HENRY REYNOLDS.  The centre cannot hold.

May 31, 2019

In a recent article in the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat drew attention to the Australian elections and the cotemporaneous triumph of Narendra Modi in India and of Nigel Farage in Britain’s European elections. Each represented a surge in supporter for right wing populism and what he called’ the global fade of liberalism.’

This view from outside helps us see our politics from a global perspective. It is often assumed that, with our deeply rooted institutions, stable party system and entrenched democratic habits, we are immune from what is happening in many parts of the world. These assumptions must now be reconsidered.  The utterly unexpected Coalition victory did have similarities with Trump’s triumph and the Brexit result. Morrison’s signature slogan about stopping the boats is in tune with Trump’s own one about building the wall. Both introduce into the debate fear of aliens as did Farage’s threatening caravan of unwanted refugees. All three draw on the deep currents of white-race nationalism.

But the most telling feature of the election was the growing importance of the radical right parties and their embrace, albeit furtive, by both the Liberal and National parties. They have, as a consequence, been brought in from the fringe and blessed with mainstream recognition and even respectability. The Liberal’s preference deal with Palmer’s United Australia and the Queensland National’s one with One Nation were the main story. Of greater significance was the fact that the deals worked and there was no obvious backlash from the electorate. Such arrangements are presumably here to stay. And then there were the hidden threads of co-operation linking the Government with the far right factions including Frazer Anning and his supporters. These links were apparently of considerable importance in the dark undergrowth of social media. But so too was the electoral support won by the far right parties in the electorate, particularly in Queensland. In the Senate Palmer, Hansen and Anning received, between them, 14% of the vote. This is within reach of the vote across Europe for far right parties but achieved here with little notice and less concern.

Clearly what has happened is that the barriers between the major centre right parties and the far right have been dismantled with far reaching consequences for the country as a whole. As the lurch to the right was taking place the Greens were being demonized and rhetorically cast out beyond the boundaries of legitimate politics. The two developments were intimately related. How many times did we hear coalition speakers declare that the Greens were a greater danger to the country than One Nation? Often enough it was done as an immediate campaign tactic understandable given the exigencies of the moment. But there was much more to it than that. It is indeed the clearest illustration that the centre of gravity of national politics is tipping towards the right. This will present a significant challenge to the new leadership team in the ALP. Will they stand where they are or shuffle to the right?

The attack on the Greens has been spearheaded by the News Limited papers and significantly by some of their most experienced and respected journalists. It has the appearance of a concerted campaign but may just be the coalescence of like minds.  The celebrated business columnist Terry McCrann provided us with the most colourful and extreme comments immediately after the election. Under the headline: ‘Pauline,Clive just saved our economy’ he wrote:

Thank  you Clive. Thank you Pauline. Thank  you Queensland. For saving yourselves and the rest of us from the utter lunacy of a Labor-Green” Road to Venezuela” government.

He concluded the article with a paean of praise for Hansen:

She is clearly the nation’s strongest individual political brand and she’s sustained that for a quarter of a century despite unrelenting abuse from across the political and media, so called, elites. And now she has saved us from Shorten and—at least temporarily—Venezuela.

McCrann’s extremism was matched by attacks on the Green’s by his well- known colleagues Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan. Sheridan told and ABC Q&A audience that there was no moral difference between the two parties but that the Greens were more extreme and dangerous. He hadn’t finished there continuing on with what must be seen as a right wing manifesto:

The Greens party is a party of hatred of Western civilization and of our economy which wants to de-industrialize Australia and destroy every tradition we’ve been built on.

What can one say?  Hatred of Western civilization? Wherever does this venom come from? Perhaps Sheridan thinks coal extraction is at the centre of our civilization. Whatever else can be said about the modern environmental movement it is as deeply rooted in ‘western civilization’ as any of the traditions that he finds more to his taste.

If anything Paul Kelly was even more vehement. The Greens, he thundered, were far more dangerous than One Nation. They posed ‘a far more serious and sweeping threat to Australian life and society.’ Indeed they sought to’ transform the nation by discrediting its foundations and history as a project mired in colonial, racist and sexist exploitation.’  At the same time they assaulted ‘nation –state sovereignty, security and border protection in the cause of a utopian and phony internationalism guaranteed to diminish and divide Australian life.’ Among the long list of utterly unacceptable policies was the charge that the party sought a ‘cultural shift that repudiates European settlement as the pivot for Australia Day, pointing to an attack on the Western canon and tradition.’

What a horror show! Like McCrann, if for even more reasons, Kelly looks to Pauline Hansen as an antipodean Joan of Arc defending the ramparts of the western civilization against both the Labor Party and above all the Greens. But it must frustrate The Australian’s  cultural warriors that over a million well educated and thoughtful Green voters find their ranting totally unconvincing. Some indeed may think what they are witnessing is the spectacle of angry old men tilting at windmills.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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