Interesting piece in this morning’s Ageby
Norm Abjorensen on John Howard’s place in Liberal Party history. One
thing it shows is how hard it is to situate ourselves in the
intellectual debate of a century ago.

Abjorensen tries hard, but he cannot quite get away from the modern
left-wing mindset that equates “liberal” with “closer to socialism”.
Here’s his take on the strands that made up the Liberal Party:

There were the social liberals descended from the Victorian
protectionist Alfred Deakin (…), the devout conservatives with
nowhere else to go, and the free-market radicals descended from the NSW
free trader George Reid …

Under John Howard’s leadership and policy direction, it is the third
group that has prevailed, with the acquiescence of the second at the
expense of the first.

In effect, the NSW Liberals [note the capital “L”], a very different
breed, have hijacked the party and steered it away from its largely
Victorian roots of social liberalism …

Well, yes, Deakin’s lot were “liberal” in a sense, but they were also
rabidly xenophobic and unashamedly opportunist – qualities that have
shown some durability. Reid’s group were equally liberal, but
Abjorensen is reluctant to give them the title because they were
anti-socialists. The abiding irony of the Liberal Party’s history is
that a merger between two liberal groups produced a party dominated by
conservatives.

Abjorensen is right to point to the oddness of the NSW division of the
party, quoting James Jupp’s comment that it has always had the “ratbag
characteristics of an outgroup”. But there is nothing in common between
George Reid and today’s “uglies”; the Reid tradition is represented by
people like Nick Greiner, John Hewson and John Valder. In the 1980s,
they looked hopefully towards Howard, but they were disappointed.

The real beneficiaries of Howard’s tenure have been the conservatives,
but even that is only the continuation of an existing trend. It is no
coincidence that the Liberal Party’s three successful leaders –
Menzies, Fraser and Howard – have all been temperamentally
conservative but fundamentally pragmatists, letting ideology take
second place to electoral politics. There’s little reason to think
Peter Costello would do things differently.

Peter Fray

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