Federal politics

Once were conservatives
The fallout over 18C puts the Liberal Party at odds with mainstream conservatism


‘PM’s crusade for free speech’. ‘Change was won the day Bill died’. ‘Mission founded on Liberal values’. Three headlines on Malcolm Turnbull’s legislative attempts to water down section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act that bellowed from the front page of yesterday’s print edition of the Australian – and perhaps the reason the Turnbull government is heading for defeat.

Labor, or the left, or the more progressive side of politics is often charged with obsessing over identity politics – appealing to the way voters identify with a particular ethnicity, gender, sexuality or religion – in preference to more traditional material concerns. There is a grain of truth to such allegations, even if they are mostly made by partisans. And therein lies the rub.

The Australian right practises its own form of identity politics, one increasingly detached from the base concerns, interests and needs of the majority of electors in 2017. Whether it’s replacing the words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” with “harass” in section 18C or fretting about the impact of same-sex marriage and halal-certified products or all manner of peripheral culture wars, the prosecution of tangential issues borders on obsession. It has become a self-imposed, self-indulgent ideological straitjacket that risks the electoral viability of centre-right politics.

Putting aside the actual arguments for and against amending the Racial Discrimination Act, there is still something profoundly odd about the conservative clamour to alter section 18C. Exhibit A comes from the Australian’s Chris Kenny on Twitter: “To argue against these 18C changes you would either have to be a snivelling bedwetter, hardened partisan or a fool.” Let a single flower bloom apparently.

Indeed, the brouhaha over section 18C signals that the Liberal Party is no longer home to mainstream conservatism, but is embracing an increasingly rigid, arguably libertarian form of political liberalism that trades in abuse as well as virtue-signalling rhetoric. And no matter what its proponents say, whether former IPA-turned-MP or frothing-at-the-mouth columnist, libertarianism is alien to mainstream Australian political thought. Most Australians premise their political choices on the things that matter most in their lives – family, work and the places they live – along with what we might term self-interest broadly conceived.

These Australians are best understood of as small “c” conservative social democrats. The most electorally successfully Liberal leaders, whether Menzies or Howard, understood that elemental point. In Howard’s case, he understood it right up until his disastrous implementation of WorkChoices in 2005. Radical change is anathema. Hard-edged ideology is abhorred. Prime ministers don’t lead ideological “crusades” nor do they change the laws of the land due to their own apparent devastation at the death of a cartoonist friend. It’s not only shoddy public policymaking but antithetical to conservatism 101. (Then again, the much-lauded Snowy 2.0 appears to have been drawn up on the back of an envelope.) There is nothing conservative about licensing hate-speech or threatening Australia’s social cohesion.

In seeking to throw the switch on culture-war shenanigans, the Coalition is indulging in the politics of nostalgia. I and others have critiqued the harmful nostalgia of those in Labor who seek to emulate the glory days of the admittedly successful Hawke–Keating governments of the 1980s and ’90s. An electoral pitch along the lines of “let’s do what Bob and Paul did” is about as plausible as convincing a newly minted P-plate driver to open a street directory instead of Google Maps. Of course, the Coalition is equally as nostalgic for the Howard–Costello years. Throw the switch to the culture wars and we’ll split the Labor base, so the logic goes. It’s faulty in two ways. Howard won four straight elections because of fortunate economic conditions, not culture-war sorties over Aboriginal affairs and political correctness, nor even the mileage gained from events such as Tampa and September 11 in the lead-up to the 2001 federal election, advantageous as they were. Second, Howard was first elected more than 20 years ago. There is a large swathe of the population who will vote at coming elections with very little recollection of those events or even the era – that’s if they had even been born by then.

More likely, especially in the case of younger voters, they will mark their ballots in coming elections on the basis of issues such as reductions to weekend penalty rates, rather than altering race-hate laws that won’t create or sustain a single job, increase job security, make houses more affordable or fund another hospital bed or GP or teacher or police officer. But you won’t see that written up on the front page of tomorrow’s Australian.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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