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Twelve reasons why Australia needs a Conservative Party

By Vern Hughes - posted Tuesday, 2 March 2010


The things that matter most to us - families, neighbourhoods, caring for others, voluntary activity, self-development and the character of people, local economies, local communities - are the things that matter least to our politicians.

Political parties of both Right and Left have ignored society for a century in their obsession with the market and the state. Neo-liberalism on the Right (the rule of the market) and managerialism on the Left (the rule of bureaucracy) have dominated politics and public life. Together they have corroded society, undermined personal and social responsibility, weakened community, and turned unique individuals into clients and customers, wage labourers and punters, detached from their relationships and communities.

Social relationships - not the market, or the state - should be the prism through which we assess public policy. This is common sense. But it is an insight that belongs to neither Left nor Right, and challenges both.

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There is a tradition in Australia of people gathering in local communities to help themselves, build social relationships and make a difference. But to strengthen society it is also necessary to challenge both neo-liberalism and managerialism in their public influence. Challenging just one or other of them will not do: their corrosion of society is a joint reciprocal effort, the result of a pincer movement in operation over the course of a century.

Here are 12 compelling reasons why Australia needs a contemporary transformative conservatism to challenge both neo-liberalism and managerialism, and fill the vacuum at the heart of our public life.

Indigenous self-help and survival

The old politics of Left and Right have presided over the destruction of Indigenous communities from one end of Australia to the other. The managerialism of the Left has eroded personal and social responsibility among black communities, while the Right has been unable to throw off its paternalism to support the development of Indigenous capacity and a self-help culture.

Both have been captive to a residual dehumanising “noble savage” stereotype which destines current and future Indigenous generations to poverty and powerlessness. Both have failed to understand the destructive power of alcohol, gambling and welfare dependence on fragile cultures. A revolution in Indigenous affairs based on conserving and strengthening social relationships is needed as a national imperative.

Australian society needs a party that can articulate a social relationships-based agenda - not solely rights or employment  - to ensure the survival of Indigenous communities.

The failure of the welfare system

Both Left and Right believe an efficient welfare system can adequately address the challenges facing people with mental illnesses, addictions, unconventional behaviours, disabilities, long-term unemployability and repeated encounters with the criminal justice system. But it can’t.

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The welfare system has been able to deliver only short-term, fragmented, silo-driven interventions which shuffle the system's “clients” from pillar to post. More spending from the Left simply creates bigger silos in the system, while the Right's attempts to introduce market-driven reforms have only succeeded in re-badging “clients” as “customers”. Welfare bureaucracies cannot generate the social relationships, personal stability and emotional attachments that alone can rebuild damaged and disadvantaged persons and communities.

Australian society needs a party that can challenge the systemic failure of the welfare system and address the restoration of deep civil society relationships.

The natural authority of families

Left and Right have been locked together in blindness to the natural authority of families and their primacy as the bedrock social unit. School lobbies on the Left and Right have by-passed families in channelling funds to education suppliers rather than to the parents of each unique child. Right and Left administrations have by-passed families in directing disability, aged care and chronic illness funds to institutions rather than families as the primary unit of care. Child care and vocational education funds have been chaperoned by Left and Right to institutional and corporate interests, with the Left's only interest being in the employment conditions of teaching staff, and the Right's interest determined solely by the labour needs of industry.

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About the Author

Vern Hughes is Secretary of the National Federation of Parents Families and Carers and Director of the Centre for Civil Society and has been Australia's leading advocate for civil society over a 20-year period. He has been a writer, practitioner and networker in social enterprise, church, community, disability and co-operative movements. He is a former Executive Officer of South Kingsville Health Services Co-operative (Australia's only community-owned primary health care centre), a former Director of Hotham Mission in the Uniting Church, the founder of the Social Entrepreneurs Network, and a former Director of the Co-operative Federation of Victoria. He is also a writer and columnist on civil society, social policy and political reform issues.

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