Bipartisan Liberalism

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Introduction

The major political parties based on employer versus employee no longer represents the conservative versus progressive division in Australia, or so I wrote in this 2011 opinion article. It bears close resemblance to views published nearly a decade earlier here.

Bipartisan liberalism

For most of the last 100 years the ideological framework in Australian politics has been one of worker versus employer. The workers and their supporters looked to the ALP, and the employers and their supporters looked to the Liberal Party. This was the framework of Australian politics for generations.
The shrinking union membership shows that Australian’s have changed even if politics has not.
The labor party platform until a few years ago had within it the ‘socialist objective’ that called for the nationalization of industry to the extent necessary to limit the exploitation of the workforce.
This framework had been out of date for some time when it was removed. The economic, legal and social tools available to government had created many other ways to limit exploitation than just the heavy hand of nationalization.
With decreasing unionism and the creation of other tools, many more debates in Australia are about general equity, fairness and social justice.
But social justice doesn’t belong just to the labor movement.
The philosophical liberalist tradition is about the freedom for people to attain their potential within a community while recognizing the need to look after those in genuine need. Liberalism can claim an interest in social justice too, not just those in the Labor Party.
But in Australia when one talks of liberalism, one immediately thinks of the Liberal Party. There is a confusion between the name of the party and the name of the philosophical tradition.
The problem is that the Liberal Party a conservative party and not a liberal one.
How does this play out in Australian politics today? Let’s look at some issues.
Take gay marriage. Under a liberalist philosophical tradition there would be sympathy for gay marriage. Under a conservative political tradition there would not. So what of the Liberal Party?
The current conservative leaning leadership has the Liberal Party objecting to gay marriage, even though many so called ‘wets’ from a liberal philosophical tradition would like to support the change. The Liberal Party is split along a conservative versus progressive divide.
Same in the Labor Party.
Many in the religious right of the Labor Party – especially from the catholic union base of the SDA union – oppose the gay marriage changes.
On the other hand many from a social justice but non-union background in the Labor Party support gay marriage.
You therefore have two unusual alliances forming within parliament: The pro gay marriage camp from both the social justice (non-catholic Labor Party) and liberalist (Wet Liberal Party) on one hand and the anti-gay marriage from the catholic Labor and Conservative Liberal sides.
Anti gay marriage is made up of some Labor and some Liberal. Pro gay marriage is made up of some Labor and some Liberal also. What does this mean for party politics?
There are many in the Labor Party who come from a non-unionist background but who joined the party on the basis of a belief in social justice. They are not so interested in the worker versus employer divide of the cold war days, but they are interested in social justice.
There are those in the Liberal Party who are philosophically also interested in social justice not the employer verses employee divide. So who to support or vote for?
When asking oneself which party to support, one cannot look at the moderates of the two parties as they are too similar to differentiate. One needs to look at the extremes of the parties and see which you are least uncomfortable with.
Lets take asylum. You used to be able to say that Labor was too easy and Liberal too harsh. Now they are the same.
I do not believe any of the three parties have the policy settings right on asylum, but I see so little difference between the Labor and Liberal Party positions, and see both parties’ language based on the same fear and hatred, that the social justice part of me cannot accept either party.
Likewise the social justice part cannot accept a policy that would encourage people to get on leaky boats.
I, like many Australians, am disillusioned at politics. I feel the Labor/Liberal divide no longer represents the ideological difference that exists in Australia today.
I no longer think the divide is Union or Boss, I believe Australia more debates conservative politics and liberalist politics of social justice. The problem is there are Conservatives in both the Liberal Party and Labor Party. There are social justice-liberals in both the Labor Party and Liberal Party.
Parties no longer debate different belief, they just debate power. They don’t inspire us to follow them, they try and scare us about the other side.  
No wonder people are confused. The truth is we don’t need just new leaders of the two political parties. It is not about changing Abbott or Gillard. What we need is new parties. We need a conservative Party and a Progressive Party so Australians get to choose on belief, not personality. Perhaps then we might get better government.
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