The break with Edmund Burke’s Club

A number of people have contacted me to ask why I suddenly parted company with Edmund Burke’s Club after having put so much time and effort into building and promoting the organization. One surprised correspondent said that I was the Club, given my extensive input into its activities. Indeed, over four years I wrote ninety-five percent of the meetings’ presentations and posts on the club’s website, something I am sure most people will excuse me for being proud of. During that time no one challenged me in any substantial way despite the opportunity during the meetings and the comment section on the website. To the contrary, I was often complimented on my presentations at the club’s meetings. I make this point in view of what precipitated the break.

The spark for the conflict that brought about the break was an email from Peter Janssen asking me what I thought of a report on about Tony Abbott’s urging people to accept the outcome of the plebiscite on same-sex ‘marriage’, if it should go ahead. Peter also questioned the place of a plebiscite in our system of government. No doubt he had Burke’s famous Speech to the Electors of Bristol (1774) in mind. The question touched on what I believe to be crucial elements of Edmund Burke’s thought.

I answered with ‘Gay Marriage must be accepted’ (ca. 1500 words) in which I referred to my lengthy presentation at a meeting in 2013 Abortion, same-sex marriage and the exercise of prudence (ca. 3800 words). The major themes of the two pieces were Burke’s key ideas on the object of political action and the exercise of prudence. I supported my arguments with the evidence of many quotations from a wide range of Burke’s speeches and writings. EBC member Fr Glen Tattersall responded with a comment on the website page (fr-tattersall-reply). I draw the reader’s attention to the final paragraph of his comment which I repeat here.

While conservatives may have reason to be grateful to Tony Abbott for various policies, we cannot afford to be uncritical. Some of us have noted with concern Abbott’s continued very public support for the infamous self-mutilator Malcolm (now styled “Cate”) McGregor. I fail to see how the Edmund Burke’s Club’s goals or members are served by a slavish defence of Tony Abbott at every turn.

I put a lot of time and effort into writing my comments and to have them cavalierly dismissed as ‘uncritical’ and ‘a slavish defence of Tony Abbott at every turn’ I found not only intellectually unacceptable, but offensive. And I emailed Fr Tattersall to tell him so. Fr Tattersall, finding my email ‘very rude’, energised his criticism and added that my ‘uncritical support of Abbott’ lacked ‘an impartial and philosophically based commentary’ and made Edmund Burke’s Club ‘look utterly partisan’.

I have been persuaded that my rather facetious reply to Fr Tattersall’s accusations would serve no purpose if repeated here. I will suffice then with the main points of my reply.

Fr Tattersall’s reply to my two comments of more than 5,000 words consists of a bare statement of the Catholic position supported by quotations from Catholic documents. There is no argument. Indeed, my two pieces do not even rate a mention. If one reads my two comments attentively one would see that Tony Abbott’s moral and political positions serve as a case in point to explore Burke’s political reasoning. I am explicit in the second of the two pieces.

What concerns me is whether Abbott’s apparent compromise – if indeed it can be called compromise – on abortion and IVF can be explained and defended with arguments that Edmund Burke marshalled during his many political conflicts. This is a question not just for Tony Abbott. It is a vital question for all conservatives in the Burkean mould. It is one that we have to face at this present moment in Australian political history.

The second point is that in defending Tony Abbott from the unrelenting media attacks I am defending all conservatives, the point being that conservatives who rise to a position equal to Tony Abbott’s public influence will suffer the same fate. The conservative position has to be defended. Now if Fr Tattersall or anyone else in Edmund Burke’s Club disagrees with what I have outlined here, then they have to present argument and evidence with reference to my comments to justify their position. A mere statement of position will not do. I will willingly post any counter argument on The Edmund Burke Society website.

As if damning my intellectual efforts without evidence was not enough, Fr Tattersall opened another front. He said ‘a number of members of the EBC have spoken to me of how tired they are of your uncritical support of Abbott, and of their concern that the EBC consequently is made to look utterly partisan.’ In terms of my position in Edmund Burke’s Club this was a serious allegation the truth of which I energetically contend. I wonder that nobody of that number ever said anything to me. In any case, it prompted my immediate resignation as president.

In retrospect, this reflects, I believe, an attitude among some that had been brewing, perhaps unconsciously in some, for some time. It points to the rise of a faction under the leadership of one of its members whose perspective and orientation were in conflict with mine. On further reflection, I decided my membership of Edmund Burke’s Club was no longer tenable. For my sake and the sake of the Club I parted company with it.

A member of Edmund Burke’s Club has said I am setting up a ‘rival organization’. This is not true. The Edmund Burke Society has a distinctly different perspective and orientation. It will suit some Burkeans. It will not suit others. Naturally I leave that decision to the individual to make in full independence of thought. I bear no one in Edmund Burke’s Club any animosity.

Gerard Wilson