Thirty years ago the author, journalist and one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher, John O’Sullivan, described the behavioural tendencies of non-profit and philanthropic organisations. “O’Sullivan’s First Law” is “All organisations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing”.
The reason was “people who staff such bodies tend to be the sort who don’t like private profit, business, making money, the current organisation of society and, by extension, the Western world”.
And, as O’Sullivan noted, over time the interests of the permanent employees of the organisation eventually take precedence over the organisation’s stated objectives. A glance at practically any part of the public sector, especially schools and universities, demonstrates the accuracy of this claim.
A version of O’Sullivan’s First Law also applies to politics. The Labor Party is now more left-wing than it was a decade ago, let alone two or three decades ago, as is the Liberal Party. In fact, there are few aspects of modern society to which the law doesn’t apply. There are exceptions, but for every corporation, sporting code and civic institution that’s moved to the political right, 10 have moved to the left.
This is the context in which to understand last week’s federal budget from the Morrison government. The budget’s embrace of a bigger state and larger role for government was not a one-off. It was simply the continuation of what the Liberals have been doing for some time.
The Liberals have been as willing as the ALP to have the government take over responsibility for the control and regulation of not only the economy but of society more broadly.
The most recent example of this is the way both parties now assume it is the role of the government to police practically every aspect of interpersonal gender relations.
Similarly, when it comes to regulating what people are allowed to say to each other, the Liberal and Labor positions are indistinguishable.
Increasingly, and not entirely without justification, the Liberal Party of 2021 is described as “Labor-lite”. Certainly such a label might have been more accurate when Malcolm Turnbull was federal Liberal leader, but defining the Liberals in such a way against the Labor Party is slightly misguided.
For one thing the ALP has a stronger commitment to its philosophical principles. When the PM and his ministers repeat words to the effect of “We’re all pragmatists now” it’s as if they’re rejoicing in a freedom to be not bound by any tradition of classical liberalism, conservatism or any other world view.
The Labor Party can’t ever be separated from its foundations in the trade union movement. The Labor Party started as a political party representing a sectoral interest and it still is one, whereas the Liberal Party is not.
A better way to regard the modern-day Liberal Party is as a European-style Social Democratic Party. Some European Social Democratic parties are decidedly socialist-inclined, which the Liberal Party certainly isn’t.
Rather, the comparison between the Liberals and their European counterparts is with the Social Democratic parties in countries such as Sweden. Many of the Liberals’ policy positions approximate those of Emmanuel Macron in France – except for, interestingly, matters of culture, on which Macron is more conservative than Scott Morrison.
On economics continental Social Democrats are not entirely hostile to the operation of the free market, but they’re inclined to look to Keynesian-type government-inspired solutions first, just like today’s Liberals.
Although Social Democrats support a tripartite industrial relations consensus in a way the Liberals do not, the level of government regulation of the labour market the Liberals accept makes the labour relations policies of Social Democrats and Liberal for all intents and purposes the same.
On social policy, Social Democrats and the Liberals alike endorse a high and ever-widening social safety net together with the relatively high levels of taxation required to pay for it.
The explanation for the application to politics of O’Sullivan’s First Law is that in democracies, political parties eventually come to reflect the demands of the voting public. As the community’s expectations of the state have increased, so too the Liberal Party has changed.
Once it was only the Labor Party that was incapable of saying no to every call for greater government spending and intervention in people’s lives.