Follow The Leader

Are you confused by the state of centre-right politics in this country? Probably never more so than this fortnight.
Tony Abbott staked his claim in the climate change debate with a vocal dislike of great big new taxes. But now he’s proposed his own. The opposition can’t coherently claim that an emissions trading scheme is nothing more than a giant burden on business while at the same time imposing a different giant burden on business in the form of a big-business-financed parental leave scheme.
Perplexed? You’re not alone.
In his March Quarterly Essay, “What’s Right? The Future of Conservatism in Australia,” lawyer and academic Waleed Aly distinguishes between liberals, conservatives, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives. For Aly, the latter two aren’t American-style “nuke Iran for freedom” neo-cons but a cross between social conservatives and free marketeers.
Then Aly finds liberal conservatives, cultural fundamentalists and neo-liberal neo-conservatives – which I think are the bad bits of all of the above. Clearly, a broad church is a complicated church.
I guess this bewildering catalogue of ideologies is some progress. For a lot of people, “conservative” seems to be used to describe anyone critical of the Labor Party, with the exception of Bob Brown.
To Aly, all this confusion is because there aren’t any real conservatives left in Australia.
Conservatives value older institutions – such as the family and common law – not because they’re old fuddy-duddies but because those institutions are the end product of centuries of trial and error. Sticking with what we know works is better than following the plan to reorganise society that you sketched on a pub coaster at 3am in the Elephant and Wheelbarrow last night. Even if you’re really smart.
But Aly claims that the conservative temperament of hesitant, evolutionary change has been hijacked by crazy neo-liberals with their crazy free-market ideas.
If only.
The fanatically neo-liberal, deregulation-obsessed Howard government actually passed more pages of law than any previous government. Government is no smaller, no lower taxing, no more conducive to individual liberty than it was a decade ago. On many measures, it’s worse.
There is no party in the Federal Parliament pushing anything near what has come to be called neo-liberalism – the potent combination of social liberalism and economic liberalism. There is no party explicitly arguing that government should stay out of both the boardroom and the bedroom.
Neo-liberals only like the free market because it allows individuals to pursue their own goals – just as other voluntary relationships, such as communities and clubs, do.
But the truth is there’s very little ideology in Australian politics. Australia’s political culture has always been somewhat apprehensive about obviously high-minded philosophies of government.
Australia’s political institutions were formed in the mid-19th century, when utilitarianism was the height of ideological fashion.
Utilitarianism is an intensely practical political philosophy that says the purpose of government should be simply to seek the greatest good for the greatest number. No more, no less.
You might get fancy things such as individual liberty or social equality out of that. But, then again, you might not.
The contrast with the United States couldn’t be stronger. America was founded at the height of the revolutionary period, when kings were killed for fanciful ideals.
Take the American Tea Party movement – a genuine, grassroots manifestation of deeply held political beliefs. Certainly, it’s an uncomfortable coalition between serious right-of-centre activists and crazed conspiracy theorists pretty sure that President Barack Obama is a dastardly Muslim, but could you imagine any remotely similar movement in Australia?
The ideological passion – whether coherent or weird and manic – just isn’t here. Even Australia’s most aggressive public controversies are banally practical.
The boat-people controversy is just a debate about the most efficient way to process asylum seekers, not a debate about immigration or open borders.
Australia joined the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq because it was seen as a nice way to reinforce our bond with the US, not because of a dream for liberty in the Middle East.
The history and culture wars seem deeply ideological, but take this week’s dispute over whether official events should be led by an acknowledgment of traditional Aboriginal owners. It’s hardly a timeless philosophical struggle between value systems – just an inanely repetitive discussion about how “proud” we should be of the founding of the country.
Sure, our lack of ideological fervour sounds like a recipe for harmony. But without any philosophical beliefs about what government should – and, perhaps more importantly, shouldn’t – do, Australian political parties tend to drift aimlessly. Especially in opposition.
Right now it seems the federal opposition has tried to substitute political philosophy with an incoherent populism.
To be fair, this is a problem that some in the Liberal Party seem to be aware of. Late last year, Queensland senator George Brandis made a speech championing the Liberal Party’s small “l” liberal tradition, and shadow treasurer Joe Hockey felt moved this month to title a speech “In defence of liberty”.
The conservatives, too, are trying to stake their claim. Tony Abbott’s book, Battlelines, was supposed to be a definitive statement of conservative philosophy as it can be applied to Australia.
But in Abbott’s tenure as Opposition Leader so far, Coalition policies have swung wildly between extremes. They’re implacably opposed to carbon emissions trading – that would be an odious tax – but keenly supportive of carbon emissions regulation and subsidies, which, they seem to imagine, will be almost cost-free and of no economic consequence.
This policy incoherence isn’t because they are blinded by a firmly held ideology. It’s because they’re blind without one.