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The pandemic has made it abundantly clear that the old left/right paradigm is passe in Australia.

Today we have so-called conservatives from the NSW Premier to various loud media commentators telling us that if we support conservative, cautious measures of control, including lockdowns which have, up until now, made Australia the envy of the world, we are robots living, according to one commentator on Sky “in a hermit kingdom”. Even the much respected former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer joined this gloomy squad.

The political right is moving further away from true conservative values towards a flinty libertarianism. On the one hand these right thinkers of the right claim to be conservatives and elevate personal freedom and so called “Western values”.

But on the other, they ignore the Judaeo-Christian foundation of those values, which not only holds conscience sacred, but also elevates personal sacrifice for the sake of one’s community.

Australians are a conservative people and I have written from a consistently conservative viewpoint. The care of a large family encourages that position. I have never supported most of the Andrews government’s more outlandish social policies, but this week the person who was speaking with the most common sense was the lefty Victorian premier.

He has conceded that zero cases in Victoria is impossible, but unlike some of the outlandish voices of the right, he is not saying that case numbers don’t matter. They do matter. An exponential rise in cases will equal a rise in hospitalisation, as we see in NSW, where the system is under great pressure.

It is understandable that current opinion polls indicate majority support for restrictions to be lifted once 80 percent vaccination is achieved. What the public have as yet not got their head around is that firstly the plan is only talking about adult vaccination rates of 80 percent.

Secondly, vaccine efficacy will wane, and third, some restrictions, including lockdowns, might have to stay in place. Israel, now facing a fourth wave, has already been through this scenario, and Britain is battling rising cases as the northern autumn begins and schools return.

An 80 percent vaccination target, as epidemiologists know, might put a brake on a catastrophic scenario but hospitalisation will rise — and the more cases, the more illness. The worst response from the libertarian right is, “oh well, some people will die”. Which is no comfort if you or one of your children is one of those people. Also remember the Delta variant is much more dangerous for children, and we have only just begun to vaccinate them.

Until there is enough vaccine for boosters we will probably be faced with another series of outbreaks by autumn next year, as vaccines wane in efficacy.

According to the Zoe British study, which is backed by research from Israel, after six months the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine against symptomatic illness went from 88 percent to 74 percent, and the AstraZeneca from 77 percent to 67 percent. So vaccination in Australia’s current phase is, in a sense, a stop gap measure. The public needs to know that. Right now in Britain infections are over 32,000 cases. 

However, our own libertarian commentators are pretty silent about that. Instead, they are talking up a scenario that compares our “hermit” mentality to the “open” mentality of the rest of the world – and once we are all vaccinated we should just be able to carry on as before, although we won’t.

So it is understandable that the premiers in WA and Queensland still have the overwhelming support of their electorates to keep their borders closed. After all, if you are in Perth or Brisbane, why would you want to be in Sydney?

However, another interesting feature of surveys that have been done over the past year is that middle-aged women tend to be more conservative about control measures, including border closure and lockdowns. Why? Women are more focused on the family, and the immediate welfare of their children and loved ones. Women are focused on the general social situation, but principally in regard to how it affects families.

The libertarians, on the other hand, are more focused on the broader economic aspects of the pandemic, and the general principles of “liberty” which, for mothers in particular, is a theoretical concept of little daily interest. If you spend a lot of time looking after sick children you are much more focused on getting past emergency and trying to get a bed in the hospital than worrying about your “liberty”.

Not being able to send children to school is a pressing issue; but a minor one if they go and are not fully vaccinated. The far right tend to ignore those consequences but use examples of separated parents and grandparents solely to perpetuate their exaggerated view of Australia as a new police state.

Both sides in this new paradigm need to relate to ordinary people’s concerns about their own families. But true conservatism has nothing to do with the view that elevates personal liberty and “freedom” above the most basic obligation of human beings towards one another – what, in Christian terms, is to do to your neighbour as you would do to yourself.

This article has been republished from The Australian, with permission.

Angela Shanahan

Angela Shanahan is a Canberra-based freelance journalist and mother of nine children. She has written regularly for The Australian for over 20 years, The Spectator (British and Australian editions) for...