How broad is “broad” is the question confronting the federal Liberal Party. It’s the question the party has been avoiding for the decade since the departure from parliament of John Howard and Peter Costello.
The debate currently engulfing the Liberals about how to accommodate religious freedom while legalising same-sex marriage is the most recent flashpoint of the emerging fissures in the party. The Canberra press gallery cares about same-sex marriage which is why the Liberals’ split has got so much attention. Because the Canberra press gallery doesn’t care about freedom of speech, the first signs of the deepening differences between “conservatives” and “liberals” in the Liberal Party were largely ignored some years ago when the party started to consider reform to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.
The way the media has characterised freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of association as “conservative” positions, when in fact they are basic principles of liberalism, reveals the almost complete lack of understanding of most commentators of what’s occurring inside the Liberal Party.
At a superficial level the Liberal Party has proved itself to be broad enough to have elected three leaders since Howard, none of whom would necessarily have chosen the Liberal Party as their first and only political home. The fact that the federal Liberal parliamentary party could select as one of its leaders a former member of the ALP, who once publicly declared “I’ve never voted Liberal in my life” can be interpreted as either a testament to the willingness of Liberal MPs to embrace diversity, or as evidence of the calibre of candidates for the Liberal leadership.
Australia’s greatest Liberal leader, John Howard has famously described the modern Liberal Party of Australia as a “broad church” that accommodates the philosophical traditions of both liberalism and conservatism. One of the reasons Howard was so successful in managing the Liberal’s broach church was because he appreciated that during the 1980s and 1990s in Australia, the difference in practical terms between the policy implications of liberalism compared to conservatism was not significant. When the policy debates were about economics, rather than culture it was relatively easy for the Liberal Party to be a broad church.
The way to understand how it can be that climate change continues to divide the Liberal Party is by appreciating that for many Liberal MPs and rank and file party members, climate change is as much a question of the values that should be pursued by society as it is a matter of science or economics.
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin talked of how political values, while worthwhile in themselves, can nevertheless be incompatible, or as he described it “incommensurable”. For example, “freedom” and “equality” are both worthwhile ends, but with more freedom comes less equality, and vice versa. Giving churches the freedom to decide who they’ll marry necessarily means couples will be treated unequally. In the Liberal Party the freedom versus equality fissure is deep and serious. The Labor Party faces no such challenge because it’s never had any commitment to freedom to speak of.
Any Liberal MP who believes that once the same-sex marriage issue is resolved their party will then be able to return to being a broad church that talks only about tax and budgets is kidding themselves. There is no way the Liberal Party will be able to avoid talking about culture. Same-sex marriage stands at the beginning of the culture wars inside the Liberal Party.
Debates about values and principles, such as those brought into focus by discussion about religious freedom and same-sex marriage will inevitably come to dominate the public discourse in Australia, just as they have overseas. Just as in America when people voted for Trump, and just like in Britain when people voted for Brexit, every indication is that here in Australia the public will vote according to their values, not what’s presumed to be in their economic interest.
In 2017, when the big questions facing Australia are about culture and identity the task of sustaining the Liberal Party as a broad church tradition is increasingly proving difficult – as Malcolm Turnbull is discovering. Time will tell whether that task proves impossible.