ALLAN PATIENCE. How Conservative or Populist is the Contemporary Right in Australian Politics?

Feb 14, 2017

Conservatism and populism have become two abused concepts in contemporary Australian politics. In fact they are now being used as a camouflage by certain political operatives to conceal a harsh political agenda that bitterly contradicts nearly everything for which traditional conservatism has ever stood while distorting our understandings of the true nature of populism. 

Given that Cory Bernardi is founding a new Australian Conservative Movement, it is time to recall the broad philosophical meanings of conservatism in politics. Bernardi claims his political ideology reflects the conservative values of a substantial proportion of Australian voters. So what are his values?

In economic policy he is an avowed neoliberal – or, in the Australian vernacular, an economic rationalist, believing that governments should have little or no say in telling the private economic sector what to do. His places great faith in the guiding the mechanisms of the free market. He is critical of protectionist trade policies. His political speeches and writings echo a Thatcherian contempt for the concept of society. In social policy he is opposed to marriage equality. He is in favour of the “traditional family”. He appears to think that the LGBQI communities promote “unnatural” sex, constituting a threat to the “normal” male/female gender divide. He is suspicious of what he sees as the fractiousness of multiculturalism and thinks Islam contradicts core Australian values. He seeks to remove constraints on what he misunderstands to be free speech. He has praised Donald Trump for championing the rights of the masses against the mainstream political parties and media outlets.

The plain fact is that the conservative political tradition has little in common with Bernardi’s politics. Its modern roots are embedded in the speeches and writings of the great eighteenth century Irish MP in the British House of Commons, Edmund Burke. Burke’s political ideal was an organic community of inter-related people who shared their various attributes and skills to live cooperatively together in a mutually respectful and ordered society where everyone can feel secure and valued, whatever her station in life. Burke believed that the highborn owe an unequivocal duty of care, an irrevocable obligation, to those who serve them – the true meaning of noblesse oblige. The lower classes owe their loyalty to their lords and masters. Society will cohere because of the genuinely reciprocal relations between the classes. (There are close parallels here with classical Chinese Confucianism.) Those with much must give generously, of their wealth and their talents, to benefit the whole of society. Those without can expect to be treated humanely and respectfully while working diligently.

Moreover, Burke argued that differing cultural traditions are to be valued and respected because they each represent a rich historical experience in humanity’s steadily incremental cultural evolving. Hence Burke was a champion of Irish independence and the demands for independence by the American revolutionists. He would have been sympathetic to the ideals of multiculturalism.

In short the essence of traditional conservatism is the very antithesis of the bastardized version of individualism that is at the core of Cory Bernardi’s neoliberal ideology. Indeed, conservatism’s vision of a well-regulated, harmonious and cooperative society has more in common with socialism than it does with the welfare state-hating, free market ideology of the economic rationalists among whom Bernardi is now looking for new political bedfellows. His Trump hero worship is similarly awry: The Donald, after all, is passionately protectionist and contemptuous of free trade agreements. One Nation has far more in common with Trump that does Cory Bernardi.

Where Bernardi and others on the extreme right, like Pauline Hanson, are correct is their realisation that there is white-hot anger in the voting community directed against the conventional political elites who have cut themselves off from the real world of ordinary citizens, who play a ridiculously adversarial version of parliamentary politics, and who disastrously comply with the politics of “globalisation from above” to the detriment of social cohesion and in contempt of social justice issues across the board.

Bernardi, Abbott, Abetz and their camp followers in the Liberal Party, or their plaintive admirers on its margins, are not in the least bit conservative. They are reactionaries, hating the world around them, knowing what they against but they are incapable of articulating what they’re for. They are like rabbits frozen in a spotlight, squealing shrilly because they don’t know where to run.

In the media the One Nationists on the other hand are widely labelled as populists. The same cry is echoed by their critics and opponents in politics. Originally populism was an agrarian movement led by peasants in nineteenth century Russia and, later, a similar movement led by farmers in the mid-West of the United States during the Great Depression. In both instances it was a crie de coeur by rural folk who had been leading a mostly subsistence existence until their land and a (barely) bearable way of living was ruthlessly expropriated by city-based big banks and their cronies in the political world.

There are some slight similarities between those movements and the supporters of One Nation in contemporary Australian politics. But to call this populism is a misnomer. One Nation’s support base is mainly coming from angry voters who are probably now permanently alienated from the ignorant elitism of mainstream politics. They may vote One Nation because right now there is nowhere else for them to go. A clever (or frighteningly cynical) leader could easily win them over. Moreover, One Nation’s politicians are hardly classical populists in the Russian or mid-West American mould. They are simply narcissitic opportunists jumping on a bandwagon they think they control. But not for long.

So whether you are Bernardi counterfeit conservative or a Hansonite faux populist, you would be foolish to think either of them will lead you into the promised land. That way lies more – much more – of the same. What we need in Australia is something like a combination of a Justin Trudeau and an Emmanuel Macron. If only someone like a Waleed Aly would step up to transform the banal politics of this very unlucky country.

Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in the University of Melbourne.

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