Have the old parties fatally betrayed their origins?

Apr 7, 2023
Parliament House, Canberra

It seems Liberal voters are figuring out that their party has been hijacked. Labor voters are slower off the mark, but Labor also bears little resemblance to its past. Political terminology lags even more, which obscures radical shifts in our political mainstream.

Robert Menzies was reported by Senator Ron Boswell to have said in 1970:

‘Australian Liberals are not the exponents of an open go, for if we are all to have an open go, each for himself and the devil take the hindmost, anarchy will result and both security and progress disappear.’

By 1996 John Howard’s Liberal Party was in full neoliberal flight, having disposed of Andrew Peacock and most of the other ‘wets’ in the parliament. It required everyone to have an open go in unfettered (but manipulated) markets. The consequences have been much as Menzies foresaw: an anaemic economy and a deeply riven society.

As well as neoliberal ideologues, the Liberal Party came under the influence of social reactionaries and religious zealots. Clearly many liberals of the Menzies kind have seen their party as no longer representative of them. The result has been the rise of the so-called teal independents as part of the Coalition’s federal loss in 2022, and now the loss of all mainland state governments and the Aston by-election.

The future of the Liberal Party is in serious doubt. Having been captured by the far-right it has few who can lead it back to moderation, and little collective inclination to go there. It may be replaced by independents, and minor parties, and that may be no bad thing.

Labor is less obviously in trouble, being in government federally and in the mainland states. Yet there is widespread concern among Labor voters that it does not respond to their wishes. The issues of AUKUS, global warming and housing costs may be its undoing.

If we look at what Labor actually does and does not do, we see it far from what used to be its ideals. It is keeping fossil fuel extraction going for as long as possible, approving new extraction projects, claiming only to let them run for as long as it is commercially viable but hypocritically failing to remove the $10 billion plus per year subsidies, while ignoring calls from experts and the UN to phase out fossil fuels very rapidly.

With AUKUS Labor seems to have blundered into supporting and promoting it for reasons of domestic political power, dodging being wedged by Morrison and now stealing the ground from the Liberals in return. The safety of the nation seems to be irrelevant. The problems with AUKUS are so obvious and so profound it will quite likely be Albanese’s defining legacy.

Housing costs are now causing homelessness and poverty. Labor is unwilling even to address some of the tax issues driving it, let alone deal with the banking dysfunction that underlies it. In the postwar decades, banks’ rate of lending was regulated so as to limit the debt-driven boom and bust cycle, but Labor won’t go near such a policy because Labor is still captive to neoliberal thinking and it seems still to be afraid of the Murdoch media, even though Murdoch has been losing influence along with the Liberals.

Labor has so far been unwilling to seriously raise unemployment benefits, the minimum wage, disability payments and so on. It continues the inhumane treatment of innocent refugees. It allows the persecution of whistle blowers to continue. It tolerates the brutal imprisonment of ten-year-old children.

One can suppose Labor is being tactical and timid, but one can also conclude that its adherence to traditional Labor values has effectively evaporated. It is widely called Liberal-lite, and the name fits.

Obsolete political terminology tends to obscure these deep shifts in our polity.

Neoliberals are not ‘conservative’, they were and are radical. It was radical social engineering to try to make selfish competition the foundation of our society. Religious evangelicals are extremist, they represent a fringe of our society. Social reactionaries might be conservative, but those who keep waging ‘culture war’ are also extremist.

Labor is not centre-left. It has no ‘hard-left’ MPs, no socialists. It is not even centre-right, it is straight-out right wing.

The Greens in parliament are not ‘Left’. They might reasonably be called centre-left but their policies, if you look, are moderate and not actually that far from Menzies’. There is a widespread irrational hostility to the Greens among the commentariat, plausibly because the Greens tend to show up mainstream political culture for the cess-pool that it is. The Teals likewise.

Menzies would be drummed out of his own party for being a pinko-lefty. Malcolm Fraser resigned from the party he once led, disgusted by Howard’s fear-mongering.

More people are slowly waking up to the fact that their political tribe is not what they think it should be. The old parties have been hijacked by radicals, extremists and the unprincipled power-hungry.

They have been captured by wealthy special interests like mining, gambling and so on. Do we dare to call them corrupt?

They have been captured by US manipulators. Do we dare to call them traitors? The Morrison government subverted traditions, protocols, even the law. Do we call them subversives?

If we correctly observe what is in front of our faces, and correctly describe what we see, we might trigger a political upheaval that breathes some life back into our ailing democracy.

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