Small-L Liberals Skewer Progressives on Horns of a Dilemma

Should progressive voters act to ensure the right side of politics is liberal, not conservative?

In the wake of the chess-like analysis of the Victorian Liberals’ decision to preference Labor before the Greens in next Saturday’s state election, Victorians voters must now confront their own tactical conundrum. In particular, the quandary facing those who take a progressive line on issues such as abortion, physician-assisted dying, stem cell research, artistic censorship and multiculturalism.

Such voters face a hard choice. They can vote for Ted Baillieu, who is progressive on all these issues, or, by not doing so, risk confining him and his small-l brand of liberalism to history’s dustbin.

Advertisement: Story continues below\ Members of the Liberal Party share a radically individualistic, socially conservative economic agenda. But, just like Labor, they splinter on issues of individual rights, equality and the role religious beliefs should have in shaping the laws that govern us.

The fall of federal Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull to the sword of a man colleagues have dubbed Captain Catholic has arguably left Baillieu the last small-l Liberal leader across the nation. If he loses next weekend, it won’t just finish him as Leader of the Opposition but may also spell the end of small-l liberalism in Australia.

Who cares? To quote a tweet from feminist cartoonist Judy Horacek, many of the progressive voters who share Baillieu’s stance on matters of individual freedom, equality, diversity and the secular state would “no more vote Liberal than fly”. Why should they care who leads the party, now or in the future, or whether liberal or conservative brands of Liberals are elected to Parliament?

Well, they should care for the simple reason that the stance of the Liberals determines the tone, tenor and parameters of debate on progressive issues. Where numbers are tight or a conscience vote will determine the outcome, the number of small-l Liberal votes in the chamber will determine whether progressive policy falters or thrives.

A progressive stance from the Liberals enhances the power of the progressive wing of the Labor Party while a conservative opposition emboldens its conservative religionists to frustrate change and advance their illiberal agenda.

The abortion debate in the state in 2008 is a case in point. As former Victorian premier Joan Kirner has acknowledged, Baillieu played an important role in the success of the decriminalisation push. He made his intention to vote for reform early in the piece, and each time conservative religious Liberals sought to derail the process, he put them in their place. When Peter Costello tried to stir up community disquiet about the legislation, Baillieu did what is all to too rare in the male-dominated world of politics: he kept faith with his small-l Liberal principles even when it came to women. He told The Age that women deserved to be free to choose to have an abortion “without fear of unwarranted persecution, prosecution or stigma”, and added: “It’s time to provide some certainty, and for the women of Victoria this is a very important [time].”

One has only to look at the inaction on law reform in Queensland and New South Wales – states lumbered with the same antiquated and unclear criminal provisions on abortion that reigned in Victoria – to recognise the key role of a small-l Liberal opposition.

Even in Queensland, where last month a young woman and her boyfriend were charged and tried for the crime of abortion (a jury found them not guilty), there is no political will to repeal criminal provisions that hark back to 1861. The reason? In Queensland, the Liberals, in coalition with the Nationals, have a highly religious conservative bent and have joined forces with those of similar persuasion in Queensland Labor to stymie change.

Baillieu is not progressive on every issue (although it’s easy for him to appear this way when his federal counterparts continue to move – to quote former prime minister Malcolm Fraser – “further and further to the right”). He is against gay marriage, a stance that undercuts his usual commitment to equity and diversity. But John Brumby opposes gay marriage, too. Unlike the Premier, Baillieu supports physician-assisted dying, an issue likely to occupy the attention of the new Victorian Parliament if the Greens have their way.

So where does that leave Victorians who want to act in a principled fashion, but also tactically and with an eye to the future, when casting their vote?

I think anyone who wants Victoria to remain the most sane and forward-looking state in the nation, anyone who wants the Liberal Party to remain a party of liberalism – not religious conservatism – has to look hard at Baillieu’s Liberals this time around because the stark truth is that unless a small-l Liberal opposition can win its way through to government – and soon – there won’t be any small-l Liberals left.

Publication history

Vote 1 Baillieu to save small-l liberalism  The Age