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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.


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.


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.

Australian society needs a party that can uphold the natural authority of families in the face of powerful provider and corporate interests.

Sustaining parents and carers

Parents caring for young children, parents and carers of people with a disability or a mental or chronic illness, and carers of frail elderly family members, know that their role in society is not valued as much as that of people in the paid workforce. To both Right and Left, parents and carers who are not in paid employment are simply invisible, and do not warrant the financial and social entitlements that flow to participants in the market economy, such as superannuation, professional development, sickness and long service leave. Both Left and Right are ideologically blind to the financial hardship and social costs incurred in voluntarily caring for another, and are incapable of addressing the unsustainable stresses incurred by growing numbers of households in juggling work and family commitments.

Australian society needs a party that can value the unpaid contributions of parents and carers and support a living allowance to sustain their roles.

Realism and transformation in industrial relations

The ritualised century-old stand-off between Left and Right in industrial relations has benefited only labour lawyers, union officials and neo-liberal think tanks. Together Left and Right have a common stake in antagonistic industrial relations: the Right's WorkChoices option serves a useful purpose in uniting organised labour against a common threat; while the fear of centralised wage-fixing systems unites employer bodies.

Neither position has an interest in the development of workers as owners of capital and participants in the development of industry. Neither position acknowledges that the interests and needs of high-wage workers can be vastly different from those of low-wage workers with little bargaining power. The latter require social protection, the former value autonomy more than rigidity.

Australian society needs a party that can break the ritualised practice of belligerent mutual dependence in industrial relations that stymies co-operation in the workplace and shuns the development of capital ownership by workers.

Reclaiming the health system for consumers

Both Left and Right are ignorant of Australian innovation in the 19th century in developing consumer-driven health plans for the protection and service of consumers. Not-for-profit consumer-driven entities known as “friendly societies” developed universal capitation-based health care plans with mechanisms of local control in every town and suburb in the country. They were assaulted, however, and eventually destroyed, by the British (then Australian) Medical Association on the Right, and advocates of state-run health insurance systems on the Left.

For the past 30 years, the stand-off between practitioner lobbies on the Right and public sector lobbies on the Left has choked debate about health reform and rendered our fragmented system unable to deliver preventative care, effective management of chronic illness, or acceptable continuity of care for people with complex and chronic conditions.

Australian society needs a party that can cut through the stalemate in health reform and build on our history in developing a consumer-centred health system.

Devolution of power

The old politics of Left and Right have presided over the steady growth of bureaucracy for more than a century. Neither has sought to devolve power and authority to local communities, non-government associations, families or consumers. The result has been a major centralisation of power in bureaucracy across three overlapping tiers of government.

The managerial experiments in the 1980s and 1990s in “contracting out” service delivery in health, welfare, employment and community services resulted only in a transfer of bureaucratic functions from government to contracted non-government agencies. The raft of failed “community building” programs in the last 20 years demonstrated only that bureaucracies cannot create communities.

Australian society needs a party that can focus policy and service delivery on civil society and its relationships, and devolve power accordingly.

Immigration and cultural inclusion

Australia is a hybrid of Indigenous and immigrant peoples, but this hybrid identity has been put at risk by the imposition by both Left and Right of a cumbersome “multiculturalism” upon a reluctant host community. Its emphasis upon cultural separateness rather than cultural inclusion continues to threaten social cohesion and jeopardise popular support for a high immigration intake.

Public debate about cultural policy and immigration has been thwarted by a continuing Left and Right aversion to encouraging cross-cultural social interaction and discouraging ethnic “ghetto-isation”. The Left dislikes the concept of social interaction because it cannot be managed by state officials. The Right's support for immigration is market-driven - it cannot grasp notions of social interaction that lie outside the framework of market exchange.

Australian society needs a party that can challenge racism and ethnic ghettos by articulating the goal of a culturally inclusive hybrid Australian identity that is grounded and mediated - not through quangos or fashionable cuisine - but through the social relationships of civil society.

Small business and the break up of corporate power

Both Left and Right favour big business and have facilitated the concentration of corporate power. Australia's corporate sector lacks genuine entrepreneurs and fears global markets, and has tended to rely on domestic mergers and the restriction of competition for growth. Both Left and Right have acquiesced in big business demands for curbs on competition, subsidies, handouts and protection in the name of industry policy, at the dual expense of consumers and an entrepreneurial domestic business culture. Both Left and Right lack the will to break up Telstra and oligarchies in retailing, banking, insurance, transport, energy and media.

Australian society needs a party that can challenge concentrations of corporate power from a pro-business standpoint.

Preserving the idea of a university

The Dawkins revolution in higher education has turned Australia's universities into factories producing technical skills for Asian and domestic markets. A rounded liberal education geared to the cultivation of intellectual capacity and moral character has become an anachronism to the technocrats of both Left and Right. The Left has made an idol of meritocratic hierarchy and believes a university degree is a right of all, regardless of its content or standard. The Right has succumbed to a Fordist mentality, viewing education as a resource for industrial ends. Neither have the will or the strategic vision to restrict public funds for higher education to open access generalist liberal arts and sciences programs, and impose full or partial HECS or fees for vocational and professional training courses such as law, medicine, hospitality and horticulture. Neither Cultural Studies nor hospitality training belong in a university.

Australian society needs a party that can break the bi-partisanship of Left and Right that has turned universities into factories of technocracy.

Small is beautiful

Aggregation of suburbs, businesses and community organisations has been an uninterrupted organisational and management trend for the past half century, backed in equal measure by Left and Right. Small community associations begun by parents and residents in disability, health and social support have been corporatised and merged beyond recognition by managers and regulators from both Right and Left.

Co-operatives, credit unions and mutuals have been transformed into corporate entities by inappropriate regulatory frameworks set up by Left and Right. Small towns have struggled to maintain viability as cities sprawl ever outwards with diminishing social connections. Neither Left nor Right have been able to combine a “small is beautiful” social ethic with contemporary economies of scale to produce liveable communities and local organisations that are amenable to the cultivation of social relationships and civil society.

Australian society needs a party that can understand and value the social ethic of “small is beautiful” in a globalised world.

Making everyone visible, allowing everyone to be heard

People with disabilities, ageing Australians, and people with mental illnesses are invisible to Left and Right and excluded from public decision-making. For the Left, these people are “clients” to be managed by government departments and service providers - inside or outside institutions. To the Right, these people matter only if they participate in the labour market.

Neither Left nor Right regard people with disabilities, ageing Australians, and people with mental illnesses as citizens who possess inalienable rights to self-direction and personal and social autonomy to the maximum degree possible. Volunteers - workers outside the paid workforce - are similarly irrelevant to the Right, and merely resources for efficient management by the Left. The voices of these large sections of society are silenced and hidden, consigned by Right and Left to a permanent status of marginalisation and dependence.
Australian society needs a party that can provide a platform for everyone to be seen and heard and contribute.

In the last 30 years, the only areas of public life untouched by movements of reform have been Parliament and the rusty political machines that select and place citizens in parliamentary seats. As public participation in these machines has plummeted, an increasingly small, professional caste of machine operatives now maintain the machines, and select their own kind for its parliamentary rewards. The result is a crisis in representative democracy that neither Left nor Right can comprehend.

Both Left and Right believe the political system works well if their caste of operatives can occupy Cabinet seats and manage the economy and service provision to the satisfaction of the disengaged punter. The relationships and social interactions of the disengaged punter - in civil society or in public life - are of no concern to the officials of Right or Left. To the conservative, these relationships and social interactions are the primary indicator of well-being and success or failure.

Australian society needs a party that can repair public life and governance by bringing a focus on social relationships into the public arena.

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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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