There’s always a moment when you’re doing something stupid, something that will come back to haunt you, that you know it will come back to haunt you. But you do it anyway. Then, as a way of dispelling its occult power over you, the foreboding, you do it again. That’s why people rob the same liquor store twice, keep cheating til they get caught, invade Russia in winter, etc, etc.

Does that effect lie behind the fact that Barnaby Joyce took not one but two helicopter trips a trifling distance, winding up both times at a spot called the Lunatic Hotel? Given that this occurred before Bronwyn was pinged for her own excesses, was this an expression of the hubris that has rushed these last two governments to disaster — or was it some premonition of how it would all end?

Barnaby’s flight to the Lunatic Hotel may well be his last. Once Tony Windsor announced that he was running for New England, Joyce was in some trouble. He’s a carpetbagging Queenslander, whose politics — wacky sun-struck central Queensland Catholic European reaction — sit ill with the different traditions of New England. He put himself out as an opponent of the insane Shenhua Watermark mine on the Liverpool Plains — and then he became Water Minister, from which position he hummed and haahed, despite the fact that he could have stopped it with a word.

The good news for opponents of Shenhua is that both federal and NSW state governments have a huge incentive to knock Shenhua Watermark on the head now, rather than later. The mine is dead, but the NSW government was hoping to keep the idea of it going as long as possible. Now, with the leader of the Coalition partner facing defeat, there’s an almighty incentive to kill it now. At that point, a slice of the votes may go back to the Nationals, sufficient to get Barnaby through. The one thing that would help get Windsor up, absent the Shenhua mine, is a dick move like taking two $4000 helicopter trips to the Lunatic Hotel.

Could this be the last flight to the Lunatic Hotel of the Abbott/Turnbull government — a hat-trick first-term loss, rounding out Queensland and Victoria? It’s still a long shot, but the fact that it’s even possible and talked about is a measure of the collapse of the mainstream political right in Australia. It has affinities with the crisis of the US right, but there are important differences, too. Chief among them is the fact that the Republican Party is now an impossibly wide bracket, including people with wholly contradictory views, while the Liberal-National Coalition should have far less tension within it. There is no conservative insurgency with deep social roots demanding some return to a fantasy Golden Age bound up with the constitution — simply two camps with some differences over how explicitly traditional values should be enforced by the state.

That the Coalition, and the Liberal Party itself, cannot now manage its differences is doubly remarkable; first, because it has always been able to before, and secondly, because the social and economic changes of the past two decades have made a centre-right, mildly socially progressive Liberal Party, the natural party of government. God knows what Keating thought he was doing with compulsory individual super and negative gearing, but we know what the result was: a detached section of the working class, with heavy investments in capital, and no reason to vote Labor at all.

Personally, I think Keating overestimated the cultural ties to Labor; he saw such people as the next generation of the Catholic middle class who had been solidly Labor, even when it was the Democratic Labor Party. Whatever he thought, the result was to dissolve Labor’s base, without doing the same thing to the Coalition’s. A canny, composed Liberal Party should be able to craft the same sort of coalition as Menzies did, with similar longevity.

Weirdly, what has happened to the Liberal Party is a mirror of what happened to post-war Labor, which had furious battles over sticking to a recognisably socialist program versus starting to offer a more centrist program. The difference is that the fights were brutal in Labor because there were two real and powerful social formations underlying each party position. The difference is that there is no real social formation underlying the conservative faction of the Coalition. That group has confused certain specific right-wing beliefs — such as being harsh on refugees — with a total conservative mindset, as exists in the US. But if you have a country like ours, where 54% support harsh refugee policies and 70% are also pro- or unconcerned about same-sex marriage, then at least 24% believe both.

There’s no composed conservative faction out in society. The absence of such, and certain people’s belief that there was one, is the reason why the right were so surprised by the mass rural protests against open-slather CSG gas and coal mining, and the whole “Lock The Gate” movement that sprang up. The right never anticipated that a post-religious society like Australia’s has a sort of “fluid conservatism”. People mix and match far more in composing social and communal values. The right who are in Parliament don’t, because they’re a self-selecting freakshow of zealots, obsessives and hysterics. In the US you have to get through a few primaries, et,c to get into power. In Australia, you turn up for some whacky student political outfit, or write the same article 150 times for the IPA, and you’ll be bumped into power. It’s pretty easy to start believing that you represent something real. And before you know it you’re touching down on the lawn of the Lunatic Hotel.

This deformation of the right, and Turnbull’s multiple and repeated political failures, is what has permitted Labor to nudge ahead in one poll. We’ll see if that holds. It’s difficult to know who this is more of a disaster for, the Coalition or Labor. Were Labor to win with an empty cipher like Bill Shorten in place, surrounded by a second-rate crew of legacy ministers, it would shamble around for a few years, with the possibility that it would have a recession to deal with. There are a lot of people in the current leadership of Labor who don’t really want to check into the Lunatic Hotel of government for precisely the same reason that Labor has lost its composed base: they’ve spent too long there, and they want to move on to super schemes and bank boards, and the like.

Best scenario would be a narrow loss — ideally a hung house with three or four Greens, Windsor, Cathy McGowan, and a few other independents. Now is the election to start up some viable independent runs. I’m sure there is a local or two who could make trouble for Freedom Boy in Goldstein and, to paraphrase Che Guevara (the Tony Windsor of Latin America), make “one, two, three, many Indis”, across rural Australia. If control of the Senate is retained by Labor and the Greens, then a hopelessly hobbled Coalition minority government would be a chance for Labor to recompose itself as a new progressivist party, with new leaders, and a new combination of policies for a new era. Whoever gets to that first, gets to be the first to check out of Lunatic Hotel and fly away. The laggards will be there for some time.

Peter Fray

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