9 December 2022
Last week, tragedy struck two institutions I love. Both of them are devoted to an idea I’m passionate about: freedom.
I speak of the Liberal Party of Australia and, of course, Fleetwood Mac.
I’m happy to confess I listen to Rumours, Fleetwood Mac’s most famous album, just about every week. Almost every song is about different ideas of liberty.
In ‘Dreams’ Stevie Nicks asks, ‘You say you want your freedom, well who am I to hold you down?’ It’s what philosophers like Isaiah Berlin called ‘negative freedom’. Freedom from restriction, from being controlled, or for millions of lovers in the 1970s, it’s freedom from being held down by obligation to a relationship, such as in a marriage. This is the freedom of the sexual revolution. This is freedom-from.
‘Go your own way’ is a different kind of freedom. It’s a reply to Stevie Nicks from his jilted lover, Lindsay Buckingham. Freedom here is about following your calling, doing what your heart tells you to do. This is a romantic conception of freedom. Freedom to become a musician, to experience to new places, to become famous, to form a new family, to chase personal growth and achieve our goals. Isaiah Berlin called this ‘positive freedom’. This is freedom-to, also known as freedom-for.
But there’s a hint of a third kind of freedom on the Rumours album. It’s expressed in ‘Songbird’ this way:
For you, there’ll be no more crying
And I feel that when I’m with you
Christine McVie, who wrote the song, called it a prayer. This is about the freedom that comes from belonging, from being connected to someone, with all its obligations, even if it also comes with pain at times. There’s a feeling of freedom that comes from being ‘with you’. Of all the band members, she understood freedom-with.
When I heard Christine died a few days ago, my heart sank. Her harmonies and uplifting songs made her the cornerstone of the band. After she left Fleetwood Mac in 1998, the band never really recovered. I’ve read Stevie Nicks didn’t want to tour without her. They all seemed to start doing ‘solo projects’ but none of them came close to the success of Rumours. It’s as though they understood their freedom-from and their freedom-for, but didn’t realise that what they really needed to succeed in life and art all along was each other. Their freedom-with.
I was a different kind of sad – perhaps, disappointed – when I watched the Liberal Party, a party I love, implode at the Victorian elections on the weekend before last. It was the kind of sad we all feel when we watch a person we love make mistakes that are entirely preventable and against which they have been forewarned.
Sections of the party of Menzies seem to be having an identity crisis. In this identity crisis, it hasn’t led to getting hair-plugs or a convertible car in a vain attempt to try on another’s mojo – but it is just as unconvincing.
The Victorian Liberal Party just seems to have lost its connection with what it means to be Liberal. They followed whatever the polls said they should do, from low-cost tram fares to zero-cost school lunches. But it’s meaningless to chase values that aren’t your own, or to propose policies that don’t come from your foundational beliefs.
My belief is that being liberal means wanting people to be free.
Naturally, freedom must start with freedom-from unnecessary restrictions. Freedom from oppression. How can we be the party of liberty when we did little to oppose the government’s imposition of the world’s longest lockdown?
Freedom shouldn’t end there. There must be freedom-to. Freedom to fulfil our individual purpose. We must be the party who encourages people to chart their own path, knowing we each have a different definition of a satisfying life and that governments are ill-equipped to cater to this diversity of human potential.
We should, however, heed the warning from Fleetwood Mac about the perils of pursuing these freedoms without freedom-with. They said, in 1977’s Dreams:
Now here you go again, you say you want your freedom
Well, who am I to keep you down?
It’s only right that you should play the way you feel it
But listen carefully to the sound of your loneliness.
Without social connection, without roots, without the voluntary bonds of family, community, churches, and footy clubs, freedom can be empty.
Freedom is not meant to be an experience of being alone in the world. It was never meant to mean ignoring the needs of others with impunity. For the Liberal Party to truly be the party of freedom, it must embrace freedom-with.
According to the 2022 Australian National Values study, freedom is the one value that every age group of Australians care about, from Boomers to Gen Z.
We happen to have some Gen Zs in my house; our three beautiful girls. So, over dinner, we asked about each of them and freedom – when do they most feel free to be themselves?
They said they like being outside, in the bush or the surf, which means freedom from restriction. Fair enough. But my girls also like freedom to do what they’re good at. My eldest said she feels free when she’s doing maths (I know, amazing). My youngest feels free when she’s dancing (bless her heart).
Where was the freedom-with? Our middle-daughter said it best. She said she feels free at the beach, ‘When I’m out past the breakers with Dad.’
Of course that’s when she’s free. She feels connected, safe, and loved. She’s not being forced, but she is voluntarily embracing her adventurous spirit, feeling a little scared, a little brave, but also protected. She gets that with her Dad by her side. Can there be a better picture of freedom?
We’re looking forward to enjoying a lot of this freedom up the coast over Summer. I hope every Australian enjoys a thousand moments of freedom around the Christmas tree or camping with friends. But my special wish is for those who still care about the party of freedom, while we’re in this season of opposition, to consider what freedom means to our countrymen.
Freedom is not meant to be an experience of being alone in the world. Nor is it ignoring the needs of others with impunity. When Menzies spoke about ‘freedom for my neighbour as well as for myself’ he was talking about a deeper freedom, freedom that comes with community and belonging. The freedom that comes from enabling a strong civil society, rather than expecting the heavy hand of government to solve all our problems. It’s a freedom that is not afraid to engage with issues beyond the economy, one that understands the human being as a creative and spiritual creature with hopes, needs, and ambitions that are more than just dollars and cents.
And I dare say that the connectedness and belonging that is freedom-with is the key to solving some of this nation’s most intractable problems, from family dysfunction to addiction and violence.
To borrow from Christine McVie, I want to see a party, and a nation, that’s ‘better than before’. The sooner we reconnect to the principle of freedom as the foundation for good policy – economic and social – the sooner we will see the Liberal renewal for which so many Australians hope.
Amanda Stoker is former Senator for Queensland and is a distinguished fellow of the Menzies Research Centre. More importantly, she is a wife and mother.