My earliest political memory is of sitting on the kitchen lino, playing.
Mum was on the phone to the bank, negotiating more time to manage the tension of the family budget with the burden of the 18 per cent interest rate on the family home and the obligations of Dad’s plumbing business. Mum negotiated because Dad worked seven days a week, as well as doing the council bin run at dawn. Mum squeezed in shifts as a retail assistant at a day-night chemist. I would’ve been about six.
Like so many Australians, my parents didn’t talk politics. But even then, as a child, I knew it wasn’t right that responsible people who worked so hard were struggling. That instinct was confirmed during the Howard years, when I saw my parents work in precisely the same way and flourish. I had to understand why.
Although economic issues brought my attention to the role of government in setting the conditions for hardworking people to prosper, Robert Menzies built a Liberal Party that understood the human condition as a whole. A party that talks about and works on only the economy misses at least half of the picture. People aren’t mere economic units, and Menzies’ conception of the “home material”, “home human” and “home spiritual” reflected that balance. He knew a strong social fabric was a major determinant of the country’s prosperity.
Today, if you speak of moral matters in politics, you’re likely to be branded as judgmental. It’s safer to be a moral relativist. The consequence of shutting down speech on these matters is that many people don’t know classic liberalism is deeply moral. It’s the political tradition that delivered the abolition of slavery and child labour, and brought universal education, each being the manifestation of the beliefs of individual liberty and equality of opportunity. Morality lies even with Liberal enthusiasm for capitalism: no system in history has lifted more people out of poverty. Liberalism thrives when we can confidently traverse the moral, social and cultural matters reflecting the lived experience of Australians.
The period of relative weakness from which the Liberal Party recently emerged was a symptom of an unwillingness to engage with questions of morality and culture across the past decade. Its resurgence under Scott Morrison corresponds with a willingness to again heed Menzies’ advice to notice the homes human and spiritual. Liberals are engaging with Australians’ concerns about their ability to provide for their families, to foster their mental resilience and to protect them from harm.
It’s offering a framework for understanding the confusing phenomena of mental illness, addiction, loneliness and hopelessness. It’s defending rights of free expression, religious freedom and pushback on the cultural cringe that says traditional views do not deserve to be heard.
There is a myth that Liberals are preoccupied with money and economics while “progressives” are about people and kindness. Actually, it’s the opposite. Socialism subordinates all considerations to material concerns, sifting people into economic classes and demanding they progress. Liberals look at a person and see an economic creature and a spiritual creature whose individuality, creativity and essence matter. Progressives talk of the needs of the common man and woman, but a Liberal knows Australians are not an undifferentiated mass. The aspirations, drive and ingenuity of uncommon men and women propel our society’s success. We are equal humans, but our human differences are our strength.
Liberals believe government is ill-equipped to promote happiness; that can come only from within the individual. It’s why small government delivers the most benefit to the most people. It is the most essential element to the development of humanity in its richest diversity; a deep appreciation of the varied skills and talents we bring to life, and the ways in which freedom allows us to develop and harness those gifts.
The legal frameworks of small government allow us to foster a culture in which we strive to be our best and give as much as we can to a neighbour in need. In contrast, heavy regulation turns the focus to what’s necessary to meet minimum requirements. These are the rich cultural gifts of Menzies’ Liberalism. Ultimately, the defining value is equality of opportunity; the right to aspire to be our best, economically and culturally.
The values of individual responsibility, support for aspiration and the equality of all human souls remain as relevant today as they were in 1944, when 18 non-Labor political parties were united as the Liberal Party of Australia. I didn’t have a name for them as a six-year-old; it took until I was a teenager to understand what I had observed from the kitchen floor.
This is when I became a Liberal.