Bending elbow at an inner city bar with a highly intelligent, unfathomably single friend recently, the spritz chatter naturally turned to “dating deal-breakers”. Shark-tooth necklaces, unemployment, Crocs sandals and wedding-pic-as-Tinder-profile were all dutifully adduced, before we arrived at the real heart of the matter. “Liberal voter”, she spat, taking a gulp of post-work fizz as if to rinse the words out.
I live in inner urban Melbourne. My girlfriend works in the arts. I’m a writer. All of our friends, and the vast majority of our personal and professional acquaintances, are either Labor or Greens voters. The politics of our daily lives is entirely “Left”, whatever that term means in a post-Berlin Wall world. From the worthy articles and slacktivist causes we share on Facebook, to the news sites we read and the brand of anti-corporate detergent we favour, we troop our colours (Red/Green) practically every minute of the day, in a social media-defined world wherein we are the full-time managers of our own (right-on) brand. And for many of us in this space, the term “Liberal voter” – or simply “Liberal” – has become a toxic catch-all for bigotry, cruelty, avarice and patrician entitlement, with an optional side of misogyny. And little wonder too, given the track record of the conservative movement in this country since John Howard brought the curtain down on the Hawke-Keating years in 1996. The brutal use of wedge politics to demonise refugees and elevate the issue of asylum seeking to a national hysteria in the wake of the Tampa incident; the marginalisation of the Muslim community following 9/11 and the 2005 London bombings; the economic brutalism of WorkChoices; the pigheaded, embarrassing refusal to acknowledge the reality of climate change; the patronising, institutionally racist attitude to indigenous affairs (see: Stolen Generations apology, Northern Territory Intervention); the attacks on the integrity of the ABC and the kowtowing to reactionary media barons; and an antediluvian attitude to women. At first glance, this laundry list of turpitude would lead anyone to conclude that only an amoral monster could be a party to this Party.
However what tends to get lost here, beneath the hectoring, partisan din of our infantile excuse for a national discourse, is what this recent history says about the changing nature of conservatism in this country, and more pointedly, whether we should be talking about the Liberal-National Coalition as a “conservative” party at all. Is Tony Abbott’s repeal of the carbon tax, for instance, and his move to sign a climate inaction pact with Canada, really the mark of a traditional conservative, or rather the desperate act of a radical neo-conservative, forced to defend his party’s philosophical raison d’etre against a problem that seems capable of rendering it intellectually redundant? And rather than simply rejecting Liberals and their fellow travellers as pernicious, flint-hearted beasts with acute Compassion Deficit Disorder, should we accept that it’s also a battle of ideas, rather than just a lack of humanity, that has brought the Party – and us – to this point?
In his 2010 Quarterly Essay, What’s Right? The Future Of Conservatism In Australia, Waleed Aly (in his lesser-known guise as a Monash University politics lecturer) sets out a clear and concise Dummies Guide to the evolution of modern conservative thought, from Edmund Burke’s horrified response to la terreur of the French Revolution, to the movement’s mating with John Stuart Mill to produce liberal conservatism, and finally what he terms the “neo-conservatism” of the present. Aly’s thesis is that this latest phase represents a problematic, paradoxical break with the ideas of traditional conservatism, and that since the late-1970s, Right-wing parties everywhere have backed themselves into an ideological corner by embracing free-market extremism at the expense of traditional conservative values. It is no coincidence that the death of the Australian automobile industry, for instance – an inexorable outcome many years in the making, and overseen by both sides of politics – finally occurred on this government’s watch, with Abbott and his cabinet of economic “drys” quite content to sit back and watch the patient bleed out.
Conservatism, as a political philosophy, was formerly concerned with the protection of established institutions and customs that had developed organically over time, through the collective wisdom of the populace. It then absorbed Mill’s idea of liberalism – that the individual’s liberty should be protected at all costs from the potential oppression of the State or the mob – to create liberal conservatism, a relatively snug ideological hand-in-glove. However the advent of neo-conservatism has seen these ideas take a back seat to a radical, revolutionary economic philosophy (neo-liberalism) that elevates the free market to society’s central organising principle.
In Australia, the rejection of traditional conservative certainties in favour of this form of economic Darwinism – its eventual apotheosis being John Howard’s reviled WorkChoices legislation – initially led to palpable instability and unease within a section of the electorate still reeling from the cultural and economic progressivism of the Keating years. The concomitant rise of Pauline Hanson soon jolted the Liberals into action, as they recognised the need to claw back a demographic that later came to be known as “Howard’s battlers”. The result was the development of a mutated neo-conservatism that combined economic rationalist market worship with a concocted jingo-nationalism. Under John Howard – who, despite claiming to be the most conservative leader the Liberal Party has ever had, now stands revealed as its seminal neo-conservative – the Coalition reached for culture wars around things like immigration, multiculturalism and indigenous history as a means of redefining itself against the “enemy” of the latte-sipping leftist elites, and to manufacture a kind of imaginary, mono-cultural maypole for its nervy constituency to dance around. In this freshly-minted national fiction, the mouldering shroud of Anzac Day was dug out of storage and rebranded as our creation story; the primacy of our Anglo heritage was reasserted in citizenship test questions about Don Bradman’s batting average and Phar Lap; “black armband” accounts of indigenous massacres and stolen children were dismissed; and the dreaded leftist elites were tarred with everything from the invention of climate change (an anti-capitalist conspiracy), to putting “mainstream Australian values” at risk by opening the Pandora’s Box of multiculturalism. Aly argues this idea is crucial in understanding the state of Australian conservatism today:
“So much of the assimilatory values talk of neo-conservatism is addressed to immigrant minorities, but it is not truly about them. Minorities are just rhetorical pawns in the game against the leftist new class. This is a political performance for the majority. By articulating the values that migrants threaten, neo-conservatives articulate those that the majority is deemed to accept. Howard’s persistent speaking for the national ‘mainstream’ reinforced the idea that those who disagreed were not fully of the nation. This is not, therefore, a narrative of national unity, as was so often advertised. It was a narrative of exclusion. It is about the power to define a dominant culture.”
Rather than viewing this thinking as purely racist or xenophobic, however, it’s important to note that aspects of this position have evolved from bedrock intellectual principles within liberal conservatism. Liberalism conceives of the relationship between the State and the citizen on the basis that the citizen is an individual, and hence it’s resistant to the idea of socio-cultural groups. In the area of indigenous affairs, for instance, there is a distinct school of thought within conservatism that treating someone as “Aboriginal” somehow disenfranchises them, and prevents them from properly taking part in society. This is, of course, a hugely contentious argument, but it’s perhaps more constructive to view it as a battle of ideas, rather than simply the expression of a Manichean moral duality.
More crucially, this historically recent mutation in conservative thinking has rendered Western right-wing parties structurally incapable of dealing with the problem of climate change, as it presents a potential checkmate to their adopted political philosophy. In the period of recovery in the West post-1945, there was bipartisan buy-in from both Left and Right to the idea of the Keynesian welfare state, where the economy was to be driven by free private enterprise, but with the state on hand to provide essential services such as health and education, as well as a safety net for those who fell between the cracks. However by the late-1970s, this consensus had foundered on a series of global economic shocks (largely related to oil production) and a new, more Darwinian idea had begun to take hold in Right-wing politics: that of neo-liberalism. Born out of the work of Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who blamed the socialist experimentation of the Weimar period for the rapid rise of Nazism, neo-liberalism represented a radical shift in thinking on the Right. It took John Stuart Mill’s formulation of liberalism (developed during a time of aristocratic oppression), and welded it to Hayek’s main economic thesis that government should be kept as far away from the economy as possible, in order for the market to regulate society unhindered. As Aly writes:
“Neo-liberalism parts company with its forebear by elevating the market to the regulating force in society. In fact in neo-liberal terms, the market is society. [The neo-liberal world] is the product of people pursuing their own diverse ends, through common means [the market], and is not based on any sense of shared values or culture, but on a shared means by which people may pursue their ‘individuality’. In this sense, society is spontaneous and evolutionary. But this brings with it a sense that any other concept of society is artificial. Neo-liberalism easily collapses into a theory of pure individualism that risks doing away with society altogether.”
Margaret Thatcher articulated this in a 1987 interview with Woman’s Own magazine, where she infamously claimed there was “no such thing as society”, and provided the film poster pull-quote for the neo-liberal era. Paddy Chayefsky outlined it a touch more poetically in his Oscar-winning 1976 screenplay for Network, too. In tandem with Reagan in the US, Thatcher’s Britain ushered in a new political hegemony that remains with us to this day. In Australia, John Howard convinced the Liberal Party to embrace neo-liberalism (WorkChoices was the acme of his personal philosophy, although ultimately rejected by the electorate), and the ideology’s heyday coincided with a golden era for conservative politics: eleven years of Howard, eleven years of Thatcher (out of a total of twenty for the Tories), and the transition from Reagan to George Bush Snr in the US. It has also resulted in numerous obituaries for traditional conservatism, such as this one from the British philosopher John Gray, quoted in Aly’s essay:
“The hegemony, within conservative thought and practice, of neo-liberal ideology has had the effect of destroying conservatism as a viable political project in our time and in any foreseeable future. Traditional conservatism is no longer a realistic political option when inherited institutions and practices have been swept away by the market forces which neo-liberal policies release or reinforce. When our institutional inheritance … is thrown away in the pursuit of a managerialist Cultural Revolution seeking to refashion the entire national life on the impoverished model of contract and market exchange, it is clear that the task of conserving and renewing a culture is no longer understood by contemporary conservatives.”
Indeed, neo-liberalism has been cuttingly termed the “Maoism of the Right”, such is its dogmatic allegiance to, and idolatry of, the market, and its impossible obsession with continued, limitless economic growth. It has created what Aly describes as a kind of Homo economicus amongst the political and advisory classes, for whom market outcomes have their own wisdom, and raging inequalities in income distribution are seen as unproblematic. Whereas liberalism seeks a free market, neo-liberalism posits a world in which there is very little outside the market, something which, he argues, is fundamentally un-conservative.
The American experience has revealed neo-liberalism to be, once shorn of the constraints of traditional conservative thinking and adequate government regulation, a particularly destructive force, facilitating the growth of mega-corporations through the removal of trade restrictions, creating a market for the toxic, meaningless financial “products” that enabled the Global Financial Crisis, and ultimately resulting in “the most staggering inequality America has known in about a century, and an associated concentration of power that has proven irresistible.” This power, in a political sense, is embodied in the US by the Koch brothers, who are now even described by senior Democrats as the most important and powerful players in American politics. These billionaire industrialists, who control the second-largest privately owned company in the United States, have secretly funnelled huge amounts of their personal fortune into Right-wing candidates and causes, including the worldwide climate-denial “machine” and the Tea Party movement. Last week, the ABC’s Lateline aired an interview with their biographer, Daniel Schulman, who agreed with the description of them as “anarcho-capitalists”, an ad absurdum version of neo-liberalism that sees no place for government whatsoever, and argues that just about everything should be left to the free market.
In Australia, we’re now beginning to see this kind of extreme thinking trickle into the mainstream political conversation, via people like the two new balance-of-power Senators, Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm, and Family First’s Bob Day. In a micro party-dominated Senate famously described by Channel 7’s Mark Riley as resembling the bar scene from Star Wars, these two extreme libertarians stand out from the Tatooine crowd. In line with classic Mill-ian thinking that virtually no restrictions should be placed on an individual’s liberty, Leyonhjelm has called for the abolition of speed limits (drivers, in his view, should be free to determine what constitutes a safe speed through trial and crash), compulsory bicycle helmet laws, and restrictions on gay marriage, whilst at the same time arguing that schools and hospitals should be privatised. His counterpart, Day, has argued that certain young people – those who are “not very well educated, not very intelligent, not particularly savvy, come from the wrong side of the tracks and aren’t very good looking”, should be allowed to work for sub-minimum wage pay, as working for less money is “the only thing they’ve got going for them”. So in a converse to the situation that Julia Gillard faced in minority government, where Labor was constantly being buffeted on the left by the Greens and forced to tailor policy to their tastes, Tony Abbott now faces the same situation on the far right.
In Australia, which obviously post-dates the aristocratic conservatism against which Mill railed, mainstream conservatism has always meant liberal conservatism – hence the “Liberal” Party, as Robert Menzies chose to christen his creation. Accordingly, we have come to associate conservatism here with a range of ideas anchored in the priority given to individual liberty – including, most famously, a firm belief in free enterprise, low taxation and small government. And thus, the problem of climate change is one that strikes at the heart of neo-liberalism, as it requires a solution that the market alone cannot possibly hope to provide. The market is reactive, not proactive, and climate change requires change at all levels of society, as well as a complete refit of industrial capitalism. Only government can do this; it is not a task that can be left purely to the market. It is a situation where a revolution/revolutionary action is required, something which goes against the whole spirit of liberal conservatism. As Aly writes:
“Climate change presents more than a problem for neo-liberalism; it threatens to invalidate it … The battle over the truth of climate-change science is therefore a political fight to the death for neo-liberalism.”
In Australia in 2009, this ideological death match played itself out in full public view, when the entrenched forces of neo-liberalism within the Liberal Party, led by then-Senator Nick Minchin, summarily ended Malcolm Turnbull’s leadership just as he was on the verge of implementing a bipartisan emissions trading scheme with Kevin Rudd. In Turnbull’s place, these same mandarins worked the numbers to install Tony Abbott who, whatever his idiosyncrasies on social issues, is now the standard-bearer for their political philosophy. So Abbott’s relentless, mind-numbing crusade to “axe the tax” was really just as much about servicing his constituency within the party, and by extension protecting an ideology, as it was about flat-earth populism. Meanwhile, Turnbull continues to haunt the Parliament, titillating disaffected Labor voters with his appearances on Q&A, whilst being forced to defend a climate change policy that he is on record as describing as “bullshit”. He is, in the Australian context, the Banquo’s Ghost of traditional liberal conservatism; a wealthy ex-merchant banker who’s been made to look like a champion of progressivism, simply by his Party’s tectonic shift to the Right. So in place of an ETS, a market-based solution which you’d think would be as close to a genuine response as neo-liberalism could abide, we’re now left with a Direct (In)Action policy fig leaf that involves recruiting the unemployed and aged to plant trees. This is, however, totally in keeping with neo-liberalism’s intimation of its own mortality, for to recognise the reality of climate change would be to sign its own death warrant.
Former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser quit the Party in 2010, claiming that it had moved too far to the right for him to stomach. He nowadays spends a lot of his time giving talks on human rights and the ethical treatment of asylum seekers to receptive Left-wing audiences, something which would’ve been thought unthinkable during his political career. When quizzed on his abandonment of the conservative cause, he often responds by saying that his political position is much the same as it was in 1975, when he helped turf Labor hero Gough Whitlam out of office during an unprecedented constitutional crisis, and became a generational figure of hate for the Left. It’s the Party, in other words, that has abandoned him. Malcolm Fraser was a Liberal voter; in that sense, we’re all Liberal voters now.