(Image: Tom Red/Crikey)

The Liberal Party is facing a crisis, one related to gender, but it’s not the one you think it is.

It’s true that recent weeks have exposed a level of decadence and squalor that has surprised even many of its enemies. The Morrison government had managed, before and since the last election, to put together a programme and approach which combined voter self-interest and collective being (from the “promise of Australia” to the “quiet Australians”) in a formula upon which Labor found difficult to land a blow.

Morrison appeared capable of mediating between the Coalition’s hard right, and the centre/centre-right mainstream. He threw a few bones to the culture warriors, but also sought to defuse confrontations without capitulation. An example was invoking the convicts in the now-annual January 26 stoush: he proposed an alternative set of victims, rather than the Howard-Abbott approach of celebrating Western civilisation “with blemishes”. 

That may not have defused it for the progressive class, quite the opposite, but that was the point: to get that group spitting with fury, while a larger group were given something that most people could accept.

But that control, which looked like a new centre-right formula, fell apart almost instantly when the series of revelations, started by Brittany Higgins’ reporting of an alleged rape and potential cover-up inside Parliament House, began to multiply.

The moral blindness to the seriousness of what was being heard, and the strategic ineptness in handling it, gave strength to the other view of Morrison — that he has been, and is, a second-rate executive, who has managed to fail upwards through certain wiles, which do not equate to executive skills.

That may be a little unfair, since the volume of revelations was so great, that it quickly jumped to the next level: individual incidents became examples of a categorigal situation. For reasons I don’t quite understand, progressives allowed this to be portrayed as an example of patriarchy in a general workplace culture.

But there weren’t any stories of Labor or Greens depravity emerging. If any were circulating we can be sure that News Corp would have brought them to the fore. From accusations of rape, to gross sexism, to giving a female boss’ desk a midnight buffing (history repeats; senator Albert Field whose 1975 appointment lost the Whitlam government Senate control was, by trade, a French polisher), this was all the Coalition.

Bizarrely, this has now been generalised and Liberal women have been allowed to take a lead in a manner that depoliticises it.

There may well be a problem with Parliament’s workplace culture, but what has emerged is a problem of right-wing culture, and of the Liberal Party in particular. The crisis is a measure of the deformation of personality and values within the Liberal movement; the decomposition of political liberalism itself.

Every political party attracts chancers and weirdos, but the sheer number of men being exposed as predators by this process suggests that both the capacity and desire to weed out such types is diminishing, as they become less unusual in the party ecology.

The positive values that constitute liberalism — a self-disciplined individualism, mutual respect, an orientation towards freedom — have been deformed by the decline of liberalism as a movement. The fictional but aspirational values of Thatcherism — of “animal spirits” channelled into economic life, while traditional values govern selfhood — have been reversed.

Corporate capitalism lives off monopolies and rents, and most Liberal staffers and think-tankers want to be as far from the actual market as possible. It’s inevitable that the “animal spirits” transfer into a predatory, animalistic approach to human relations — and that a decayed political culture gives such behaviour shelter. 

Liberal women have now called time on it. But that occurred only after Brittany Higgins re-made accusations that draw police involvement, and there wasn’t much choice. Otherwise, they would most likely have busked it, as they have been doing for years.

The Liberals very much want to retain their image and reality as “the nasty party”; they want their operatives to be truly ruthless. They know that Labor, for all its swagger, can’t really match the Libs for sheer bastardry and nihilism; the days of the union hard men are long gone. 

But now they have no choice but to change, because the culture is found simply intolerable by women, who would have hitherto tolerated it for the greater political good. As Brittany Higgins pushed the party and the prime minister to do something more than appeasement, the contradiction between liberalism and the politics of gender came to crisis.

This is manifested in the renewed call for the party to introduce gender quotas for preselection. Obviously, for women stymied by decades of sluggish attitudinal change in a party that celebrates an inherently masculine style, quotas now present themselves as the only way to remove the unfair discrimination that limits them within the party. 

But to resort to that — and in a more concerted way than Julia Banks did a few years ago — is to undermine the last major philosophical difference between individualist free-enterprise liberalism and the social liberalism that underpins Labor and Green parties. 

Once the party concedes gender quotas, they concede what every progressive sees as the bleedin’ obvious: that power is structural, multiply defined, embedded in social and cultural structures which work beyond individual agency.

That not only dissolves the distinction between liberals and progressives; it does so in favour of the former. It’s the last philosophical surrender. Once that’s done, left-right politics, at the centre, is simply about the degree of progressivism one implements. That one should use statist-style measures to address unfairness is no longer in dispute. (The dilemma is encapsulated in reports of Liberal vice-president Teena McQueen making a lame joke at a meeting about “[at my age] killing to be sexually harassed” — and being shopped to the meeja for it by three Liberal women. Who needs the Macquarie Uni student union womxn’s department, when the Libs are Stasi-ing themselves?)

This issue raises obvious contradictions when your aim in implementing quotas for gender fairness is so you can pursue a career denying people fairness as regards class, race, indigeneity, identity etc.

Perhaps some Liberal women have had their general consciousness raised about other forms of oppression; but since the point of the philosophy is to not see things from someone else’s point of view, don’t hold your breath.

While all this celebration of gender solidarity was going on, Liberal women MPs dutifully supported stripping anti-wage-theft provisions from the industrial relations bill, exposing hundreds of thousands to predatory action in another form.

The party can probably busk that rampant contradiction internally (at the party organisational level, they had male-female parity rules for decades; however, these were created in a pre-feminist era, to give the party strong community anchoring). But as a public projection, it ultimately undermines their pitch about the sovereign individual.

Worn away by the culture wars, COVID, and the Christian collectivism of Morrison, is the Liberal Party finally dispensing with the last of its liberalism?