The phrase neo-Liberal gets thrown around a lot, most recently as a prefix to 'Abbott government' or '2014 Budget'.
It's one of many conflated terms which are impoverishing the debate about economic and social reform. For example, recently in a major online publication it was claimed that 'these days, most right-wingers in Australia identify themselves not as conservatives but as "classical liberals".' In my experience, few people identify themselves as classical liberals and fewer still understand what it means.
Classical liberalism is certainly not a synonym for conservative. In his essay 'Why I am not a Conservative' Friedrich Hayek made plain the differences. Conservatism reflects a cautious attitude to change and a Burkean recognition of the value of institutions which have served humankind over time as proven repositories and safeguards of wisdom — the family, the rule of law, parliament and universities and for some people the church.
Hayek pointed out that both conservative and progressive as descriptors define only a position relative to the status quo. Neither provides a positive, principles-based agenda for addressing social or economic challenges. Classical liberalism, by contrast, is not defined in relation to the extremes of current debate or the relative positions of other philosophies. It is defined from first principles as a commitment to individual liberty, the rule of law and limited state intrusion into private life, commercial relationships and very importantly civil society.
These founding principles of classical liberalism are rooted in the Magna Carta, the agreement between King John and his barons which proclaimed that freedom is secured under the rule of law and that no person is above the law. The Great Charter led to parliamentary democracy, the American Bill of Rights and eventually following Federation to our own constitution. One of only four surviving originals of the 1297 Inspeximus issue is on display in Australia's Parliament House. Clauses in the Magna Carta defend the freedom of the Church from whence we inherit our freedom of religion; another confirms the 'liberties and customs' of communities along with early forms of a right to privacy.
Calling for an online Bill of Rights, 'father of the Internet' Tim Berners-Lee has said it must be a Magna Carta for the Internet. Such is the power of this almost 800 year old proclamation of liberty. It is a constant reminder that classical liberalism is not a tactical response to temporary political challenges but an enduring framework for all social, economic and political challenges.
Commentators need to get the definitions right. Conflating conservatism, statism or worse blatant electoral politics with a principled philosophy of liberty almost 800 years old fails not only to recognise the real nature of liberalism but its true promise for another 800 years to come.
Cassandra Wilkinson is External Relations Manager at The Centre for Independent Studies.