A mini Menzies ice age

Tuesday, 27 December 2016 


Howard’s attempt to rehabilitate Menzies this year on telly may have been unconvincing, but its timing wasn’t too bad, since right now Australia is going through a late Menzies period – politically paralysed in the face of international change.

Nothing sums up the state of Australian politics right now than reports that backbencher Cory Bernardi is preparing to leave the Liberals to form a new ‘conservative’ party.

Conservatism has never been big in Australia, not least because there aren’t really institutions conservatives think that worth conserving, and those that are, are foreign. Stability in Australia has always come from the deep conservatism of the Australian left than its weak right.

Of course what Bernardi is really meaning is not conservatism in the traditional sense but a new flank in the culture wars on the type of issues for which there is not even an Australian Majority of interest, let alone support.

In fact, paradoxically, the very lack of electoral appeal behind such politics is ultimately why he is thinking of stepping out as a separate party. It is born out of the frustration of the paralysis in the Liberals that itself comes from the failure of that knight of the culture wars, Tony Abbott, but to be replaced by a leader unable to establish any authority from that failure.

This mirrors the situation in the Labor party. Both parties have had leaders who failed in reasserting party “values” (Abbott/Gillard) but also leaders (Turnbull/Rudd) that have failed taking them on to something new. The last, entirely forgettable, election was the first since this has now become fully apparent to everyone and the country is stuck with two deeply unpopular leaders, as it has been for seven years, but now not even a hint of any way out.

But the paralysis is not just at the party institutional level. Instead of a Cold War that paralysed politics during Menzies, we have the culture wars that is suffocating politics now. It is not just that the culture wars with its phoney polarisations have little interest to anyone else but politicos, but they obstruct any meaningful discussion about important topics.

Take one example, a favourite topic of Bernardi’s, the interminable debate about 18C which is presented by the right as being about free speech and the left as about anti-racism, when it is neither. The right, and libertarians, want freedom of speech but have nothing to say if they got it, leaving it open to just being a bigot’s charter. But the left’s claim that it is about fighting racism is hollow as well. The law is hardly ever used, suggesting that either racism barely exists (unlikely) or that it is not a useful way of dealing with it. There is a whole worthwhile discussion to be had on the effectiveness of hate speech laws, with some grim historical examples that show when applied by a government with little credibility and authority they can even be counter-productive. But such a debate is impossible in the phoney polarisation around 18C without being lumped with the right/libertarians.

Another example was the recent tragic suicide of a 13 year old schoolboy in Queensland that sparked off another round of culture wars around the Safe Schools program to target bullying. But Queensland is already supposed to have an extensive anti-bullying program in its schools. Surely the first policy response to the tragedy would be to ask why this didn’t work. But again, any questioning of the efficacy of anti-bullying programs would undermine what appears to be the main priority, defending the Safe Schools program rather than the issue it was meant to address.

Such culture wars have been bad enough in crippling the national debate over the last decade, but it gets even worse when it becomes the prism through which some momentous international events have been seen this year.

Bernardi claims that any new conservative party would take advantage of the rise of Trump and a chance to make Australia “great again”. But he is doing the exact same mis-reading of what happened in the US as the Australian left are doing through the culture war prism – namely seeing Trump’s victory as a right populist upsurge.

Yet anyone who gave even cursory attention to the Republican primaries will see that the rise of Trump represented the defeat and humiliation of the right, not its revival. Trump represented the defeat of the grip of conservatism on the Republicans as shown by the humiliation of its chief standard bearer, Ted Cruz, to whom arguably Bernardi bears closest comparison. It’s a similar story in the UK where a referendum called by the Conservative party to deal with internal problems produced a defeat for the Conservative Prime Minister, that another Conservative Prime Minister, who was also on the losing side, now has to work out how to quash. There the nightmare that has been created for real “conservatives” is only disguised by the bigger nightmare it is for Labour.

But then this isn’t about the US or the UK. When Barrie Cassidy right up to the result gives with adamant certainty his opinion that Trump could not win, that certainty comes not from any deep insight or studying of US politics, of which we have seen no evidence, but from a political outlook in Australia. It is the disruption of what a Trump victory would mean not just for the political order, but the assumptions on which it relies, that made it unthinkable, not Barrie’s detailed readings of Wisconsin polling data.

For the US election, the confidence that Trump would lose came from an underlying assumption of the culture war, namely that women and ethnic minorities consider being offended important enough that they would switch votes on the back of it. The fact that the votes of women and ethnic minorities in the US election didn’t especially react to Trump’s comments (even if they didn’t approve of him or his comments) has barely registered in the commentary after the result.

Instead the very political paralysis in Australia, and the concern that democracy is being eroded, now underpins the fear that dark forces are emerging in the US, UK and the rest of Europe, and could in Australia as well. It is this fear that gives such passion to the culture wars that insist that Safe School programs and 18C amendments are needed to contain such dark forces, whether they actually work or not. It has meant that the idea that Australia is less capable of conducting a public debate about same sex marriage than a much more conservative country like Ireland is now accepted by much of the political spectrum. It is behind the constant concerns about the fragility of Parliament and its authority that was voiced around the plebiscite debate and led to a stark over-reaction by those like Tim Watts MP to a modest little demonstration in the visitor’s gallery of the House of Representatives a couple of months ago.

This fear is not, of course confined to Australia, indeed it formed a major part of the Democratic party campaign as outlined in Clinton’s notorious “deplorables” speech. Similarly in Britain, Guardian writers can warn darkly of the “furies” unleashed by the Leave campaign that encapsulates a continuous campaign to undermine the Brexit vote.

But at least in both countries there is a significant portion of the population that is being attacked that can to some degree push back. In Australian commentary, as it observes and frets about events from afar, there is little to put a check on it. Just a weak right that is just as keen to talk it all up to bolster their own flagging case.

Surely this cannot last. Not least because of another reason Australian commentators have been concerned about developments in the UK and US. As two stabilisers of the world order turn into its destabilisers, this has obvious consequences for an Australian political outlook that both internationally and domestically has always relied heavily on being close to whatever is the leading power of the day, even if it means we have to fight in every war they dream up as a result.

Trump’s victory has brought to the surface the US’s decline, not least in his raising of the possible re-drawing of the international relationships set up when the US dominated the international order in a way it now does not – and which Obama raised on coming to the Presidency but then backed away from.

This should bring forth some rationality into the Australian political debate although signs are not that promising. The “turn to Asia” as advocated by Wong and others is simply displacement activity, given away by the term “Asia” rather than being able to be clear which country exactly Australia is supposed to offset US influence with. Such reactions seem more clouded by culture war concerns, summed up by her leader calling the comments of the incoming US President “barking mad”, possibly as a consequence of the type of high principles which has characterised Shorten’s political career – or possibly on the expectation he wouldn’t win.

The late Menzies period ended with the abandonment of the White Australia Policy and the easing of discrimination against indigenous people not as a result of the superior enlightened attitude of the politicians at the time, as is commonly believed, nor as the result of the pressure of domestic “social movements” as the more deluded sections of the left may think, but primarily due to international pressure, especially reacting to anti-colonial movements, most notably in Indochina. Given the state of Australian politics right now, it is likely to be similar international events that will break the paralysis as Australian politics is forced to react – whether it likes it or not.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 27 December 2016.

Filed under International relations


One response to “A mini Menzies ice age”

  1. Dianne on 28th December 2016 4:11 am

    You have pretty much summed up the situation Shrike.

    I just want to amplify that Bernardi is kidding himself if he believes he has Trump appeal.

    Trump is a showman. A Liberace. Bernardi is …. Is … Is. Well, what is he? That is his problem. He is unknown, a deeply conservative man who supports the economic policies which have contributed to job losses and job insecurity in parts of Australia.

    Why would those feeling vulnerable think that Bernardi felt their pain?

    It is a mystery to me. I must not be part of The Majority. What a name for a political movement. Delusional.

    No I rather suspect Cory is like Costello. A wanna-be who is destined to become a coulda-been.

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