The Liberal Party’s federal council endorsement of privatising the ABC is a sign of the deep schism between the religious right of the party’s rank and file and its more pragmatic parliamentary leadership. By Mike Seccombe.

How the Liberal Party is eating itself

Chris Kenny has spent much of his working life engaged in spin and damage control for the Liberal Party, including as staffer for the gaffe-prone Alexander Downer and also for Malcolm Turnbull during his disastrous first stint as Liberal leader.

He’s still doing it, although these days Kenny works only indirectly for the Libs, as an associate editor for The Australian. This week, he spearheaded the Murdoch media’s efforts at damage control in the wake of a vote by the Liberals’ federal council in favour of privatising the ABC.

Now, you might have expected, given the almost daily complaints by the right-wing claque at News Corp about alleged ABC bias, and the countless opinion pieces run over many years advocating the selloff of the national broadcaster, they would have been raising the rafters in support of the move.

But no. Instead, with almost comical haste, News Corp’s minions moved to try to assure their dwindling readership that the Liberals did not really mean it, despite the fact council delegates voted, according to video evidence, almost four-to-one in favour.

News Corp rounded up quotes from as many senior members of government as they could, and quoted them all, all denying that the party had any such intent.

On Monday, The Australian prominently ran a piece by Kenny, setting out “five key reasons” why the Coalition government would never privatise the ABC. 

In essence, though, the five reasons came down to one: they could not get away with it politically. The ABC was too highly regarded by the public.

Kenny the political professional opined that any attempt to privatise would be “sheer idiocy” in electoral terms – that even in proposing the idea the federal council had committed an act of “political self-harm” and given its opponents a scare campaign they could run all the way to the next election. Few would argue with that assessment.

The problem was that, part way through the piece, political professional Kenny gave way to ideologue Kenny. There was no need to privatise, he argued, when the ABC could be “curtailed, merged with the SBS and straightened out”. He called for the organisation to be “shrunk and refocused” via a new charter and cuts to its budget and functions, and the replacement of “progressive” elements with a new crop of “right-of-centre” managers and directors.

In all, Kenny’s defence of the ABC came across very much like the famous defence of government by another right-wing ideologue, United States Republican Grover Norquist: the intent was not to abolish it, but to shrink it to a size where they could drown it in a bathtub.

As we have previously reported, the government is already well advanced in its plans to shrink the ABC. From 2013 up to May this year, the Coalition government has slashed the ABC budget by $254 million. The most recent federal budget sliced another $84 million over three years.

Under this government, the ABC has shed some 800 jobs and been forced to make deep cuts in program output. Senate estimates was told a couple of months ago that the broadcaster now puts out 60 per cent less hours of factual programming.

The organisation is being subjected to a blizzard of largely bogus complaints from Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, who in his “frisky” younger days also supported privatisation. Reviews of “efficiency” and “competitive neutrality” are under way, not to mention multiple Senate bills to change its charter, partly inspired by the desire to placate Pauline Hanson and One Nation.

Seen in the context of all these other attacks on the ABC, the federal council resolution is not all that significant. The plight of the broadcaster is neither made worse nor better as a result. From another perspective, though, it tells us a great deal about the Liberal Party.

Kenny in The Australian portrayed the motion as a “stunt” by “Young Liberal upstarts”. It was better described by Liberal Party vice-president Karina Okotel – a right-winger from Victoria, best known to the public as a leader of the “no” campaign during the same-sex marriage debate – who called it an “aspirational statement by the membership”.

Sure, the motion was moved by the Young Liberals’ vice-president, Mitchell Collier, a former Liberal staffer now working as a lobbyist, but the more significant fact is that when he finished speaking to the motion, the chair could find no one to speak against it. Many delegates who should have been older and more sensible, including several members of the Liberal national executive, were part of the overwhelming majority in favour.

And that is a big worry for the party.

Professor Clive Bean, a specialist in political attitudes and behaviour at the Queensland University of Technology, sees the ABC decision as but one indicator of a deeper problem with ideology and discipline inside the Liberal Party.

“I think it goes to a general issue and also a specific one,” he says. “The general issue is that people in the lower and mid levels of political parties tend to be ideologues, sometimes of extreme bent. There is always that tension between these members of the rank and file and the leadership who know what is required to get elected.”

Thus party forums often see motions advocating positions well beyond anything that could be realistically sold to the voters. In the case of progressive parties, those almost inevitably come out of left field, and in the case of conservative parties, out of right field.

“Usually, at the level of the organisational leadership, the sensible option prevails in the end,” Bean says.

Or, at least, the politically expedient option. Contrast the Liberals’ federal council proceedings with the Labor Party’s Victorian conference a couple of weeks earlier. There, faction leaders of the Right and Industrial Left combined to close proceedings early, and so avoid debate on a series of motions on touchy matters including live animal exports, the right to strike, offshore detention and recognition of Palestine.

The same grouping also combined to knock off a proposal to give the rank and file greater say in the selection of Senate candidates.

Yes, the party Left was angry. Yes, it was an affront to internal democracy. But it was bluntly pragmatic. It gave the Tories no ammunition to use in impending elections, and helped ensure Labor hews close to the centre line Australian electorate.

In his address to the Liberal council, party federal president Nick Greiner appealed to delegates, and to the broader party, to stop being “lazy and self-indulgent” and to focus on supporting the Turnbull government instead of “our own internal tiffs” over ideological and factional issues.

Delegates took no notice. What could be more self-indulgent and ideologically pointless than endorsing a policy that the government can never implement, attacking an institution that is overwhelmingly supported and trusted by most voters? There were a number of other examples, too, which we’ll get to shortly, but first let’s go to the question of why they did it.

This, Bean says, goes to something more than the general issue of greater radicalism among the rank and file than among the leadership.

“The more specific issue is … that having someone like Malcolm Turnbull in the leadership encourages pushback by the more extreme conservatives,” he says. “I suspect we would see less of it if Tony Abbott was leader.”

Bean regards this as “very ironical” and it is. As poll after poll tells us, Turnbull is not only far more appealing to the electorate than Abbott ever was, he is far more appealing than the government as a whole.

But the reverse is true in the party, and the result is that the rank and file have no qualms about expressing views that embarrass the leadership.

Another example from federal council was the passage of a motion supporting the expedited entry to Australia of South African farmers. Only the intervention of elder statesman Philip Ruddock prevented the motion being put in explicitly racist terms.

Yet another related to the moving of Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. This flew in the face not only of longstanding, bipartisan policy in this country, but also the policy of almost every other government in the world, with the major exception of the Trump administration.

Even among Americans, Trump’s decision to move the US embassy was seen as needlessly inflammatory. Polls indicate only a little more than one third of voters support it. But it is very popular among the Republican base of evangelical Christians whose biblical interpretation holds that Jewish control of the holy land is a precursor to the second coming of Christ and the Rapture, where the faithful ascend to heaven and nonbelievers – Jews included – go to hell.

Bizarrely, Trump chose Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor who preaches this stuff and who has warned that “you can’t be saved by being a Jew”, to deliver the opening prayer at the embassy dedication.

Australia, though, is a far more secular country. So why would the council – in defiance of the foreign minister, Julie Bishop – endorse what is, both in Australia and globally, a fringe view?

The short answer is that within the party rank and file, the religious right is no longer fringe.

In email correspondence with The Saturday Paper, Dr Jonathan James, a researcher in media, religion, culture and politics at Perth’s Edith Cowan University, described the recruitment of religious conservatives to the political cause as an expression of a global push for “counter-secularisation”, particularly by the rapidly growing Pentecostal movement.

“Locally, both on the institutional and individual level, Australian Christians feel that norms that were once considered foundational in Australian society have been railroaded and laws are being enacted which go counter to Judeo–Christian underpinnings.

“Religious groups feel sidelined and are therefore becoming more intense in furthering the cause of their faith.”

The West Australian and Victorian Liberal Party branches in particular, he says, have come increasingly under the sway of the religious right.

Thus the motion regarding the embassy was unsurprising to James. To the religious right, he said, the issue was a good fit with their dislike of the ABC, as another opportunity to poke at “the secular-humanist and leftist sector of Australia”.

These people will not be deterred by appeals to party unity, James suggests. He sees “every likelihood that within the Liberal Party, the conservative faction will not give up their agenda to bring back classical liberalism – even if it means a loss at the next general elections and for their ‘leftist’ leader, Malcolm Turnbull”.

Other students of politics also note a growing disconnect between the conservative base and the broader polity, although they see things in rather less apocalyptic terms.

“It tends to be the case,” says Bean, “that when groups that are contracting – and religion is contracting in Australia – the more it contracts, the more strongly its adherents hold on.

“I think that contributes to religious groups thinking they have to find ways of maintaining their influence. And they see a right-wing political party as a good vehicle for it.”

Exacerbating the situation is the fact that political parties are themselves contracting, making them, as Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy recently noted, vulnerable to takeover by single-issue activists.

She was referring specifically to the influence of a new generation of religious conservatives.

“Once upon a time, the Costello-ites – the group of Liberal MPs associated with the Melbourne-based right-wing think tank the Institute of Public Affairs – were considered to be the right of the Liberal Party, with the core definitional questions grounded in economic philosophy,” she wrote.

But with the new mob, led by activist Marcus Bastiaan and heavily populated by hardliners of various faiths, “social conservatism, not dry, market economics, is the frontline of the battle of ideas”.

“Conservative Christians are also highly motivated people to recruit, having lost so many totemic social battles over the past 50 years: the advancement of the individual rights, feminism, same-sex marriage. The inclination will be to stand and fight.”

Other experts, though, think the talk about religious infiltration of the Liberal Party is overstated.

Professor Ian McAllister, of the Australian National University, notes that political parties have long featured more overtly religious people than the general community, and more ideologically extreme.

The reason the ideological extremists on the conservative side of politics stand out more now is that the focus of much politics has been on social and moral issues – such as same-sex marriage, euthanasia, immigration and religion itself – which has highlighted the growing chasm between their values and mainstream values.

“The major thing going on is that the electorate is becoming much more secular. It’s going up exponentially, particularly among younger people. About 40 per cent of people now say they don’t have any religion,” he says.

“But that’s not reflected in the membership of the major parties.”

And particularly not in the conservative parties.

However you look at it, though, whether in terms of the evolution of community norms or the devolution of conservative attitudes, the fact is that the gap between the current party of government, and the people it governs, is fast widening.

And no amount of damage control or spin doctoring by their media surrogates can disguise that reality.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 23, 2018 as "Rancorous and file".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.