Liberal divisions can be a source of strength, not weakness, in the election campaign

Do the divisions within the Liberal Party reflect differences of personality and tactical emphasis? Or do they come down to differing worldviews? AAP/Mick Tsikas

Labor leader Bill Shorten on Sunday made a bold prediction regarding what will happen after the election on July 2:

The Liberal Party will go to war with itself again. They view this election as a skirmish before they can settle scores with each other.

The decline in Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity since he became prime minister and the increasingly explicit critiques of his leadership by some conservatives have raised the question of whether the Liberal Party has a unifying ideology.

Do the divisions within the party reflect differences of personality and tactical emphasis, as with the Labor Party? Or do they reflect deep conflicts of worldview, as is the case with the Republican Party in the US?

In truth, the Liberal Party is more united now than it has been in decades. This unity is around the project of “liberal-conservatism”.

Ideological roots

It is a common argument to see the Liberal Party as the repository of two distinct traditions.

Attorney-General George Brandis has defined the Liberal Party as a coalition of liberals, such as himself, who look to John Stuart Mill, and conservatives, like Tony Abbott, who look to Edmund Burke.

Abbott stresses “conservatism” as the unifying idea of the Liberal Party. But, like Brandis, he misuses ideology in the cause of factional politics.

Abbott and Brandis are actually on the same page. Liberal-conservatism, as academics Eric Hobsbawm and Andrew Gamble have argued, originated in the 19th century when conservatives came to terms with mass politics and the rise of capitalism, and some liberals began to see the working class – not landed aristocrats – as their political foes.

Liberal-conservatism is not an entirely unified ideology. But no politically effective ideology ever is: socialism’s appeal has been based on both its libertarian and paternalist strands.

The roots of the fusion of liberalism and conservatism lie in Burke. The founder of the English conservative tradition, Burke was not an advocate of unlimited state power like overt reactionaries such as contemporary “traditionalists”. He did not defend individual freedoms against the state, but rather traditional “liberties”.

In Burke’s view, freedom had to be balanced against order. He distinguished between “liberty” and “freedom” and understood the latter as individual choice that denied the liberty of others. In this perspective, law constrained freedom. This was a good thing – except in economic policy, where Burke defended Adam Smith’s economic liberalism.

For Burke, liberty is precious – so much so that it must be rationed. His position is distinct from that of liberals such as John Locke, whose ideal is one of freedom under law, whereas to Burke, law and freedom are necessary enemies.

This is a secularised version of the Christian distinction between the things of God and the things of Caesar. Abbott argued that Christian critics of Howard government policies would be better advised to focus on individual morality.

Liberal-conservatism in Australia

The unifying project of Australian liberal-conservatism is a suspicion of some of the contemporary state’s activities. For some, this suspicion is an economic one. The moderate version of this critique, represented by Turnbull and the business elite, identifies the state as an obstacle to economic growth.

Further to the right, Abbott casts the state as the agent of European-style stagnation.

For others, the state is cast as a threat to moral traditionalism. Initiatives such as Safe Schools Coalition are seen as seeking to enforce a moral equality of heterosexual and homosexual conduct. The Australian Christian Lobby has argued that same-sex marriage will infringe human rights.

Arguments about sexuality were once a flashpoint between “liberals” and “conservatives”. But, from the 1960s, small-l liberals argued for decriminalisation of homosexual conduct on Mill-style grounds against moral traditionalists, who argued the state should repress immoral conduct.

Liberals won this battle. No politically significant force advocates outlawing homosexual conduct. Instead, sexuality has become an area of co-operation among liberal-conservatives in opposition to left-liberals.

Liberal-conservatives such as former human rights commissioner Tim Wilson or journalist Paul Kelly can now argue the state should not act as though homosexual and heterosexual conduct is of equal moral value. In their perspective, homosexual conduct – although legal – may continue to have negative consequences. These include the inability to access marriage and exclusion from certain employment opportunities as a result of “religious freedom”.

Abbott distinguished between the recognition of the reality of homosexuality and its endorsement by the state as deserving of equal status to heterosexuality. Brandis, the incarnation of elite liberalism, argued that criticism of Abbott’s religious beliefs is a form of bigotry. This is not what liberal Liberal lawyers of an earlier generation, such as Garfield Barwick or Tom Hughes, would have said.

For Kelly and Wilson, the state appears as an enemy of civil society. This is a civil society where belief in the immorality of homosexual conduct remains significant.

For liberal-conservatives, politics is about finding the appropriate balance between freedom and order. They may disagree strongly on how this balance is to be struck and what freedoms are now “liberties” that should be defended. But they share a common worldview.

In time, “liberties” that are worthy of defence may emerge, such as the right of children to a mother and father evoked by the Christian right. Or, former selfish freedoms may graduate to the level of liberties: such as homosexual conduct in private.

In this perspective, the solution to state oppression is not to constrain the state through means such as human rights legislation, but to reduce the scope of the state. Liberal-conservatives assert that state power is undesirable in theory but necessary in practice. Brandis has cited terrorism as a justification for recalibrating the balance between freedom and security in classically Burkean terms.