Federal politics

Doomsday is nigh
The ALP’s policies are mild – why are they being treated as a mortal threat?

Source: Twitter

It pays to be wary of nostalgia in politics. Decent leaders can in retrospect look like messiahs, and obituaries often try to turn middling figures into giants. But the difference in scale between Tony Abbott and Bob Hawke is not just distorted by time. Abbott’s witless and unasked for “appreciation” of Hawke, released moments after Hawke’s death was announced, was another reputational belly flop for a man who can never stop politicking. No matter how large the occasion, Abbott remains small-time. At the G20 in 2014, he confounded visiting dignitaries by harping on about budget measures, the carbon tax and stopping the boats. He has only one speech, a campaign speech, always reliant on the same old saws. I wonder what his prayers sound like.

He is hardly alone in this endless repetition. Clichés are at the heart of conservative thinking, and that means they are at the heart of conservative writing as well, especially when advocacy for free trade or the US alliance runs up against Trumpism. Take the idea of a “magic pudding”. It is an Australian variant on another great conservative cliché, the Margaret Thatcher quote where she said “the trouble with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money”. So far, Bill Shorten’s economic plans have been compared to a magic pudding by Tom Switzer, Nick Cater (twice), Judith Sloan, Joe Kelly, Simon Benson, Cory Bernardi, Peter van Onselen, Miranda Devine, Michael O’Connor and Terry McCrann (twice). McCrann has invoked Norman Lindsay’s book more frequently than any other commentator, to the point he is beginning to resemble one of its characters, Bill Barnacle.

There are the usual invocations of socialism, communism, the Soviet Union, the Eastern Bloc, apparatchiks, the “Bill Shorten-led Peoples Socialist Republic of Australia” (that’s Peter Gleeson in Brisbane’s Sunday Mail), and all the warmed-over tropes of the Cold War. When conservatives say Nick Cater is their leading intellectual, they really mean he is trying to mint new clichés – “Labor is listing dangerously to port on a rudderless voyage to a neo-Marcusian la-la land,” he wrote recently in The Australian – but these counterfeit coinages are too taxing. This is why Daisy Cousens is on Sky and he isn’t.

Shorten would be painted as a socialist menace no matter what he was doing, and no matter what year it was – the columns attacking him could just as readily be assembled by artificial intelligence as genuine stupidity. But as a prospective Labor victory has begun to firm (Sportsbet has paid out on this result already), the tone has changed from belligerence to hysteria. Kerri-Anne Kennerley had a full Howard Beale–style meltdown despairing that a Shorten win would “end life as we know it”. Peta Credlin raised the possibility that GetUp would attempt vote-rigging to defeat Tony Abbott, and that a Shorten government would be the most left-wing in a generation. Bolt previewed a similar brand of butt hurt in his column.

What is going on? Far from a socialist apparatchik, Shorten is a mildly left-wing candidate who, apart from his support for gay marriage, could have found a comfortable home in a centre-right government almost any time in the past 40 years. This has been apparent for a while. The former Greens politician Lee Rhiannon, writing in The Australian Financial Review in 2017, described how “Treasurer Scott Morrison and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann look at Bill Shorten and see Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, who are accused of being ‘socialist revisionists’ and ‘the new romantics of protectionism’,” she wrote, adding, “If only.”

Compared to Corbyn, Shorten was a “milksop”, Rhiannon wrote, and the rise of left-wing Democrats in the US make him seem even more moderate by comparison. His policies on tax are progressive, but Australia has a light tax burden compared to other countries in the OECD, an ageing population, and stagnant wages. Compared to left-wing candidates vying for the Democratic nomination against Trump, he seems especially moderate.

So why is the prospect of his imminent election being treated as doomsday? I suspect that part of the angst comes from reviews of internal polling, which shows a bleak picture for Abbott in particular. This is a serious repudiation of the hard right of the Liberal Party, along with their backers at News Corp, 2GB, 3AW, 4BC and elsewhere. But it also shows how precarious the position of the cultural right in this country is. They are reliant on favours and iffy government handouts to do business. They are beneficiaries and champions of middle-class welfare and rent-seeking. They are fanatically committed to outmoded forms of power, both literal and figurative. They are openly bigoted and intellectually barren. They have little to fall back on. No wonder they fear the drop. Here’s to giving them the push.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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