The Australian right is startling for its incoherence
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My words appear to leave you cold;
Poor babes, I will not be your scolder:
Reflect, the Devil, he is old,
To understand him, best grow older.
– Goethe, Faust Part 2, lines 6815–18
Say what you like about Satan, but he does at least give a fair price for souls. Faust got 24 years of worldly knowledge and pleasure in exchange for his; Robert Johnson mastered the blues overnight. Pauline Hanson was not so generous with the Liberal Party in Western Australia. The Liberals traded their integrity for One Nation preferences at the state election last month, and were rewarded with a pasting of historic proportions. The result was an electoral keelhauling that saw Labor win 41 seats, the Liberals’ semi-estranged coalition partner the Nationals stabilise, and One Nation crawl to 4.9% of the vote. It was supposed to be the new dawn of an Australian Le Pen – when the Liberals sold themselves out, polling showed One Nation threatening 13% of the primary vote – and instead finished with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) on par with Fluoride Free WA as an electoral force.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, self-exiled from the hustings, spent the day with the staff of the satirical news site the Betoota Advocate. Whether he was drowning his sorrows, secretly celebrating or simply didn’t care anymore, it was hard to say. The federal minister for finance, Mathias Cormann, one of the architects of the disastrous preference swap, refused to rule out a repeat at the federal level. One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts was more upbeat. On Twitter he claimed that the party was on track for three seats: “3 is a great start from zero! Increase of 300%.” Punditry was less kind, as was federal Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. One Nation had had “a bit of a shocker”, he said, and the horsetrading had been a “mistake”. Remarkably, one of the fiercest critics of the deal was Pauline Hanson herself, who blamed a lack of voter education for her poor showing.
In fact, voters had educated themselves about Hanson very well, certainly better than the press or most of her fellow politicians. Even One Nation candidates cottoned on. Margaret Dodd, running for the seat of Scarborough, quit the party just 24 hours before the poll. In a statement she said that “PHON in my eyes are not about the WA people and their future but for personal power for Senator Hanson, who will do and say anything to achieve her goal at whatever cost”. “Saying anything” had extended to mid-campaign endorsements of both Vladimir Putin and a pre-vaccination “test” no one had heard of, off-piste pronouncements that had left even the disaffected in the electorate bewildered. The protest vote found a home elsewhere, and, in a karmic footnote, a federal One Nation senator came down with measles.
In the aftermath, the Western Australian election looks like an inversion of the explanations for Donald Trump and Brexit. Ordinary voters held the line against populist rabble-rousing, while elements of the political class were hoodwinked. It’s also testimony to the sheer amount of forgetting around Pauline Hanson, the incredible effect she has on the media, and the fear with which politicians treat the electorate, a chimerical beast they have given up even pretending to understand.
Many strands of Anglospheric conservatism share a mythology around the same kind of definitive event. You could call it the Expulsion of the Bigots, a transformative moment where centre-right political parties shed their former prejudices. In the United States, it was William F Buckley purging the Republican Party of the racist John Birch Society. In the United Kingdom, it was David Cameron passing same-sex marriage to exorcise the “Nasty Party” Tories. And in Australia, in the late 1990s, it was John Howard preferencing One Nation last, federally and locally (and so we believed) forever. But while there were Liberals who felt genuine moral distaste for Hanson (back when her schtick was anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal rather than anti-Muslim), Howard was more forgiving. In fact, he countenanced a preference deal with One Nation, before realising it would be electorally suicidal.
It was grubby self-interest, not moral rectitude, that led to the freeze-out. In Battlelines, Tony Abbott recalled that by 1998 it was obvious that Hanson “had the clear potential to turn Labor into the automatic party of government” by splitting the vote on the right. In an opinion piece “designed to prevent my anxious colleagues from flirting with a movement that could destroy them”, he urged that the Liberal Party preference One Nation last. What was obvious then has somehow become obscured over 20 years, and, at least at state level, that destruction has come to pass.
One favoured explanation for the “flirting” (which sometimes borders on consummation) is that One Nation is a different beast now. The commentariat has applied the word “sophisticated” so often that it has taken on an almost euphemistic quality. It really means that One Nation has four senators and the balance of power, and that upsetting them would mean roadblocks for Coalition legislation. So politicians and media figures on the right must scrape and genuflect to an unrepentant and unchanged Hanson, who, in case anyone missed it, told the ABC’s Barrie Cassidy, “I think my policies haven’t changed over the years.”
They certainly haven’t. In its first incarnation, Hanson’s crackpot plan for a 2% flat tax was called Easytax, and brought One Nation to the brink of collapse the first time it was mentioned in a press conference. She was unable to answer basic questions about it, had not costed it, and had no idea how it would work.
There has been no sign of workshopping over the decades. The policy is almost exactly the same, and by one current estimate would punch a $230 billion hole in the budget. Her plan to abolish the Family Court and replace it with “Family Tribunals” fronted by mums and priests instead of lawyers is back as well, with even less detail. Her time in the wilderness seems to have taught her nothing at all.
Anyone who writes, even in a diary, tries in some small way to preserve something for posterity. That’s doubly true of anyone who writes about politics, which is the business of recording history before it has become history. For any political hack, reading through an old selection of opinion writing can be sobering. These pieces are often not only uninteresting but nearly unintelligible: the controversies obscure or forgotten, the personages irrelevant or inert. Whatever animus hung the thoughts and phrases together has disappeared. Even explaining the explicable to future generations is hard enough, at a distance. And so anyone trying to set the political career of Pauline Hanson in amber must approach the task with some trepidation.
There is a pat explanation available, where Pauline Hanson is simply the antipodean franchise of a global movement of right-wing populism. Like Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, or Marine Le Pen in France, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, she has been a chronic presence. Like them she has undergone decades of gestation, from a larval stage on the fringes of discourse to a resplendent full expression in the mainstream of politics. But, so far, this rise of the right has proved abortive for Hanson. Unlike them, she is unlikely to contest anything as monumental as Brexit, or challenge for the leadership of her country. Unlike them, she is also one of the least coherent politicians of her era.
We imagine that rhetoric is a key part of demagoguery, that it relies on sophistry, springs forth from an agile and forked tongue. It is not an exaggeration to say that at times, even after many years of practice, Pauline Hanson can barely talk. All of those media appearances, the speeches and interviews and doorstops, and she still becomes visibly nervous in front of a camera. She finds her register falteringly – a tremulous mix of umbrage and glee – and then unleashes an unsteady flow of jagged sentences that sometimes snap off halfway through. The most durable and successful media careers come from acting as a conduit for popular rage, which is boundless and feeds on itself. But most of those careers rest on sharpening the inchoate into coherence. Hanson is not like those shock jocks and reptilian agitators. She is closer to a talkback caller than a talkback host, one who has inexplicably been put to air for decades. On her return to parliament, in 2016, she said in her maiden speech, “I have two words for you: I’m back, but not alone.”
During a recent appearance on Q&A, she was asked to outline her views on Islam, and responded, “Islam does not separate itself from political ideology, and, whereas the Christianity, under the Westminster system we are, we separate the rule of law from the state. So they are separate. Islam doesn’t and a lot of the countries that are ruled under Islam is their ideology, the political ideology. Now I understand Islam does not believe in democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or freedom of the press. You have Hizb-ut Tahrir that preaches the fact that they will want total control of the people.” This is Hanson talking on her special topic. When host Tony Jones pointed out that Indonesia was democratic, she said, “No, look, I don’t believe that.” These are words separated not just from facts but from meaning itself.
Given that Hanson is so often described as “speaking for” ordinary Australians, or ordinary people, or a silent majority, or a real Australia, one wonders why these constituencies have chosen a champion who isn’t much good at speaking at all. Hanson is not just inarticulate by the standards of a politician; she is inarticulate by the standards of ordinary people. It would not be difficult to enter an average pub or RSL club and find someone more knowledgeable, nuanced and capable of stringing a sentence together, and on just about any topic. But that is not what Pauline Hanson is for. Her similarity to Trump is much exaggerated (for one thing, she did not mount a hostile takeover of the Liberal Party), but they do share one critical component: their relationship with language.
Western democracies are increasingly divided between country and city, knowledge worker and manual worker, globalist and localist. These divisions are primarily cultural and economic, but also linguistic. Those people who support Hanson because “you can’t say anything now” are not wholly wrong.
It’s easy to forget that the Obama era, and to a lesser extent the Turnbull leadership, represents the fading high-water mark of a particular version of parliamentary liberalism predicated on rhetoric. It is a version of democracy that can be found in the work of Aaron Sorkin. It posits an almost Athenian kind of governance, where a leader takes up the cause of complexity and, through allusion and persuasion, creates a consensus that can solve society’s difficult problems.
This is the Harry Potter model of politics, its central feature the attempt to form words into an incantation that can affect material reality. However, both here and in the US, leaders elected as exceptional talkers have found themselves unable to move chaotic and listing political systems through the power of speech alone. Ironically, what they really proved themselves capable of controlling was language itself. As government became less effective, message discipline and media massaging produced carefully parsed nothings on the one hand and high, empty-sounding motherhood statements on the other. “Politicians always lie” is a commonplace now, but it is this breach between rhetoric and reality more than anything that creates a sense of deception.
In September last year, the Guardian journalist Bridie Jabour extensively interviewed One Nation supporters in Queensland, and recorded the following quote by a woman named Kerrie Young. “She [Hanson] is someone who feels something [but] who wasn’t educated enough to know the big words, that’s all. I really believe her heart is in the right place and what she’s trying to say, is very, very pertinent to how we should be thinking ’bout the future but it’s just so much easier to call her a racist bigot rather than actually think about something and do something about something that is going to affect you and your children.”
It’s that “trying to say” that sticks, the idea that Hanson’s speeches are contingent, even ambit claims. But the same quality that attracts some voters to Hanson ultimately makes them punish her. Hanson speaks freely without regard to consequence, detail or even reality. No one is more attracted than her candidates, who then use the “open mic” the party provides to riff on Port Arthur trutherism, or Aboriginal IQs, or ugly single mothers, or LGBT mind-control devices, and then get disendorsed or go off in a huff. Policies pass the pub test, but not a test anywhere people are sober. Hanson seems to become irritated beyond comprehension when her words echo in an unanticipated way. Not surprisingly, she has a long history of falling out with colleagues, employees and even family members. Voters are last in a long line of the jilted.
Hanson positions herself as a champion of free speech while arguing that her anti-Muslim stance is really a defence of the liberal Judeo-Christian secular tradition, or whichever word-salad version of that historical conceit she has chosen for the day. “Islam does not believe in democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom or [sic] assembly,” the party’s website states. Yet her political hero is Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen, who turned Queensland into one of the most illiberal putatively democratic regions not just in Australia but in the world, with the acquiescence and often enthusiastic support of the state’s citizens.
Joh’s unique admixture of violence, idiocy, puritanism, corruption and incompetence made censorship central to its existence – after all, any free or fair reporting of criticism would eventually prove the regime unacceptable, even to Queenslanders. Protest was effectively made illegal, and a special board made sure even something as anodyne as Playboy was banned outright, then censored, north of the border. This board’s legacy remains today: there are still tens of thousands of publications that can legally be sold in any other state or territory but not in Queensland. It is, for example, not possible to purchase a copy of American Psycho in Brisbane without its vendor committing a crime. Hanson is self-appointed heir to this political tradition, and her regional fans are unapologetic about this. That this sun-blasted stretch of Lutheran curtain-twitchers is now trying to recast itself as some cradle of liberty and Western civilisation must rank as one of the single-most preposterous ideas in the history of Australian politics. But they are not alone in this absurd revisionism.
In October 2014 Quadrant magazine published an article called ‘The Future of Australian Conservatism’. Its contents were familiar: the Liberal Party had become too lily-livered; Cory Bernardi was the true standard-bearer for conservative values in Australia, and could lead a forceful revaluing of Western civilisation, whether he was electorally successful or not. But its references were more obscure. Even the well-read in its audience might find themselves unfamiliar with Julius Evola and Anthony Ludovici, Tomislav Sunić and Dr John Press, all quoted approvingly and sometimes at length.
But if you know any of these names, the publication of this piece becomes simply unbelievable. Anthony Ludovici is better known under the pen name “Cobbett”, as the author of The Jews, and the Jews in England. (Published in 1938, it is not a philo-Semitic book.) Julius Evola was one of the intellectual architects of Italian fascism, both before and after the war. Tomislav Sunić is a former Croatian diplomat and white nationalist radio host who has addressed Holocaust deniers and Klansmen. Not surprisingly, Edwin Dyga, the author of ‘The Future of Australian Conservatism’, is well credentialed as an author in the obscure realm of aristocratic fascism.
Not long ago, it might have been considered noteworthy, perhaps even newsworthy, that the leading organ of conservative thought in Australia was disseminating the work of poisonous anti-Semites and fascists. Now episodes like this are unremarkable. When I wrote to Quadrant’s editor-in-chief, Keith Windschuttle, asking how this remarkable piece came to be published, I knew there would be no reply. Why bother with a justification, or an excuse for the inexcusable? Whatever thin insulation kept the lunar right from the mainstream right in Australia has disappeared; there are no consequences for anyone consorting with the deplorables. The Nationals MP George Christensen knows he can appear at a Reclaim Australia rally, or on an expressly anti-Semitic podcast, or at an anti-Islam fundraiser, and not risk censure. He has done all three.
In February, former Liberal Party MP and shiraz enthusiast Ross Cameron made a notable appearance at one of those anti-Islam events as well, the Q Society gathering in Sydney. Afterwards there was a bizarre media storm, based on outrage that Cameron had made bigoted comments at an event dedicated to bigotry. They just happened to be the unexpected kind: rather than any digs at Muslims, it was Cameron calling the Sydney Morning Herald the “Sydney Morning Homosexual” that made headlines. While his speech rambled, it bears closer examination. It presented a novel model of Western history now routine on the right side of politics.
“I’m a student of history,” said Cameron, and then name-checked Socrates, the birth of empiricism, Copernicus, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, and admitted he was attracted to orcas. The point, when it arrived, was this: “I just want to say, you know, I wish we had a little bit more of the ancient world. I wish we were not so fearful of anyone who doesn’t mouth the orthodoxy.” According to this version of things, freedom of speech is now in its twilight. But its dawn keeps getting earlier and earlier, and now apparently stretches all the way to antiquity.
It was Paul Valéry who called Ancient Greece “the most beautiful invention of the modern age”, and it should be a redundancy to acknowledge that most of the enslaved and benighted populations of the ancient world had no freedoms at all, let alone freedom of speech. Few women had public lives, and none had political lives. Oratory and rhetoric were confined to an elite class of citizens, who could still be put to death, torture or exile for the things that they said. It’s telling that two famous speech-makers of this time, Socrates and Cicero, were both killed for their words. So why bother? Why keep up this pretence? Because you can only pretend free speech is under attack like “never before” if the image of “before” is bowdlerised to the point of pure fantasy. And because the West must meet a unitary definition against its great enemy, Islam.
Here is the abridged version: empiricism and freedom of speech were invented in the ancient world, and fought a long battle against groupthink among the governments, fellow citizens and the church. Eventually, heretics like Galileo won out, and the Renaissance happened. Western civilisation was born, or maybe reborn, and so were Judeo-Christian values, or “secular Christian values”. (You can insert any number of other contradictory dualisms here.) Then the Enlightenment happened, and these freedoms were codified into the Westminster system, the American Constitution and various other things not really identified. There was some science. And throughout all this time, Muslims tried to conquer Europe with their weaponised intolerance, and were repulsed everywhere from Tours to Vienna. (Malcolm Roberts even managed to add the Anzac landings at Gallipoli to this list.) Now multiculturalism has made the West weak and feckless, and Muslims can conquer Europe simply by having babies.
This strange image of the past can never explain why Rome had an emperor called Philip the Arab, or why the Jews of Spain betrayed their cities to Moorish invaders, or why Italian migrants to Australia were greeted with race riots, or why Protestants in Amsterdam would not marry their Catholics, or why the founding fathers were deists or why in the face of existential threat Christians allied with Muslims against fellow Christians all the time. In fact, this bogus history can’t explain the West at all, and those who believe it end up enacting perverse forms of revanchism, aimed at a non-existent past.
Take George Christensen, for example. His conversion to Antiochian Orthodoxy is not born out of any tradition. He encountered no Greek monks in the cane fields as a child. He was simply dissatisfied with Catholicism for political reasons, and sought a more reactionary flavour elsewhere. “You don’t hear about the Catholic teaching on abortion from the pulpit ever. You might hear about Aboriginal land rights,” he told Good Weekend earlier this year. His conversion process was more like a teenager digging for the most hardcore band than an expression of faith. He also chose a church that spent most of its existence centred in Syria, under the toleration of the Ottoman caliphs. So much for Western values and the clash of civilisations.
Christensen, Hanson and Cameron are all defenders or avowed fans of the Russian president Vladimir Putin. The hypocrisies here are manifold and well documented. These free-speech fanatics have little to say about the murder of journalists or the imprisonment of protesters, and even Russian weapons killing Australian airline passengers won’t cool their enthusiasm. There is also another less discussed irony, though, a very significant one. Putin and his key advisers are the apotheosis of hundreds of years of anti-Western and anti-liberal thought in Russia. The jingoism that so attracts this motley crew is hostile to Australian values, to put it mildly. It is that same mix of Caucasian chauvinism, authoritarianism, doughty machismo and latent thuggery that has attracted so many of the easily swayed to Donald Trump as well.
While conservatives in Australia rarely supported Trump before his election, anti-Trump conservatism is perhaps rarer here than anywhere else in the Anglosphere. The situation has become so extreme that the Australian’s Paul Kelly described the conservative side of Australian politics as “now devouring itself, consumed by personal aggrandisement, ideological delusion and populist fervour in an upheaval likely to destroy the Turnbull government, deliver power to the Labor Party and generate a structural split among conservatives that will weaken their cause for years to come”.
“The grandest hoax of our time,” Kelly continued, “pumped out daily by conservative media outlets, is that the present Donald Trump–inspired turbulence will make conservatism in Australia ever stronger. In truth, conservatism in this country is being trashed. Every principle and value of genuine conservatism is being ripped up in an orgy of indulgent self-interest that exposes the intellectual and moral weakness of conservatism in Australia and its abject corruption by Trumpism.” He was clearly talking about his masthead colleagues.
Kelly was especially right about that intellectual weakness. A generation ago, the right side of the Australian intelligentsia could field Geoffrey Blainey, Les Murray, Simon Leys and John Hirst, among others. Now aged or deceased, such writers have no obvious rivals or replacements. Local conservatives write few serious books; when they do their themes are often crabbed, narrow and repetitive. To find evidence of this barrenness and philistinism you only have to open a local copy of the Spectator, unfortunately still trapped in the same covers as its British counterpart. It’s quite a juxtaposition.
Read an issue back to front, and British biographers, authors and wry columnists give way to a parochial collection of geriatric former lawyers and think-tank spooks, writing endless variations on the same article about section 18C. Tanveer Ahmed, a former televised bingo referee and serial plagiarist fired from his prior journalistic positions for repeated indiscretions, has reinvented himself as what Edward Said called “a witness for the Western prosecution”. Daisy Cousens, now best known for an unusually erotic obituary of Bill Leak, was a sometime tennis reporter and self-described feminist who changed her spots to join the pseudo-alt-right. Chancers and careerists have a natural home in the Australian right-wing media: it’s the only place that will take them.
But what are these people really joining in on? Sometimes it’s hard to know. Simple, indeed remedial, tests of ideological consistency are being flunked. Catallaxy Files, which bills itself as “Australia’s leading libertarian and centre-right blog”, is suddenly rammed with pro-Trump posters and commenters enthused about his trade tariffs and border wall. These should be anathema to any libertarian, but the prospect of unalloyed racism is so intoxicating that these foundation principles are abandoned under the flimsiest pretext.
The same kind of schisms exist at party level. Should government prop up ailing industry, protect jobs, grant subsidy or prevent foreign ownership? The standard conservative answer should be “no”, subject to some political considerations. But here the real answer is “that depends on who your friends are”. If you’re the car industry (unionised, formerly tariff-protected), the Coalition will close you down with glee. But if you’re a troubled aluminium smelter, state socialism is the cure. The economist John Quiggin, noting this glaring difference, wrote that “the only way to understand this government is in terms of tribal loyalties and enmities”. The charge of “elitism” has become so distorted that even monarchists can describe themselves as anti-elitist, and keep a straight face.
Conservatives should share the same set of misgivings about nuclear energy that makes them oppose renewables. After all, it is vastly expensive (in fact, now significantly more costly than renewables), requires enormous subsidy and tends to cost overruns. Citizens who think wind turbines are making them sick are unlikely to be less agitated by the presence of neighbourhood waste dumps. Yet somehow nuclear power enjoys significant support both inside the Coalition and the right-wing commentariat, even among those who do not believe in climate change. The primary point of difference seems to be not merely ideological but talismanic: renewable energy is effeminate, while nuclear power is masculine and robust, and has the welcome by-product of making environmentalists and left-wingers upset.
That last consideration cannot be underestimated. George Orwell said that Jonathan Swift was “driven into a sort of perverse Toryism by the follies of the progressive party of the moment”. Really, the local right has become a kind of anti-left. Instead of anti-Trump, Australian conservatives are anti-anti-Trump, saving their bile for protesters and the emotional, and are so excited by the prospect of their opponents’ humiliation they don’t know quite what to do with themselves. The deep rage over the Dolchstoßlegende perpetrated against Tony Abbott is not just because of his treatment, but because leadership challenges are the kind of thing the Labor Party does.
Perhaps this obsession with trolling is because conservatism in this country has a confused and sometimes contradictory intellectual basis, and so has had to define itself against something. Perhaps it’s because politics in Australia is small and often prosecuted through personal enmities. The unusual reach of News Corp must play a part as well. Endless attacks on Safe Schools might be catnip for commenters, but it turns out they can’t be used to run a country.
Beyond the culture wars (sometimes you could be forgiven for wondering if the Australian ever goes beyond them), the prescriptions are not just tired, but decades out of date. After the Fair Work Commission cut Sunday and public holiday penalty rates for retail, hospitality and fast-food workers, a measure pushed for decades, Treasurer Scott Morrison immediately said wage stagnation was the biggest issue facing the Australian economy.
Sometimes even basic economic terms like “productivity” are used incorrectly in News Corp editorials, as though they aren’t much interested in that stuff. The role of automation, the collapse of international free trade and even something as fundamental as the internet now is to the modern economy are all absent. It is perpetually 1989, where market deregulation, de-unionisation and tax cuts can solve all ills.
Strangely, even Australian successes are soft-pedalled. There is no sense that Australian and European multiculturalism might be different things, or that our models of integration might be more useful policy exports than offshore detention. It’s almost as though a media company and a political movement have different aims, and that handing over policy development wholesale to a few largely incurious journalists might not be working out very well.
In an alternative universe, Malcolm Turnbull might have been uniquely positioned to push the centre-right in the direction of technological innovation. He might have explored the classical liberal interest in things like universal basic income, and enacted a different kind of reform, one that suits the conditions of now, rather than of 30 years ago. But we will never find out.