Short Essay: The Australian Liberal Party: liberal, or conservative?

In John Howards’ description, the modern Australian Liberal Party is ‘[u]nique’ (1999), in that they are both liberal and conservative.  Whilst seemingly a contradiction in terms, there really is no misnomer; the name comes from ‘classic liberalism’ (Heywood, 2003), whereby their priorities are specifically catered toward ‘negative freedoms’ (Heywood, 2003), notable for the absence of restrictions.  While there are sometimes tensions between their classical liberal outlook and their social conservative side, this is not uncommon in any other political ideology.

The conservative liberalism of the Liberal Party can be identified in their official political philosophy.  Annotated here is a discussion of their philosophy based this promulgated list.  ‘We Believe…’ (Liberal Party of Australia, 2011).

  • In the inalienable rights and freedoms of all peoples; and we work towards a lean government that minimises interference in our daily lives; and maximises individual and private sector initiative
  • In government that nurtures and encourages its citizens through incentive, rather than putting limits on people through the punishing disincentives of burdensome taxes and the stifling structures of Labor’s corporate state and bureaucratic red tape.
  • In those most basic freedoms of parliamentary democracy – the freedom of thought, worship, speech and association.

These points highlight their classical liberal philosophy, with the emphasis on individualism, toleration and the minimal role of government.  It promotes the individuals’ ability to forge their own links with community on a volunteer basis, and provides for a meritocratic society where the best and brightest rise to the top.  Through rationalisation, their commitment to low taxation also shows a commitment to minimal welfare, since they consider that a meritocratic society ensures that inequality must be due to personal failure.

  • In a just and humane society in which the importance of the family and the role of law and justice is maintained.
  • In equal opportunity for all Australians; and the encouragement and facilitation of wealth so that all may enjoy the highest possible standards of living, health, education and social justice.

This is both conservative and liberalism; classical liberal ideals of ‘formal’ justice (Heywood, 2003) in that all have rights, but similar responsibilities.  The Liberal Party is saying here that they don’t agree with ‘special treatment’ of individuals or groups, since all are equal, with equal opportunity to make their own way.  An area of contention is the conservative aspect, in that that the private institution of the family takes precedence.  This aspect of the party faces a measure of contradiction with the liberal ideal of tolerance of diversity.

  • That, wherever possible, government should not compete with an efficient private sector; and that businesses and individuals – not government – are the true creators of wealth and employment.

This is evidence of their economic liberalisation – their belief in small government, minimal regulation, and free enterprise.  They expect markets to provide the best outcomes, since it is only by ‘for profit’ enterprises that have an incentive to create what society needs and wants.

  • In preserving Australia’s natural beauty and the environment for future generations.

While this may appear as detraction from the Liberal Party philosophy, towards the ‘Green’ movement, this can actually be looked at from both a liberal and conservative viewpoint.  Liberal, in the ‘freedom of the individual’ to participate as they see fit, on the principle of no harm, applying Mills libertarian principle to the environment, as opposed to other members of society.  A conservative aspect in this philosophy is their underlying value for tradition.

  • That our nation has a constructive role to play in maintaining world peace and democracy through alliance with other free nations.

Finally, this position takes a liberal approach, toward recognition of the equality of all (hu)mankind, tolerance of diversity, and the movement toward economic liberalism.

Through examination of their philosophy, the misnomer of ‘Liberal’ is removed.



Heywood, A. (2003) Political Ideologies: An Introduction, 3rd ed., New York:Palgrave Macmillan.


Liberal Party of Australia (2011) ‘We Believe… ‘, The Party: Our Beliefs [online], available:


2 responses to “Short Essay: The Australian Liberal Party: liberal, or conservative?

  • Steve

    Terrible argument.

    It’s called conservatism because they seek conservative attitudes resulting from fear – bad economy, environmental and economic disaster, terrorism, etc. Any fear or negatively and people’s brains shut down, they seek regression to good old time and give into critical thought.

    It’s called liberal because there is great liberalism for the economic elite.

    This amounts to “shut up and let us abuse you”

    They do not provide conservatism or liberalism to the people, despite what their manifesto says, quite the opposite.

    The misnomer of ‘Liberal’ is certainly not removed. It is in the typical machiavellian style of propaganda, a lie.

    • Rebecca Glasencnik

      Well, I had limited word count, and a narrow task to discuss (the question).
      I don’t disagree with the general thrust of your comment, however:
      – Liberal, in the tradition where the Liberal Party gets its name, does not mean ‘liberal’ as we generally understand it today. You hit the nail on the head when you mention Machiavelli (though the ‘propaganda’ issue can also be thrown at every political system) – also think Hobbes. Liberal, in this sense, is ‘freedom from’ – usually interference from the state. This is the desire to have the ‘small government’, with minimal regulation, minimum amount of law – only what is necessary to avoid the ‘state of nature’ which basically brought this idea out.

      Agreed, the ideas surrounding economic (neo-)liberalism depends on principles that just aren’t existent – namely perfect competition and rational decisionmakers.

      Conservatism in the Liberal Party is manifested quite clearly in nigh-all their policies. I (in part) agree with your comment, where you say that it seeks regression – though I would say this is more of an idealisation of the past. Edmund Burke is a good indicator of the Lib’s conservatism – the desire to keep the status quo, to distrust change. The Lib’s, where they do change, generally effect it in small steps.

      I think its important to understand, and apply the principle of charity (viewing in the most plausible form) before trying to argue against a position.

All constructive criticism is welcome! What do you think? What could I do better? Reading suggestions are welcome too!

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