The term ‘liberal’ is confusing. In the United States it means a progressive, in Europe more of a classical liberal, and in Australia it is the moniker of a supposedly conservative political party. Its various connotations, applications and interpretations are as contradictory as they are numerous. Of those three applications, it is the Australian one which is most nebulous. Until the end of the Howard era, one could confidently expect an Australian liberal to believe in personal responsibility, individual liberty and limited government. The same could be expected of Liberal Party politicians.
Not so much today. As confirmed by the budget, bigger government, bigger spending and bigger debt is now part of the Liberal Party’s political as much as economic strategy. Personal responsibility has been reduced to an election tagline and individual liberty forgotten. The ‘limited’ in limited government now appears to refer to principles rather than size.
The Liberal Party has strayed from liberal tenets. Arguably, this is what self-purported classical liberals and conservatives will be doing at the next federal election should they vote for the Morrison Government. How can an endorsement of a highly illiberal government be interpreted as anything other than one-eyed political support?
Any person claiming to be a true liberal must experience some sort of cognitive dissonance when supporting or defending the Morrison Government. In 2014/15, net debt was around $246 billion. Since then, the Liberal Party with Morrison as Treasurer and then Prime Minister has increased that figure to just under $618 billion. Net debt is forecast to hit one trillion dollars in the coming years. This is hardly reflective of the Liberal Party website which professes to ‘work towards lean government’.
The lack of liberal principles is not just economic. Morrison for months criticised Australian states for closing their borders before his government locked Australian citizens stuck in India out of their own country and threatened those who breached this order with jail time. This disregard of individual rights is unsurprising given that in the aftermath of the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, the Prime Minister required his wife’s counsel to ‘clarify’ why women should be confident about their safety at work. Morrison just does not see individual beings for who they are.
The loss of principles in politics is certainly not confined to the Liberal Party. Joel Fitzgibbon’s resignation from the Labor front bench is the most recent symptom of Labor’s abandonment of workers. Upon resigning, Fitzgibbon said ‘the Labor Party has been spending too much time in recent years talking about issues like climate change – which is a very important issue – and not enough time talking about the needs of our traditional base’.
Abraham Lincoln is attributed as saying ‘be sure you put your feet in the right place, then stand firm’. If the Prime Minister has one special power, it is the ability to levitate — he has never placed his feet anywhere. Voters must choose among imperfect options at the ballot box — and will be required to do so in the near future — but a vote for the Morrison Government is not a vote for classical liberalism. It is not a vote for personal responsibility, individual liberty or limited government. At best, it is a vote against all other options.
In practice, an individual’s vote does not matter — it will rarely decide a seat, let alone the government — but this is not the point. The principles behind the vote matter, and principles are exactly what Australian society needs.
Shane Herbst is a research analyst at Mannkal Economic Education Foundation and is completing his LLB at Curtin University.
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