Benjamin Disraeli is a giant of our shared parliamentary tradition.
Disraeli entered Parliament in 1837 after four unsuccessful attempts and spent three-quarters of his 44-year parliamentary career in opposition.
We look back at that era through a flickering sepia screen of sentimental memory and compare its apparent elegance to the unruly political times in which we live.
And yet the invective hurled at, and by, Disraeli would be more shocking today, than it was then.
He took no quarter and asked for none. He scrambled to the top of what he called the greasy pole despite being a Jew in an age when anti-semitism was the norm, and despite making his living as a novelist at a time when a Prime Minister’s qualification almost invariably came from their ancestors’ broad acres or, less often, from the law.
Of course as you look around the table at the G20 there are more than a few leaders – myself included – whose prospects of success seemed unlikely not so long ago.
As Disraeli’s contemporary, Mark Twain, observed – only fiction has to be credible.
The tenor of our times is change and at a pace and scale utterly unprecedented in human history.
And in such times what price political labels.
Is every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive still a little liberal or a little conservative?
Is it conservative to support free trade and open markets as Theresa May and I did today (I think it is!) – or call for more protection as many on both the self styled “liberal left” and “conservative right” in the US do today.
The truth is that the labels have lost almost all meaning in the furious outrage cycle of social media politics, long cast adrift to be appropriated, often cynically, by one politician or another as it suits their purpose.
And at the heart of our political tradition, whether we describe it as Conservative or Liberal is respect for humanity not in the mass, as the Left like to see us, but as individuals and families, Burke’s small platoons, Menzies “forgotten people”.
So what we admire about our distinguished predecessors, from Churchill to Thatcher, from Menzies to Howard, is not their label but their dogged devotion to the principles of a free society under the law.
Sovereignty. Law. Security. Liberty.
In 1944 Menzies went to great pains not to call his new political party, consolidating the centre right of Australian politics, “conservative” – but rather the Liberal Party which he firmly anchored in the centre of Australian politics.
He wanted to stand apart from the big money, business establishment politics of traditional “conservative” parties of the right, as well as from the socialist tradition of the Australian Labor Party – the political wing of the union movement.
“We took the name ‘Liberal’ because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his right and his enterprise, and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
It is important to remember the context of Menzies’ new Liberal Party. In 1944 our nations were still fighting a war against fascism. There had been plenty of local admirers of Mussolini and even Hitler before the War but, by this point, the authoritarian right had no appeal. The Soviet Union was still an ally in the war against Hitler, but the authoritarian Left had no appeal to most Australians either.
At the same time, laissez faire capitalism had not had a good run. The Great Depression had convinced many that the Government needed to play a much bigger role in the economy than the leaders of the Edwardian era would have ever imagined. So classical liberalism was out of fashion too.
The sensible centre, to use Tony Abbott’s phrase, was the place to be and it remains the place to be now.
I mention this only to remind that when we quote Menzies, Disraeli, or any other political leader, we need to consider the historical context. Menzies sought a lesser role for Government in citizens’ lives than Labor did, but by our 21st century standards he was hardly an economic liberal.
He believed in a highly regulated economy with high tariffs, a fixed exchange rate, centralised wage fixing and generally much more Government involvement in the economy than we would be comfortable with.
Of course he was not alone – his UK and even American counterparts had similar views.
It was a different age.
But a strong thread of principle, of value, connects our party to that of Menzies – one that combines both the liberal and conservative traditions – John Howard’s broad church.
And it is best summed up in this way.
From its foundation more than 60 years ago, the Liberal Party has stood for freedom.
Nothing is more fundamental to our philosophy than a deep commitment to individual freedom and enterprise. The Liberal Party stands for freedom or it stands for nothing.
We in the Liberal Party believe Government’s role is to enable citizens to do their best – and that commitment to freedom is based in a deep, instinctive respect for the dignity and the worth of every individual. We respect each other when we say: you are free to chart your own course, to make your own choices, and strive to realise your own dreams.
Our opponents on the Left believe that Government actually knows best.
So in the balance between the individual and the State, our side of politics leans heavily in favour of freedom and the individual – preferring choice over prescription and freedom over regulation, always sceptical about the wisdom and interference of governments.
The area where we must most carefully scrutinise the relationship between individual freedoms and Government intervention is national security.
Security and freedom are frequently presented as binary opposites – as if there exists a universe in which you could have one without the other.
But these two principles – prioritising public safety and maintaining individual freedoms – are not mutually exclusive. They can be – in fact, they must be – mutually reinforcing.
The question is not what freedoms to forgo for security. It is what security is required to enable our freedom.
The fundamental tenet of liberalism – going back to the classic work of John Stuart Mill – is that people should be free to pursue their own ideas provided their actions do not impede the rights of others to do the same.
This foundational principle of liberalism took on an even greater significance in the twentieth century when threatened by the modern totalitarian state.
The march of both fascism and communism led Karl Popper, to examine what he called “the paradox of freedom”.
In his words:
“Freedom… defeats itself if it is unlimited. Unlimited freedom means that a strong man is free to bully one who is weak and to rob him of his freedom. This is why we demand that the state should limit freedom to a certain extent, so that everyone’s freedom is protected by law. Nobody should be at the mercy of others, but all should have a right to be protected by the state.”
And this of course is what we mean when we talk about democracy under the rule of law this constrains the majority as it enables it.
Or as Churchill said “Democracy is no harlot to be picked up in the street by a man with a tommy gun.”
Karl Popper’s paradox of freedom was not the rationalisation of a dictator crushing his enemies. To the contrary, Karl Popper was fighting to defend what he called “The Open Society” of freedom, rationality and peaceful debate.
And this is what we in this room are fighting to defend today.
To defend the Open Society – to defend freedom – we cannot give free reign to its enemies.
And those enemies are resurgent.
Terrorism is the starkest and most urgent enemy of freedom. Terrorists seek to disrupt our freedoms and disable our trust-based societies through fear. They seek to create a society in which people are neither free nor secure.
It is in the very pursuit of freedom that we seek a stronger role for the State in protecting citizens against the terrorist threat. By fighting terrorism – with proportionate means – we are defending liberal values.
In order to be free a person must first be safe.
The reality is that individual freedom, liberty, the rule of law, and indeed national sovereignty, are currently under threat.
In a world of rapid change, we must constantly review and improve the policies and laws that will best keep our people safe. To set and forget would be easy, but it would not be right.
When a government abdicates its national security responsibilities the consequences can be fatal – and sometimes catastrophic.
Strong Borders the Foundation of a Free Society
Australia is the most successful multicultural society in the world. 26% of our people were born overseas, in my own city of Sydney the percentage is 37%, and half the population have at least one parent born outside Australia.
Our migration nation is also very diverse with people drawn from every party of the world, the second most commonly spoken language at home in Sydney is Chinese, the third is Arabic.
And yet in an age of increasing uncertainty and friction we live together, citizens of a free society, in relative harmony.
This freedom is enabled by strong national security.
In particular our strong border protection policies have ensured that Australians know once again, as they did in John Howard’s day, that it is only their Government which determines who comes to Australia and on what terms they can stay.
Howard’s strong policies were dropped by Labor when they were elected in 2007 and over six years there were 50,000 unlawful arrivals and at least 1200 deaths at sea.
More than 14,500 refugees waiting in UN camps were denied a place under our offshore humanitarian program – the places going instead to those arriving illegally by boat.
Taxpayers paid over A$10 billion for managing these arrivals – money that could have been spent on hospitals or schools.
It’s a record that utterly vindicates the Coalition’s border protection policies.
As Europe grapples today with unsustainable inflows of migrants and asylum seekers, the Australian experience offers both a cautionary tale and the seeds of a potential solution.
The lesson is clear: weak borders fragment social cohesion, drain public revenue, raise community concerns about national security, and ultimately undermine the consensus required to sustain high levels of immigration and multiculturalism.
In contrast, strong borders and retention of our sovereignty allow government to maintain public trust in community safety, respect for diversity and support for our immigration and humanitarian programs.
Unity. Security. Opportunity. Freedom.
Australia continues to welcome around 200,000 migrants each year; we have issued an additional 12,000 visas for people displaced by conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and we have increased our broader humanitarian intake by 35%.
This could not have happened if we did not restore order at the border, maintain strict security vetting and earn the Australian people’s trust that it is the Government that controls who enters Australia and for which purposes, not the criminal people smugglers.
I say to critics of our border protection policies: Are these not precisely the outcomes that every just and decent society should seek?
And it’s this foundation that will allow us to effectively deal with the most pressing security challenge of our age – Islamist extremism.
While small in number, its adherents are resolute in murderous purpose.
They have already eroded a measure of public trust in our pluralism and cast doubt on the ability of our governments to protect their own people.
So we must answer: Will we cower before their barbarism? Or will we defeat them?
In our response, we draw strength from the finest political tradition ever devised.
The values of Westminster are those of openness, mutual respect and the rule of law.
We believe that a good society is one that welcomes all peoples who commit to these core values. We believe that contending religions and philosophies should have to make their case in a marketplace of ideas.
By comparison, the extremists are morally and intellectually bereft. They can offer nothing in life, so they promise glory in death. It’s easy to scoff at the paucity of their vision; many have made the mistake of trivialising the threat they pose.
But as Disraeli once observed, “something unpleasant is coming when men are anxious to tell the truth”.
In the fight ahead, there is no space for the mush of moral relativism.
There is no justification for the mass murder of children at a concert in Manchester, or the killing of innocent people on London Bridge and at Borough Market – including Australians Kirsty Boden and Sara Zelenak.
We must acknowledge, as so many moslems acknowledge, that Islamist extremism is a disease within the body of Islam itself.
Equally we must recognise that Moslem leaders who stand for mutual respect and democracy whether at home or, like President Widodo, on the world stage are our best allies in the war against Daesh.
And we must also recognise that those who seek to tag all moslems for the crimes of a tiny minority are doing precisely what the terrorists want them to do.
After all, their pitch to Australian moslems is “you don’t belong here, they don’t want you, this is not your home.”
The last thing we should do is confirm their poisonous propaganda.
The genius of Australia is that we define our national identity not by race or religion or ethnicity but rather by a commitment to shared political values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law – values accessible to all.
So we must never take a backward step from our values – lets face it, a bad idea does not become valid, let alone good, simply because someone claims it was divinely inspired.
Religion and tradition should be acknowledged, but the values that prevail in our society are our values, the laws that prevail in our society are our laws – and no others.
As we honour our law enforcement and security services – who rush towards danger when others flee – we must ensure that they have the powers and resources to stay ahead of the threat.
As our adversaries’ methods and tactics evolve, so must ours.
The privacy of a terrorist can never be more important than the safety of the public. The information security of a terrorist or child abuser must not be protected above the personal security of our children, communities, values.
A government that gets this upside down would be abdicating responsibility; its duty of care to citizens. It certainly would not be helping the cause of freedom.
This is where Mill’s view on liberty is so important – we must not allow harm to be done to individuals and communities where we can act.
This must be the case online as it is off.
Now the question of Internet freedom is an important one. There is no institution or infrastructure more important to the future prosperity and freedom of our global community than the Internet. There has never been a more transformative democratising technology; it has broken down national boundaries and distance. Not so long ago only States and large corporations had megaphones powerful enough to address a nation – now a tweet or YouTube video can reach millions, if not billions, and do so in seconds.
But these remarkable technologies that are designed to unite us are also being used by those who seek to do us harm.
We have seen how terrorists have used, trained in and developed operations from, ungoverned places around the world. This is why Australia and the UK are part of the international coalition to defeat the islamist terrorism of Daesh at its source in Syria and Iraq.
But as the so-called Caliphate collapses, the terrorists will continue to sue the Internet for recruitment, planning and advocacy.
We cannot allow ungoverned spaces, whether offline or online, to be exploited by those who would do us harm.
The Internet must remain free and secure. But it cannot be ungoverned. Laws offline must apply online. Otherwise, freedom and security will both be lost.
To ensure terrorists are unable to operate with impunity in the ungoverned digital space, I set up a task force last month to drive action on our capability and response to cyber threats.
And just three days ago, in an unprecedented show of solidarity, the G20 agreed to work with industry in the pursuit of public safety and together fight terrorists and organised criminals.
We agreed we would collaborate “with industry to provide lawful and non-arbitrary access to available information where access is necessary for the protection of national security against terrorist threats. We affirm that the rule of law applies online as well as it does offline.”
I will refer to two areas where we need to do more.
First we need to secure swifter and more effective action by the owners of the big online services, like Facebook, Google and Twitter, to take down extremist material as soon as it appears. By and large I am confident that we can do more in this regard.
Second we need to address the problem of encryption. Now encryption is vitally important to protect our security online. But just as a locked bank vault or filing cabinet cannot resist a Court order to produce a document, why should the owners of encrypted messaging platforms like Whatsapp or Telegram or Signal be able to establish end to end encryption in such a way that nobody, not the owners and not the courts have the ability to find out what is being communicated.
The G20 communique is not talking about giving Governments a backdoor to access messaging, nor is it seeking access to the source code that some countries are demanding of companies for the pleasure of doing business in their jurisdiction.
Rather it is saying to Silicon Valley and its emulators – the ball is in your court. You have created messaging applications which are encrypted end to end, they are being used by terrorists and criminals to hide their murderous plans.
You must ensure that these dark places can be illuminated by the law so that the freedoms you hold dear will not be stripped away by criminals your technologies have made undetectable.
This will be a difficult conversation in many places, and especially in the USA, where there is a strong, anti government libertarian tradition on both the left and the right.
But here is the bottom line: the best defence against terrorists’ plans is good intelligence.
We have in the last few years disrupted 12 major terrorists plots, including several that would have resulted in large mass casualty attacks.
How many more can we disrupt if every communication, by every conspirator, is encrypted end to end and cannot be read despite every lawful right, indeed duty, so to do?
* This is an edited version of a speech titled “In Defence of a Free Society”, delivered at the Policy Exchange in London, on July 10, where the prime minister was awarded the Disraeli Prize.