the political consequences of economic change. Andrews made the following observation:
There are spheres of activity in society and different spheres have their role to play and that if one sphere usurps the role of another then society doesn’t work as well as it should.
The point being that society, tradition and the market work well as independent but connected forces complimenting each other. The market, however, retains the potential to disrupt society and tradition as society and tradition can interfere with the ideal functioning of market forces. Andrews reasoning pertains serious consequences for Australian conservatism.
Voters are not static they respond to perceived opportunities and perceived threats. Housing is becoming more unaffordable, secure employment is scarcer and the cost of living has increased. Governments at every level are struggling to address these problems and quite likely nobody knows how to solve them. These conditions have produced a political effect.
On the right there political forces in ascendancy that contradict what Kevin Andrews and the Liberal governments of the present are advocating.
Pauline Hanson is considered far right and Andrews is considered an ultra-conservative but neither has much in common. While Andrews welcomed the changes that came from the economic revolution that began in the 1980s Hanson and her supporters do not. The One Nation program is nowhere near free-market. It supports trade protectionism, nationalisation of industries and utilities and greater degrees of welfare.
The newly elected Senator Malcolm Roberts of One Nation made the curious admission that in his view Curtain/Chiefly were the last great Australian government. And this remark should really not surprise us. There is an aspect of conservatism that takes the preservation of past practice to such an extreme that they eventually begin to disfavour the free market. Andrews expanded on One Nation’s origins further:
Where did Hanson and One Nation arise? It arose in the aftermath of the changes of the 1980s, it arose in the aftermath of the recession of the late eighties-early nineteen-nineties and it was against that economic change or that economic background that one nation really rose and I think, at least as it was then, it was less conservative and more reactionary.
Andrews, an avowed social conservative accepts that the preservation of the family and marriage is made harder under the uncertainties of the free market. He does not, however, make the leap that you can ensure social conservatism by restricting economic liberalism.
This also points to longer-term issues in Australian politics because many of the sympathizers with One Nation were not typical conservatives and quite a lot of them were not of the Coalition. Hanson’s election to parliament in 1996 was a shock in part because she won in a traditionally blue collar safe Labor seat. These voters were social democrats in nearly every way and when Labor departed from industrial protection to towards liberalization, Hanson of all people promised that she should ensure that the benefits of the state would remain in their hands.
But most importantly Hanson opposed the settled policy of mass immigration to Australia on which there has been a bi-partisan consensus for some time.
The Howard, Abbott and Turnbull governments have all supported high levels of immigration. Opposition to immigration used to be a peculiar aspect of left wing politics in Australia. Concerns about the depression of wages have always been a concern of unions and workers in low-skilled parts of the economy. Eventually that attitude vacated itself from official Labor policy in government and under Rudd and Gillard the high immigration intake of the Howard years was continued.
Opposition to immigration is a political strand that dissipates then re-emerges in different contexts and can affect either political party. The early ALP was very much a creature of the White Australia policy and there remain serious divisions within the Labor party over the scale of immigration with blue-collar union members on the restrictive side and the socially liberal wing of the party broadly in favour. Both the Fraser and Howard governments were pro-immigration but under the later a populist right-leaning opposition to immigration and multiculturalism began to arise that has attached itself to the right flank of the Coalition.
The modern conservatives of Australia have to confront a two-front attack on their efforts to scale back the size of the state and reinvigorate the private economy. The audience for both is not so easy to rise in the present circumstances. Labor and a collection of right of centre minor parties are more or less on the same ticket in presenting a vision of greater redistribution of government entitlements. The Liberals also have to decide how to confront the anti-business, anti-immigration trend that is developing on their right flank.
John Howard was able to manage One Nation by moderating his criticism and by appearing to assuage some of their concerns. On the BBC Howard responded to a criticism of his refugee policy by arguing that the handling of the former helped to mitigate opposition to orderly migration.
Concerns are real and perceived but the economic insecurity confronting so many Australians and their children is a palpable thing. Some people voice their frustration by voting for a moderate protectionist such as Nick Xenophon and others hitch themselves to One Nation’s more assertive and aggressive style. The Liberals are in difficulty when so many of its natural voters are suspicious of capitalism and the importation of more and more people into the country.
When conservative-minded voters opt for politicians that aren’t supporters of the free-market then clearly there is something wrong. The Kevin Andrews agenda of social conservatism and economic liberalism is not where a great number of conservative voters are at present.
When discussing the transition away from the economic policies of Menzies, Andrews acknowledges that the modern Liberals do not practice what Menzies once preached:
It was an entirely different economy. Menzies gave a famous speech in Washington were he extolled the virtues of the arbitration system. Nobody is doing that the way in which he did at that time. The whole centralised wage-fixing system that was something that Menzies thought was one of the key pieces of the political and economic infrastructure of Australia.
Both sides upheld the old centralised interventionist model then both sides abandoned it in practice. But clearly there are people of all political persuasions who look back to this era as one of stable economics and cultural cohesion.
The Menzies economic model and the politics that went with it have been long superseded by the compact began under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating then continued under John Howard. Prior to the deregulatory revolution of the 1980s the consensus was that Australian industry should be protected through high tariffs and state subsidy.
We can see in the United States at present that the Republican establishment, which is broadly pro-enterprise and pro-immigration, is being swept aside by a popular ground swell that is at its heart rejecting the orthodoxy of the Reagan Republicans. The American’s voting for Donald Trump want more health care, more social security for them and their children and a less trade exposed economy. They are not in favour of cuts to healthcare, privatisation of social security or the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The supporters of Hanson, Xenophon, Lambie and Katter do not feel that the present arrangements in parliament are working for them and we should not rush to dismiss them. We should also give these voters the benefit of the doubt that they do not share the faults and naiveties of the people they have elected. Andrews advocates a more conciliatory approach when it comes to Hanson’s supporters:
You have to listen to their concerns, the fact that a person votes for One Nation doesn’t mean that they are a racist, redneck, homophobic whatever. Some might be but usually there is an underlying concern about the direction of the country and the direction of the economy that’s motivating them.
That underlying concern is nothing less than their fear for their economic wellbeing and that of the next generation. If the Liberal Party is going to defend free enterprise, free trade and immigration against protectionists and nationalists then it had better do as Howard did successfully and give the concerns of the latter fair hearing.