Victorian Liberal state president Michael Kroger

The Liberal Party civil war has begun! From tunnels dug beneath Athenaeum Clubs, chi-chi little eastern ‘burbs trattorias, and the worsted section of Henry Bucks, members of insurgent group, the Lib Ming* have burst out, all guns blazing, blood spattering their black chinos. They’re fanatical, they’re organised, and they are of one mind: to halt the party’s creeping sideways moves towards “socialism” at state and federal level.

In Victoria, Michael Sukkar derides his less conservative party members as “socialists”, and the shadow forces of Marcus Bastiaan creep through the hills of the leafy Eastern suburbs, taking branch after branch, with as many as eight MPs threatened with a preselection battle. In New South Wales, baby-face veteran christian operative Alex Hawke is under attack from both sides. In Queensland, Jane Prentice, sitting member for Ryan, has been knocked off by her former staffer Julian Simmonds. The Lib Ming are inside the compound! Aieeeee!

The big arc of this is the development of two intertwined forces in the Libs, who were relatively minor even then, and certainly 20 years ago: US-style permanent-culture-war conservatives, and fundamentalist Christians (itself a US-influenced movement). For decades these religious-conservative groupings had only one majority home in the commonwealth: the Queensland Country, then National, Party. In the ’80s, they added Tasmania, as the Eric Abetz machine took over the state party.

New South Wales was added next. Victoria, centre of Mingusian liberalism, was the last big hold-out; now it is going as the machine of former Kroger protégé Marcus Bastiaan takes branch after branch (perfectly legally, it should be added). Amidst all this blood — and the replacement of scarce women MPs by boys – Scott Morrison sounded a high note: Georgina Downer had won preselection in Mayo. Her autobiography My Struggle, will be published imminently.** So if you’re a woman, here’s how to rise in the Liberal Party: be the daughter of a Liberal man. Thank god they’re challenging the patriarchy.

The Liberal Party has always had fringe-dweller groups – from the ’70s “Uglies” (Croatian, etc, fascists) to League of Rights centrists, obsessed about usury, fiat money and the you-know-whos, all of it culminating in the mad Joh-for-Canberra push in 1987. Seven lean years followed: Hewson’s too-free-market Fightback, Downer the third, before Howard swept back as refashioned culture warrior US style, and took power on that program.

Howard came, the last of the left-liberals departed, and a new phalanx appeared — Christians of various stripes, some genuine, some adopting it as a ready-made network, but all willing to put social and cultural politics on a par with, or ahead of economic concerns.

Of the new push, Alex Hawke was the most prominent, out of the Sydney hills where Billy Graham had spread his seed in the late 1950s, and Hillsong had grown up – more visible for a while than Tony Abbott, the mad-monk Catholic crossover, of whom many remained suspicious.

The transformation of the Liberal Party into a culture-war outfit introduced an asymmetry. Just as secular bourgeois class culture was dying as a strong identity — the world of mainline protestanism, “public” schools, Anglo-Celtic centrality, and groups like Masons and Rotary as class-culture organs — the Christian right identity was rising. Such Christianity — real, or feigned — is an answer to contemporary anomie; it is as postmodern as the cultural-media flux it sets itself against, a willed commitment to a rigid and concrete set of beliefs.

This development was extraordinary to long-time observers of the Liberal Party in the 1990s and 2000s. What is happening now is more extraordinary still. The party having moved to the right, it is Hawke and Co who are now the “centre-right”; a US-style “Tea Party-ish” right is now targeting them.

This is throwing up strange conjunctions, often with centrist groupings, to outflank the centre-right. In Victoria, Michael Kroger appears to be a prisoner of the machine created by his onetime underling Marcus Bastiaan, who has swung far to the right of him. Blink SOS if you are under duress, locked in the Bastiaanado, Kroges! In NSW, it is Alex Hawke and his allies who are now in the crosshairs from the further right, in alliance with the centre.

Will the Liberal civil war provide as much entertainment as Labor’s night of the long butter knives? Well the Lib Ming are motivated. There’s so many Michaels, let’s call ’em Mikey. Mikey don’t leave the jungle.*** Mikey don’t get R and R. Mikey march with one chambray shirt and a sachet of Swiss drinking chocolate. Mikey know only victory or death.

Mikey love the smell of Old Spice in the morning.

Mikey don’t surf.

*For Crikey‘s younger readers, Ming was the nickname of Robert Menzies.

**Not a Hitler reference, but to the famous New Statesman competition for unlikely books, the winner being My Struggle by Martin Amis.

***Double Bay.

Peter Fray

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