One really shouldn’t respond to Planet Janet Albrechtsen’s every wobble, for the same reason that you shouldn’t start on the macadamias … after the first, you can’t stop till you pass out. But this week her contribution is a way into the heart of political change in Australia, albeit in ways she couldn’t possibly understand.
As usual Planet put her shoulderpad to the wheel in the cause of crushing the Greens, with fresh revelations of their “political extremism” in an article entitled “Extreme secret agenda aims to change our society”. There was a flourish with the usual victim conservatism, noting a speech by Kevin Andrews that, sniff, had it been delivered by, sniff, Malcolm Turnbull, would have gathered media attention (perhaps from a news org with 70% of the coverage).
Andrews accused the Greens of having a secret agenda. Planet breathlessly publicised this:
“Unless we understand the ideological foundations of the Greens, we will fail to effectively address the challenge of their revolution … What the Greens present is the cutting edge of a clash within Western civilisation itself …”
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This was, Andrews went on, a “coercive utopianism”.
Planet went on:
“It becomes clear that behind every stated purpose — and an increasing number of anodyne motherhood statements — set out in Greens policies through the years is a secret agenda that, at its core, is anti-free trade, anti-capitalism, anti-wealth, anti-consumption and anti-growth.
The Greens’ latest bill to stop banks raising interest rates beyond the Reserve Bank’s official cash rate is just the latest example …”
Well, the Greens have cunningly hidden these beliefs in their manifesto, but doubtless Andrews is on the right track. As a conservative Catholic, following in the tradition of BA Santamaria — Andrews was an active member of Santa’s front group no.243, the Australian Family Association — he would doubtless be on the alert for anything that betrayed the Judeo-Christian tradition by being anti-free trade, anti-capitalism, or — gasp — wanting to control interest rates. Take the ravings of this lunatic:
“The essential problem (of Australian society) lies in the determination of both sides of politics that Australia shall see its future as entirely subject to the demands of a globalised economy … The major interests that benefit from globalisation are the transnationals; the Wall Street investment banks and the funds, both of which finance them; the members of the interlocking directorates that hold them together .”
How to solve this. The anarchist in question answered in part two of his long essay:
“First, we should endeavour to reduce the capital flows that move in and out of Australia for purely speculative purposes without regard to their consequences for the Australian economy. … Second, we must restore the balance of trade … We are apparently one of the few nations that take GATT rules seriously. Its great proponent, the US does not.”
There was much more in this vein, from, you guessed it, BA Santamaria, writing in that subversive journal The Australian in 1996.
But, of course, even better is the tradition Santamaria came from and that grounded much of his thinking — the National Catholic Rural Movement. Influenced by Chesterton, Belloc, and others, at the end of WWII, the NCRM proposed that Australia’s cities should have their populations reduced by mass rural resettlement, in order to negate the worst effects of anomic capitalism. As Richard Doig notes in a historical review of the movement for that radical journal Newsweekly:
“Santamaria argued that the (social) question must be tackled on both individual and social levels … Critics claimed that the NCRM desired a return to medieval society. It answered this by saying:
“No one who stands for rural revival is proposing to set up anything resembling the peasantry of past ages, or that existing in Europe today. The way of life which we desire to see grow up in our own countryside is thoroughly modern. This does not involve the rejection of any of the real benefits of the machine or of modern science, but simply a practical recognition that the only sane object of man’s instruments is the achievement of the ‘good life’.”
The first objective was to create a mental revolution in the farming home — to imbue family members with a sense of the dignity of their work and a sense of how to improve their situation …
Its various initiatives included the promotion of co-operatives, independent farming, dissemination of conservation and organic farming, spread and encouragement of rural culture and the revival of the rural home …
In addition to the publication of works such as The Earth Our Mother (! — GR), the newspaper Rural Life and numerous other works, the NCRM pioneered much of the early credit union movement in Victoria and promoted the co-operative ideal in machinery and purchasing pools …”
In other words, Santamaria’s first focus — and one he never really abandoned — was on an anti-capitalist, counter-cultural movement that saw the reclamation of humanity as necessarily involving a reduction of consumerism, and a withdrawal from a full-growth economy. This is more than mere history, for that sort of structural politics underpins the familialism that Santamaria advanced in organisations such as Andrews’ old outfit, the Australian Family Association. Indeed, for years, one of the AFA’s major campaigns was against the liberalisation of shop-trading hours, on the grounds that it would destroy the integrity of the weekend, which was essential to family life.
There wouldn’t be a Kevin Andrews, in his current form, without Santamaria — just as there wouldn’t be a Tony Abbott. Abbott’s clever move to out-flank Labor with a six-month paid parental leave, was a piece of familialist socialist policy straight out of Santa’s playbook. But Santa’s very much smaller helpers have taken all the culture war bits — homos-xuality, abortion etc — and abandoned the social critique to become willing servants of capital. Andrews has spoken out against equal opportunity law, and addressed the Family Council of Victoria, a group that states that homos-xuality is the manifestation of a “psychiatric disorder”.
It’s a funny old world, isn’t it? I doubt that Santamaria would have much time for the Greens’ social policies, but let’s face it — of all the economic policies on offer, it is the Greens that are closest to Santamaria’s preferred policies, resisting the mantras of “free” trade, and unfettered financialisation. Moreover, he — and the whole global Catholic Social Movement — saw an anti-laissez-faire politics as an essential expression of Christianity.
Bizarrely, the Catholic Rural Movement had a hand in creating the counter-culture from which the Greens sprang. The Rural Movement’s communalist ideas survived in university Newman societies, in which many a youthful radical from a rock-chopper background cut their teeth before moving onto the anti-war movement, Nimbin, the ’80s social movements, and all points north.
Does Planet Janet know any of this? It’s a mystery more eternal than the trinity — is Planet ignorant, or does she simply leave out inconvenient facts? The debate continues. What about Andrews? He’s not a stupid man — he’s written three books after all (sorry, chapters in books — by the Andrews’ standard, anyone who’s contributed to the Australian Dictionary of Biography has authored a 15-volume encyclopedia), and he’s not averse to using arguments from the left (quoting, among others, your correspondent’s Marxistish critique of adult stem-cell research as the commodification of human material).
But like many of the Christian right — usually evangelicals, it must be said — he’s fused a simplistic interpretation of the Biblical notion of the natural world as “man’s estate” with the idea of unfettered global capitalism. Any notion — common-sense or Christian — that there might be limits to growth or exploitation, can then be dismissed as paganism.
It’s mad stuff, but it’s useful for people such as Andrews and Abbott, who are living embodiments of Chesterton’s remark about Christianity “not tried and found difficult, but found difficult and not tried”. The soul-searching that a genuine Christianity would force on right-wing politicians would quickly disable them — so they adopt a counterfeit mode in which wealth, growth, the power of capital and the “good life” never come into conflict.
By that measure there is no difference between ploughing the rugged earth to yield fruit, and trading a trillion dollars in credit default swaps, and any objection that the latter may have overshot the mark is to be a pagan. Abbott and Andrews need a belief system that will back their every action with a sort of metaphysical gold standard, which is why they are two of the shiftiest politicians on the main stage. You get away with a lot when you’re God’s tool.
Why object to this stuff at such length? It’s just part of The Australian‘s mad propaganda game after all, and probably turns as many towards the Greens as away from them (Planet’s horrified exclamation that ends the article, is priceless: “Drawing on the Greens de facto think tank, the Australia Institute, new Greens member Adam Bandt wants us to work less, too, presumably so we earn less money and consume less material goods.” Yes, the horror. How un-Australian, to advance such ideas in the land that invented the eight-hour day.)
Part of the irritation is that it’s such a boring, cloddish way of doing political and intellectual history. The crossover of themes and ideas between left and right is so interesting, especially in Australia, that it demands a greater flexibility and depth than the Pyongyang house style of The Oz. (Just as the kiss of the whip, it should be noted that the first major political grouping to really advance free trade globalisation in Australia was the Trotskyists, from the ’70s on, who argued that protectionism kept the Australian working class politically backward.)
More importantly, it should be clear that old political formations are breaking up. After all, Tony Abbott’s former finance spokesperson Barnaby Joyce — the most exciting BJ in Canberra now that (rest of sentence deleted by editors) — has a position that makes Santamaria and Bandt look like Friedrich von Hayek, and it is only a matter of time before the very country-city strains that Santamaria identified, split the coalition apart, or destroy the National Party altogether. The very fact that two rural independents can support a Labor-Green government is a sign that this has already occurred, and effectively denied Abbott government.
This commonality could be built on if the Greens put issues of human life, economy, community survival on the front burner — and simultaneously established a hands-off rural movement, call it “Australian Heartland” or something, to support independent candidates against the National Party. I reckon it would take two elections to take the NP below party status of five in the house (as they are in the senate), and make the construction of a non-Labor coalition twice as hard, as pulling together a Labor one. Planet, Andrews and the mad Abbott are lucky that the Greens are pursuing social legislation at the moment — same-s-x marriage, euthanasia (for reasons of principle and shoring up an inner city base) — which are most likely to alienate rural voters.
They should get that out of the way, and concentrate on the long game of building new bases. This is an especially propitious time to make some radical leaps and reconfigurations. People who want, gasp, to work less and spend more time with their families, will be looking for those offering alternative ideas about how we should live. The Labor Party once had people of ideas. They’re long gone now. And if all that conservatism can offer is the saturnine ring tones of Planet Janet, the Greens will have the field to themselves.