The world has changed but the agenda of Australia's tribal right has not
by Richard Denniss
[Originally published on The Guardian Australia, 6 March 2019]
Interests ahead of ideas, friends before philosophy, denial instead of debate. The desperate rush by “law and order” conservatives to defend a child rapist has shown there is no principle that the right of Australian politics won’t abandon in order to protect one of their inner circle. The “tough on crime” brigade are usually quick to criticise judges for lenient sentencing, but with George Pell we are told that the trial was ordeal enough for the frail old man. The political strategy of the tribal right in Australia is built on such hypocrisy.
For decades the free marketeers in the business community, the social conservatives in the Catholic church, the rent seekers in the Farmers Federation, the small government Institute of Public Affairs and the Murdoch media outlets have been engaged in a coalition of convenience. Despite their fundamental differences about means and ends, all members of the club had one thing in common: they could all agree that fighting the common enemies of unions and environmentalists was preferable to fighting among members of the club.
The coalition of convenience between disparate sources of power has been the defining feature of Australian politics for at least 20 years.
The club’s willingness to overlook internal disagreement and focus instead on collectively defeating their opponents demonstrates a remarkable feat of personality over principle. When the business community wanted lower taxes while the Farmers Federation wanted higher spending on handouts for farmers, the club just focused on cutting spending on Newstart and the aged pension instead. When the libertarian instincts of the business community was at odds with the social controls demanded by the Catholic church, the club settled on freedom in the boardroom and control in the bedroom – again: problem solved.
It took patience, trust and political skill to hold the club together for so long but the ineptitude of the current crop of rightwing MPs has shaken the once stable coalition. Issues like climate change have driven a wedge between the growing services sector and the shrinking resources sector. Many on the right thought their treatment of Julia Gillard was a tactical triumph, but it was a strategic disaster, especially when followed up by hostility to same-sex marriage, their apathy towards bullying of women in the Liberal party and now their defence of George Pell.
John Howard’s most unlikely electoral success came in 2001 after a string of embarrassing backflips. In 2007 he supported the need for a carbon price. Howard was a rightwinger who knew how to read a room, when to back down and how to take the heat out of a losing issue. Tony Abbott and Peter Dutton only know how to pump on the bellows. Malcolm Turnbull knew how to build a winning coalition of actual voters but he was never trusted by the powerbrokers in the coalition of convenience; neither was Julie Bishop.
Setting the agenda, when done well, unites your allies privately while dividing your opponents publicly. When Howard, Pell and Rupert Murdoch controlled the parliament, the pulpit and 70% of Australia’s papers, setting the agenda wasn’t that hard. But it’s harder now, with the decline of mainstream media, to stop voters noticing that while the right believes there is never enough money for better health services, they always believe there is enough money for tax cuts. And there’s no one on the right talented or trusted enough to paper over the contradictions any more.
As prime minister, Abbott lacked the confidence to lose the fight about same-sex marriage quietly or graciously. His determination to use procedural tricks to drag the fight out and his willingness to attack companies participating in the debate worked wonders for his standing on the right, but it did enormous harm to the Liberal party in the electorate and the board rooms.
Then there is climate policy. The Coalition was once so proud of its hostility to subsidies that they laughed at threats from the car industry that they might stop manufacturing in Australia. But when their friends in the coal industry wanted to build an unprofitable mine, the government offered them a $1 billion subsidy. The avowed advocates of small government at the IPA remained strategically silent.
Finally there is the right’s response to Pell’s conviction. Respect for the rule of law is central to the instincts of conservatives and the needs of the free marketeers. Without respect for the rule of law not just our lives and property would be at risk, but our sense of order.
Pell’s conviction for five counts of sexually abusing children has led some of the loudest voices on the right to defend their personal friend rather than their personal values. Just as they insist they are better able to evaluate the evidence of climate science than climate scientists, much of the News Corp commentariat has declared they are better able to evaluate the evidence in a court case than a jury.
While the world has changed, the right’s agenda has not. Their narrow boys club might agree that equal marriage, climate change, and gender inequality aren’t “serious issues”, voters disagree. They are not losing the plot, they are losing the ability to conceal their contradictions.
One of the defining images of Gillard’s prime-ministership was the “ditch the witch” placards wielded by the right. Those same angry voices are yet to take to the streets demanding we punish pedophile priests. Strategic silence has served the coalition of convenience well, but in the full light of day strategic silence looks like convenient cowardice. And cowards never have moral authority.
Richard Denniss is chief economist at The Australia Institute @RDNS_TAI. His new book, Dead Right: How Neoliberalism ate itself and what comes next, is out now