Playing ‘Progressives and Conservatives’

Conservatism is generally understood in a political context to be the fight to maintain the status quo. Progressives on the other hand struggle for change. It may seem a paradoxical thesis but I’d argue that both progressives and conservatives lose out in politics. Conservatives will always lose to inevitable change and progressives end up losing their raison d’être. It’s a conundrum that I think is plaguing western democracies, including current Australian politics.

I often wonder what goes through the minds of conservatives in seeking to justify the status quo when the status quo wasn’t always thus even in their lifetimes, as nothing has ever been static. Do they look on past battles and dream longingly of turning back the tide, or is it just a defence against any further change in the ‘natural order of things’? The list of defeats for conservatives is significant: the abolition of slavery, the granting of property rights to women, female suffrage, granting minorities the vote, the end of prohibition on miscegenation, the advent of no-fault divorce, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, equal pay for women and so on. You rarely hear conservatives arguing to unwind these changes, so accepted have they become by the mainstream, but occasionally you get whispers of it, such as the LNP’s recent roll-back in Queensland of same-sex relationship legislation and a few other mooted changes, and Abbott’s raising the flag on reintroducing at-fault divorce a few years ago. Would conservatives, if in power for a significant amount of time with sufficient majority seek to go further and roll-back other societal changes? And how convincing a conservative can you be as you accept this accumulation of societal change, or does the old line in the sand magically erase itself and a new one get drawn?

Progressives on the other hand have won so many victories they’re starting to come to a loose end. Once heretical ideas such as equality of the sexes, racial equality, universal suffrage and divorce are now orthodoxy. Even Labor’s founding area of workers’ rights doesn’t have much to improve on, children not only don’t work in appalling conditions, they don’t work at all, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work is part of the IR fabric. The Liberal party likes to see the demise of unions as just desert for a scourge on the workplace, but actually the unions are the victims of their own success: having grown up, the child no longer needs a parent.

So it begs the question, where to from here? What do you fight for when the battles have been fought? And indeed have the battles been won or are conservatives poised for a big unwriting of history?

I think this is at the heart of the ideological malaise besetting the Labor party in particular but also the Liberal party in Australia. The fires that stoked the Labor battle cry have died down to embers and the Liberals’ horrors of the future have become the normality of today. Like two old dogs, their bones of contention have been eaten away and now they’re just gnawing away at their own teeth.


Postscript: On a related note, Peter Hartcher on gay marriage in the Sydney Morning Herald


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