Reclaiming the Soul of Western Conservatives

I’m pleased to announce that one of the regular commentators here, and Sojurn Group original, St. Ives (nee Correspondent) has written me a guest post. I read it over the day and thought it to be extremely good, thought provoking, and a good counter-side, yet suitable, to what you would normally find here. It is certainly something that I have put my mind to in recent times, but have been unable (or perhaps unwilling) to venture as far as to suggest how conservative governments politics make a forceful return.

So, without any more waiting, I’m pleased to give you the fourth guest contribution to this blog (which, as a side note, leaves only 1 Sojourner to post on my blog still – which will likely never happen) – ‘Reclaiming the Soul of Western Conservatives’, a blog post by St. Ives.

Thomas.

I write this not out of any great desire to see the dawning of a great conservative resurgence but out of a concern for the quality of government we can expect, around the world, to see in the long term (should conservative parties continue their trend of poor opposition and insular, backward looking policy positions). I am at heart a centrist; espousing soft left positions on some issues and conservative leanings on others, both fiscal and social. However at the heart of this is a desire to see the conservative sides of politics producing ideas and policy grounded in pragmatism and designed to take the people with them, rather than impose the ideological will of their most extreme wing on the populace at large.

Strong government demands strong opposition. Both are at their best when they are competing at the centre. In many ways Australia has had its best oppositions when the leaders offered up ideas. Hewson went to the 1993 election with a clear plan and ideas, alas he was beaten by a scare campaign (the one term too long that governments seem to get), the Labor oppositions of Mark Latham and Kevin Rudd were more effective than those of Beazley, Crean & Beazley because they generated ideas; mind you not all of them good (or sensible).

We can see in NSW there has been a lack of effective opposition for a long time (probably since the latter days of John Brogden’s reign; but more likely since Bob Carr was opposition leader in the run up to the 1995 election). The result has been a lazy government devoid of ideas.  In Australia the conventional wisdom is that governments generally get one more term than they deserve. It is in these terms that they do their worst work and end up with the electorate waiting for them with baseball bats on Election Day. Recent examples in Australia from around the states and the last two federal governments provide a swathe of examples.

Typically, conservative parties in opposition revert to their right flanks for ideas and direction as the many Republicans in the US are doing now and as the NSW Libs have mastered. In Australia we are fortune that by virtue of our preferential voting system and mandatory voting, a majority of the vote is required for election to office. This forces the political parties to try and appeal to the centre of the electorate and target their pitch of new ideas to this section of the community. When done sensible, carefully and when parties bring the electorate with them, new ideas can move from being the orthodoxy of one party to being considered mainstream in the medium term (take mutual obligation for social security, GST and private health fund rebates). However, when governments legislate from ideology in opposition to the public will (ie Keatling’s political correctness gone mad & pandering to special interests & Howard’s Work Choices & trickle-down economics) they lose office.

In many parts of the western world, we have seen or are seeing conservative parties spinning in the wasteland of opposition (all Australian jurisdictions except WA, the UK [who look like they have finally come back to the centre under David Cameron], US and until recently NZ). Unfortunately, opposition provides the perfect breeding ground for hard right wingers to fight for the soul of their parties outside the practicalities of government (as evidenced by the rise of some hard right wingers in the federal Liberal party of late and the calls of some Republicans to return to their more conservative principles). Unfortunately, the last decade or so has seen the death of the “wets” in the ranks of the Liberal party thanks to conservative domination in the local branches and the primaries in the US have seen the moderates dubbed as RINO’s  (Republicans In Name Only) and virtually driven out. Conservatives have abandoned the centre ground.

I would think that the absence of an established far right party in these countries would indicate a lack of interest in the policies put forward by those on the extreme of what used to be (and should be) centre-right parties. Indeed it would be hard to argue that there is a viable constituency (unlike the greens for the ultra loony left) for these ideas given the lack of a party espousing these market driven, non interventionist, lassie-fair policies. Given the recent failure of market reliant policies, there is a real opportunity for a rethink and a resurgence of the all but forgot compassionate conservative.

I would recast conservatism under the following principles:

  • Government is tool for organising society for the public good;
  • It is not good enough to discard people and leave them behind. Government is for everyone;
  • If you can care about preserving life (however you should NEVER legislate to impose this), you should care about the quality of peoples’ lives and the institutions, services and facilities available to them;
  • Government is not a glorified debating club, it’s there to do something, so don’t outsource all the functions and services that government is supposed to provide. If you can’t run it, you don’t shouldn’t be there;
  • Regulation is not a dirty word;
  • Government can own and or run things;
  • If it’s making money for you don’t flog it off;
  • You can build infrastructure. It makes money in the long term (imagine if the taxpayers owned all the toll roads);
  • The market won’t innovate for you and isn’t more efficient than the public service. Public servants get paid a lot less (like a tenth or less) than corporate types and generally don’t send the government bankrupt. The market seems not to punish poor performance and hides mistakes behind obscene payouts and bonuses. If anything, the public servants are more accountable than corporate officers who can always sack truckloads of plebs to pay for the mistakes of the board and pay for their bonuses;
  • Government needs performance benchmarks. Set goals and report on them yearly. If schools and other government entities are accountable for public money and how it is used, why not the government. Use the budget to stake out a year’s agenda and then show us the goods a year on;
  • Public is public and private is private. If the taxpayer is paying for it, it should also be running it. If it’s being privately run, let the market sustain it or let it die. Don’t subsidise it;
  • Enough with the one off bribes to special interest groups (ie Mr Howard’s continual largess to pensioners and especially self funded retirees). Either these are electoral bribes or an admission that the benefits for some groups are woefully inadequate. If it is the latter (and let’s face it for old age pensioners it is) fix it – that’s what government is for;
  • Public infrastructure needs ongoing maintenance. It’s not the job of hospital bosses, school principals, police commanders etc to be applying for funding to keep their buildings standing up and in some reasonable state. That’s what a public works department is for. Cyclic maintenance that just happens;
  • In general government should provide the means for success and individuals should provide the effort. Government should provide a safety net, but also require an effort to get off it again. It’s not in anyone’s interest to have people sleeping in the street or have anyone go without health care. Do some people need more help than others? Yes. But government is there for the community good and at some point needs to tell people that it’s not all about them, and;
  • If it’s not working, figure out why and fix it. If you’re right you will probably get another term. If not you probably won’t and your policies will be rolled back;
  • Be bold and have ideas.

St. Ives.

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