Conservative does not mean the same thing as regressive. You wouldn't know it from the decision by Prime Minister John Howard late last week to oppose any reforms to remove discrimination against same-sex couples.
Howard's decision follows a federal cabinet split on the issue. Lacking a uniform view, the cabinet decided to leave the final decision in Howard's hands. And at a party room meeting last week he announced he was not going to support reform because it was "complicated".
Howard has clearly taken the lead from the small number of Liberal ministers who argued in cabinet that the recognition of gay relationships didn't fit in with the agenda of an avowedly conservative government.
The proposed reforms would have allowed same-sex couples to have the same government benefits as heterosexual couples in areas such as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, the Medicare Safety Net and reforms in migration law.
A conservative approach to social policy is non-interventionist.
Conservative philosophy holds that it is society, not the latest fashions of the political class, that should shape social norms.
In 2007, it would be impossible for Howard to argue that same-sex couples are not a part of contemporary Australian society. If the Government chose to recognise their existence, it would be the fulfilment of a traditional conservative approach to social policy.
The reality is that the Liberal Party platforms of each state division provide support for the cause of reform.
As it is a federated organisation, the philosophical platform varies from one state and territory division to another. Party platforms provide an insight into the guiding principles of the division and what it would do in government.
None of them argues for perpetuating known discrimination. In fact, the reverse is true. In every state, the Liberal Party makes a commitment to the principle of equality.
The ACT's division platform is strongest. It states its support for "respecting the value, dignity and contribution of all members of the community regardless of sexual preference". It goes on to argue "all people should enjoy the same rights and opportunities and exercise the same responsibilities in a community that values and respects diversity".
The Victorian division states in its platform that Liberals have "shared values of liberty, fairness, equality for all and favouritism to none". Other states and territory divisions offer comparable statements.
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