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.
Matter of fact, however, Turnbull’s reflections on the origins of his party, and more particularly the context — despite denials — of targeting Tony Abbott, are relevant. We keep banging on about it here, but it’s important: we’re at the most important ideological juncture in over 30 years. The neoliberal consensus has fractured, crushed under the weight of corporate self-indulgence and the reaction against globalisation. Politicians are scrambling to play catch-up with voters. Some on the right, like Turnbull or Theresa May, have been shunted to the left by the an experience of political mortality. Others, like the Republicans and even many Democrats in the US, think they can get away with business as usual — which in the US means facilitating ever more corporate avarice and economic war on the poor.
But confusing the issue is that none of this is a simple matter of “moving left”, even if that’s an accurate shorthand for what Turnbull has had to do this year. That’s based on the assumption that neoliberalism can be located perfectly on the “right” end of the ideological spectrum. Except some of its features cannot be. Globalisation has long been an aspiration of many parts of the left (using the “cultural” rather than industrial left), which support open borders and enabling refugees to move to wealthier countries. Large corporations love globalisation for exactly the same reasons — it helps drive wages down by constantly threatening workers in the developed world with competition from a vast pool of cheap labour. And neoliberalism is based on only one value — your economic value as a consumer and producer. Your identity is irrelevant. Your sexuality, race, gender, doesn’t matter. In fact, companies are only too happy to support, say, marriage equality — that “pink dollar” (yes, that’s an actual thing) is worth a trillion dollars. Not to mention that while the left obsesses over identity politics, it’s distracted from the task of developing a coherent and effective critique of neoliberalism.
So on both open borders and on social values, neoliberalism is antithetical to the conservatives who can usually be found enthusiastically endorsing it.
This isn’t a new problem created by the death rattles of neoliberalism, but embedded in it. That’s why Tony Abbott and his ilk, while demanding that the government move in a more economically “conservative” direction — by which they mean a more neoliberal direction, involving smaller government and less regulation, the usual pabulum — are also demanding that the government move in a more “left” direction by intervening in the energy market to build and operate coal-fired power stations, an outright socialist policy. How can a government-owned coal-fired power station be either “liberal” or “conservative”? The absence of a coherent answer to that question illustrates the incoherence of Abbott’s position (which is, in any event, about destabilising his enemy, not some quest for ideological purity) but also the problematic nature of defining what’s going on strictly in terms of where things fit on the left-right spectrum.
Abbott, similarly, has joined with the Hansonites and other racists in calling for a halt to immigration. Again, this is decidedly not neoliberalism. But one of the biggest failures of neoliberalism is its incapacity to address localism and tribalism, in its demand for open borders and its reduction of everyone on the planet to an economic value. Addressing the reaction to that has forced governments to shift to the right in closing borders — in the UK’s case, with Brexit; in the US, with Trump railing against free trade and threatening to “build a wall”; in Australia’s case, with a bipartisan crackdown in 457 visas under the mantra that Australians should have first go at jobs here.
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The fact that the industrial left backs this doesn’t detract from the fact that it is essentially a right-wing reaction. If the 457 visa issue had been handled like many on the left want asylum seekers handled, Turnbull and Dutton would have done what their predecessors did: devoted themselves to leading the public on the issue, explaining the benefits of allowing large numbers of foreign workers in and showing how they are no threat to Australians. That’s how corporate Australia would like the issue to be handled. But it was not to be — especially when Labor began using the issue systematically against the Coalition in exactly the same way as the Coalition used asylum seekers against Labor.
Another version of what Turnbull said in London is that it was a frank admission that the Liberal Party has been deeply confused about what it actually is ever since neoliberalism triumphed. But for the moment, the end of neoliberalism isn’t helping to clarify things much either.