Voices of liberalism will add cachet to Canberra

23 Mar Voices of liberalism will add cachet to Canberra

By Janet Albrechtsen

With an election firmly in sight, let’s admit that of the 226 politicians in federal parliament, too few are smart men or women of genuine political convictions. Even fewer are articulate messengers for their cause.

Instead, many are plodders, political insiders, sometime party favourites and gamers who have simply greased the wheels, taken tea with the right people, and maybe wined and dined donors. They couldn’t hope to land such plum positions with a six-figure salary (plus handsome entitlements) outside parliament.

Refreshingly, two new arrivals will inject real intellectual and political firepower into Canberra. Neither are political apparatchiks, nor are they politically jejune. The country should welcome the arrival of James Paterson, the newest Victorian senator, and Tim Wilson, the new candidate for the Victorian seat of Goldstein.

Why? Because they will lift the quality of debate, not just within the Liberal Party but within federal politics and beyond. When smart people with real convictions enter the political fray, it forces all sides to lift their game. Both are smart, passionate and proven warriors for the values of classical liberalism. This is not some esoteric, woolly-worded philosophy. These values are the drivers of human progress that Australians ought to better comprehend, defend and cherish.

As the newest senator said in his maiden speech last Wednesday: “I am proud to call myself a classical liberal because I recognise that we are the custodians of a set of ideas that goes back centuries. We have inherited an incredibly proud intellectual tradition.

“It was people who called themselves liberals who helped emancipate slaves, enacted religious freedom and established the principle that all should be equal before the law.”

Paterson doesn’t hail from blue-blood Liberal Party roots. He grew up in a family with left-of-centre political convictions. He came to liberalism the best possible way, of his own accord, from contesting ideas with people such as his parents and his teachers.

He joined the Liberal Party at 17 because of his convictions for classical liberalism, about the central role of free speech in allowing debates to flourish, the moral case for the dignity of work and free markets. That moral case is not made often enough.

As Paterson said: “The most important reason why we must reform our welfare and industrial relations systems is not that it is good for the budget bottom line or the economy. We must do it because it is good for people.”

Sadly, classical liberal ideas are taken for granted and too often routinely dismissed. Worse, classical liberalism is not understood by many Australians, especially younger ones who attend our best universities.

How do we know this? The 10th annual Lowy Institute survey found that less than half of young Australians believe in democracy. That should be a wake-up call.

Our schools are not teaching students about the proud history of Australia, and the West, about the ideas of the Enlightenment or the moral case for freedom.

There is also something rotten in the state of our universities. Research by the Institute of Public Affairs last year exposed that, despite Australia’s political and cultural institutions having their origins in Britain, of the 739 history subjects taught in Australian universities last year, only 15 covered British history.

Both Wilson and Paterson hail from the IPA, Australia’s premier voice of freedom, of which I am a director. There are no passengers at the IPA. It’s a lean machine that cannot afford to carry anyone who is not an outstanding warrior for the freedom cause. Neither Paterson nor Wilson were assured of winning their preselections. Their credentials won the day and their preselection speeches reminded party members that in an election year candidates need to hit the road running. As Wilson told preselectors on Sunday: “I have defended liberalism from behind enemy lines” — even on ABC television’s Q&A. “If Liberals don’t make the case for freedom and responsibility, no one will.”

Wilson gave up his well-paid job as Freedom Commissioner (Human Rights Commissioner) to fight for the Goldstein seat. He faced tough competition from a strong local candidate, Denis Dragovic and the impressive Georgina Downer. Wilson won notwithstanding a disgraceful smear campaign from Liberal Party opponents who suggested, among other things, that he “is a danger to our families, schools and community” for supporting the original Safe Schools program. That was just one of many outright lies. Wilson raised concerns with the Coalition government last year about the program.

Attorney-General George Brandis is right that, in less than half of his five-year term as Freedom Commissioner, Wilson “single- handedly reshaped the human rights debate in Australia”.

Taking the freedom fight to Canberra can’t happen soon enough. More people like Wilson and Paterson will force Labor Party opponents to improve the quality of their arguments. Maybe even the more vacuous members of the Greens, such as Sarah Hanson-Young, will learn to inject more logic into their thinking before opening their mouths. OK, let’s not get carried away. But when your ideas are contested by smart men and women, you either rise to the occasion or fall over.

Take, for example, Doug Cameron on the ABC’s 7.30 last Friday. He’s a Labor warrior, to be sure, but his intellectually hollow arguments are embarrassing. Whatever you think of same-sex marriage or the Safe Schools program, it’s tawdry politics to label those with different views as “extremists”. And it’s beyond lowrent to suggest, as Cameron did, that the violence in Liberal MP Cory Bernardi’s office last week from protesters is “exactly what will happen with (the same-sex) plebiscite”.

For too long, debates about serious issues have sunk to threats and throwing epithets about homophobes, racists, Islamophobes, misogynists and so on. We have to do better than this.

The emergence of high-quality political warriors from Victoria signals one more thing. The NSW Liberal Party had better get with the program called democracy. It’s time to inject grassroots involvement into preselections rather than backroom boys stitching up spots for their favoured hacks and hollow men and women.

Trent Zimmerman’s win in the NSW federal seat of North Sydney earlier this year was a stitchup. His challenge is to throw off the baggage of being a political insider when voters are disdainful of insular, self-serving political careerists.

Goldstein has 110,000 voters with 282 Liberal preselectors. That’s a ratio of 1:390. The NSW Senate preselections last weekend represented about five million voters with 100 Liberal preselectors. That’s a ratio of 1:50,000. Those numbers are an indictment on the NSW Liberal Party.

Former federal Liberal MP Ross Cameron is one of three Liberal members to be suspended from the NSW Liberal Party recently for daring to call for more democracy in the party, echoing the views of two former prime ministers. As Tony Abbott said on Paul Murray Live on Sky News on Monday night: “I dare the state executive to suspend me.” Next it could suspend John Howard for suggesting greater internal party democracy leads to more competition and better quality candidates. Such as Paterson and Wilson.

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