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<p>Andrew Sheargold/Getty Images</p>

Andrew Sheargold/Getty Images

Labor’s Best Strategy: Become A Party For True Liberals

The Liberal Party under John Howard and Tony Abbott has abandoned the mantle of social liberalism — and Labor should grasp it with both hands.

In December 2007, there were 445 Labor representatives in lower houses across federal, state and territory parliaments. Before the August 23 NT election, there were 305. In less than five years, 140 Labor parliamentarians — one in three — have lost office.

At the same time, Labor is shedding members. In the 1950s, more than one in 100 adults were ALP members — now it is less than one in 300. The trend is common to other Australian political parties, and to political parties around the globe. Across the developed world, mass parties are under threat.

Liberalism, Deakin said, meant a government that acted in the interests of the majority, with particular regard to the poorest in the community.

For the Australian Labor Party, one of the world's oldest progressive parties, a sense of realism about the challenge shouldn't diminish a sense of pride in our achievements. Significant migrant inflows and strong economic growth allow Australia to undertake reforms such as a price on carbon pollution and building a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

But we must also recognise that parties need to renew. For the Labor Party, I believe that our renewal may be drawn from an unlikely source: by becoming the party of egalitarianism and social liberalism. Liberalism means standing up for minority rights, and recognising that open markets are fundamental to boosting prosperity. To borrow a phrase from journalist George Megalogenis, Labor needs a commitment to markets and multiculturalism.

To recognise why Labor's future should include liberalism, it's first important to say something about Labor's past.



Prime Minister Gillard Addressing the 2011 ALP National Conference

Exiled in the Polish town of Poronin in 1913, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin had plenty of time on his hands. Having already spent three years in a Siberian jail, he was biding his time until he was able to return to Russia. So the man who would soon serve as Russia's first Communist leader turned his attention to the antipodes.

Like many progressives around the world, Lenin was struck by the way the Australian Labor Party had swept into parliament. Just a few months after the party's formation in 1891, Labor won 36 out of 141 seats in the NSW Legislative Assembly. In 1899, Labor won government in Queensland (it lasted a week). In Australia's first national elections, Labor won 14 out of 75 seats in the House of Representatives. In 1903, Labor's share of the vote doubled. In 1904, Chris Watson became Labor's first Prime Minister. Other parties were struck by the strength of support for Labor, and by the energy and youth of its leaders.

And yet Lenin was puzzled. In 1913, he wrote:

"What sort of peculiar capitalist country is this, in which the workers' representatives predominate in the Upper House and, till recently, did so in the Lower House as well, and yet the capitalist system is in no danger? … The Australian Labor Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the so-called Liberals in Australia are really conservatives."

A century on, and Lenin's characterisation of Australia's two major parties stands up better than most of his ideas. Unlike many other commentators, Lenin discerned that Labor was not solely driven by a belief in egalitarianism. Even in its early decades, the ALP was also a party of social liberalism.

In my first speech to parliament, I argued that the Labor Party stands at the confluence of two powerful rivers in Australian politics. We believe in egalitarianism: that a child from Aurukun can become a High Court justice, and that a mine worker should get the same medical treatment as the mine owner. And we believe in liberalism: that governments have a role in protecting the rights of minorities, that freedom of speech applies as much to unpopular ideas as to popular ones, and that all of us stand equal beneath the Southern Cross. The modern Labor Party is the heir to the small-L liberal tradition in Australia. As my friend Macgregor Duncan likes to put it, "Labor is Australia's true liberal party".

Alfred Deakin was one of the earliest Australian leaders to make the distinction between liberals and conservatives. Deakin argued that liberalism meant the destruction of class privileges, equality of political rights without reference to creed, and equality of legal rights without reference to wealth. Liberalism, Deakin said, meant a government that acted in the interests of the majority, with particular regard to the poorest in the community.

Deakin's Australian version of liberalism drank deeply at the well of the British Liberal Party. In the late 19th century, Deakin's speeches frequently noted that the British Liberal Party was a positive force that sought to resist and overturn economic and class privileges throughout society. To Deakin, two of the British Liberals' greatest achievements were the legalisation of unions in 1871 and removal of 'religious disabilities' tests levelled against non-conformists and Roman Catholics.

<p>Ron Case/Keystone/Getty</p>

Ron Case/Keystone/Getty

Sir Robert Menzies

As a member of Victoria's pre-Federation parliament, Deakin began sketching out the parameters of antipodean liberalism. Deakin was a great supporter of the Anti-Sweating League meetings, highlighting the exploitation of women's labour (or 'sweating') in that state's factories. He introduced into parliament the first factory act in Victoria, regulating hours and providing compensation for injury. And in his campaign for Federation, Deakin's vision and idealism helped the movement overcome setbacks and bypass the blockers.

On race and trade, Deakin's views were shaped by the time. He supported discriminatory migration policies and high tariff walls. Looking to the Asian region, he saw only danger. When I read back through Deakin's writings, I find myself thinking (perhaps naively) that if he had better understood the role that migration and trade could play in alleviating poverty, he might have been a Keatingesque internationalist. Given Deakin's extraordinary career, sparkling writing, and strong political philosophy, it's surprisingly easy to amputate his more illiberal views.

Labor will always be the party of egalitarianism. Too much inequality can tear the social fabric, threatening to cleave us one from another.

In the early years after Federation, it was conceivable that Deakin and his supporters might make common cause with the Labor Party. As Troy Bramston has pointed out, Deakin argued in 1903 that "more than half of [Labor's] members would be Liberal Protectionists". In 1906, he said that Labor and the Liberals were united on "seeking social justice", with the only difference being that Labor wanted reform to proceed "faster and further".

By contrast, Deakin regarded the Anti-Socialists and hard Conservatives as little more than wreckers brought together by their "attitude of denial and negation" to progressive reform.

When George Reid began to take his party down the anti-Socialist route in the 1906 election, Deakin said that his platform amounted to nothing more than a "necklace of negatives" (a line that echoes down the decades, even if it was a mite exaggerated).

In another speech, Deakin said the forces of conservatism were: "a party less easy to describe or define, because, as a rule it has no positive programme of its own, adopting instead an attitude of denial and negation. This mixed body, which may fairly be termed the party of anti-liberalism, justifies its existence, not by proposing its own solution of problems, but by politically blocking all proposals of a progressive character, and putting the brakes on those it cannot block."

<p>Hulton Archive/Getty Images</p>

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alfred Deakin

But with the conservative-liberal 'Fusion' in 1909, Deakin's liberals finally made common cause with the conservatives. Much as he might have wanted to ally with the ALP, there was little appetite for such an alliance in Labor ranks. Moreover, Deakin felt uncomfortable with the tightly binding 'pledge' that Labor candidates were required to sign. The difference seems trivial in an era when all political parties require their parliamentary representatives to implement their party platforms.

If anyone needed proof that the scales of history could have tipped the other way, they need only have looked to UK politics after World War I, where the collapse of that country's Liberal Party led to a surge in electoral support for British Labour. Bramston calls Fusion in Australia "a marriage of convenience … in order to counter and challenge the rise of Labor".

Since its founding in 1944, the Liberal Party of Australia has regarded itself as the rightful heir to Australian liberalism. Addressing its inaugural meeting, Robert Menzies said "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 rights and enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea."

According to Senator George Brandis, Menzies never once used the word 'conservative' to describe his party. In 1960, Friedrich Hayek wrote his famous essay Why I Am Not a Conservative. At the time, most in the Liberal Party would have agreed with him.

Yet under the leadership of John Howard, liberalism ceased to be the raison d'etre of the Liberal Party. Instead, Howard argued that the Liberal Party was the custodian of two traditions: "It is the custodian of the Conservative tradition in Australian politics. It is also the custodian of the progressive Liberal tradition in the Australian polity". Howard, who had once said, "I am the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had", was breaking with his party's liberal past. As George Brandis has noted: "Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies, Harold Holt, John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser were all happy to describe themselves simply as liberals. Howard was the first who did not see himself, and was uncomfortable to be seen, purely in the liberal tradition."

Current Liberal leader Tony Abbott has taken the Liberal Party further down the conservative road, writing in Battlelines: "'Liberal National' might actually be a better description of the party's overall orientation than simply 'Liberal'."

By 2010, Abbott had further watered down liberalism, nominating three instincts that animated the Liberal Party: "liberal, conservative and patriotic". It was a special irony that Abbott chose the Deakin Lecture as the venue to declare that liberalism's stake in the Liberal Party had been diluted from 100 per cent to 33 per cent.

What is occurring today is the undoing of the Fusion movement — the divorce of liberals and conservatives. Small-L liberals like George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull are distinctly in the minority. Ironically, the Liberal Party's "Modest Members" are anything but self-effacing, with its representatives expressing views that often bear little resemblance to the open-market ideas of Bert Kelly in the 1970s. It is little surprise that genuine liberals like Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson spend more time criticising than praising the party they once led.

A century on from the conservative-liberal fusion, Deakinite liberalism is back on the auction block. Increasingly, the Liberal Party is defined by what it stands against, rather than what it stands for. The spirit of progressive liberalism —described by Deakin as "liberal always, radical often, and reactionary never" — is in need of a new custodian.

<p>Patrick Riviere/Getty Images</p>

Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

Labor Icons, Paul Keating and Bob Hawke

Labor has always contained a liberal strain — partly indebted to Chartist and Fabian traditions, but also influenced by the type of social liberalism that Deakin and his followers advocated in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This fact was not lost on astute foreign observers, such as Lenin. Australian philosopher Tim Soutphommasane argues that the social democracy of Anthony Crosland and H.C. Coombs owed more to liberalism than Marxism, summing up a review with the words, "we are all liberals now, comrade".

Throughout the 20th century, social liberalism joined together many of Labor's achievements. Broad-based income taxation under Curtin. A Race Discrimination Act under Whitlam. Trade liberalisation and a floating dollar under Hawke. Enterprise bargaining and native title under Keating. Removal of much of the explicit discrimination against same-sex couples under Rudd. Carbon pricing and disability reform under Gillard. Whether through support for individual liberties or the belief in open markets, social liberalism has a prominent place in the story of the Australian Labor Party.

And yet Labor's future is still up for grabs. The debate over the future of the British Labour Party has seen many reject the economically-liberal reforms of the Blair years. Labour leader Ed Miliband has engaged parliamentarian Jon Cruddas to conduct the party's policy review. Cruddas writes beautifully about his party's proud traditions. He also points out the vacuity of polling gurus like Philip Gould — whose caricatures of "Mondeo Man" and "Worcester Woman" drew more from advertising agencies than political philosophy.

But Cruddas also throws away too much that is valuable. In his yearning for Labour to reconnect with Britain's romantic and patriotic traditions, he is too ready to discard market economics and social liberalism. I fear that British Labour is making the same mistakes Kim Beazley's opposition made in the late 1990s, when the ALP distanced itself from many of the economic reforms of Hawke and Keating, and advocated illiberal policies such as abolishing the Productivity Commission.

Labor will always be the party of egalitarianism. Too much inequality can tear the social fabric, threatening to cleave us one from another. A belief in equality is deeply rooted in Australian values, and underpins policies such as progressive income taxation, means-tested social spending, and a focus on the truly disadvantaged. This marks Labor apart from many in the Coalition, who maintain that inequality does not matter, that economic outcomes have more to do with effort than luck, and that government can do little to reduce poverty.

The modern Liberal Party is not the party of liberalism. Instead, it is the creature of John Howard, and his intellectual heir Tony Abbott.

But in also taking on the mantle of social liberalism, Labor would be stating our commitment to open markets as the most effective way of generating wealth. Labor would be pledging ourselves to the belief — grounded in the reforms of Hawke and Keating — that tax cuts are preferable to middle-class welfare. In social policy, we would engage in more of what Franklin D. Roosevelt called "bold, persistent experimentation". We would be at least as concerned about the nation's low entrepreneurship rates as the decline of manufacturing. We would permanently reject impediments to international trade. And we would acknowledge the power of market-based mechanisms to address environmental challenges, from water buybacks in the Murray-Darling basin to a price on carbon pollution.

A commitment to social liberalism would also pledge Labor to an open and multicultural Australia. Listening to the first speeches of Labor members, I sometimes wonder what my party's founders would have made of the paeans to multiculturalism and migration that are common to almost all Labor maiden speeches in recent years. Many of Labor's founders regarded Asia's peoples as the biggest threat to their living standards. By contrast, social liberalism recognises that Australia benefits from immigration (including circular migration).

It also acknowledges that national growth isn't like the Olympic medal tally: prosperity in China, India and Indonesia will boost Australian living standards too.

The modern Liberal Party is not the party of liberalism. Instead, it is the creature of John Howard, and his intellectual heir Tony Abbott. It is, in the words Tim Fischer once used to describe his favourite High Court judges, a party of "capital-C conservatism". And that leaves social liberalism free for just one party: the ALP. It is time for Labor to grasp this mantle with both hands: becoming the party not just of egalitarianism, but also of liberalism.

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser, and a former professor of economics at the Australian National University.

Read more The Global Mail coverage of Australia's shrinking political talent pool, Labor's muddled messaging, and a glimpse behind the scenes of Budget 2012.

14 comments on this story
by shane

How absolutely boring! 1% might read you

August 27, 2012 @ 9:45am
by Jan

Nice idea but it'll never happen while the unions have so much power over the party. The unions are stopping educated progressives from coming back to the party

August 27, 2012 @ 10:23am
by Ron

"Liberalism means standing up for minority rights"

What a pity the Prime Minister doesn't believe in that when it comes to marriage equality. The ALP is squandering lots of votes there. Do you really think that her kowtowing to the ACL (and being keynote speaker at their October conference) is going to win the ALP any votes from what is essentially a gay hate group?

August 27, 2012 @ 10:23am
by Gabrielle Henry

This is all very well but Labor also needs to affirm itself as a coalition of ideas. It should try to stop forcing out its democratic socialist traditions as well. This argument for social liberalism would not get much argument from within the party, but the right's attacks on the left of the party should cease if they want to regain credibility.

August 27, 2012 @ 12:44pm
by Doug

Half-right: the GFC and many fo the troubles we have had around the world in recent years point to market failure, not success. Monetarism and free markets have created a nightmare scenario where jobs flee to the cheapest market and people flee from the markets and try to come to places like Australia. Because if capital is free to seek the most profitable place to invest, then labor must be equally free to migrate to where they can command the highest price. Trusting in markets is sheer lunacy and is ultimately what is driving the refugee problem, the failure to tackle climate change, and many other urgent current issues. Labor needs to get back to socialism, not free markets.

August 27, 2012 @ 4:59pm
by Rotha

Re The Labor Party.
3rd major reason for Anna's fall was her attempt to force Fluoridation upon an unwilling public. She managed it in the south east but thank heaven her successors have given us the choice and we have gratefully opted out.
My point is that while we THOUGHT she was liberal, we liked her. Once she proved herself to be a centralist who was run by her public service we hated her with a passion, and could not wait to rid ourselves of her.

August 27, 2012 @ 5:02pm
by Bob

Hmmm, how come the writer of this article doesn't seem to have any mention of the Labor Party on his own home page??

I had to google him to find out what party he was from

August 27, 2012 @ 8:57pm
by Kieran MacGillicuddy

On the one hand there is much to agree with here. Australia does have a long liberal tradition and it's torch has primarily been carried by the Liberals. Though the rise of Hawke-Keating and the end of the Cold War (correlation or causation? I'm just asking questions.) saw liberalism, in the form of economic rationalism, become bipartisan.

Leigh is also right that the Liberals under Howard moved away from social liberties, it's also worth noting their move away from economic rationalism though. The massive expansions in middle-class welfare in their latter years were hardly the acts of economic liberals.

Since Howard we have seen *both* the ALP and the Liberals continue to move away from *both* economic and social liberties (imo because the major battles have been won by liberalism and now the majors are just faffing at the edges, banking on rusted on supporters and chasing populist votes). Insomuch as these areas are contested they are contested more by think tanks than the actual parties.

Having said this, over the same period the Greens appear to have moved slightly away from social freedoms (free speech and drugs) and slightly towards economic rationalism (support for market based solutions, opposition to subsidies, etc).

Leigh makes the point that liberal voters are up for grabs and, to an extent, I think he's right. This does however beg the corollary of how many of them there actually are and what kind of electoral impact they could actually have.

I'm also less than confident in the proposition Leigh is presenting. Essentially it calls for, partially, switching out the areas of compromise. Rather than playing second fiddle to Conservatives instead liberals would get to play second fiddle to organised labour.

The ALP's vote of course continues to scrape the barrel so seeking to broaden it however they can makes sense. Tactically I suspect preferences/etc mean shifting right to capture liberal-Liberal's is a stronger strategy than left to capture Greens whose preferences they get and in a worst case they can coalition with anyway.

That Leigh is making the case for this tactic speaks well both of his beliefs and read of the electorate, one can't help but think he is a man of ambition with an eye on Finance or Treasury - roles I suspect he would be adept at.

August 28, 2012 @ 12:04am
by Michael Christie

Social Liberalism, or New Liberalism as it was called in the late 19th century and early 20th century, was a response to the damage done to social life by 19th classical liberalism. The central problem with Andrew Leigh's argument is that the sort of liberalism that currently dominates Australian political and economic culture is not the 19th century type but is a version of liberalism that treats individuals as entrepreneurs of their own human capital aka neoliberalism. Leigh is rallying for a fight that is over: yesterday's battles. Just as the Australian labour movement arose in response to 19th Century Liberalism, what is needed from a Left political movement is a response to the dominance of this new variant of liberalism in our everyday lives. Deakinite Liberalism and its solutions in the form of the living wage and male-wage earner protections are inadequate to the challenges and opportunities posed by neoliberalism. There are no easy answers to a revitalised Left but getting your historical bearings is a good start.

August 28, 2012 @ 8:34am
by Matt

@Bob. Go to and it's pretty clear he's in the ALP. Andrew's philosophy is that he is the member for everyone in Fraser. A nice thing when your 2PP is over 65%.

August 28, 2012 @ 10:35am
by Arthur McKenzie

Andrew Leigh is my local member. From direct experience with him, what he fails to do is represent his electorate. The coming demise of Labor has nothing to do with liberalism one way or the other. It is all about representation. The only certainty from his year 10 essay is Lenin won't be voting for him and neither will I.

August 28, 2012 @ 5:37pm
Show previous 11 comments
by thekrunkymonkey

Bring on the revolution! I will vote, as I have done for several past elections, for which ever crackpot independent is most likely to stir the parliament from its torpor. The 2.33 party system in this country needs to be dismantled. The neoconservative "coalescence" and the "Languor" party have proved conclusively that parliamentary democracy is a costly and inefficient means of running a country. The only qualified administrators are the bureaucrats so let them have power and convert the politicians into something useful - like dog food and fertiliser.

August 30, 2012 @ 12:19pm
by Nathan

Interesting that many of the articles concerning politics and growing wealth still attribute all of the economic growth to market reforms. Neglected in the growth credit is the improvement in industrial production in the petro-chemical industry (particularly plastics and materials), the gains from IT speed and price, cheap and stable energy supplies and containerization of goods transport.
I would be interested to see studies that disregarded the effects of these factors. To determine the true effect on market reforms on the growth of wealth, most visible in the growing middle class (and shrinking lower class).
Incidentally, the middle class is the very sector of society that is needed to staff the very production, improvement and development within these industries....

September 5, 2012 @ 12:18am
by Pete South

I find the present Liberal Party to be very similar to the British Conservative Party - or Tories - under Margaret Thatcher. Living under Margaret was already very much like living in a time warp, but under Howard this Thatcherite ethos developed into a very retrograde, almost nineteenth century Conservatism, which Abbott's Right Wing coup in the party has now morphed into almost pure reaction. The writer is quite correct- liberalism in the Liberal Party is effectively stone dead. There is no semblance in the present party with the Party, for example, of Malcolm Fraser

This shift in the Liberal Party towards ultra-Conservatism must have an effect on the ALP, and I would certainly see a likely shift as being in the direction of the Social Democrats of Europe - in particular the German SPD as it was under Willy Brandt

The ALP, with its Green and Independent qualified support, has done an excellent job of bringing Australia through a turbulent period. The next phase of Government should be a redrafting of its approach to the creation of a Social Democratic future for Australia, taking inspiration both from the concepts of the world liberal tradition and from moderate democratic socialism. Labor needs clearly stated long term ideals in all areas - as well as short term policies.

To achieve this the Party needs to speak out more from a human rights and egalitarian conceptual base. Abbott would have us see the political battle as being between unregulated free market traditions and regulation. In fact it is between Conservative reaction - a retreat into an imagined backward and religious tradition ridden past, on the one hand, and progressive evolving change - with a mixed and carefully regulated economy - on the other

True liberalism requires greater equality of opportunity, support for small as well as large businesses and a more benevolent and assisting attitude to those disadvantaged through accident of History, that they may live independent and dignified lives. All this is indeed Labor territory

October 17, 2012 @ 10:46pm
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