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The Liberals' hidden intellectual arsenal


Tony Abbott BattlelinesTony Abbott's recent book Battlelines articulates his vision for Australia (including a radical rethink of federalism) while expanding on the nature of conservatism. Abbott, the Shadow Minister for Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, has previously characterised Battlelines as both 'a personal book' and an exploration of 'some of the policy positions that a properly liberal conservative political position might produce'.

The book has been greeted with waves of warm approval by columnists at The Australian, in contrast to the outright hostility with which the newspaper greeted Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's essays in The Monthly. A recent editorial in The Australian regretted that 'Australian conservatives have conceded the intellectual high ground to Labor, which from Gough Whitlam on has presented itself as the party of ideas'.

This viewpoint was also aired by international affairs columnist Greg Sheridan shortly after the 2007 election, when he wrote: 'It is the great strength of Labor that it has so often studied and celebrated its own history, and indeed imposed its interpretation on the nation as the generally accepted version of history itself.'

The statements cited above reveal two common assumptions: that Australian history is shaped according to the dictates of the Labor Party, and that public debate around ideas of substance is similarly dominated by the left. These assumptions need to be examined.

The concept that those on the right in Australian politics are excluded from the national conversation is profoundly at odds with reality. That the myth of left-wing hegemony is so commonly accepted illustrates the effectiveness of the 'culture wars' in which the former Howard Government was an enthusiastic participant.

The attacks by Howard and his Ministers on 'political correctness' and on 'the chattering classes' echoed the strategy adopted by the Republicans in America over the last two decades. In What's The Matter with America?, the American journalist and historian Thomas Frank demonstrated the effectiveness of the Republican war on the 'elites' of the 'liberal media' in cementing the perception that conservatives were the true underdogs.

In fact, the Liberal Party and its supporters have arguably been far more astute than the ALP in nurturing academics and research fellows sympathetic to the 'liberal conservative' cause. As a result, conservatives can draw on a plethora of high-profile think-tanks, including the Centre for Independent Studies and The Sydney Institute, to research and enunciate their ideas.

The apparent desire of Australian conservatives to assume the mantle of the underdog also belies the past successes of the Liberal Party. Many of the books by Labor politicians — from Gough Whitlam's The Truth of the Matter to Mark Latham's From the Suburbs and Lindsay Tanner's Crowded Lives — were written during long periods in Opposition.

Conservative political parties governed Australia at a federal level for the majority of the 20th century. During this time, successive prime ministers — including Menzies, Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Fraser and Howard — were able not merely to put forward ideas or write narratives, but to implement policy. To make a fairly obvious point, it is self-indulgent to complain about not writing history when one is able instead to make it.

Given the Howard Government's denigration of Australian universities and its crippling cuts to their funding, too, it is surprising to learn that the modern Liberal Party concerns itself with history. As a humanities subject, history is not directly vocational. Nor is it marketable. Funding the study of history at a university level was not a priority of the former Liberal government.

Finally, history is by its nature contested. Although political parties will always proclaim the wisdom of its leaders and programs, good history is not written to advance the fortunes of a political party or to grind an ideological axe. John Howard's failure to appreciate this fact contributed to the destructive and farcical 'culture wars' which The Australian, unfortunately, seems keen to sustain.

Sarah BurnsideSarah Burnside is a solicitor with an interest in history, politics, native title and nationalism. She works at the Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation (YMAC), which represents native title claim groups in the Murchison, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions of Western Australia. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of YMAC.

Topic tags: Tony Abbott, Liberals, conservatives, intellect, history, culture wars



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Existing comments

One shouldn't overlook the fact that business and the wealthy can fund think tanks generously. Intellectuals and academics certainly can be mercenary - it's the story of the modern corporate university - and will write and say any claptrap for an appropriate fee. I'm always available.

Robin Ryan | 04 August 2009  

A thought provoking piece. It seems to me that the Liberal agenda is primarily to negate: to reduce, make smaller, suck the oxygen out out of ideas and any sort of generous idealism. Certainly, that is the impression left by the legacy of Howard and his inattention to any ideas that might enhance life in Australia, rather than reduce it to a mortgage balance and an attitude of mean-spiritedness and small mindedness.

Rudd is no radical, and time will tell if his ideas really are the fruit of an active and passionate imagination (as opposed to political opportunism), but at least he demonstrates a mind at work and he is ready to discuss issues that are vital to the well being of Australians - not just Quadrant readers.

Cameron | 04 August 2009  

Yes, Godwin Grech is a good example of one who tries so hard to further the Liberal's intellectual cause that he has undone its leader and probably paved the way for another term of the Rudd Government....... When will the Liberals hold a mirror up to themselves and stop being the party of fascists and bullies?

Larry O'Dea | 04 August 2009  

Liberals in Opposition seem to behave like "the previous government in exile" rather than an alternative government with alternative credible ideas.

It's like the supporters of certain AFL clubs, who belive that God has decreed that they should always win premierships. That's the club culture - nothing to do with physical fitness, sport, let alone sportsmanship. Thus as soon as an opposition player touches the ball, they scream "Ball" (holding the ball). Other supporters are abused and spat upon. The umpire is always wrong.

Sorry, only tribal Gods are on your side, and they don't always help enough.

Back to the House etc. But sometimes the winning team talks "bipartisanship" but doesn't practice it, as in Julia Gillard's juvenile attacks about Workchoices, and so on. It's not governing, it's sandpit fighting from the schoolyard. That's how to lose respect for your win - remember John Howard's unheeded warnings to own flock about hubris? It applies to any government!

Frank Bremner | 04 August 2009  

Let's all get over this right-left thing by now surely! Its much much more complex and diverse. It's about views across the spectrum from extreme through moderate views and actions, consistent or not.This is Australia's genius so let's celebrate it not begrudge it, and bring it to us and the world.

Given so many factors, Australia is not belittled by problematic aspect of old allegiances, but stimulated by innovation that includes discernment of old and new and all between.Thus, assessing eg the benefits/costs of building a water-pipe from tropical FNQ to Melbourne may cost $2Billion whilst a De-Sal plant here costs $4Billion, yet who's fully debating this life-essential choice weighing all the pros/cons, including timing, ecological, employment, maintenance, etc?? Labor/Liberal/Greens/Etc all seem too precious..

Xavier | 04 August 2009  

History neither 'vocational' nor 'marketable'; could Sarah please explain what the response of Tacitus might be (once the above terms had been explained to him)?

Claude Rigney | 04 August 2009  

Sarah Burnside is disingenuous if she seriously expects to convince Australian intellectuals with her post.Take for example this remarkable statement... “In fact, the Liberal Party and its supporters have arguably been far more astute than the ALP in nurturing academics and research fellows sympathetic to the 'liberal conservative' cause. As a result…"conservatives can draw on a plethora of high-profile think-tanks, including the Centre for Independent Studies and The Sydney Institute, to research and enunciate their ideas..."

Where does she think schools of history and education and humanities and social sciences generally are placed on the political spectrum of Australian academe and say we include New Matilda and Eureka Street and The Age? I too would not include The Australian in this line-up.

Rich | 05 August 2009  

Sarah Burnside asserts that 'conservatives can draw on a plethora of high-profile think-tanks, including The Sydney Institute, to research and enunciate their ideas'. This is false. The Institute is a forum for debate and discussion and does not do research for any organisation or political party. Read more in our Feature Letter.

Gerard Henderson | 07 August 2009  

Well said, Robin Ryan (first comment).

To quote Winston Zedmore from 'Ghostbusters': 'If there's a static pay check involved, I'll believe anything you say.'

Michael Walker | 07 August 2009  

It is interesting to compare the Australian Liberal party with what is happening in England with the Conservative Party. there they seem to be getting away from a centralist model to a local model with the emphasis on local government.

john ozanne | 08 August 2009  

Given the 'Australian''s obsequiously uncritical support for Halliburton's taxpayer-funded annexation of Certain Middle Eastern Petroleum Assets, and its repeated failure to grasp the straightforward physics of radiation emission and absorbtion which leads to climate change, one is not confident that writers in that journal are capable of the sort of thinking to which Mr Abbott aspires.

It is best left to the reader to determine the extent to which Mr Abbott surpasses the writers of Mr Murdoch's one-time flagship journal.

David Arthur | 09 August 2009  

The problem of intellectual integrity does come back to a narrative, rather than institutional connections. Labour has the idea of protection of the interests of the working class, which makes periods of opposition and struggle predictable and even honourable.

The modern Liberals can no longer convincingly claim to be representing Menzies' 'forgotten people' without stirring up the clouds of entitlement and resentment, usually on the basis of race. The conservative agenda of the fear of change- say same sex marriage or IVF access for lesbians or multiculturalism - will be outrun by the broad shift of opinion towards tolerance and acceptance, outside the rusted-on. Otherwise all the Liberals have is winning and being right- which is not always the same as being truthful - so opposition is particularly odious to them.

It's hard to imagine another non-conservative Catholic Liberal MP setting out an agenda in opposition, let alone a positive one.

Jeff Mueller | 11 August 2009  

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