Jul 12, 2017

Turnbull’s ‘conservative’ quandary is all about the N-word

Malcolm Turnbull might be right about Robert Menzies, but that's no help when the ideological debate has been fractured by the collapse of neoliberalism.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

Was Robert Menzies a liberal or a conservative? How is the Liberal Party liberal and conservative at the same time? What’s a liberal and a conservative anyway? What’s that strange creature, a “liberal conservative”, which Tony Abbott calls himself?

For most voters, this is an arcane debate. For many voters, it will be entirely meaningless; they won’t have the faintest idea who this Menzies bloke is, so the complaint that discussing your party’s ideological origins is mere “navelgazing” probably doesn’t have much substance — voters have to know that it’s a navel that’s being gazed at in the first place. More likely is the possibility — horrific as it might be to the government — that voters have simply tuned out.

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9 thoughts on “Turnbull’s ‘conservative’ quandary is all about the N-word

  1. Humphrey Bower

    The collapse of neo-liberalism is due to its internal contradictions as well as its external contradictions with reality. The same is true of any theory or practice which attempts to explain or justify everything, as the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century disastrously demonstrated. Only a coalition of different narratives – including liberalism, socialism, feminism, environmentalism, minority rights and (crucially) an acknowledgement of the validity claims of global as well as local-regional needs
    and values – can do justice to an inherently plural reality. The political party ( or coalition of parties) that recognises and communicates this stands the best chance of electoral, moral, intellectual and practical legitimacy.

  2. Humphrey Bower

    In other words, what we need is an approach to politics that recognises the necessity for compromise between the sometimes competing claims of political, legal, social, economic, environmental, international/regional, global/local, cultural, racial, gender/sexual and other forms of justice. There is no absolute heirarchy between these claims, none can be reduced or subordinated to any of the others, and their resolution must be decided on a case-by-case basis and is always provisional. The name of this permanently unfinished task is democracy: the necessarily imperfect but ‘least worst’ social formation we have thus far arrived at, and which no doubt needs to be re-thought and reformulated in the era of postindustrial capitalism, globalisation, automization, digital technology and the internet. The old totalising ideologies and absolute-isms of left and right (Marxism, neo-liberalism, fascism) won’t help us anymore, and perhaps it’s time to stop using them as a form of name-calling in these circular arguments and discussions. A realistic politics of compromise, inclusiveness and solidarity is now the order of the day.

  3. Damien

    In order to combat debate about “neoliberalism” being hijacked by racist reactionaries (and Marxist reactionaries), the core issue for the true centre should be reasserting the role of government in governing business activity and the role of taxation in providing public services.

    This means a focus on such things as anti-dumping laws (I note our correspondent’s post Grenfell silence on criticising those), the actual ENFORCEMENT of labour conditions (ie: the issue of immigrants being used to undercut wages is largely because of the inadequate enforcement of laws, not because of immigration itself), protecting the role of unions and re-toothing the various regulatory bodies rendered completely toothless by several decades of bipartisan “deregulate-it-and-they-will-come” capitulation.

    The neo-conservative movement will continue filling any vacuum on the above with appeals to nationalism/tribalism whilst accelerating down the path of deregulation and “small government” because the “golden age” they seek to restore is, basically, feudalism. (Presumably their hatred of “centrist” Turnbull is that he isn’t implementing this quickly enough…)

    The Jokers in the pack are tech, automation and the possibility that it may already be too late to “re-regulate” as multinationals are more powerful than national governments anyway.

    So I wouldn’t hold my breath seeking clarity. As it has been throughout history, the determinant will be the reaction of “the people”. Because it seems largely futile to attempt to anticipate and plan ahead when the response of vast swathes of “the people” will inevitably be based on knee-jerk reactionary scapegoating anyway…

  4. Will

    The reason Abbott doesn’t fit well on the standard labour versus capital left-right spectrum is his overriding commitment to the identity politics of (threatened) traditional white male privilege. Hence his willingness to commit the party of capital to seemingly ‘socialist’ state funding of a coal-fired power station, and to confound the interests of business by calling for a halt to immigration. The irony is that neoliberalism delivered this identity crisis to traditionalists, because being a left-right consensus experiment in reducing labour’s influence over capital, it led to capital having power over everything – including traditional white male privilege. Abbott is just another symptom that the neoliberal experiment got out of control, and Turnbull (and May and Macron, etc) of a desperate hope that it can somehow be re-tamed. The ‘end of neoliberalism’ Bernard speaks of is looking a lot like the absolute victory of capital (hello there, Trump’s cabinet of billionaires).

  5. AR

    Small point, BK “The neoliberal consensus (?”wot that, paleface?”) has fractured, crushed under the weight of corporate self-indulgence and the reaction against globalisation.” or to put it more simply, neolib’s noxious nostrums evaporated in the face of reality.
    As pointed out above, had 457 workers been employed on the same conditions as locals, protected by union conditions there would not have been the resented effect of lowering conditions because the advantage to feckless BigBiz would not exist.

    1. Will

      You might not have personally consented, AR, but consensus is most certainly the right word. Neoliberalism came to life in response to 1970s stagflation, around which a consensus formed across the political spectrum that economic irresponsibility on the part of powerful organised labour was ultimately to blame. Hence, Blair and Clinton didn’t stop, but rather merely softened, what Thatcher and Reagan started. It was our own Hawke and Keating who led the way in all of this, winning international acclaim for the consensus-model industrial Accord they brokered between Australian unions and big business. The whole genius of neoliberalism as an ideology lies in its success in getting both left and right to agree that responsible economic management is not a political but a technical problem. After all, did you ever get to vote on the advisability, design or foreseeable implications of 457 visas?

  6. Steve777

    The neoliberal consensus has fractured, crushed under the weight of corporate self-indulgence…

    And that’s the gist of it. Corporations are neither right nor left. They want to make lots of money, not pay tax, not be regulated and in general not be bothered with ‘externalities’ like fair work, fair trade or the environment. They want the whip hand in dealings with their customers and workers. They want a stable polity in which to do business, with infrastructure and rule of law protected by a legal system, police and defence forces payed for by someone else’s taxes. And when things go pear-shaped they want governments to bail them out and protect them from ‘unfair’ competition.

    And the “Liberal” party is their political wing. Now, the Big Business / Big Money agenda is ballot box poison for most voters, as a quick persuasion of the Institute of Public Affairs’ (IPA’s) website would attest. They need something to appeal to the punters. Social conservatism, dogwhistling to racists and a few goodies for swinging voters fits the bill nicely.

    1. Dog's Breakfast

      Or to put it another way, the neoliberal consensus has fractured because it was never more than a fantasy. It wasn’t it’s internal contradictions, as much as it just made no sense, none of it, when applied in the real world. It was an academic solution to a real world problem, and has finally come to be seen as such.

  7. Dog's Breakfast

    “But confusing the issue is that none of this is a simple matter of “moving left”,”

    True, and why I refuse to adhere to either left or right politics, but to demand policies be abandoned when they are clearly wrong, and looking for a rational path with iterative changes to overcome unintended consequences.

    “explaining the benefits of allowing large numbers of foreign workers in and showing how they are no threat to Australians.”

    That’s a hard ask, given that the benefits are minimal and the costs are huge. Even worse when record immigration rates are brought in slyly and no planning and infrastructure is developed to assuage the costs. The supposed benefits are largely just economic orthodoxy without regard to the lived experience, or the environment for that matter.

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