Thursday, June 03, 2010

Henderson and Fraser

It is always disappointing when a letter to the paper isn't carried, but all the disappointments are worth it for the joy when it does happen (as happened last week with a letter on internet censorship).

But when the paper finds it has other more interesting or pressing letters I at least can resort to my blog. And so I come to comment on something from Tuesday, and take the opportunity to be more expansive.

Gerard Henderson wrote about Malcolm Fraser's decision to resign from the Liberal Party. In it he implies that Malcolm Fraser is trying to reposition himself as a lifetime small l “liberal”, a position he thinks is inconsistent with Fraser’s political career.

I would agree with Henderson that Fraser has never been the classical small l "liberal". After all his battles inside the Liberal Party included with people with some rights to that title like Don Chipp, John Gorton and Andrew Peacock.

The explanation for the apparent confusion is that Fraser has not said the Liberal Party no longer represents liberalism, as in the philosophical tradition of Mill and Bentham. What he has said is that the party does not represent the Liberalism that was the hallmark of the original Liberal Party led by Deakin and the recreation of it by Menzies.

This was a party that defined itself not by a philosophy of its own, but by its opposition to collectivism, as either socialism or communism. According to Margaret Simons piece in Crikey Fraser joined the Liberal cause on exactly that basis, as a reaction to collectivism. As such, it put great emphasis on the need to create Government that delivered both security and equity for all outside of the socialist realm.

Unfortunately, the victory of “liberal democracy” over all forms of collectivism in the late twentieth century left that side of politics confused as to the objective. The Liberal Party has adopted the “freedom and liberty” literature of the (later) Friedrick Hayek and Milton Friedman. It is interesting to note that the earlier Hayek (at the time of The Road to Serfdom was more avowedly merely anti-collectivism rather than the pro-freedom view in The Constitution of Liberty).

As a consequence the Liberal Party has become apologists for a distorted view of liberal democracy in which corporations are almost deified as the embodiment of “freedom” because they supposedly represent the choice of markets over the choice of voters. The modern Liberal Party looks far more like the United Australia Party in its dying days than the Liberal Party of Menzies. That, I think, is Fraser’s point.

Henderson also writes;

Fraser claims he is in the tradition of its founder Menzies, which he defines as liberal while the likes of Howard and Tony Abbott are not. To Fraser, Howard and Abbott are conservatives.

I personally struggle with the latter part of this. Howard was an interesting combination of a virulent anti-collectivist demonstrated by a passionate dislike of labour unions and a distrust of government that seems to have been forged by his youthful experience of petrol rationing. Howard was not a conservative, but nor was he a pure liberal. He was very much the neo-conservative or neo-liberal.

Abbott personally has more claims to being a conservative, he really does believe that inaction in all things is better than action.

Finally Henderson finds Fraser inconsistent for criticising Howard's asylum seeker policy as racist but having been a supporter of Menzies invocation of the "red menace". I suggest that Henderson is colour blind and is confusing the "red menace" with the "yellow hordes". It was the colour of their politics not their skin that motivated Menzies and Fraser.

I never was a great fan of Fraser's - I chanted "Shame Fraser, Shame" and "Export Fraser not uranium" with the best of them. I'm not even a latter day fan, because he hasn't particularly used his position of statesman to produce a coherent policy theme. But I do not think he is being disingenuous in his reasons for finding that he no longer has common cause with Liberals. The question is where voters like he should go - as there really is no party between Labor and Liberal, and the Greens are as pro-collectivist as Labor.

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