Do the Liberals have a history?

It’s taken me until now to find time to report on the most interesting event I attended last week – the launch of a new book by David Kemp, The Land of Dreams: How Australians Won Their Freedom, 1788–1860. It’s the first volume of a projected five-volume history of Australia, which is intended to stand comparison with the work of such predecessors as Manning Clark.

It’s a big book, and I haven’t done more than glance through it yet, so what follows will be based on the speeches at the launch (primarily Kemp’s own) and the publicity material. But I think that’s enough to draw a few conclusions. (I will probably return to the topic another time.)

Kemp had a distinguished record as an academic before entering federal parliament in 1990, going on to hold various portfolios in the Howard government until his retirement in 2004. His Society and Electoral Behaviour in Australia, published in 1978, is one of the few real classics of Australian political science.

While I have little time for the Howard government, it’s fair to say that Kemp was, at least relatively speaking, a voice for sanity within it. Many had hoped that in retirement he would write an insider’s account of that period – and if the present series continues, perhaps we’ll get some of that in volume five.

Instead Kemp has started much further back, with the beginnings of European settlement in Australia. Nonetheless, it’s a pretty safe bet that the remaining volumes will lead up to something that, at least broadly speaking, works as a justification of the Liberal Party in the recent era.

So the interesting thing is to see how Kemp thinks about the party’s relatively remote antecedents. Where, in the Australian context, are its ideological origins?

Kemp’s view on that, at least on the basis of what was said last week, was clear: the place to look is the political and intellectual tradition that the lay person would call “liberal”. So, for example, he identifies with the campaign to end transportation of convicts to Australia; with the movements for establishment of democracy and responsible government in the colonies; and with the efforts of those who strove, mostly (as he acknowledged) unsuccessfully, to secure decent treatment of Australia’s indigenous people.

I have no doubt at all about Kemp’s genuineness in this. I’m sure that he really believes that if he, and perhaps most of his Liberal Party colleagues, had been around in the early nineteenth century, they would have supported these and other progressive causes.

But how realistic is this? Is today’s Liberal Party, or some substantial part of it, really the spiritual descendant of the early colonial liberals?

I am sceptical. Before explaining why, however, it’s worth pointing out how unusual it is for the Liberal Party to consider this sort of question. In the ALP, and in similar parties across the world, historical questions are important. Historical pedigrees are claimed, disputed and fought over; the party’s history is taken seriously as a key component of its identity.

But that is not the Liberal Party’s way of doing things. With only rare exceptions, its leading figures prefer to gloss over historical questions. To the extent that Kemp is seeking to change that, he deserves every credit and encouragement.

The problem is, though, that there are serious obstacles to the “liberal” interpretation of the Liberal Party’s history. They can be summarised in a simple question: where did the conservatives go?

Nineteenth century Australia was contested, broadly speaking, between two competing streams. Those on the more conservative side were distrustful of democracy, more deferential to the British government, wary of change and protective of economic and religious hierarchies. Those on the more liberal side took the opposite views.

Of course there was a great deal more going on besides; there were many other currents of opinion and many issues that cut across this dichotomy. It is at best a very rough tool for understanding our past.

Nonetheless, it works to make my point. If the “liberals”, on Kemp’s understanding, went on to be the forerunners of the Liberal Party, what does he think happened to the conservatives? Whose ancestors are they? Who now represents their political tradition?

One might argue that the conservatives were so comprehensively defeated that their ideological current just disappeared; that they were assimilated into the liberal tradition. But this strikes me as deeply implausible.

On the contrary, there have always been conservatives in Australia, those who were opposed not just to radicalism but to progressive reform of any sort. There has always been, in Mill’s words, a “party of order or stability,” if not of reaction. And, to put it bluntly, the Liberal Party is now it.

Whatever Kemp’s own credentials, it is impossible to imagine most of today’s Liberals, if magically translated to the 1830s, joining in the campaigns for representative government or an end to transportation. They would have been on the other side. And they and their like have run the Liberal Party for a long time; the progressive current is the preserve of a small minority, and it is delusional to think otherwise. Malcolm Turnbull’s tenure of office demonstrated that with great clarity.

Someone less well-connected could maybe tell the history as one of betrayal: of a genuine liberal tradition, which formed one of the strands composing the early Liberal Party but was gradually stifled, finally expiring under Howard, or at the latest under Tony Abbott. But Kemp, surely, cannot tell the story that way.

Yet who knows? Perhaps the later volumes will surprise us.

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