The rise of laid-back conservatism

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 June, 2005, 12:00am

The faltering state of Australian Health Minister Tony Abbott's attempts to initiate a broad public debate, aimed at tightening the country's abortion laws, says a lot about the type of conservatism now prevalent in Australia.

The election of John Howard and his centre-right Liberal-National coalition, four times in a row since 1996, has promoted widespread belief that the country is falling under the spell of some thinking that is long past its shelf life.

Mr Howard's personal predilection for cricket, and strong support for the role of the British monarchy in Australian political life, have tended to reinforce that image. But look closer, and what becomes apparent are values more aligned with those symbolised by Arnold Schwarzenegger in California - a laid-back, sun-drenched conservatism.

As with conservatives elsewhere, Australians are showing that they support lower taxes, greater personal choice in all areas of life, such as education, and a reduction in bureaucratic intrusions into their lives. Membership in unions has plummeted, while the government has just embarked on an aggressive move to reform and liberalise the labour market. And interest in the country's history has surged among young Australians.

At the same time, homosexuality is so well accepted that Sydney's annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras - once a sharp social and political statement - is now little more than a tourist attraction.

Australia has been overtaken by a traditional conservatism that focuses on individuality and personal freedoms, and has little to do with the image of moral diehards and strict church-goers. As for the country's abortion laws, Mr Howard - knowing there is little support for change - has indicated he is largely content to leave them as they are.

If anything, contemporary Australian conservatism is marked by a pervasive pragmatism. Nevertheless, signs are emerging that some political leaders are prepared to use the current environment to push a very right-wing agenda.

What has been characterised as a 'Christian-right faction' is gaining influence in the New South Wales branch of Mr Howard's Liberal Party. Last month, it secured a majority on the party's state executive, meaning it could exert greater influence over policy on issues such as abortion and gay rights. But it is far from an inevitable sign of things to come.

A poll released on June 6, on the role of religion in society, found that three-quarters of Australians believe religious leaders should not influence government decisions.

As if to reiterate the point, Queensland Senator Ron Boswell, a strong opponent of abortion, has conceded that it would be pointless to propose legislation to change existing laws until more public support emerged.

Australia's brand of conservatism has hardly hurt Mr Abbott's own career. A Catholic who had once considered the priesthood, he believed his first child, conceived in a relationship during his student days, had been put up for adoption.

Earlier this year, when a 25-year-old sound technician was identified as his long-lost son, the public was more than pleased for him. But it all proved bittersweet: subsequent DNA testing revealed that the man's mother was indeed Mr Abbott's former girlfriend, but it also showed that he was not the father.

Most Australians hardly batted an eyelid.

Barry Hing is a Sydney-based writer