Muscular 19th century liberalism is dead in Australia as a mainstream ideology. And Tony Abbott is helping kill it with his pitch for a Coalition government.
Professor Pitch died this week. John Mainstone was in charge of the nearly century-old pitch-drop experiment to test the viscosity of the substance, and tell us something about fluidity and the state of matter. A funnel of pitch slowly forms a bubble, and once every decade or so, it falls. No one has seen any of the eight drops, everyone who started it is long dead, and the last happened when a CC camera trained on it was malfunctioning.
The pitch drop now passes to a new generation. There is something terrifying about it. A humble exploration of matter has become some black liquid death clock, mocking our futile and short-term actions, our endless busywork in a slow world changing at its own pace. Which of course brings us to Australian politics.
What characterises this election has been a two-stage move by the major parties. First, that the Liberal Party has simply conceded the overarching ideological terrain to Labor, and thus cemented our polity — for the moment — as a “social market” one. That is something short of social democracy, but it is astonishing, momentous, that a laissez-faire, classical liberal position has been utterly marginalised as a values system to be advocated. Compare and contrast to our fellow anglophones. In the US, the Democratic Party has its hands full making the argument that children should not be sent home from hospital to die, simply because their parents cannot afford treatment. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron did put green edges around his politics — but he did still campaign on notions of self-reliance, small government, and austerity. And once in power, he has unleashed a privatisation agenda reaching deep into social life, with police and health functions handed over to Serco and G4S, and reaching deeply into the National Health Service to privatise its services, something Margaret Thatcher stayed well away from.
Nothing like any of that is talked about here, or happening here. It would be silly to exaggerate this of course, since in a federal system, a lot of what can be privatised is in state hands. But what matters here is the battle of ideas and the terrain on which it will be fought. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his supporters say, explicitly or otherwise, that he has reached back into the Catholic social teaching/Democratic Labour Party tradition to draw on a notion of community as an alternative approach for a centre-right party, and that that is quite legitimate. But it’s also nonsense and prevarication designed to disguise Abbott’s historic concession to statism. For the Catholic social tradition was wary of free-market liberalism, but it was equally wary of big government, and the evacuation of autonomy and self-reliance by what Hilaire Belloc called the “servile state”. The other side of Catholic social teaching was the importance of “subsidiarity”. Subsidiarity is the notion that no social problem that can be addressed at a base level — neighbourhood, local, state, federal, in order — should be translated upwards.
Abbott disregards that utterly, and reinstalls the state at the centre of Australian life, and at the centre of how Australians think about themselves. What’s more he has gone one stage further: he has committed the state to play a role in fine-tuned cultural engineering, shaping decisions people make with “nudge” policies, so that the state essentially reaches into ever more private areas of life. That is done as much by what he has left out as what he is advocating. Last night in the debate in response to a question he made some vague gesture towards the idea of state schools taking on some of the features of the independent school system. In the UK, a whole schools revolution is being staged by the brazenly ideological education secretary Michael Gove, who is essentially wrecking the state system in order to create a network of free schools and academies, and that is what Abbott is gesturing towards. But he has not had the courage to come out with that sort of policy — instead, signing up to the vast statist top-down Gonski process.
“Fair enough. I here announce my intention to marry Wyatt Roy. Send me a cheque.”
Seriously, we live in a country where the leader of the right-wing party reassures people worried by the cost of a state-run, 100%-of-salary, six-month parental leave scheme, that “it won’t come from your pockets, it will come from big business”. Yes, Abbott is going to give stuff back to business with the other hand. But he’s established the principle that business can be regarded as a big tree, into which you can simply bang a spigot and pour out the good oil. Indeed, paid parental leave isn’t merely social-market — it is genuine 1970s social democracy, purely Whitlamite. The crucial aspect? It establishes the principle that parents taking up the scheme (90% of whom will be mothers, if the Swedish experience is anything to go by) have the right to income replacement, and that the money must then be found to satisfy that right. It is hilarious that Peter Costello and John Howard’s Liberal Party are advocating this.
Indeed, everything Abbott is introducing runs directly counter to notions that both liberalism and Catholic social teaching share: that self-reliance and autonomy from the state should be paramount, and that the state reaching into social life saps both. Some of this stuff is ridiculous: payment to stay in a job for a year and a $200 bonus for stating an “intention to marry”. The best thing about this is that applies to same-s-x couples as well as straight couples. So the Coalition is giving away money to people to get married, who by their other policies will never be able to marry! Fair enough. I here announce my intention to marry Wyatt Roy. Send me a cheque.
What an utter farce this is. It’s as if the Coalition turned to the “moral hazard” chapter in economics 101 and wrote “budget 2014” on the top of it. There is nothing that Abbott won’t commit to, won’t give away, in his deep desperation to be prime minister — even if by the end of the process he has simply committed to a secular-statist Labor agenda. The ultimate concession was to hand back the notion of financial rectitude by deferring the promise of a surplus. In the debate last night, put on the spot, Abbott recommitted to “not closing” a Medicare Local. He took it back this morning, kinda, but it runs counter to his Coalition policy. So he’s been moved leftwards again, by pressure. Meanwhile on his “Right”, the issue of foreign land ownership is sparking up again — allowing Rudd to reach across, and connect to it. Meanwhile, Bob Katter is arguing that the supermarket duopoly’s vertical integration — i.e. ultra-cheap home-brand products — should be legislated against which, whatever its content, is a policy about as interventionist as the late Ugo Chavez in Venezuela.
This is all causing deep anguish on the Right, and it’s hilarious to watch. Read Paul Kelly in The Australian yesterday: it’s like watching a man trying to put salve on a wound on the small of his back, howling in pain each time he twists around. OK, funny in a medieval sort of way. Watch Henry Ergas, willing to defend any Coalition proposal, up to and including, I would guess, the surprise socialisation of heavy industry. Or see Tim Wilson on The Drum last night, bleating that any support for parents by the state is akin to regarding children as a “burden”, and that parents should take the “responsibility themselves” — i.e. the market should run your life. That muscular 19th century liberalism is dead in Australia as a mainstream ideology, and it died this election, and Abbott’s historical role was to kill it. It may be revived but it was always a zombie anyway.
But of course, for all that the parties have agreed on, this election is marked by the consequence of that — and a subject to which I’ll return next week — which is all that is being left out of Australian politics by centrist and media consent. Climate change is the big one — a challenge to the future of humanity has simple been declared out of the bounds of existing politics, and treated as no more than a tax issue. Foreign policy and surveillance is another one.
You wouldn’t know from the mainstream debate that we are laced into the global NSA surveillance programme, and hosting US troops in Darwin permanently. Democracy and governance is another. Compulsory voting, preferential voting, the farce of the Senate system as it stands, public funding of parties, indigenous sovereignty, standardised debates with Greens and minor party involvement, sanctions for blatant untrue electoral propaganda, the constitution? Got zip on all of that. Our system moves but it moves like pitch, and the framework within which we are debating these matters — statism, the Coalition, the 1920s compulsory voting-preferential trade-off — it’s time things were shaken up a little. As it stands, whatever admirable features there are about our polity — and there are numerous — we’re all standing around with a camera trained waiting for the next pitch drop.