Tag Archives: classical liberalism

George Brandis warns Liberals against rise of populist right

The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Former attorney-general George Brandis has warned of the challenge that right-wing populism poses to the Liberal Party, in his valedictory speech to the Senate ahead of taking up the post of high commissioner in London.

Brandis, a Liberal moderate, also strongly cautioned the Coalition against listening to those who said it should use national security as a political weapon against Labor, and criticised attacks on the judiciary from his own side.

With Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull looking on, Brandis told the Senate that classical liberal values were under “greater challenge than at any time in my memory”.

“Increasingly, in recent years, powerful elements of right-wing politics have abandoned both liberalism’s concern for the rights of the individual and conservatism’s respect for institutions, in favour of a belligerent, intolerant populism which shows no respect for either the rights of individual citizens or the traditional institutions which protect them.”

Brandis was attorney-general throughout the Abbott and Turnbull governments, leaving the ministry in the December reshuffle.

He became increasingly outspoken as a voice of the moderate strand of the Liberal Party toward the end of his time in parliament. Within the government, he was critical of the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, a hardline conservative.

In his speech Brandis targeted “right-wing postmodernism”. “A set of attitudes which had its origin in the authoritarian mind of the left has been translated right across the political spectrum,” he said.

“This presents a threat both to liberalism and conservatism, and a profound challenge to the Liberal Party as the custodian of these philosophic traditions.”

Brandis – who once set off a political storm by declaring that people had the right to be bigots – said being a liberal wasn’t easy.

“It means respecting the right of people to make choices which we ourselves would not make and of which may disapprove.

“It means respecting the right of people to express their opinions, even though others may find those opinions offensive.

“It means respecting the right of people to practice their religion, even though others may find the tenets of that religion irrational.

“It means, in a nation of many cultures, respecting the right of people to live according to their culture, even though, to others, that culture may seem alien.

“It means respecting the right of everyone to marry the person they love, even though others may find their understanding of marriage confronting.”

Brandis was a prominent figure pushing for same-sex marriage, which was legislated late last year.

In a pointed reference including some (unnamed) ministers who have criticised the judiciary, Brandis said he had not disguised his concerns at attacks on the institutions of the law – the courts and those who practised in them.

“To attack those institutions is to attack the rule of law itself. And it is for the attorney-general always to defend the rule of law – sometimes from political colleagues who fail to understand it, or are impatient of the limitations it may impose upon executive power – because although the attorney-general is a political official, as the first law officer he has a higher duty – a duty to the law itself.

“It is a duty which, as my cabinet colleagues know, on several robust occasions, I have always placed above political advantage.”

Brandis also was blunt in his rejection of those who want to see the government seek to inject more partisanship into national security.

He observed that eight tranches of national security legislation he had overseen were passed with opposition support after parliamentary committee scrutiny.

“It was a fine example of government and parliament working hand-in-hand to protect the national interest.

“I have heard some powerful voices argue that the Coalition should open a political front against the Labor Party on the issue of domestic national security.

“I could not disagree more strongly.

“One of the main reasons why the government has earned the confidence of the public on national security policy is that there has never been a credible suggestion that political motives have intruded.

“Were it to do so, confidence not just in the government’s handling of national security, but in the agencies themselves, would be damaged and their capacity to do their work compromised.

The Conversation“Nothing could be more irresponsible than to hazard the safety of the public by creating a confected dispute for political advantage. To his credit, the prime minister has always resisted such entreaties.”


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs

What is a ‘classical liberal’ approach to human rights?

The Conversation

Catherine Renshaw, Australian Catholic University

Tim Wilson, Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner, has announced that he will take a “classical liberal” approach to human rights. There is a fair degree of confusion about what this means.

Classical liberalism is not a coherent body of political philosophy. However, in relation to human rights, there are three key ideas that most classical liberals subscribe to.

The first is the idea that all people are born with rights, which they hold simply because they are human. This is the idea that underpins Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Not everyone shares this belief. Many people believe that rights are simply entitlements granted by the state and held only by citizens. But for classical liberals, rights are much more than this. They are universal (held by everyone) and inalienable (they continue to exist regardless of whether or not governments recognise them).

The second idea concerns what human rights actually are. Classical liberals believe that the list of genuine human rights is quite short. It is comprised primarily of those things that are necessary to preserve life and individual liberty.

This list includes the right to be free from torture, slavery, arbitrary arrest or detention. Freedom of association and freedom of speech are also seen as legitimate human rights. But other rights, particularly economic and social rights, are viewed as mere aspirations.

Thirdly, classical liberals believe that the role of the state in fulfilling or protecting human rights should be very limited. States should do only what is necessary to protect life and property.

Classical liberals believe in a minimal state – as political philosopher Robert Nozick puts it, a “night watchman” state – that does not interfere with the privacy of citizens and their freedom to live, work and be educated in any way they see fit.

Wilson has alluded to all of these ideas in public statements. Like attorney-general George Brandis, Wilson has argued in favour of focusing the attention of the Australian Human Rights Commission on the rights championed by classical liberals, particularly the right to free speech.

Wilson has talked about the problems that occur when certain rights (such as the right not to be discriminated against) collide with other rights (such as the right to freedom of association). Like Brandis, Wilson has criticised the Australian Human Rights Commission for its emphasis on anti-discrimination.

But there are several reasons why a classical liberal approach to human rights does not necessarily reflect the needs and aspirations of contemporary Australian society.

First, the philosophical foundation for the classical liberal idea of human rights is very shaky, as argued by the likes of philosopher Joseph Raz. Historically, classical liberals view rights as bestowed by God or derived from some essential human essence.

But many Australians seem to take a more pragmatic view of human rights, as noted by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Mick Gooda. Rights are the important interests and values that democracies have decided to protect. Far from making rights less important, this makes them more so.

Community consultations show that many Australians are also more ambitious than many classical liberals about what these rights should consist of. Brandis has said that freedom is the core human right without which nothing else is possible. But food, work, education and social security are also important. Rights are inter-related and inter-dependent. It is a mistake to think that something like a right to adequate health care is too vague to be an enforceable right.

Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has criticised the
government’s policy 
of detaining asylum seeker children. AAP

Finally, Australians seem to aspire to more than a society where individuals are just left alone to pursue their own interests and where the best a government can do is prevent individuals from being arbitrarily deprived of life or property.

For example, ensuring that certain groups of people are not discriminated against is a central part of an equal society. As Brandis points out, since its establishment in 1986, the Australian Human Rights Commission has spent much of its time advancing the idea in Article 2 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

This is hard, slow work, done on a case-by-case basis and through public education and training. It certainly lacks the glamour of the classical liberal rhetoric around liberty and freedom, but it has been a vital part of achieving a fairer society and a better life for millions of Australians.

So far, Wilson has not been at his most convincing championing rights of privacy or arguing for more free speech. Where his views have resonated is on subjects such as children in immigration detention. On this issue, Wilson has simply said that he doesn’t think it is right. This is the sort of visceral response shared by most Australians.

In addition to his gut feeling that imprisoning children is wrong, as a classical liberal, Wilson should find the government’s entire asylum seeker policy deeply troubling. What the government is doing is violating the rights of the few (asylum seekers) in the name of achieving a greater good for the many (preventing deaths at sea and protecting Australia’s sovereignty).

To a classical liberal, this sort of utilitarian approach to rights should never be acceptable. Wilson’s intervention on this issue will be important.

The ConversationCatherine Renshaw is Lecturer, School of Law, at Australian Catholic University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

Leave a comment

Filed under Reblogs