Conservatism in Australia

Conservatism in Australia refers to the political philosophy of conservatism as it has developed in Australia. Politics in Australia has since at least the 1910s been most predominently a contest between the Labour movement in Australia and the combined forces of anti-Labour groups. The anti-Labour groups have at times identified themselves as "free trade", as "nationalist", as "anti-communist", as "liberal", besides other labels. Until the 1990s, the label "conservative" has rarely been used, and when used it tended to be used by pro-Labour forces as a term of disparagement against their opponents. This conflict has been conducted on a number of fronts, most prominently industrial and political, but also in social forums such as in commentary in the media.


In the past, "Conservatism" was used as a disparaging epithet by detractors of right wing politics and politicians within Australia, often by supporters and members of left-wing leaning movements and parties such as the Australian Labor Party and the Australian Greens. People on the right called themselves "liberals". That only changed in the late 20th century; Hirst says that as a significant political movement, conservatism is "a very recent arrival in Australia". John Howard, who became prime minister in 1996, was the first holder of the office to describe himself as a conservative."[1]

In the 21st century the term covers similar political issues as found in other Western democracies. In the early 20th century the liberals had connections with reform movements. However, as Howard has argued, the Liberal Party became the trustee of both the classical liberal and conservative traditions. That is, it combines liberal (market-based, pro-business, anti-union, anti-Big Government) economic policies with conservative social policies.[2]

Political parties

Political conservatism is primarily represented by the Liberal Party of Australia, and its coalition partner, the National Party which historically was the party of the small farmers and espoused agrarianism. Moser and Catley state, "In America, 'liberal' means left-of-center, and it is a pejorative term when used by conservatives in adversarial political debate. In Australia, of course, the conservatives are in the Liberal Party."[3] Jupp points out that, "[the] decline in English influences on Australian reformism and radicalism, and appropriation of the symbols of Empire by conservatives continued under the Liberal Party leadership of Sir Robert Menzies, which lasted until 1966."[4] Beecher comments that, "across the economic and cultural landscape, Howard proved that the centre of politics in Australia is inherently conservative."[5]

There have been other minor parties which may be perceived to be conservative or right wing in orientation on account of some of their policies, including the Family First Party, One Nation Party, Liberal Democratic Party, Christian Democratic Party, Australian Christians, Australian Liberty Alliance, Rise Up Australia, Shooters Party and Katter's Australian Party, although some would not champion classical liberal approach to economics adopted by the Liberal Party.[6]

Conservative think tanks in Australia include Centre for Independent Studies, the H. R. Nicholls Society and the Menzies Research Centre.[7] Apart from political parties, conservative grass-roots movements have also arisen in Australia in recent years. Some of these may have connections to existing political leaders, such as Senator Cory Bernardi’s Conservative Leadership Foundation[8] (which is dedicated to fostering community based conservative leadership) or explicitly reject party politics in favour of cultural restoration, such as the Sydney Traditionalist Forum[9] (which is described as “an association of ‘old school’ conservative, traditionalist and paleoconservative individuals”).

In Australia however there are some differences in the political landscape in which conservatism exists, compared to what is found in other countries, especially in economics. Australia undertook in the mid-1980s significant economic reforms – faith in markets, deregulation, a reduced role for government, low protection and the creation of a new cooperative enterprise culture - under the centre-left Australian Labor Party and specially under social liberal Paul Keating."[10] Consequently issues like protectionism, welfare reform, privatisation and deregulation are no longer debated as intensely as they are in Europe or North America.


Australians Conservatives generally, but not exclusively, oppose the idea of Australia becoming a republic, changing the flag or removing perceived vestiges of Australia's Anglo-Saxon legacy.

Whether Australia should remain a monarchy or become a republic was a contentious issue in the 1990s. It has since not been a priority under for the government as of 2016. In 1998 when debate peaked, Howard took the monarchist position favoured by most conservatives. Howard argued that the monarchy had provided a long period of stability and whilst he said there was no question that Australia was a fully independent nation, he believed that the "separation of the ceremonial and executive functions of government" and the presence of a neutral "defender of constitutional integrity" was an advantage in government and that no republican model would be as effective in providing such an outcome as the Australian constitutional monarchy.[11] Despite opinion polls suggesting Australians favoured a republic, the 1999 republic referendum rejected the model proposed by the 1998 convention involving appointment of the head of state by Parliament.[12] Conservatives generally support keeping the current flag (with its British insignia) and are proud of the nation's British heritage.[13]

Further reading

See also


  1. Graeme Davison et al. eds., The Oxford Companion to Australian History (2nd ed. 2001) p 148
  2. Judith Brett (2003). Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class: From Alfred Deakin to John Howard. Cambridge U.P. p. 1.
  3. David Mosler; Robert Catley (1998). America and Americans in Australia. p. 83.
  4. James Jupp (2004). The English in Australia. p. 172.
  5. Eric Beecher, ed. (2009). The Best Australian Political Writing 2009. Melbourne Univ. Publishing. p. 236.
  6. Louise Chappell (2003). Gendering Government: Feminist Engagement With the State in Australia and Canada. UBC Press. p. 54.
  7. Gail Reekie (1998). Measuring Immorality: Social Inquiry and the Problem of Illegitimacy. Cambridge U.P. p. 63.
  8. "Conservative Leadership Foundation"
  9. "SydneyTrads - Weblog of the Sydney Traditionalist Forum
  10. Paul Kelly, The end of certainty: The story of the 1980s (1992) p 660
  11. "Pandora Archive". 23 August 2006. Retrieved 13 May 2011.
  12. Vizard, Steve, Two Weeks in Lilliput: Bear Baiting and Backbiting At the Constitutional Convention (Penguin, 1998, ISBN 0-14-027983-0)
  13. D Dutton (2002). One of Us? A Century of Australian Citizenship. UNSW Press. p. 83.
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