Opinion

Guy Rundle
Politics’ one-term wonders

Spring is here, the old growth dying away, green shoots pushing forth. At parliament in Spring Street, Melbourne, the Napthine government may be watching the process with unease, aware it may soon be dumped in the compost bin of history. Barring uproarious events in the coming weeks, or serious error in the polling, the Victorian public looks set to dump the Liberal-National state government, and quite possibly give Labor an easy two-term margin of victory. 

Lofted to power under the hapless Ted Baillieu in 2010 with a single-seat majority, the Baillieu/Napthine regime failed to consolidate its hold over the state, for the same reason many failing governments fail. They were trying to govern a fantasy Victoria, the place of solid bourgeois enterprise it once was, not the left-shifted state dominated by the knowledge/culture hub of demented hipsterism otherwise known as Melbourne that the place has become.

You would scarcely call it the most reactionary government to grace the Australian political stage, but it has been judged too threatening to the services and facilities that Victorians now regard as given – and too willing to bend the knee to powerful developers. To vary the metaphor from deciduous to evergreen, it looks like it’s cactus.  

Should that prove correct, the Baillieu/Napthine gang will join the ignominious company of one-term governments. It’s a select club, especially the Australian branch, but it may soon have company. In Britain, the Cameron government will go to an election it seems likely to lose, polling evens with Labour in an electoral system that requires about a 3 per cent clear margin to be on the road to victory. And at the federal level here, the Abbott government fell off a cliff mere months after gaining office, and nothing suggests it has scrambled back up yet, despite the leg-up given by military action, and the rescue mission mounted by News Corp. The next election is a ways away, but no Australian government of recent memory has found itself so far behind so fast. Could it be a candidate for single-term status, too? And what has happened to the political right that it is now so inept at what once defined it – the capacity to project legitimacy, and to turn progressive oppositions into “pretender” parties, unable to be trusted with the machinery of government? 

There are no doubt contingent factors, particular to each disaster. In Victoria, quite apart from the projection of a sense of lethargy and purposelessness early on, the Baillieu/Napthine government failed to observe that Liberal governments now exist on sufferance in Victoria, and must prove and re-prove their bona fides. The Napthine government appears to have only belatedly realised this, putting out a flood of advertisements for new public transport and other services that make it sound like a socialist regional administration in Scandinavia. It’s most likely too little too late.

In Britain, a lot of it is about trust. In opposition until 2010, David Cameron presented the Conservatives as decisively post-Thatcherite: a party that had learnt its lesson, and was now committed to social cohesion, the environment and one-nation Toryism. Once in power, this was all dumped, with Coalition partner the Liberal Democrats dragged along for the ride, as a government of Old Etonians imposed a series of punitive austerity budgets that decimated communities, started a new selloff of the National Health Service, and under the “big society” rubric, replaced state services with volunteers. The zombie economic strategy froze the economy in recession for two years, before the government applied some desperate pump-priming to infrastructure projects and claimed, from the resulting feeble growth, that the earlier austerity was working.

In Australia, after a budget that played out as a rapid-fire version of the British experience, Tony Abbott showed himself, until the recent military emergency, to be a poor leader of a chaotic team out of its depth and intent on pursuing a range of separate ideological obsessions, none of which rated among the public’s list of concerns. Now, Abbott’s image has recovered somewhat, thanks not least to News Corp’s determination to portray getting off a plane and shaking hands with a brown person as a diplomatic triumph, akin to the Treaty of Vienna. But beneath that, a distrust and even a despite remains. Many people who voted for Abbott never liked him much. Now they feel politically coward-punched by him, a pretty lethal combination. 

Beyond all those particulars, there is one general rule about weak and struggling right-wing governments: the formula that served them well for decades – a combination of free-market liberalism and social conservatism – no longer works. They have failed to understand this, and in doing so have put themselves in a position where adaptation and responsiveness to public demands and beliefs becomes difficult, if not impossible. To a degree, you can hardly blame them for being resistant to revising the sales pitch, given that it’s served them so well for so long. Margaret Thatcher expressed the most unreflective version of it, arguing for a return to “Victorian values”, by which she meant a fusion of the animal spirits of capitalism with a continent commitment to the virtues of family, church and nation. Ideally, that fusion was to occur in the individual self.

Two decades later, John Howard gave a more knowing and technocratic version of it, arguing that the changes created by neoliberal capitalism – not his phrase – to everyday life were so wrenching that a degree of existential and cultural stability had to be guaranteed by using the state to protect and enforce traditional institutions. Manufacturing may have disappeared to China, but we put a chaplain and a flagpole in schools. The formula is, at its heart, contradictory: picking society at a certain stage, usually that of the childhood of the right-wing politician in question; defining it as the authentic expression of cultural life; then using the power of the state to freeze it in place.

Thatcher’s anti-homosexual section 28 laws were an expression of this. Having encouraged people to free themselves from the shackles of socialism, she was flabbergasted to find that some of them saw freedom as the right to sleep with whomsoever they chose, and be open about it, teachers and public officials included. Section 28, banning the “promotion of homosexuality”, sounds like something out of Putin’s Russia, but it was joined by heavy-handed policing of protests and laws against rave music, all in search of a Britain that looked more like the cover of a Galsworthy novel. More recent right-wing governments have been made up of people of sufficient youth to be unfazed by alternative lifestyles – you could pretty much make up an all-party cabinet of today’s politicians from those who sexually “crossed the floor” at some National Union of Students conference 25 or so years ago – so the right must reach out for ever more thematic and branded forms to suggest “tradition” and “values”. When this doesn’t stick, as David Cameron’s laughable travesty of the “big society” notion failed to – or when they can’t come up with a compelling version of it, à la Tony’s desperate Team Australia brain bubble – then their real agenda, as neoliberals, is made all the more visible. Without a persuasive social conservative narrative, the right is simply the facilitator of capital.

Since it is capital – in the form of transnational corporations, cartelised service oligopolies, and relentless branding operations – that is the great deconstructor of social life and stable or traditional meaning and values, it is progressive, centre-left politics that inherits the mantle of conservatism. Conservative, not only in the sense of defending the gains of the postwar progressive period – workplace protection, universal health and education systems – but in defending the prerequisites of any human life, such as a functioning biosphere, from the nihilism of capital.

Though few would put it in those terms, many people feel disquiet with the enthusiasm of the right to tear apart social life, while pratling on about “tradition”.   And without that, the right does not have an easy path to legitimacy. It relies on the propaganda of friendly media monopolies and Labor’s capacity for ineptitude. No one ever went broke betting on the latter, and it may save the right yet, but such dependency lies at the heart of its current weakness.

It’s noticeable that the one Anglosphere right party to succeed on its own terms is John Key’s New Zealand National Party. This is because the multi-member electoral system of that country gives it a genuinely democratic process, and Key had no choice but to refashion his party as a European-style outfit, shifted leftwards culturally and to the middle economically, a move that has allowed the Nationals to displace NZ Labour and achieve the difficult task, in a multi-member system, of winning government in their own right. Sooner or later, others will have to follow.

Not that Labor, here or elsewhere, is without a crisis of its own, to do with the changing nature of its class base, and confusion over what sort of party it is. The right will be hoping Labor can’t sort that out any time soon, for it’s all that is keeping it verdant, with harsh conditions ahead, and the prospect of being, sooner rather than later, back out in the cold. The spectre of the one-term conservative government looms.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "One-term wonders". Subscribe here.

Guy Rundle
is an author and commentator. His most recent book is Trumped! Election ’16 and the Progressive Collapse.