On Tuesday, Guy Rundle (a former editor of the Marxist Arena magazine) began his article with the term “ha, ha, ha, ha” repeated twice.
— Gerard Henderson
The media Left is gloating. They’ve won … “Ha, ha, ha,” they point out.
— Andrew Bolt
Ha, ha, ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. You would need a fleet of whaa-mbulances for the Abbott right these days. They have been by turns hysterical, mopey, punchy and, most recently, faux-triumphant, with an entirely deranged column by Andrew Bolt claiming that he and Alan Jones had “house-trained” Malcolm Turnbull. This came after a few days of denouncing Turnbull as a wrecker and an insurgent and warning that the Liberal Party would soon turn on him too. It’s a measure of how crazy the whole process had become that Paul Sheehan became the voice of calm reason, arguing that there was no conservative challenge or split on offer, and the conservatives had basically folded their tent.
That’s no surprise — because, really, there is no conservative movement in Australia worthy of the name. There’s plenty of right-wing politicians, commentators and think tanks who spruik it, but there’s no substantial social base — certainly nothing like the Tea Party in the US. The brief two years of conservative ascendancy were a matter of happenstance. Conservatives having hit the jackpot, pushed their luck for all it was worth. This left them exposed and visible in a non-conservative country, as too was the party that played host to them. Abbott’s sacking, and the big ministerial cleaning-out, was simply a restoration of the set point from which the Coalition is electable.
We all know how this brief occupation arose. It was because Turnbull was not trusted by the right of the Liberals and the Nationals on climate change policy, and Abbott was the only other candidate. The slim nature of his party-room victory — a single vote — confirmed how provisional their support of Abbott was, and the limits of their trust in his leadership abilities, beliefs and personality. Throughout the years 2010-2013, his polling as preferred prime minister remained poor, and he and his party only got into the position of certain victory by a relentless misinformation campaign by the News Corp tabloids — and victory was only nailed down by Abbott agreeing to preserve and implement a whole swathe of Gillard government policies. Welching on that promise, haring off on various conservative follies, and all the while being day-to-day incompetent on many fronts was what did for Abbott. But it was that particular triple combo that made rejection so decisive — and the sense that Abbott’s conservatism was self-indulgent and fantastical, and the mark of a poor leader. Put there as a desperate measure, Abbott benefited from the Liberal Party’s tendency to give the leader a free hand to shape government. The nature of our system, with the executive and legislative wings fused together, disguised the way in which the government had become alien to the party that hosted it.
Tony Abbott’s improbable elevation gave an entirely illusory sense of the support for a real cultural conservatism in Australia. Abbott and his sycophantic media squad in the News Corp tabloids attempted to reverse engineer a “silent majority” who supported Abbott’s general approach — and those of people like Eric Abetz, whom he put in positions of great power. But they never existed. They exist in the UK and the US, all right — UKIP represents the former, the Tea Party the latter — conservative, nativist, collectivist populaces whose politics are a mixture of right and old left. But in Australia, they are almost absent — or so scattered and unemphatic as to not constitute a social force in their own right.
Indeed, there’s never been an Australian right of that type, as a mainstream formation. But in recent years the commanding heights of the right-wing media came to be occupied by right-wingers whose conservatism was nostalgic, reactionary and fantastical — positing a lost world of (white) order and meaning, as compared to the current Green, multicultural, gayby baby, African restaurant hell-on-earth. These figures — Bolt, Hadley, Jones, Akerman, Albrechtsen, et al — were promoted into positions of prominence in the ’90s and 2000s. This was partly because there was a sectional audience for them — as Chris Mitchell, editor-in-chief of The Australian has noted, most of Andrew Bolt’s readers are conservative retirees — and partly because of the increasing social conservatism of Rupert Murdoch, which spread through the organisation, invisibly transmitted to those who worked for him.
Trouble was, underneath Murdoch’s drift to the conservative right, Australian society was drifting in a progressive direction. Tertiary education qualifications went from 8% of the population in the early ’80s, to 30% in the mid-2000s. At the same time a steady high level of migration and an international student industry changed the marginal nature of non-Anglo-Celtic populations, which had lasted well into the ’90s. And as a third factor the form of social solidarity that had sustained us for most of a century — a labourist, statist control of the economy — had been swept away. Bolt et al were right-wingers, and they found an audience there, but many of their readers were also old Labor supporters, pining for a lost Australia in which there was a sense of common purpose and meaning.
Had Tony Abbott, by some means, become prime minister in 2004, he might have made it. With the War on Terror in full cry, and the class war between old classes and the rising new class at its height, he might have found favour. By 2013, it was simply too late. A whole tranche of such voters were now dead or senile, and for those who weren’t … well, a lot of these things just stopped mattering so much. The Abbott brigade wanted Australia to be a religious country with deep traditions. But it isn’t. Our great advantage and our tragedy is that we are the kingdom of nothingness, a mere improvisation on a continent. The passions that incite Europeans in favour of their ancient motherlands, the mixture of revolution, providence and God that Americans hark back to — we just don’t have it. We never will, and our historical task is set for us: we have to work out a way in which human beings will live together in a manner that is meaningful and passionate, and expressive of life, while having no access to ancient and spurious mythologies.
We’re on that road, but we’re not very far along it yet. In the last 25 years, as all the myths finally faded, various short-term right-wing responses caught hold. None of them — from Hanson, to Cronulla, to Rise Up Australia — have gained the slightest foothold, as organised political expressions. That’s because they have nothing to group together as a political force. Nothing, in Australia, is as compelling as a day on the beach, a barbecue, a few beers and/or bongs, and a DVD of a Tom Cruise movie, and that is the defeat of conservatism/the right/the hard right. This is our mission, if we choose to accept it: to work out how you live without myth, without bullshit, but in a way that is rich in meaning and intensity, a world re-sensualised from the dead hand of consumer capitalism, overwork, crushing debt, and all the rest. That is Australia’s historical mission. That is where our global, our historical, contribution could be made.
The idea that anyone on the left wanted Tony Abbott gone was pure fantasy of the right of course. Not sure how others on the nationwide leftist conspiracy feel (being overseas, I haven’t been to the meetings for a while — Hartcher and Marise Payne send me the notes) but I half-wanted him to hang around so that the Coalition could be so comprehensively defeated that they would enter into years of turmoil. On the other hand, that would have been a free kick to Bill Shorten and his crew, the dopiest, laziest group of political rent-seekers God ever gave suck to. It’s been really hard to choose. I think I wanted Bill Shorten to fall under a bus — presuming he had the energy for the mission — and for the Coalition to then be thrown out in favour of his successor. Not that that would have solved Labor’s problems concerning the absence of a program.
The rise of the crazy right in the News Corp pages was paralleled by their insurgency within the Liberal Party — a formation of right-wing Christian activists, with the usual advantage of the fanatic enthusiasm for necessary tedium. They have colonised the party well beyond their base within wider society, thanks to the disconnected nature of Australian politics. Lacking the judgement of someone like John Howard, they pushed their luck and indulged their fantasies, and were wholly repudiated. The nexus between this insurgent group and the media hard right — essentially a group of neurotics useful to Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and others — gave a strong impression of power. But was dissolved in an instant.
Now, with Turnbull in power, and using the privilege Abbott used, to reshape the party, the conservative right is exiting the stage. There is no likelihood they would defect and organise as a distinct group — and if they did it would be a disaster. The readership for their media arm is shrinking and, judging by the comments on Bolt’s article, many now read him for shits and giggles, rather than actual ideas. Some, like Bolt and Cory Bernardi, come from the sinister European right, which has always had an elitist disdain for the masses. Others — Windschuttle, Christopher Pearson, Akerman — were teenage Maoists, obsessive in their psychology and in need of an outlet, left and then right.
The poleaxing of Tony Abbott — who, judging by his Chippendales-and-surfing days since, is desperately happy to have been sacked — merely remove an aberration that occurred due to highly specific local conditions, for a couple of years. The idea that Turnbull represented some great liberal hope was always fatuous — and a fantasy by the hard right about the left. Turnbull has made his career by sailing with the wind, and his government so far shows every sign of being, well, Howardian — a Burkean centre-rightism, whose first act is to acknowledge that the dominant culture — the bedrock culture — is now liberal, multicultural, global, progressive. Burkean conservatism is a philosophy of change, an argument about how it should occur. Mainstream conservatism — Abbott’s, Bernardi’s, Abetz’s and Bolt’s brand — is a philosophy of reaction, and the idea that there can be no society of strong meaning without a mystical and irrational core, embodied by the monarch and the Church. Labor is terrified that Turnbull’s neo-Howardism will be a success; but so too are the Abbott right, because such success would consign them to permanent irrelevance.
Anyone on the left who thought that Turnbull would be some sort of centrist deliverance had rocks in their head — but I don’t believe there were many such people, I think they’re a fantasm invented by the right. What many of us are grateful for is the return of rational politics — a right you can have an argument with based on evidence. That is what we have needed, needed from the right. What we have had is a freak show, a Deadwood-style gothic circus act of intersecting private obsessions. How do you argue with something like that? You can’t, and so the whole of Australian politics falls into abeyance. This is the absence of seriousness that Paul “Eeyore” Kelly and others brayed about. He should know. It is, to a degree, the fault of the paper he gave his life to.
Now, the onus falls back on Labor. Which is great, because it means that Bill Shorten will most likely be flushed. The chance of winning the 2016 election has slipped away. Barring huge crises, Turnbull could be PM for the next six to nine years if he wanted to be, and there is fuck all Labor, in its current form, can do about it. We are now a possessive, privatised, atomised society, and a centre-right Liberal party is our natural party of government. It’s a testament to Abbott’s anti-talent that he managed to trash the brand so comprehensively that it was being threatened with a one-term government. If Turnbull and co. can recompose the party as the conservative side of a progressive society, then they can write their own ticket.
Indeed, it’s worse for Labor. As the recent Essential polling showed, what’s new in the political spectrum is the Liberal-Green crossover. Liberals voting Green has been the main focus of late, but it works both ways. Should the Liberals be sufficiently progressive in social and environmental issues, tax structures, etc, they can radically increase their preferences from the Greens — from the almost random 10%-15%, to 25%-30%. Many Greens voters are, as regards economic matters, altruistic, voting for higher tax rates than other parties offer. But there’s a limit, and if someone can come up with a formula — illusory as it is — that offers a great individual tax, etc, deal and social liberalism, and saving the planet, many will take it. Labor could be the loser from this transformation. The party is coming apart, because the class that sustains it is coming apart. Turnbull’s victory might be the breathing space it needs — four years to get itself in shape, to make a new offer to the people about a government that offers them a genuinely better life.
But whatever happens, some old fantasy of the right is gone. Good riddance to it. Hopefully some of its pathetic ideologues will go, too, their illusory command of a silent majority exposed, and a more rational dialogue can occur. But don’t bet on it. Sunk in fantasy, the right are as distant from any contact with the real as they’ve ever been. Their capacity for self-defeat is endless. Ha, ha, ha. Ha, ha, ha, ha.