The modifying environmental influences are many, varied and often wholly unexpected. They can be international, national or parish-pump. Individual per- sonalities can have critical impacts for good or ill. The nature and quality of the opposing political party can provide stimulant or sedative, drive or drift. It is all too easy to become the creatures rather than the masters of the political tides, currents and eddies.
Prediction, therefore, is extremely difficult and doubly so if the commentator, like myself, is subjectively involved in the political party under the microscope. In politics, as in any family, propinquity clouds judgment and breeds an excessive tolerance of faults. Within such formidable limitations, my personal viewpoints should be evaluated. In turn, I shall try to keep in mind G K. Chesterton's admonition that "My country, right or wrong" is equivalent to asserting 'My mother, drunk or sober.'
...The future of the Liberal Party - its success or failure - will depend not only upon the public acceptance of its positive philosophy, but also upon its own ability to assess correctly the true issues of the future. In this, I believe the past to be the worst of guides.
A cynic has said: "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history." To the extent that the psychological attitudes and the scientific and economic limitations of the pre-war years are hopelessly out- moded in contemplating the 1970s, this is emphatically true.
It is important to define these vital differences (as, I believe, the Liberal Party interprets them) in order to identify the climate in which the Liberal Party must operate.
The events of the past 30 years have altered the course of mankind more profoundly and more perma- nently than all the remainder of history. The advent of the specific therapeutic drugs (ie., the sulpha drugs and antibiotics), the growth and adaptation of Keynesian economics, the unleashing of nuclear en- ergy for war and peace, the conquering of distance and isolation by jet and rocketry, the immediacy and universality of communication - these will leave their marks more indelibly on history than Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, or, indeed, Churchill.
In pre-war years, the Australian community was bedevilled by the 'boom and bust' eccentricities of the trade cycle - a cycle aggravated by our perilous reliance on wool and wheat. A depression psychology gave rise to an understandable, if obsessive, striving for security. Our scientists, economists and demographers preached of grave limitations upon the growth of the population and upon the development of the continent. The 'class war', born of the very insecurities and conflicts of Australia's beginnings, fed by nineteenth century migration of underprivileged people and per- petuated by wars, depressions and militant political interests, was still strongly defined. Sectionalism and sectarianism had etched their marks on the Australian character. So, too, had an acute sense of isolation from Great Britain, coupled with the desire to remain part of it. To most Australians, Asia virtually did not exist and certainly offered neither threat nor challenge.
Today and for the future, the position is transformed. Full employment and rising living standards, together with comprehensive social services, are accepted as the minimum requirement from any government. The new generations of voters have known nothing except the affluent society.
...The world of the 1970s and beyond can bear no relationship to the world of the past The nature and emphasis of the political issues will be very different Despite this fact, many politicians (notably in the Labor Party, but also in other parties) are constantly dwelling upon problems and situations which no longer exist.
Within the compass of available knowledge and national resources, all the people of this world could be fed, clothed, housed and maintained in good health. The current limitations are primarily political and sociological.
Man has always shown himself more willing to seek to understand his material environment than to under- stand himself or his neighbours. Indeed, in recent decades, we have given great prominence to the physicists, the chemists, the engineers and their kindred scientists, whilst failing to appreciate that mankind's currently intractable problems are those essentially for the philosopher, the educator, the psychologist and the political scientist.
Even if, in the years ahead, we resolve the material problems of the underprivileged of this world (as we have largely done in our own country), we will still confront massive problems. A full stomach and a healthy body may produce material satisfaction, but they lead inevitably to the wider dissatisfactions of a hungry, inquiring and dissatisfied mind. Faced with these new factors (already well defined in this country) and with the growing incidence of psychosomatic and geriatric diseases, man will be forced to confront himself as a major study. In so doing, we Australians will come to realise that an upbringing in Western democracy and Christian ethics is scarcely sufficient with which to attempt to understand the individual behaviour pattern of our Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist neighbours.
I suspect strongly that the younger people of Australia are considerably in advance of many poli- ticians in this pattern of thought and that they are looking earnestly for a lead in these new values. To dismiss the new generations as being grossly material- istic and socially undisciplined is, in my view, to seriously misunderstand them.
...I believe it to be the aim of the great majority of Liberals to remain firmly in the middle-of-the-road. The absence of an effective Opposition might have tended, in other circumstances, to create some minor drift towards the conservative right, but any such tendency has been more than offset by the influx of a very considerable number of new branch members and supporters who in the past have been right-wing Labor. These people have brought their characteristically restless energies and ideas to all levels of the organisation.
Public opinion polls indicate that the Liberal Party has made major progress in its aim to be a truly national party. We now draw very substantial voting support from people of almost all occupations, age- groups and religions. Support from 'blue collar' workers and trade unionists is growing appreciably. The traditional electoral boundaries offer no necessary guide to future political results.
...There is growing understanding also, of the interdependence of primary and secondary industry and of the unrealism of continuing ancient feuds and prejudices. The old-time political battle line between free-traders and protectionists is thoroughly blurred and in parts, erased.
Can a political party be truly national in character or must it fail because of the diverse pressures within it and through inability to cope with them?
I believe that a national party (whether Liberal or otherwise) can and will succeed in Australia. There seems to be a close parallel in the political trends in the USA and Australia, arising perhaps from relatively similar immigration patterns.
The Republican and Democratic Parties have each developed national characteristics. Support for either party is not now restricted to particular income-groups or occupations. There is largely bipartisan foreign policy and no major ideological conflict divides them. The real scope for electoral discrimination lies in the contending personalities, policies and administrations.
Such a political structure seems to me to be attractive to the Australian temperament and effective for the furtherance of this country's external policies and domestic development. If I am right in this judgement and if the Labor Party fails to establish an authentic moderate platform and structure, then it will continue its decline and an Opposition must ultimately emerge from elsewhere. Both nature and the electors abhor vacuums.
The Australian political temperament rejects extremes. This is well illustrated by the fact that the Labor Party, with its socialist objective, authoritarian structure and narrow, sectional base, has been elected to government in the Commonwealth sphere in only 17 of the 66 years of Federation - and then largely in time of crisis. I make this point not in sniping criticism of a political opponent, but rather in an attempt to diagnose electoral sentiment.
I believe that the Liberal philosophy, which places emphasis upon the individual rather than upon inanimate institutions, will be admirably suited to the needs of the future. Doctrinaire socialism is being universally rejected, even (after lengthy trial) in the totalitarian nations. The struggle for personal liberty is gaining ground.
Inevitably, in his striving for world peace and for the maintenance of internal social order built on a voluntary self-discipline, man must turn his mind more and more to the spiritual, moral and ethical values - to the study of the true nature and purpose of man. If, then, we are to build institutions and societies to be the servants and not the masters of man - if we are to adapt them to man's needs and not man to them - then political philosophies will achieve a new significance.
If Australia is to survive and be free, we must learn to be good neighbours. We must respect the right of others to be different, to be separate and free. Our definition of freedom should connote our responsibility to respect and defend the freedom of others. These things demand an understanding of political philosophy and a recognition that our social values are not absolutes to be thrust at others. For these challenges, I believe the Liberal philosophy to be adequate.
As Liberals, however, we must beware of developing 'sacred cows'. We should regard free enterprise, for example, as one of our major instruments but not as an absolute weapon or as an end itself. Liberalism and laissez-faire can never co-exist The true Liberal is always concerned for the welfare of the individual, for the creation of opportunities, for the preservation of human dignity and the development of human personality.
We must beware of making a fetish of the young and at the other extreme, of ignoring or rejecting the talents, abilities and strivings of the old. Youth has an immense contribution to make in energy, imaginative thinking and freedom from the prejudices and rigidities of the past It needs the tempering and partnership of both practical and academic knowledge and experience.
We have failed the aged amongst us, not so much in the provision of social services, but rather in denying them a significant and secure role in our society - in essence, a clear purpose in living Compulsory agistment can be demoralising to the human spirit.
...A political party is an amorphous organism, buffeted by a multitude of pressures and constantly changing and adapting itself through the osmotic exchange of people and ideas. I see the Liberal Party as a sturdy hybrid, well adapted to the Australian climate and with qualities, particularly of integrity, which should make it endure.
Originally published in Australian Quarterly, 34 (2) June 1967