Thursday, October 30, 2008

In Search Of True Conservatism

... The Liberal Party will ultimately rediscover the success it seeks through a return to Menzies’ inspiration ...

In 1945, Sir Robert Menzies recognised the need for a political party that would embody not only the spirit of freedom but of national prosperity and unity—one driven by the responsibility Menzies himself felt to Australia. The Liberal Party, formed as a result, has now reached a decisive and historic point. It is one that marks a particularly low ebb in our national standing, and one that must be seized as the basis from which to consider our identity and priorities.

It is often helpful, during testing political times, to return to challenges past. Through these we may reconnect with the essence of our shared cause, reaffirm that which we stand for and engage in the battles appropriate to our time. Today the Liberal Party faces several key challenges, chief among them the need to reinforce—both internally and to the Australian people—what the party represents. I am convinced that it is in consulting the Liberal Party’s inception and honouring its original values that we may make sustained progress.

We must return to Menzies’ first political concerns, and again ask what Australia needs from its government—what role should freedom play in our citizens’ lives? This process must first be driven by urgency, but balanced by the need for a serious and sustained commitment to the Liberal Party and its ideals. Perhaps some conclusions will be controversial; perhaps some will be difficult to articulate. But we owe it to both our Party’s founder and first supporters, and to those who continue to endorse the Liberal Party through votes and ideological alignment. Reflecting on the past does not mean indulging on nostalgic overstatements, but rather identifying what first made Liberalism attractive to Australians and searching again for a similar connection. Menzies measured success not by others’ reverence, but rather by what could be achieved through principled action and sheer hard work.

It is my belief that we can engage in political reflection while appreciating the unique challenges Australia presents today. Moreover, I believe that it is only in reflection—followed by concerted action—that we may return the Liberal Party to the noble status hoped of it by Menzies, and to an organisation dedicated to helping our great nation realise its full potential. The Liberal Party’s central task today remains firmly tied to the challenge Menzies encountered in 1945, that of providing an alternative to the broad reach of Labor governments while increasing Australians’ self-reliance. Menzies reached out to the common links between us—the noble, universal desires to work, to build solid and prosperous futures for our families, and to enjoy freedom’s full scope.

Our duty now is to redefine the role of government, and to respect the limits conservatism applies to it. Australia, though in some ways different to the nation Menzies sought to shape, is still characterised by our shared aspirations—those of providing our children with greater opportunities than we ourselves had; of finding stable, fulfilling employment and owning property. Australians also recognise that a spirit of compassion and resilience has fortified our nation through its many challenges. This spirit must be protected as we advance—indeed, it must be seen as the logical partner to Liberals’ economic goals. So it is, then, that regardless of the fiscal and social concerns linked to particular moments in history, we are perpetually connected to the ongoing task of making Australia ever better, safer and stronger.

The changes Liberals must consider are by no means small, or indeed immediately appealing to the public. Many require Australians to assume a greater degree of personal and national responsibility than they presently hold. To my mind, however, this responsibility will allow our nation to prepare for its forthcoming challenges, while diminishing reliance on government and increasing personal independence. These changes involve scaling back government spending, particularly in light of unique developments facing our nation. Australians must be prepared to manage such changes—but moreover, they must be empowered to embrace such changes’ corresponding implications of heightened personal responsibility. Just as hardworking families restrain their spending and prioritise when circumstances require, so should government. It is up to the Liberal Party to embody this philosophy—both in its rhetoric and in its action.

One of the most significant differences between today and Menzies’ time is not political but demographic. Australia faces a pronounced ageing of its population over the next forty years: from around 13 per cent today, the proportion of those aged 65 years and over is now projected to rise to around 30 per cent by 2051. In South Australia, my home state, one-third of the current workforce is likely to retire in the next decade. With many retiring and fewer young workers to take their place, economic growth looks set to slow, along with predicted declines in both government revenue and living standards. These changes will be accompanied by expected increased demand for government services such as health, aged care and pension payments, all of which could lead to ongoing federal budget pressure. The present strain on our hospitals and nursing homes is already well documented; it is therefore likely that increased burdens will stretch resources beyond acceptable levels.

There is no doubt that we need comprehensive workforce strategies to manage this demographic change. We also need to sharply reduce government spending. Without a reduction—afforded by a competitive tax system—Australia will face an unsustainable situation of offering support beyond its budgetary means to those not working. Decreased economic growth would compromise the opportunities and initiative of younger Australians, the drivers of our future success. Ultimately, then, it is vital for the Liberal Party to explain and endorse decreased reliance on government—to allow people to retain more of their own income so that they may best prepare for their particular circumstances. The political leaders of today and tomorrow must exercise particular responsibility in this area, by making decisions that actively support smaller government and promote personal initiative.

Politics is as much about results as ideals, though ultimately these are inextricably linked. Without knowing—and articulating—what we seek in the long term, the political action we take today may well be misguided. A shared political vision for Australia’s next generation provides two clear benefits: the first an opportunity for citizens to connect to our fundamental beliefs about small government and its associated freedoms; the second a chance for this message to resonate with members and supporters of the Liberal Party. This vision may be seen as a blueprint for forthcoming action—it does not represent where we will necessarily be in the immediate future, but rather what we are working towards.

History has consistently shown us the benefits of carefully limited government, and so too the pitfalls of unchecked power and unquestioned bureaucratic sprawl. Australians need to live their lives with as much autonomy from government as possible. They need to know that government is working hard in its fundamental roles—maintaining law and order; endorsing and expanding free markets; reducing the need for a welfare state and providing the greatest possible opportunity for Australians to find work. Successful governments should also endorse policies built on compassion, by recognising not only the need to protect a society’s most vulnerable citizens but the incomparable support such citizens’ families and carers can provide. This is but one example of instances where an authority is unable to offer a substitute for fundamental human goodwill. It is not always right to seek government control—generally speaking, the more sprawling the government, the less responsive it is to the needs of its people. Bureaucratic expansion, with its vague promises of improved services and increased action, must be the Liberals’ common enemy, for its endorsement disregards critical social and economic realities of our time. There will always be justifications and excuses for this type of behaviour, but ultimately it stems from the willingness of some to put their own political interests before those of Australia.

In short, then, citizens need a government that is not just for them but of them—one small enough to sense citizens’ basic requirements and respond accordingly. It must now be the Liberal Party’s priority to articulate just what these requirements are, and then set about committing itself to their provision. Doing so means restructuring our organisation around its core values, with an aim to be known as the party of integrity. These values—among them freedom of the individual, equality of opportunity, the importance of family, personal responsibility and reward for effort—must guide our judgement. In challenging times we may return to these, and ask whether our action will endorse or undermine their essence. There is a great difference, in politics but so too in life, between action guided by principles and action taken on a whim. Impulsive decisions, taken to fit situations as they arise, are often reckless but can also be deeply dangerous and even irreparable.

It is worth pausing here to consider the unique benefits of those spheres separate from government, and so too the incomparable need to afford these protection. It is generally agreed in free societies that government must not try to run people’s lives; equally, it must never assume the roles or responsibilities of families, religious bodies or any other societal community that lends itself to the development of culture and character. Laws and government exist to protect citizens and secure their well-being—those who claim otherwise disregard not only the intrinsic value of the individual but the importance of allowing each person the freedom to pursue their own goals and interests. In order for government to best support the work of families, whose efforts produce the decent, upstanding citizens that it alone cannot, government is best advised to assume a subsidiary role—not the primary ones it occupies in order to defend our nation, support the disadvantaged and uphold citizens’ basic liberties. From this restrained position government can endorse the work of those who effectively bind our nation, and can protect and prolong their invaluable contribution. Indeed, as families foster personal aspiration, so too must the Liberal Party foster its own. We should not shy away from this task, or from the moral judgements required for its completion.

These sentiments are not intended to challenge the notion that government can do a great deal in the areas in which it is designed to operate. Consider, for example, the method in which Australians’ taxes are collected, and the purposes these ultimately serve. During John Howard’s time as Prime Minister, Australia’s taxation system underwent reform to ensure our nation’s hardest workers were rewarded. This reform—initially opposed by Labor but subsequently retained and endorsed—must now form the basis for further limits to Australians’ tax contributions. More effort is needed to protect the progress made thus far. The only real way to increase work incentives is to make working more attractive than its alternatives, and to simplify the unnecessarily complex systems that assist those seeking to avoid or minimise employment. We need wholesale reforms of our tax and welfare systems, including consideration of a flat rate of tax with a high tax-free threshold. Unless Australia can develop and maintain a truly competitive tax base, we will lose both industry and individuals to more accommodating nations. Transparency and simplicity should be of primary importance as we consider these policies. Our current system—with a myriad of programmes, extensive and complex tax law, various tax rates, offsets, minimisation schemes and deductions—is sluggish and ineffective. Its administration, whereby officers remove tax from workers only to later repay them, is both unnecessary and exasperating. Many Australians are frustrated each year by the complexity of their tax arrangements; they realise that these are not addressed on a level playing field, and that tax minimisation avenues are often pursued by the particularly wealthy. Future reform must also target the tax and welfare treatment of families, specifically by bringing the two systems into line so that family obligations are recognised by both. Current arrangements—whereby individuals’ tax contributions are determined by their personal income and welfare payments on the needs of a family—are unnecessarily complex and overlook the disparity of income between a single worker with no dependants and a worker whose dependant partner cares for small children. Without a thorough discussion of these potential reforms and their merits, and consideration that goes beyond the ideological, Australia risks falling into a vulnerable economic position: one where the risk of stagnation is markedly higher.

Today’s Liberal Party has a crucial opportunity—that of presenting a consistent alternative government that can appeal to the millions of Australians who resist government interference in their lives. Liberals must bridge the gap between rhetoric and action; we must also think carefully about the ways in which smaller governments can be promoted to and accepted by Australians. The Liberal Party has always made the biggest difference in the lives of Australians when we lead, not simply by polls but by principle; not by calculation, but by conviction. Of all the critical lessons learned from our 2007 Federal Election loss, perhaps the most significant is that Liberals needs to present a clear and consistent message to voters: we need to believe deeply in this message, and to reinforce it at every opportunity. We can’t second-guess Australians, and we certainly can’t second-guess ourselves. This is not to say we are prepared to tolerate defeat. The crucial point to remember is that while the requirements of government will vary, our long-term philosophical framework surrounding its function should remain constant.

When it comes to creating and maintaining smaller governments, it is often said that providing tax breaks is the easy part. Generally speaking, tax relief is met with popular support. The challenge comes when the full implications of tax breaks are realised, namely that government provision must also decrease. Fiscal conservatism is a concept that has received considerable attention of late, much of it from those who have apparently been recently convinced of its benefits. Although, broadly speaking, the economic argument has been won, this debate is one of degrees. We cannot afford to rest here—to assume that enough has been done to safeguard Australia from economic pitfalls. Moving further down the road of fiscal conservatism requires a willingness from conservatives to explain the benefits of ongoing restraint; to push further towards spending reductions even after our policies have won broad political support. Crucially, in working to reassert itself, the Liberal Party is able to point to a heritage of fiscal conservatism that extends back to Menzies’ first political impetus. Not only is the party able to draw on this record, it is able to spend time carefully planning the ways in which such conservatism can inform future judgement and policy. This will not be an instantaneous shift. As a Party, we need to be honest about our goals, and about the time and effort required to achieve them. We need to identify these aims within a short, medium and long-term structure—in other words, we must to explain our ultimate future goals, and then set about achieving these through objective actions today.

Scaling back excessive government spending means that taxpayer funds may be used for their most effective purposes—the areas in which Australians have both a deep need and the faith that government will use its power to act in their best interests. Health, education and defence are such examples: their strength is our nation’s strength, and their neglect could prove catastrophic. This goal is easily reconciled with the Liberal ideal of maximised freedom—for when government is relieved of the unrealistic objective of serving every purpose asked of it, the opportunity to excel in a clear and limited role is far greater. Individuals, too, may enjoy heightened personal freedom as they are allowed to preserve more of their own income—meaning that they can direct dollars to heath and education services as they see fit.

Closely linked to increased self-reliance is the notion of what each Australian may do to ensure our nation remains strong, united and resolute. It is only when we are responsible for our own lives that we are properly equipped to help those less fortunate. It is my sincere hope that serving one’s nation does not become a relic of another time but is instead viewed as an intrinsic part of what makes Australia strong.

National service in its many forms—time spent in our nation’s defence forces; volunteering to help those less fortunate or facilitating community events; lending a hand when natural disasters strike—are ways in which Australians can demonstrate their link to something bigger than their own immediate interests. Supporting our nation does not simply mean toasting to it on Australia Day, but rather seizing each opportunity to make it better. All Liberal Party leaders and supporters should consider what they may do to fortify our nation, whether by speaking up when something strikes them as unjust or simply reflecting on the Australia they seek for the future.

With this in mind, it is also important to remember that so much of the work required to prepare Australia for the future is connected to relationship between our federal and state governments. It’s time to end the blame game. It’s time to publicly define federal and state responsibilities—or, more correctly, to pay more considered attention to the Constitution and the division of responsibility it has already assigned. Our founding fathers were bold and decisive in their creation of this document—there is little doubt they’d be dismayed by the hand-wringing and inaction that has accompanied federal-state relations for far too long. States’ self-interest cannot be a substitute for reform; there are many key areas where prompt action is required. These include not only health, but indigenous affairs, public housing, planning and infrastructure, education and water. Key aspects of Australia’s future depend on us acting effectively—not simply paying lip service to supposed national plans that compromise some states’ interests for those of others. When responsibilities are plain, governments can be held accountable. The public can see far more accurately where their tax dollars are being used, and are likely to feel confident that these have genuinely useful purposes. Hiding behind a maze of shifted blame and confusion will not bring Australia any closer to meeting its challenges.

As we work to improve the relationship between the Commonwealth and the states, it is necessary to consider the areas in which Australia needs a nation-wide approach, and those where states should be free to govern as they see fit. This builds on the general argument put forward thus far that there are certain spheres in which the Federal Government should be doing less, not more. National laws and regulations—those governing workplace safety or consumer credit, for example—are broadly designed to help people. In considering them, it is fair to clam that all Australian citizens deserve the same protections; there is no rational need to formulate a regulatory framework for each state and territory. Federal management ensures that credible standards can be set and maintained, and that bureaucratic red tape can be reduced. Provision of services, however, is generally a state responsibility and should be managed as such. Moreover, it is in this sphere that states may make decisions in the name of competition—a vital part of any robust economy. Consider, for example, each state’s WorkCover levy. If a state wishes to reduce its levy in order to attract business, it should be free to do so. It is not the Commonwealth’s role to restrict such changes, or to stop a state from becoming more ambitious simply to match a theoretical national practice. Even if a state follows a course of action that appears irresponsible—hiring more public servants and neglecting its core services, for example—the Federal Government should resist the urge to intervene. Australia’s democratic process is strong enough to ensure that state governments that do not meet their citizens’ expectations will be removed from office, and that citizens will come to carefully consider what it is their government should represent. Further, in the event of state governments’ shortcomings, it is vital for there to exist a united and determined opposition party whose values and action reflect a commitment to low tax and small government—a party whose national objectives are at once clear and restricted. The Liberal Party can, and should, fill this role.

A truly conservative ethos recognises that the closer a government is to its people, the more effective its actions will be. It should not be the task of Canberra’s bureaucrats to gauge the services Australian communities require. When we ask this of them, not only do we divert attention from issues that truly require federal management, but we indicate a sense of insecurity regarding ourselves and our abilities. We can get this right, and we owe it to all those outside of government to do so. Ultimately, cuts to federal spending will reduce the revenue available to states, meaning that they each must work harder for their income. This is as it should be; Liberals need to strive for a time when states will attract praise for successful management—but will also be truly accountable to their taxpayers for decisions made in their name.

The Liberal Party’s future is in the hands of all with a dedicated interest in bringing Australia forward to meet its challenges, while resisting a sprawling government as the best way to manage these. Though the pressures of time and politics insist we move ever forward, it is important to insist on a thorough discussion of the Party’s direction: a discussion that is honest, pointed and leaves no doubt as to our cause. The trust in government that the Australian people deserve will only be found when the benefits of limited bureaucracy are broadly realised—a cause we must now set about endorsing. Further, only when the responsibilities of our state and federal governments are properly reiterated can we truly tackle their corresponding issues—addressing some at a federal level while returning others to states’ management. Without this accountability and a reliance on Constitutional directives, our nation risks both an undesirable concentration of power and bloated, ineffective government—in other words, the antithesis of Menzies’ vision for our nation.

The Liberal Party will ultimately rediscover the success it seeks through a return to Menzies’ inspiration, while remaining mindful of the difference between short-term public opinion and long-term public interest. In order to regain Australians’ support, we need to present a party whose conservative principles are reflected in a commitment to mainstream values, to low taxes and increased personal responsibility: a party that does not abandon its conservative ethos simply because it may encounter scrutiny. Crucially, these values are in sync with those that led to the Liberal Party’s inception. They do not seek to distort or disguise our heritage, and they also appreciate that today’s political, social and economic environment has developed since Menzies’ time. They operate with a basic affinity for the Australian people—their shared aspirations and concerns, common as so many of these are to generations past. Most significantly, the Liberal Party’s conservative values are able to unite, rather than divide; to bring citizens together without overlooking their freedoms as individuals. This is the way forward. This is true conservatism.

Reprinted with the kind permission of Senator Cory Bernardi, Liberal Senator for South Australia; this article can also be read at the Senators website where it first appeared.

For those interested in learning more about the Sir Robert Menzies era click here to view an excellent Time Magazine article, 'Out of Dreaming' as featured in April 1960. I was particularly drawn to this quote:

At his first press conference, a left-wing newsman needled him: "I suppose you will consult the powerful interests who control you before you choose your Cabinet." Answered Menzies: "Naturally. But please, young man, keep my wife's name out of this."

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