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Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

Liberalism is ‘diseased’ and needs to be rescued: George Brandis

The annual lecture is held in memory of the Latvian philosopher and historian of ideas. Last year it was delivered by British leadership hopeful Rory Stewart.


Answering questions from the select audience, which included the Australian-born Israeli Ambassador to the UK Mark Regev and two former advisors to outgoing British Prime Minister Theresa May, Mr Brandis went further and attacked “fake liberalism” as well as “illiberal” responses to right-wing populism.

He said the idea had lost its way in the West, particularly in the United States, because it had been inverted by the left, who claimed the language of “diversity” but were intolerant and sought to shut down unpopular opinion and views.

“It does make me smile sometimes to think that the left in politics admire diversity as one of their mantra words in every form, except intellectual diversity or diversity of thought.

“Who is anyone to instruct another person what they may think or even what they may say? I mean, what a violation of another human being is that?,” he said.

“That seems to me an inversion of liberalism and that is the disease with which American liberalism at the moment is beset.

“Defending the contestability of ideas, defending unpopular ideas against popular opinion is the heart of liberalism.

“And that is absolutely consistent with what Berlin said, so I would say liberalism needs to be rescued in America and perhaps in Europe as well.”

Brandis said in the Sir Isaiah Berlin lecture that liberalism needed to be rescued.

Mr Brandis, who infamously defended the right to be a bigot during debate over attempts to relax the Racial Discrimination Act and attacked One Nation leader Pauline Hanson for wearing a burka in the Senate – winning him a standing ovation from the Greens – said the best way to defeat right-wing populism was not to try and censor it but expose it.

“One of the key conundrums of political philosophy is should a tolerant society tolerate the intolerant?

“Yes because intolerant ideas are best exposed by being subject to public debate, public exposure and criticism.

“The moment a society, or a government, or a political elite or a judicial system for that matter, arrogates to itself the right to say what is tolerable or what is intolerable, that is the point which it assumes the role of the censor so I think fake liberalism is a problem, frankly.

Sir Isaiah Berlin.Credit:Camera Press London

The Latvian Ambassador to the UK, Baiba Braze, invited him to deliver the lecture after reading his maiden speech to the Australian Parliament in 2000, in which Mr Brandis quoted Berlin.

Ms Braze said Mr Brandis’ lecture underlined the importance of defending freedoms.

“Latvia knows from its 100-year history that individual and collective liberty and freedom are preconditions for successful development,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“My dear colleague George Brandis in his lecture proved that these values still stand and are as relevant today as it was in Sir Isaiah’s time.”

Berlin was born in Riga, in modern-day Latvia, and became one of Britain’s foremost political thinkers, studying at Oxford where Mr Brandis did his masters in law. Mr Brandis met Berlin at Oxford and regarded him as “the greatest liberal philosopher of the 20th century”.

Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.