ALLAN PATIENCE: The dilemma now facing Coalition politics in Australia

The results of the Victorian State election are devastating for right-wing politics right across Australia. It is now blindingly obvious that the policies that they have been spruiking are irrelevant to mainstream voters. It is as if the Coalition parties presently exist in a parallel political universe, hermetically sealed off from the everyday opinions and needs of contemporary Australian voters. It’s time for the Liberal Party leadership to understand that the party is no longer a “broad church” embracing liberals and so-called conservatives.

The increasingly phalangist tendencies of the alt-right rump in the party (along with their mates in the National party and News Ltd) have to be jettisoned once and for all. Moreover, it’s time for the political right in Australia to understand that their obsessively bullying minions in the Murdoch media are frankly impotent. Australian voters have well and truly moved on from the pugnacious pontificating that stains the reporting and analysis in most of the Murdoch outlets.

The politics of fear, prejudice, and law-and-order populism have been soundly rejected by Victoria voters. The Trumpian tone that Matthew Guy and his Coalition team tried to inject into the Victorian election campaign has misfired very badly indeed. Their counterproductive efforts were aided and abetted by several federal colleagues who are seriously on-the-nose in Victoria, including Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Some of those colleagues (especially Michael Sukkar, Greg Hunt, and Kevin Andrews who were in the vanguard pushing for Dutton to succeed Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister) have seriously damaged the Liberal brand in Victoria, as well as endangering their own political futures. They were very careless – stupidly so, in fact – in what they were wishing for federally, while arrogantly ignoring what it would mean for their Victorian counterparts.

The Liberal Party of Australia is in crisis. Once claiming to be a “broad church” that could embrace voters right across the centre-right of the political spectrum, it has fallen victim to a rump of disgruntled and narrow-minded extreme right-wingers whose personalities and policy preferences are taking them in a phalangist direction in Australian politics.

Phalangism is a form of fascism. It emerged in Spain in the 1920s and 1930, led by the grotesque dictator Franco. It drew deeply from the poisoned well of medieval Spanish Catholicism – the kind of repressively authoritarian Catholicism that gave rise to the Spanish Inquisition. Franco’s dictatorship was finally overthrown after his death in 1975.

However, the Catholicism of Franco’s regime lives on in the interstices of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church of today. It is disturbingly evident in shadowy organisations like Opus Dei (whose ultra-conservative founder Josemaría Escrivá was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2002), and in the repugnant and now discredited religious order, the Legion of Christ, founded by the corrupt and sexually perverted Father Marcial Maciel Degollado.

Right-wing Catholics share many of the political and theological views of the neo-phalangist ideologies represented by these extremists in the contemporary Catholic Church. Their successors are among the harshest critics of Pope Francis, some of whom are to be found among the bishops, priests and laity in the Catholic Church in contemporary Australia. Look no further than the Australian bishops’ recalcitrance in acknowledging the Church’s culpability in the wake of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – recalcitrance that verges on evil.

There are echoes of this toxic thinking among alt-right politicians at federal and state levels. Hostility to the marriage equality, demands for legislation to protect religious freedom (which in fact would entrench religious privilege), ambivalence towards followers of Islam and other non-Christian faiths, the stunningly un-Christian cruelty of policies on asylum seekers, the idiotic commitment to neoliberal economic policies that privilege the rich, the refusal to accept the science of climate change – these are all traceable back to the kinds of blinkered theology and phalangist politics that threaten contemporary democracies all round the world.

The Liberal Party has to wake up to this reality. It must weed out those with phalangist tendencies in its ranks. It must reform its policy agenda to enable it to represent the views and needs of ordinary Australians. The voters in Victoria have shown very clearly that they do not see the current crop of Liberals as adequately understanding and responding to their deeply held beliefs and needs – beliefs and needs that are in no way associated with the neo-phalangism that is insinuating itself ever more ruthlessly into right wing politics in contemporary Australia. A step in the right direction would be to dis-endorse a number of extremist politicians of the likes of Tony Abbott and Kevin Andrews and to bring in new, fresh candidates who genuinely reflect the real concerns of everyday Australian voters. There should be a goodly number of women among those new candidates.

Meanwhile the Liberals need to stop looking to the Murdoch media to be their cheer leaders and ideological mentors. New Ltd has well and truly demonstrated that not only is it incapable of understanding and reflecting the views of most Australian voters, its leading columnists are simply being ignored by those very same voters. The vast majority of Murdoch reporters are all sound and fury signifying nothing.

For example, just before the Victoria election The Australian confidently predicted that the Coalition parties would win at least nine seats from Labor, including Premier Daniel Andrews’ seat of Mulgrave. How the paper could have been so utterly wrong is something it needs to explain. Meanwhile, one of its leading political journalists, the always pontificating Chris Kenny tweeted a prophecy: “Daniel Andrews is finished. Soft on crime. Paid a billion dollars not to build a tunnel. Siphoned taxpayers’ money to get elected.  A drovers (sic) dog could beat him.” Let’s not hold our breath waiting for Kenny to “Please explain!”

There are other columnists in The Australian and other Murdoch outlets whose views are increasingly out of step with the majority of Australian voters. They include Janet Albrechtsen and Judith Sloan, two writers whose sneering contempt for ordinary Australians is becoming increasingly shrill. Greg Sheridan’s views on foreign policy long ago passed their use-by date and the antiquated Catholicism that colours his rambling opining is shared by the misery preaching of Gerard Henderson. They have so much in common with the doom-saying Hanrahan that their columns have become laughable. “Pope” Paul Kelly long ago forgot that the secret of a good homily is brevity. About the only reputable columnist in The Australian is Peter Van Onselen whose intelligence stands in bright contrast to so many of his journalistic colleagues.

The very encouraging message that comes out of the Victoria election is that voters are fed up with the shenanigans on the right of Australian politics. They want progressive policies on a raft of issues that the right simply cannot and will not deliver – for example, climate change, comprehensively improved education and health systems, radically upgraded infrastructure (especially public transport), and a more just economy with a robust public sector competing with the private sector. They also want compassionate and clear-eyed political leadership that will take them, their children and grandchildren into a more hopeful public policy and genuinely democratic future.

Allan Patience is a political scientist based in Melbourne.

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Dr Allan Patience is a Principal Fellow in Political Science at the University of Melbourne.

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