A recurring theme of the 30-year reign of neoliberalism is the gross inconsistency of many of its advocates. Socially conservative economic liberals live this inconsistency every moment of their lives: they’re all for letting corporations and investors do what they like, unburdened by the dead hand of government, untaxed and unregulated to the extent that democratic politics will allow, but very keen to use government to control individuals. Companies should be able to do as they please, but anyone not a heterosexual white Christian male is to be tightly regulated in their reproductive, relationship and social behaviours. It’s the sort of mentality that leads to occupational health and safety rules that protect employees from dying in their workplaces as annoying red tape, but also pushes to ban abortion and prevent euthanasia.

[Welcome to Honest Mal’s Used Coal-Fired Power Plants]

But even many economic liberals who consistently apply their liberalism when it comes to social issues are also prone to another inconsistency. They’re all for letting the market, as the repository of all wisdom, operate unencumbered — until it produces outcomes they don’t like. At that point, the cry goes up for regulation. We saw this spectacularly during the mining investment boom when some of the world’s biggest companies poured billions into the construction of new mining and extraction projects all at once, bidding against each other to pick up engineering and construction talent from around the country. Strangely enough, this surge in demand for workers prompted the price of labour to rise significantly — just as the surge in Chinese steel manufacturing had prompted a surge in the price of iron ore. But the surge in wages was apparently an outrage that required government intervention, as mining companies and their industry peak bodies demanded government intervention against greedy unions trying to inflate the price of mining projects. “Australia is a high cost place to do business,” they moaned as one, along with their cheerleaders in the national newspapers. “Industrial relations deregulation is needed urgently.”

Ditto when Australian National University decided to divest itself of some fossil fuel companies. Investors, surely, can make their own decisions about where they wish to invest? Isn’t it a free market in which investors pick and choose what they want to fund? Apparently not: Tony Abbott and his ministers lined up to give ANU a kicking for divesting in Santos, labelling the ANU decision “stupid”. That was about a month before the Santos share price fell of a cliff, at the bottom of which it has remained ever since.

[The Australian’s clean coal magic trick]

Now AGL is copping the same treatment. AGL owns Liddell power station, an ancient and nearly dead coal-fired plant that the company intends to close in 2022. Conservatives are normally the most solid supporters of private property, and look aghast at any unmerited policy that in any way, shape or form could be construed as infringing on the rights of a property owner to use their property as they see fit.

But AGL is being savaged by conservatives for planning to close a power station at the end of its life. David Leyonhjelm, usually to be found enthusiastically supporting freedom, deregulation and allowing people to do what they bloody well like, took to Sky News yesterday to condemn AGL. “I’ll be closing my AGL account and going elsewhere,” he piously intoned, before moving out of the Sky studio to give a media conference to reannounce his boycott (alas, no one showed up because he’d called it at the same time as Scott Morrison was holding a presser, but never mind). Leyonhjelm is normally the type to mock consumer boycotts as the antics of childish twitterati. Suddenly he’s gung-ho for them. Ditto Cory Bernardi, that paragon of conservatism who suddenly has as much of a problem with a company taking a commercial decision as he does with LGBTI Australians taking relationship decisions. Australia’s least-trusted newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, joined in to attack AGL, but we don’t expect consistency from News Corp’s junior journalists even within the same article, let alone as a company philosophy.

Guess it just goes to show that neoliberalism really is dead when even its stoutest defenders are calling for some good old-fashioned economic Stalinism.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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