The essential difficulty of defining "liberalism" arises from its very essence as a philosophy of a dynamic and constructive nature. We all recognise that its content and thrust have varied over the years but it has unquestionably been a substantial influence in the political, economic and social developments of democratic societies over the last three centuries.
R G Menzies, when forming the Liberal Party in Australia, stated his belief that there was "no room in Australia for a party of reaction...no useful place for a party of negation" and in choosing the name "Liberal' he maintained "we were determined to be a progress- ive party, willing to make experiments, in no way reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights and his enterprise". Unfortunately the need to accom- modate many conservative and pragmatic minds in one embracing political party has dimmed somewhat the achievement of those objectives. The problem today is to see whether that spirit can be recaptured.
Difficulties also arise from the immaturity of Australian politics in the electorate's constant demand for charismatic leadership of apparent "strength". Undue emphasis on the leadership principle is the antithesis of liberal ideas of representative government This problem is exacerbated by a poor quality media which rarely gives evidence of courage or persistence.
Liberalism is not a creed exclusive to one political party and there are many politicians today, in other political parties, who do aspire, at least in part, to aspects of liberal philosophy. Furthermore, the dra- matic developments of the world have permanently changed the emphasis of liberalism (despite the hopes of some who now would return to the simple market forces of the eighteenth century). The developments of the industrial revolution revealed flaws in the ideas of early liberalism. Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill did not provide the remedies for the social distress found in industrial Britain or Australia in the nineteenth century. Twentieth century Liberals, like Alfred Deakin, saw that the free operation of the market economy was not a complete answer. Provision of minimum wages and conditions, the free operation of trade unions, the compassionate provision of services for the aged, the sick and the poor were necessary and were compatible with a liberal philosophy.
Again in this present era, there is a new battle over the direction of modern liberalism. The compassion and concern for disadvantaged sections of the com- munity, particularly those living in poverty, a feature of liberalism in recent decades, is challenged on a two- sided attack. The indiscriminate application of money to problems by liberals and others in government has imposed too heavy a burden on the wage and salary earners and the producers of wealth. Thus there has been a savage reaction, here and in the USA and Great Britain, a polarisation of the community into "haves and have-nots" and a rising conservatism based largely on fear and insecurity. It has been described as "the conservative onslaught" by John Kenneth Galbraith. I have also described it as "the politics of fear" and fear is a powerful emotion in politics.
At the same time, a new brand of liberalism has emerged which looks to the freeing of "market forces" as the means of restoring economic prosperity. At its best, it presents valuable arguments for economic rationality - a reduction in government involvement in industry and commerce with all the incompetence and cost "bit government" engenders. The "new right" or "new conservatives" also promote business competition and the reduction of protection - tariffs and bounties that have sheltered inefficient industry from overseas competition, encouraged low quality production and caused the ordinary taxpayer to pay heavily for his motor car and other necessities.
But like most doctrinaire thinkers, the "new con- servatives" exaggerate their message and ignore the mixed economies that prevail in the developed and developing world. Governments in Japan, Singapore and other thriving economies do get involved in promoting trade although they may leave the pro- duction to those most competent to perform. Moreover the development of multinational corporations, with their choice of world markets for investment, makes the eighteenth century model of simple market mechan- isms inapplicable today. Modern governments must act to ensure some limitation to overseas control of their economies. The new conservatives (or "dries") show little interest in trade practice legislation or monopoly control and their own market principles have to compromise with the selfish demands of their wealthy supporters. To make matters worse, big mining interests desert the "economic rationalists" if govern- ments, like the Hawke Government, can offer them economic advantages and some semblance of consultation.
...The success of the conservative reaction in the USA and Great Britain has certainly brought a better appreciation of the real limits to government action and a revival of individual effort. Against this is the resulting polarisation of political hatreds, the support of the greedy, and the despair of the poor who are left with a future hope that economic prosperity will "trickle down" to the disadvantaged in the long run. The long term social cost of unemployment, lack of education and poor living standards will be incalcu- lable, as will the frustration felt by those with education and training who fail to achieve their real potential The true liberal will adopt and apply the best of economic rationalist arguments while maintaining and indeed extending the compassionate aspects of liberalsm.
...A modern liberal philosophy must encompass:
...Liberals who want to be liberal and who do not look to any other word to describe or qualify their philosophy must react to the myopic and divisive nature of our current politics. Australia is worthy of a better effort. The liberal philosophy basically reflects the democratic aspirations of most Australians. Many citizens of liberal ideals who attain achievement in economic and community activities must now turn their attention to politics and exercise a constructive influence in that forum. Liberalism is alive and ready for new tasks but it needs more advocates to return it to centre stage.
Occasional Paper - January 1985