Two thousand and twelve was a bumper year for the breaking of political conventions in Australia. For the first time, a national political leader was investigated and pursued for her professional conduct before winning elected office. Led by the Australian newspaper, a group of right-wing fanatics ran a smear campaign against Julia Gillard targeting her time working for the Slater & Gordon law firm in the early 1990s. No other prime minister has been treated this way, judged on their pre-parliamentary career rather than the traditional focus on parliamentary service.
In 2012, for the first time, a political staffer was the subject of sustained criticism from the other side of politics – a cowardly attack given that members of staff are limited in their capacity to defend themselves publicly.
Right-wing commentators such as Chris Kenny, Andrew Bolt and Michael Smith laid into the prime minister’s communications director, John McTernan, essentially for doing his job – that is, devising communications strategies for his employer. The hard-right in Australian politics confirmed that, in its obsessive pursuit of Gillard, no one is off limits.
For the first time, an Australian political party tried to manipulate and abuse the court system to cripple a democratically elected government. In December, Justice Rares ruled in the Federal Court that the sexual harassment case brought against Peter Slipper by James Ashby and his Liberal National Party backers had been politically motivated. A leading culprit was Tony Abbott’s friend and candidate for Slipper’s seat of Fisher, Mal Brough. Despite the adverse findings against Brough, Abbott supported him publicly and re-endorsed him as a Liberal candidate.
For the first time, the grieving family of a political leader was attacked for political purposes. In September, Alan Jones accused Gillard of contributing to her father’s death, of ensuring he “died of shame.” The instructive feature of these scarifying comments was not so much that Jones made them, but that dozens of so-called conservative commentators rallied to defend him – an example of immoral groupthink. A truly conservative response would have been to condemn Jones and move on to more edifying subjects (the way in which Malcolm Turnbull, for instance, handled the matter).
Yet for weeks, the far-right agonised over their champion’s plight, inventing increasingly ludicrous defences of the broadcaster. In their final, delusional argument, Jones was positioned as a victim, supposedly suffering from “Fairfax’s vilification” and an unreasonable lobbying campaign (urging companies to withdraw advertising from his 2GB radio program). This exposes one of the fallacies of right-wing ideologues: they claim to support the liberal ideals of freedom of speech but, in this and other cases, they denounce the public’s freedom to object to Jones-style hate media. At 2GB itself, in a brazen act of censorship, one of the station’s regular contributors, David Penberthy, was taken off air for daring to criticise Jones.
In its final form, the Jones affair highlighted the moral decline of Australian conservatism: its inability to unreservedly condemn wrongness in public life. As long as its enemies are under attack – no matter how indecently, no matter how far removed from community standards – it defends its own and rationalises away the immorality of the attack.
Right-wingers claim a commitment to family values, yet when a daughter (Gillard) was accused of causing her father to die of shame, their main moral objection was to criticism of the accuser (Jones). This was an inversion of the Good Samaritan principle: Gillard had been wronged, yet the groupthink commentators (as listed in this essay’s sources) looked at Jones and said, “This man needs our support.”
In practice, these hard-right activists are value-free. Compared to their true political obsession (objecting to all things left-of-centre), their commitment to free speech and family values is vacuous. In the worst sense of the term, they are political animals: scragging, authoritarian types who seek to limit and control the public debate. This is the dangerous thing about fanaticism. The new right will not rest until its views are the only views remaining in the political marketplace.
The impact on the Liberal Party has been profound. The retiring Queensland Liberal senator Sue Boyce has voiced the concern of moderate MPs about the growing influence of Tea Party politics, warning, “We need to be on our guard that we don’t end up going down the road that the Republicans have in the United States.” The SA Liberal senator Cory Bernardi, formerly Abbott’s parliamentary secretary, is using various front groups, such as David Flint’s “CANdo” organisation, to establish a Tea Party presence in Australia.
Compounding these breaches of political convention in Australia in 2012, the authoritarian right continued its denigration of the world of science, attacking the concept of climate change and the work of climate scientists. Genuine conservatives would take a different approach to the issue. Given the international scientific consensus on the threat of global warming, they would recognise the legitimacy of the research findings and support government action against climate change – in effect, an insurance policy for the planet. The rise of far-right denialism has betrayed this cautionary instinct.
Other prominent exponents (of the new right) include Gerard Henderson from the Sydney Institute and Rebecca Weisser, the “Cut and Paste” compiler at the Australian. Instead of writing about fresh, creative policy ideas for helping people, they have dedicated themselves to a public life of intolerance – the daily practice of hunting down dissenting points of view.
This is the type of politics Abbott has cultivated as Liberal leader, by fostering a mean-spirited fringe group willing to attack democratic traditions to achieve power. It is a mistake to pigeonhole Abbott as a conservative. The party he leads is no longer John Howard’s Liberal Party, but a very different creature, devoid of conservative respect for the ethics of our parliamentary system. Not only has liberalism disappeared from the Liberal Party, conservatism is also in retreat.
The best way of understanding Abbott is through his problem with female voters – as shown in the polling gender gap. Normally, when one thinks of Australian men out of favour with women, larrikins come to mind – loveable rogues that test the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Yet Abbott is supposed to be a conservative leader. How can a true conservative be unpopular with women?
The answer lies in the Abbott paradox. He claims to believe in conservative values, yet far from displaying the conservative traits of prudence and caution, his political style is that of an extremist: forever exaggerating, forever inflaming debates, forever breaching conventional standards and attracting controversy. His impact on female (and many male) voters is toxic. He is leading a transformation of Australian right-of-centre politics, replacing traditional conservative values with reactionary tactics and the strong-arming of institutions.
Naturally in politics, a leader’s style sets the tone for his followers, all the more so with a big personality like Abbott. His constant negativity in trying to bring down the Gillard government in a hung parliament has given Australian politics a harder edge, encouraging exorbitance among those who used to call themselves conservatives. This is why so many political conventions were broken last year: Abbott has let the far-right off the leash.
The Liberals have breached conventions before, most notably in the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975. For those of us who have maintained the rage, the memories of impropriety from this period are undiminished. Yet equally, it must be acknowledged, the Liberal Party displayed forms of contrition in the post-Whitlam years – conceding it would never again block supply in the Senate. Malcolm Fraser himself, perhaps out of guilt, has become a champion of left-wing causes, an outcast from the party he once led.
It is inconceivable the same fate awaits Abbott. Far from showing contrition, the intensity of his attacks has increased. He finished the 2012 parliamentary year falsely accusing the prime minister of criminal offences in the AWU matter – an unforgivable hyperbole. When Abbott breaks a convention, it stays broken. He then moves on to his next political cage-match. This is what makes Abbott and today’s politics different: he’s not for turning.
Another factor in the rise of the authoritarian right has been the changing nature of the commercial media. As news organisations face growing financial uncertainty and competition from new technologies, we are entering an era of narrowcasting, in which media companies are picking target political audiences and telling them what they want to hear.
This is the rise of the Fox News model in Australia, evident in outlets such as 2GB and the Australian. Anyone who wants to attack progressive ideas and politicians has a ready-made platform and audience available to them.
The hard-right clusters around these media opportunities – a natural habitat for commentators preaching to an anti-Labor constituency.
In terms of media management, the ALP can safely ignore these media outlets. They are not the type of forums open-minded, undecided voters go to for information. In content and style, they are a long way removed from the political mainstream. This is one of the delusions of the authoritarian right: a mistaken belief that suburban families are just like them.
In fact, with few exceptions, this cohort of commentators and broadcasters come from inner-city areas, with little practical understanding of suburban priorities. They are a fringe group with fringe interests in life, political insiders whose main point of contact is with other members of the political class. Even though they have never served as parliamentarians, they remain obsessed with parliamentary activity – a fanaticism few Australians share.
Whether in devising electoral strategies or developing policies, the ALP’s best response to the rise of the authoritarian right is to embed itself in grassroots politics – the nation’s true middle ground. The party has always been strongest when interacting with Australians outside the political class. This is the space Labor MPs need to occupy, knowing that their opponents have moved to the ugly, right-wing fringe of the national debate.
A final reflection on 2012: it was an amazing year in Australian politics, not just for the breaking of conventions and public dismay about the quality of debate. Most tellingly of all, by year’s end no right-wing commentator had joined the dots and objected to the trashing of political tradition. This says it all about the changing nature of conservatism: devouring its own heritage and values, but not caring enough to complain. The Abbott right is like a rat-snake, eating itself from the tail up.
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