What Remains of Conservative Thought?

Article excerpt

What does conservatism mean in Australia, a country often portrayed as not possessing much to conserve and running madly along the tracks of progress? And yet settler societies, such as Australia, are often decidedly conservative as their members wish to conserve those traditions that they have brought with them from the original homeland.

The real issue is the form that conservatism takes in Australia and how Australian conservatism fits with what is generally understood as the conservative disposition.

Conservatism, I believe, rests on two major pillars. The first emphasizes human fallibility and the capacity for individuals to make mistakes and behave badly. The second is that there is a wisdom that inheres in institutions and communities simply by virtue of their extended existence.

Conservatism is about human beings and their values; it is about preserving values that have worked and ensuring that humans do not throw out the baby with the bathwater when they engage in change.

The Anglo-Irish politician Edmund Burke is the model conservative, particularly for Australia. He wanted to conserve what was valuable and make moderate reforms when they were in line with existing values and institutions. He opposed radical change in the shape of the French Revolution, where the intention was to destroy the existing order and to start again from scratch.

Burke can pass as either a liberal or a conservative depending on what facet of his thought and activities one cares to shine light. This is true of all real conservatives; they are not reactionaries but people willing to accommodate the new so long as it is in accord with the best established traditions of humankind.

In Australia, there have been three broad expressions of conservatism. The first is what can be called a Burkean political conservatism. It has attempted to preserve what is best in the British political tradition that Australia has inherited.

The second is a tradition of cultural conservatism that found a home, at least initially, in the churches and the universities. It has sought to preserve the universal values embodied by Western civilization.

The third is a form of populist conservatism that has celebrated the capacity of ordinary people to conserve their traditional values in the face of the excesses of the contemporary world.


This form of conservatism has sought to preserve the best of the British inheritance without slavishly and unthinkingly following the British political model. In the nineteenth century, this meant meeting the challenge of those advocating progressive liberalism and democracy. Conservatives questioned the often excessive optimism, ultimately derived from Rousseau, that democrats and progressives had regarding human nature.

Acknowledging the fact that 'good' human beings could often bring about bad and selfish laws, colonial conservatives (who really thought of themselves as liberals) sought to provide checks and balances on the unlimited power of the Lower House of Parliament. Some, such as William Forster, saw the solution in the form of a powerful Upper House capable of checking the excesses of the lower house. Another solu- r tion advocated by John West was the creation of a federal system that would provide a consistent system of check and balances.

Conservatives also advocated the trustee system of Parliamentary representation derived from Burke. Members of Parliament were not to be considered as delegates of their electorates, but representatives of the country as a whole who would legislate on behalf of the whole. The member was meant to be someone who stood above the community, able to legislate on behalf of the community because of his superior education and character. Sir Henry Parkes, sometimes thought of as a radical democrat, openly advocated that electors should avoid the parvenu and seek the local equivalent of the English gentleman. …