RICHARD ROBISON. The crisis of the Right in Australia: the liberals are gone and the hard-right can never triumph.

Oct 29, 2018

Now that the dust has settled after the coup that toppled former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull it is clear that this was more than a tale of revenge and malice within the Liberal Party.

But while Turnbull’s son, Alex Turnbull, might be right in his assessment that the Liberal Party has been taken over by extremists on the hard right, he is mistaken if he thinks that the Party can be ‘brought back from the brink’ and its small-L liberal credentials restored.  

So is political journalist, Phillip Coorey, who speculated in the Australian Financial Review that the new Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, might now convince people that, ‘ .. as important as hard-line conservatives are, they are not all that matters to the Liberal Party’.

Instead, Morrison has proved to be no moderate. He has doubled down on hard-line approaches to issues like climate policy, religious freedom, refugees and Israel, the latter taken to a new level with speculation that Australia could shift its embassy to Jerusalem.

The key Ministry of Home Affairs remains in the hands of one of the leaders of the coup, Peter Dutton while Fossil fuel warriors, Angus Taylor and Melissa Price have been handed the Departments of Energy and the Environment.

The sad story for Alex Turnbull is that what he sees as extremism is now the heart of the Liberal Party and the central narrative of orthodox political conservatism in Australia more generally.

The bad news for the hard-right, though, is that while their Australian experience has closely followed that of the US they will find it more difficult to achieve the same political and social ascendancy more generally.

This is not to say that John Howard and Tony Abbott have not built a formidable apparatus of right wing populist institutions and ideas in Australia. Like Karl Rove and Steve Bannon in the US, they have tapped into what political commentator, Robert Kagan, described in the American case as a “well-primed gusher of popular anger, xenophobia and, yes, bigotry … .”

As pluralist and class politics were redefined as a politics of culture, identity and patriotism, debates over immigration and refugees have become calls to arms against terrorists and Muslims. Climate change has become a proxy for culture wars against urban liberal elites.

Malcolm Turnbull discovered how difficult it was for any liberal leader to wind back the populist right when they had become the key to its electoral fortunes among resentful and dislocated workers, small business proprietors within the outer suburbs of large cities and in the rural regions and towns. They are a bulwark against populist competitors on its right flank.

Most important, right wing populism provided answers to the key problem for conservative politics in the post-industrial era – how to mobilise a mass base of political support for a larger project that aims to dismantle the ideas and institutions of social democracy.

But populism is only one part of the hard-right revolution. It is also a revolution of the rich to create a world based on the ‘morality of self-interest’ and ‘the virtue of selfishness’.

As Former Federal Reserve Chairman, Paul Volker, argued in the case of America, “The central issue is we are developing into a plutocracy. We’ve got an enormous number of enormously rich people that have convinced themselves they’re rich because they’re smart and constructive. And they don’t like government and they don’t like taxes.

While the populists threw red meat to the masses, Donald Trump set about this deeper revolution.

In a short period he has redrawn the rules of liberal democracy and the role of the public bureaucracy, filling its offices with political cronies and the private representatives of America’s plutocracy. He has slashed taxes for the rich, wound back financial and environmental regulation, unravelled the public schooling system, ate away at the remains of Obamacare and handed public lands over to state governments and to private interests.

John Howard and Tony Abbott also set about the same project in Australia, enacting a wide-ranging politicization of the public bureaucracy, including through a more direct use of advisory and review boards and commissions as policy-making instrument.

These were often filled with right wing business figures. Among these, anti- climate change warrior and former businessman, Maurice Newman, became Abbott’s business advisor. The former banker and head of the Australian Business Council, Tony Shephard, became Chair of the government’s Audit Committee.

The 2014 Abbott budget provided a blueprint for a ‘shock therapy’ reforms: the same Tea Party programs of ‘starving the beast’ – slashing taxes and revenue while making deep cuts into the welfare budget and in those of other public institutions, including in Australia – universities, the CSIRO and, of course, the ABC.

In this world of ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’, Treasurer, Joe Hockey declared an end to the age of entitlement, at least as it applied to the undeserving poor.

This is where things have started to go wrong for the hard-right.

The hard-right project faced a society less devastated by the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and the GFC than in the US and without the same embedded history of rabid populist and anti-government sentiment. It is a society without the same pervasive legacy of fundamentalist religion and where the sensibilities and narratives of social democracy are deeply rooted.

In the end, large sections of Australian society have ultimately been unwilling to swap handouts for the rich in exchange for populist rhetoric.

No right wing government in Australia has been able to convince the population that it would be a good idea to abolish Medicare or to dismantle the public education system, as Betty De Vos is doing in the US for Donald Trump (although we have done this in the TAFE sector).

Rather than calling for an end to government, they have demanded more and better public goods.

Nor have they convinced voters that the interests of the poor can be served by slashing the taxes of the rich. Under deep public pressure, conservative governments have been forced to retreat from plans for such tax cuts, most recently those of Turnbull and Morrison.

Despite desperate efforts to protect banks and business from public scrutiny (‘bank bashing’ and ‘business bashing’ as it has been described in Murdoch press and in the editorials of the AFR),the Liberal Party has been unable to hold back the tide of pressure for a Banking Royal Commission nor cover up its dramatic findings.

The discrediting of business that followed has undermined right wing claims that criticism of business and the rich is simply the ‘politics of envy’ or that the rich as the natural allies of the poor, providing a tide that will lift all boats. It is no longer likely that the mining bosses might take to the streets as the champions of the workers in protesting against mining taxes, as they did at the height of the mining boom.

The embarrassing failure of the right wing ‘shock jock’ Alan Jones to convince the public that efforts of the gambling industry to use the sails of the Sydney Opera House as an advertising billboard represented a war between the people and elites was a signal of the deepening misreading of the popular mood.

Scrambling to resolve conflicting demands, the governments of Turnbull and Morrison resorted to ad hoc interventions, including in the power generation industry to keep prices down with threats of divestment of monopolies. They introduced an arbitrary super-profit tax on banks as a way out of tackling comprehensive tax reform policy.

It is no surprise that this has pleased no one. They have been castigated even within the editorials of the conservative Australian Financial Review as populists and wets for intervening in the market and surrendering to Labor spending monuments in education and health and disability support.

The problems have not come just from below.

In Australia the corporate and plutocratic rich have not been as effective in their political support of the hard-right as in the US.

There, ideologically-driven plutocrats, from the Hunt Brothers to the Koch brothers exercised a direct influence on politics and elections, building powerful political organisations, from the John Birch Society of the 1950s and 1960s, to the Tea Party, The Heritage Foundation and Americans for Tax Reform in more recent times.

This has not happened in Australia, at least on the same scale. One reason is that the political institutions of Australian democracy make it especially difficult for the sort of interventions in elections that we see in the US where there is no compulsory voting, no central and independent electoral authority and virtual open slather on political funding.

More important, there no deeply structured and historically embedded plutocracy in Australia to compare with the US. Here, the political right relies on lobbyists and the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry, the property and gambling industries, tobacco and food manufacturers and most recently the gun lobby.

While the American plutocracy has a coherent agenda to fundamentally reshape the very ideas and institutions of society and government these corporate backers of the right in Australia have generally pursued more immediate policy objectives.

The few ideologically driven Australian plutocrats, like Gina Reinhart, have struggled to establish a credible right wing counter to the prevailing social democratic narrative. While right wing think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies and the Institute for Public Affairs may have a public platform in the conservative press as the public apologists for business and as anti-climate change advocates they have been largely ineffective.

The big exception is, of course, the American, Rupert Murdoch, whose media empire in Australia, including its predictable ‘shock jocks’ and a home grown version of Fox News wields undeniable influence.

Yet, this influence may be less than sometimes imagined.

While Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd have blamed the Murdoch media for much of the dysfunction and poison in Australian politics (and their own dismissals) this may only indicate that a panicked and frightened elite within the so-called ‘Canberra Bubble’ (on both sides of politics) inflates the importance of the hard-right media in their own minds and takes their ideas more seriously than the rest of us.

Does all this open the door for a resurgence of moderate liberals?

It is difficult to see who the moderates are, let alone who among them might lead a progressive liberal resurgence. And it is difficult to know where to look for a moderate manifesto where all that seems to remain is a mish-mash of soft neoliberals and libertarians who share many of the ideals of the public choice warriors even though they might be uncomfortable with the more rabid ideals of the populist right.

We probably have to go back to John Hewson or Malcolm Turnbull in his first period as opposition leader to find anyone willing to express liberal ideals or even an unqualified belief in climate change.

Richard Robison is Emeritus Professor at Murdoch University and Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences Australia.

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