Cass Wilkinson had this piece in the Australian on Monday 9 May 2011. Apart from being rather pessimistic, it summarises things well in my opinion.
IF you don’t like bike helmets; if you think adults should be able to play racy video games; if you don’t think it’s anybody’s business what you eat or how often you exercise; if you believe in freedom of speech, movement, religion and love; if you’re sick of the government having its hand in your pocket, its feet in your bedroom and its eyes on your email you might just be a liberal.
But probably not a Liberal.
Since John Howard put the party on his two-track path of liberalism and conservatism, the only main party ostensibly devoted to liberal ideals of small government and personal freedom has increasingly demonstrated you can’t walk two paths with one set of feet.
South Australian Liberal leader Isobel Redmond recently told The Australian, “to me the Liberal Party stands for individual freedom and the right to pursue your own ambitions and dreams, to not have the government directing how you live your life”. But notwithstanding Joe Hockey, Malcolm Turnbull and Ted Baillieu, the Liberals are turning into what Labor has long accused them of being: a Tory party.
The Liberals now support high taxes to pay for what were once regarded as Labor social goals: Medicare, family payments and pensions, environmental protection and maternity leave. And since Work Choices is “dead, buried and cremated” it’s hard to see what serious differences exist on economic policy except for the carbon and mining taxes.
Simultaneously, Labor is busy turning itself into what its opponents have long accused it of being, a party of clumsy big government socialism.
Labor opened up the “bonsai” economy, engineered the national electricity market, created sustainable funding for higher education through HECS and significantly unwound centralised wage and price setting. It’s now in a coalition with Greens and agrarian socialists busily re-nationalising communications infrastructure; building an internet firewall to decide what we can see and say online; and writing volumes of new environmental, financial and industrial regulations to tell us how to run the businesses that generate the taxes that make it all possible.
The two main parties oppose freedom of movement, tightly restricting entry for migrants. Both parties have mixed records on personal freedom with bipartisan opposition to recreational drugs, extreme sports, adult video games, pornography, even ear piercing is now regulated in several states with bipartisan support. Both parties now support high levels of business regulation and as Terry McCrann commented ‘Make the GST untouchable and you cannot have tax reform’.
So if you’re a liberal, who can you vote for? Currently the options are broadly libertarian or progressive.
The term progressive is back with Progressive Australia gathering the great and good of the unions, GetUp, the ALP Left and a smattering of think tankers and environmentalists to pursue “progress” on gay marriage, refugees and environmental issues.
But I can’t see anyone proposing a fresh round of aggressive microeconomic reform for progress on living standards. In that regard they no doubt agree with well-known conservative Julia Gillard that there are “some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future”.
Progressives support some freedoms that suit their social preferences such as gender equity but they don’t support freedom as a goal in itself and most of their policy prescriptions are for more government interference in private transactions, decisions and expression to reduce pollution, redistribute wealth and discourage vice.
On the other hand there are the libertarian parties, a motley cast of fishers, hunters, sex-workers, tea-partiers and climate sceptics. The Shooters and Fishers are light on non-shooting and fishing-related policy but have been broadly pro-growth centrists. They do not support drug takers having similar recreational freedoms to shooters although they do promote hunting as an alternative for drug addiction.
The Sex Party is, as you would expect, pro sexual freedom and recreational drugs but perversely favours aggressive government intervention in other areas including regulating the numbers of women in parliament and providing government labs to test drugs at music festivals. They have no published economic policies but statements by candidates suggest a communitarian, anti-development, pro public transport approach that makes them really just a more interesting “progressive party” rather than a libertarian party.
The only group which is comprehensively and philosophically liberal is the Liberal Democratic Party, which has a platform of major tax reform and embraces the free movement of people and capital as well as acceptance of recreational drug taking, extreme sports and sex work, taking the policy position “if we prohibited everything we disapproved of, nobody would be free”. The LDP has failed to elect a single candidate and at the recent election in NSW ran as the Outdoor Recreation Party which probably indicates there are more votes in four-wheel-driving than the free exchange of labour and capital.
So there are really no immediate options for liberals who must either waste their vote on Jeep drivers or make the choice between a somewhat more socially liberal Labor and a somewhat more economically liberal Liberal. Until recently there was a choice for liberals, they could vote for Don Chipp’s Democrats. But the Democrats drifted leftwards to squabble over Greens voters, as Labor is doing now, and ultimately paid the price of giving up their relevance to mainstream voters.
Cassandra Wilkinson was an adviser to NSW premier Kristina Keneally