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National Observer Home > No. 47 - Summer 2001 > Articles

Directions for Australia's Future

Senator Nick Minchin

It is appropriate to reflect on the lessons of the 1999 Referendum on the question of a Republic, now that we are about to mark the first anniversary of the day on which Australians clearly rejected the proposal.

The most gratifying lesson of the Referendum outcome was the confirmation that Australians are fundamentally a conservative people, to the great frustration of what some describe as "the chattering classes".

Indeed it is remarkable that a majority of the people, and a majority in every State, voted No, given the extraordinary support given to the Yes case.

The Yes case had the overt and demonstrable support of:

· the Australian Labor Party at State and Federal level (including four State Governments)

· the Trade Union movement

· the Australian Democrats

· the massive resources and influence of the News Ltd. Corporation

· every State Liberal Leader bar one

· the Deputy Federal Liberal Leader and up to one-third of the Federal Parliamentary Liberal Party

· a number of former Prime Ministers and Governors-General.

That vast army, with all its power and resources, failed to overcome the innate conservatism of the Australian people.

Thus one of the world's most stable and successful constitutional structures has been preserved.

The result also provided reassurance that the Australian media are not as influential in shaping public opinion as many fear. Virtually every Australian

newspaper effectively campaigned in favour of the proposed Republic, yet the people said No.

The result also has some disappointing aspects.

The lack of grace and dignity on the part of the leadership of the Yes campaign in the aftermath of the vote has been startling. Some of the most prominent Yes campaigners seem consumed by hate and bitterness, and have devoted their energies to identifying all kinds of excuses for their failure. Thus many Yes campaigners spit out accusations of a biased question; of a public not appropriately informed of the issues; and of unfair campaigning by the No Case. They seem incapable of admitting that the Australian people had a good look at their Republican proposal and simply decided it did not look as good as what we have. They cannot accept that the Australian people, in their admirable pragmatism, refused to throw out a perfectly workable system for "a pig in a poke".

Another of the disturbing features of the referendum was the extent to which those who might have been presumed to support the current Constitution were prepared to abandon their beliefs to conform with fashionable opinion.

There is no doubt that in certain circles it was quite unfashionable to oppose the Republican proposal. To do so was to be marked as old-fashioned, sentimental, not "with it".

The Republican referendum highlighted the increasing tendency in pub

lic life for people to be swept along by the tide of fashionable opinion. This is sometimes referred to as "political correctness". It leads to a growing reluctance on the part of some to have the courage to hold true to their beliefs. This trend is evident in politics, business and the churches.

The Australian media must share much of the blame for this phenomenon. The cancer of political correctness has well and truly invaded the body of our media, to the point where some media will hound, belittle and humiliate all those who dare defy fashionable opinion.

It can require extraordinary courage to stand firm in the face of a torrent of abuse from the "thought police" in our media.

Aboriginal affairs have practically become a no-go zone for rational debate because of these forces. The media's recent treatment of Philip Ruddock is a case in point. Despite, or because of, Mr. Ruddock's position as a "moderate", our media roundly condemned what was asserted to be his incorrect view of Aboriginal disadvantage, when in fact remarks made by him were accurate and constructive.

It is distressing to observe that free speech and the truth, especially in relation to aboriginal affairs, have become victims of the fear of causing offence. "If the truth offends, you must not speak it" is the new commandment of our era.

I had my own experience of this phenomenon during the two years in which I was responsible for the Government's policy on native title. My job of amending the Native Title Act to make it more workable was like walking through broken glass every day if I put one foot wrong I would bleed to a political death. To express a view contrary to that of fashionable opinion on native title risked accusations of racism and white supremacism.

One aspect of the debate over the Native Title Act illustrated the absurdity of the court of public opinion.

The previous Chief Justice of the High Court, Gerard Brennan, gave the lead judgement in the Mabo case and was thus considered to be the architect of the law on native title. However in the Wik case four years later, Brennan and two other High Court judges found that pastoral leases extinguished native title. Four other judges concluded that that was not necessarily the case, opening up almost every pastoral lease in Australia to a native title claim.

Anyone who has said before or since the Wik case that native title is incompatible with a pastoral lease has been condemned as a racist and anti-aboriginal. Yet this was exactly the view pronounced by the very architect of the Mabo decision, the then Chief Justice Brennan.

The native title debate of the late 1990s exposed the extent to which our mainstream churches have become victims of political correctness. Many leaders of the Catholic and Anglican Churches rushed to condemn the Coalition Government for its proposed amendments to the Native Title Act, without any attempt to understand the Government's rationale or to weigh up objectively the arguments on both sides of the debate.

A recent Anglican Archbishop's comments on the economy sounded like the diatribe of a Marxist. At a time when the Anglican Church is demonstrably failing, we have its leadership adopting arguments and positions not even the Opposition Labor Party accepts. The Anglican Church appears to be transforming into a left-wing political organisation unworthy of support or respect.

In a situation like this, that remarkable Australian Bob Santamaria would ask, "What is to be done?"

There is no easy answer to the cancer of political correctness. It is clear however that those who hold unfashionable beliefs must be resolute in expressing them, and have the courage to stand by them. That must hold for those of a conservative disposition in all political parties, in the churches, and in business.

This cause would be aided by a removal by the Australian Labor Party of its authoritarian prohibition on its Members of Parliaments crossing the floor, except on officially-designated conscience issues (unlike the Liberal Party, the Labor Party expels Members of Parliament who cross the floor).

The current I.V.F. (in vitro fertilisation) issue is a terrible indictment of the Labor Party's authoritarianism. Genuine Labor Party moral conservatives in the Senate face expulsion if they support proposed government legislation on this issue an outrageous act of intimidation on a serious moral issue.

It is essential that conservative thinkers in our key institutions keep to their faith.

In the Liberal Party, we are the custodians of two great British political traditions liberalism and conservatism. Those of us more inclined to the conservative tradition must defend its place in the modern Liberal Party.

John Howard, who has led the Party for nearly ten of the last sixteen years, is of course a self-proclaimed social conservative.

It is clear that, underneath it all, Labor Leader Kim Beazley is also a social conservative. One of the saddest spectacles in modern politics is that of Mr. Beazley's failure to have the courage of his convictions as clearly in evidence on the I.V.F. issue. Mr. Beazley would do better to take on the Left of his Party and stand by his beliefs. Interestingly Mr. Beazley is, like John Howard, myself and a number of other public figures, not only a social conservative but an economic liberal.

However even on the economic dimension, Mr. Beazley has also failed to have the courage of his convictions. I applaud his support for free trade at the Labor Party National Conference, which confirmed his economic liberalism. In contrast, his opposition to the full sale of Telstra is a pathetic spectacle. His own record in Government confirms that he must know and understand that Telstra should be fully privatised.

. . . . .

We are at an interesting juncture in Australian politics.

Both major parties face ongoing internal debates between social conservatives and liberals on the one hand; and between economic conservatives and liberals on the other.

We face the same kind of debate in the wider community. On the one hand, the rural and regional areas of Australia are typified by social and economic conservatism. Our major metropolitan areas on the other hand are typified by social and economic liberalism.

Thus people like John Howard, Kim Beazley and me do not exactly fit neatly into either category. "The bush" loves John Howard's social conservatism, but some are concerned about his economic liberalism. The inner cities like his economic liberalism, but do not exactly warm to his social conservatism.

I do strongly believe that the winning formula for the Australian economy and society remains the combination of economic liberalism and social conservatism as the foundations of public policy. Our capacity to generate jobs and high living standards depends on economic liberalism. Our capacity to sustain social cohesion and the moral integrity of our nation depends on our ability to defend social conservatism.

For me the overall objective in public life is to play a part in building a nation in which every Australian has the opportunity to obtain a good education, work in the field of their choice, have a family, and enjoy a high quality of life. The best path to that goal lies in policies based on the combination of social conservatism and economic liberalism. While the disciples of those causes hold sway in both major parties, I will remain an eternal optimist about Australia's future.



National Observer No. 47 - Summer 2001