The Quarterly Essay

Tom Switzer responds to Waleed Aly's essay "What's Right? The future of conservatives in Australia" from the previous issue of Quarterly Essay.

Even before Barack Obama’s presidential election victory and the liberal Democrat stranglehold of the U.S. Congress in 2008, there was widespread talk of the exhaustion of conservatism. Indeed, every new day seems to bring another article or book on the subject -- and not just in the United States, but in the United Kingdom and Australia too. And, yet, the British Conservatives, if Waleed Aly is to be believed, “will almost certainly remove Labour from government in this year’s election.” Washington’s seasoned observers predict big Republican gains in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate in November. And polls here show the Coalition, under Tony Abbott, will do much better at the ballot box this year than anyone had the right to expect only six months ago.

Aly’s What’s Right? is the latest publication that peddles a pessimistic outlook for right-of-centre political parties, most notably Australia’s Liberal party. I disagree with his thesis that conservatism has entered a period of turmoil and that right-of-centre political figures no longer have a compelling vision for the future. Still, Aly deserves praise for understanding the origins of political conservatism as well as its relationship with liberalism better than most local commentators in recent times. By putting the philosophy of Burke and Disraeli in its proper historical and ideological context, Aly presents a sophisticated intellectual explanation for what passes as the right wing of the political spectrum in the Anglo-sphere. Simply put, true conservatives prefer flexibility and adaptability to rigid consistency and purity of dogma. As the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington identified more than 50 years ago, the antithesis of conservatism is not simply liberalism or even socialism. It is radicalism, which is best defined in terms of attitude towards change. For conservatives, temperament should always trump ideology; and the single best test of temperament is a person’s attitude towards change. Aly is right to say that although conservatism accepts the need for change depending on what the circumstances permit and what the priorities of the day demand, it is hostile to disruptive and radical change. After all, it can lead to loss as well as gain, and it is fraught with the danger of unintended consequences. This is why, as Aly kindly reminds readers, I opposed the Iraq invasion in 2003, an unnecessary war against a threat that could have been contained. Moreover, as Aly points out, political terms are often meaningless and can foster simplistic divisions and create artificial alliances. Indeed, it is not even clear what it means to be on the “Right” on any given matter: Should an Australian conservative take advice from former treasurer Peter Costello or Liberal leader Tony Abbott on paid maternity leave? Should he listen to columnist Andrew Bolt or intellectual Owen Harries on regime change in the Middle East? Should a British conservative heed former chancellor Kenneth Clarke’s call to expand integration into the European Union or to Britain’s favourite Eurosceptic and rising Tory star Daniel Hannan? Should an American conservative pay attention to Republican congressman Ron Paul on free trade or former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee’s warnings about unfair Chinese trade practices?

Aly’s thesis, however, is far from convincing with respect to the policy debates, most notably over the economy and climate change. He appears to subscribe to Kevin Rudd’s thesis that the global financial crisis is simply the fault of “neo-liberalism.” If anything, as even the formerly strident critic of economic rationalism John Carroll recently conceded, the GFC’s roots had more to do with muddled government interference than unfettered markets. In the U.S., it was a government agency that kept monetary policy unnaturally loose. And it was a Democratic president Bill Clinton and wayward Congress that leaned on government subsidiaries Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae to offer mortgages to people who would never repay them. Australia, meanwhile, is weathering the financial storm and remains the envy of the industrialised world. This has little to do with Labor’s big spending, debt-ridden fiscal “stimulus”, something to do with China’s thirst for our resources, and nearly everything to do with the starting point. When Australia entered the crisis in September 2008, we had no debt, a decent surplus, record low unemployment of 4 per cent and no banking crises. This impressive record had a lot to do with the free-market reforms of Coalition and Labor governments from 1983 to 2007.

To be sure, these policies - the dollar float, tariff cuts, financial deregulation, tax reform and labour market liberalisation - amounted to radical change, which created losers as well as winners. (Hansonism, in many respects, represented a backlash against these changes and, in Joseph Schumpeter's language, the "creative destruction" involved in that process.) But by any objective criteria, those historic changes were not only desirable in the circumstances; they also led to the longest economic expansion in our nation’s history. From the Keynesian mindset that delivered economic turmoil in the 1970s, Australia had moved to an era of sounder policy and more durable prosperity. Free markets and prudential financial regulatory oversight occupied the moral and policy high ground. Most conservatives supported that agenda, even when the Coalition was in opposition. Far from being discredited, they have been intellectually and politically vindicated. But it is Aly’s assessment of man-made global warming that is particularly odd. He says that “climate change promises to be a more ongoing political conundrum [than the GFC] that will be of lasting philosophical consequence” and could “wedge” the conservative parties in the future. But however much this argument had merit in 2007-09, it increasingly lacks validity in a post-Copenhagen world that does not conform to the expectations of Tim Flannery and Clive Hamilton. Politics, after all, is never fixed; it is always in a state of flux. The only certainty is that the political climate always changes. And the wind, far from blowing conservative parties off the electoral map, threatened to turn into a perfect storm for Kevin Rudd. Which is why he has jettisoned the emissions trading scheme. During the 18 months following the release of the Garnaut Report in the winter of 2008, the climate debate in Australia had been conducted in a heretic-hunting, anti-intellectual atmosphere. Rudd had claimed that climate change is the “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time” and he even linked “world government conspiracy theorists” and “climate-change deniers” to “vested interests.” Much of the media, business and scientific establishment deemed it blasphemy that anyone dare question Labor’s grand ambitions.

The Liberals, first under Brendan Nelson and then under Malcolm Turnbull, dithered, equivocated and vacillated over the appropriate response. When the Coalition finally established a policy to back the Government's scheme, the party faithful revolted and its base crumbled. Throughout the process, the Opposition was badly trailing Labor in the polls and heading towards electoral oblivion. With Tony Abbott's rise in December, however, everything has changed. The new Liberal leader has not only subjected Labor's agenda to impose potentially crushing costs on business and consumers to some much needed scrutiny, he has also spelt out in the most forceful and coherent language how the ETS has all the hallmarks of a giant revenue grab and creeping socialism.

Late last year, commentators predicted that the Liberal party’s “ill-judged” opposition to the ETS (Michelle Grattan) would amount to “electoral oblivion” (Peter Hartcher), “humiliation at the polls” (Laurie Oakes) and a “political suicide mission” and “the road to ruin” (Paul Kelly). Today, without missing a beat, the same commentators concede that Liberal opposition to the ETS has “undermined” Rudd, (Grattan) “vindicate[d] the politics of the Coalition’s decision” (Hartcher) and forced a “running scared” Rudd (Oakes) into “one of the most spectacular backdowns by a prime minister in decades” (Kelly). Polling data confirms this trend: according to a Lowy Institute survey late last year, less than half of Australians consider global warming a serious and pressing problem, and climate change ranked seventh in a list of 10 “most important” policy priorities, down from first only two years ago.

Meanwhile, climate change fatigue is setting in all over the globe. The governments of China and India insist they won't join the West in what they see as an economic suicide pact. In France, the Sarkozy government recently shelved plans to introduce a carbon tax. In Germany, polls show only 42 per cent of Germans worry about global warming. In the European Union, the ETS has been a victim of fraudulent traders and done little to curb emissions. In Canada, climate law is stalled in legislative limbo. Even New Zealanders are doubting the merits of a going-it-alone strategy! In Obama’s America, furthermore, the recession, record snowstorms, massive Tea Party rallies, rising public scepticism of climate-change science, mounting industry opposition, climate-gate and glacier-gate scandals – these have all dampened the political climate for a cap-and-trade law. In Copenhagen, the United Nations’ climate-change summit went up in smoke. And in Mexico City later this year hopes for any verifiable, enforceable and legally binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gases - and to include developing nations such as China and India that are chugging along the smoky path to prosperity - are a chimera.

In this changing climate, it is not clear how conservatives would win swing votes by championing unilateral action on slashing carbon emissions that would cause economic pain for no environmental gain. In contrast, by no longer being carbon copies of Labor and so by forcing the Prime Minister into a humiliating policy retreat, the Liberals stand a good chance to win back key segments of lower middle-class and working class - the Howard Battlers – to whom Kevin Rudd appealed in 2007. The point here is that radial change – that is, the ETS – does not sit well with either a conservative party or the conservative tendencies of Middle Australia.

And then, what if the Cassandras are either wrong or have seriously exaggerated the threat? I do not question the warming Earth during the last 25 years of the last century, but the evidence this century indicates at least a flat lining of the average surface temperature. Why this is the case is not clear. But even if a scientific consensus exists, a policy consensus most certainly does not. In this environment, a sensible conservative response could involve adaptation – a policy alternative Aly does not even consider – rather than economically crippling and possibly futile grand gestures. Besides, uncertainties in climate forecasting remain huge. In the 1970s, prominent environmentalists were issuing dire warnings about overpopulation, mass starvation and global cooling. Yet population growth estimates have declined. Biotechnology advances have found ways to feed more poor people than the alarmists predicted. And global cooling has become global warming. Remember the costly and fraudulent scares we have recently lived through, from mad cow disease to genetically modified foods. As the English prime minister Lord Melbourne once said: “What all the wise men promised has not happened, and what all the damned fools said would happen has come to pass.” Bear all this in mind when you hear Waleed Aly dismiss conservatives as “deniers” and justify interventionist policies in the name of solving a speculative problem that would lead to radical and disruptive changes that in turn could have a substantial and detrimental impact on the lives of the Australian people.