The end of Tony Abbott and the conservatives
Watching Cardinal George Pell give his evidence in the royal commission on child abuse, it was difficult not to feel sorry for the man. God knows there were more people deserving of sympathy in this matter, and Pell’s high-handed and pompous attitude to the issue has infuriated many – the sad story, of not much interest to him – but the sight of him mumbling out his evidence was a pitiful thing. There must have been a point at which he realised that his insistence on the hearing being held in Rome was a terrible, terrible error. Had he come back to Melbourne it would have all occurred in some pine-panelled hearing room in a boring office building, with a court reporter out front and bad modern art on the wall. Instead, the drama occurred in the Eternal City, where the whole operation had begun two millennia ago, survivors of the church’s depredations making their own pilgrimage for justice and witnessing. The business of one minor outpost thus became a global event, a crucial moment in the continuing struggle between the victims and the church. In that one episode, Pell did more to advance the cause of his antagonists than anything they could do of their own accord. He should have got onto that plane in an oxygen tent, if necessary. How could he not see the way this would play out?
How? Because before Malcolm Turnbull concluded that the only hope of establishing authority lay in confrontation and election, the conservative movement had spent a fortnight losing it big time. Pell’s leadlight defenestration came towards the end of a period that began with an outbreak of hysteria by ABC political editor Chris Uhlmann, who blamed a few mean tweets directed at him on the “infection” of Western culture by Jewish neo-Marxists from the 1940s. That was rolled over into a co-ordinated attack on the Safe Schools anti-bullying program, which was used to stand for all sorts of moral breakdown, before we hit the Pelliad and then that diurnas mirabilis, the meltdown of Andrew Bolt, who defended Pell, then damned him, then returned to him and begged forgiveness with the publication of a poem by his 13-year-old self, in what he must have realised was a restaging of the Gethsemane passage of the gospels. Bolter, Bolter, why hast thou deserted me?
Along the way the career of Fairfax’s house barbarian, Paul Sheehan, ended, or should do, in disgrace, after his wilful enabling of racist fantasies about Muslim gangs was exposed for the con it had always been. This giddy fortnight ended with the boulevard farce of Niki Savva’s book The Road to Ruin, which showed the Abbott government much like the Romanovs in 1916, without the balalaika chorus.
Lest this be mistaken for something happening in just one country, in the United States the conservative movement was being torn apart by the relentless rise of Donald Trump and the undisguised attempts of the Republican Party to put a stop to him.
What’s happening? The short answer is that the conservative movement is cracking up across the world, a victim of the contradictions within. For nearly four decades, the right has sought to portray itself as the representative of the “masses”, protecting its values against an “elite” who favoured liberal and progressive positions that, it was claimed, were against the mainstream. The right bundled together global market-first politics with the protection of “traditional values”. That worked as two decades of prosperity were eked out of cheap debt and destructive tax cuts. When it collapsed in 2008, the long con was laid bare: it was global market-first politics that had destroyed the world in which traditional values were apparently grounded – the neighbourhoods, local industries, stable families, a positive popular culture.
In the US this has resulted in civilisational devastation – ruined cities, a blighted working class, a hollowed-out middle class. A doctrinaire right-wing congress has hamstrung President Barack Obama’s attempts to restart a full recovery and attack inequality, and Obama’s prudent, albeit amoral, realpolitik in foreign policy has deprived many of the consolation of American power projected across the world. This crisis has produced Donald Trump, who combines power politics, xenophobic racism and old-school protectionism in a mix that appeals to those who were never convinced by market-first politics in the first place. Sections of the conservative elite, more interested in power than principle, have allied with him, abandoning Ted Cruz, the rival candidate who best embodies the true nuttiness of free-market/social conservative politics. The momentous events may yet shake apart the Republican Party.
The conservative crack-up in the US is a massive occurrence, full of comedy – and majesty, too – because the society has deep wellsprings of religious and “Americanist” belief that tens of millions of people draw on for the meaning of their lives. There is no such social or cultural formation of any depth in Australia, and so the process here is farcical, and has only continued for so long because no one has called time on it. Americans are churchgoing people, and many see the will of God as bound up with the founding of their country and manifested by their country’s actions. Australia is the least religious Western society outside of Scandinavia, and our history, as a dumping ground and sheep farm, gives us no illusions about manifest destiny.
The Australian right survives because it is supported by hothouse institutions: the loss-making parts of News Corp, oxymoronically named “think tanks”, which take anonymous corporate money to lobby for their industries and then claim tax-deductible charitable status, and the cocooned political process that pipes wacko right-wing fantasists up from student politics through these think tanks and into the senate without encountering democracy at any point.
Such right politics thrives on fear, uncertainty and nostalgia. With a quarter-century of growth, we have very little of that, at least in the all-encompassing sense. The population has become not only more prosperous, but more progressive – values that were once the preserve of the smaller culture or knowledge-producer class are now general. Support for same-sex marriage and multi-ethnic life, alongside suspicion of Western military adventures and pro-choice abortion politics, are now spread among 70 per cent of the population. The conservative right has struggled to accept this. It believed that residual conservative values – for harsh immigration policies, for Anzac – suggested a silent conservative majority out there. They believed that Tony Abbott, rising to power on a promise of running Labor’s programs while being not Labor, could then become a powerful author of the conservative rollback.
But Abbott failed because the conservative faultline runs through the man himself. Abbott is no Ted Cruz, a man forged in the heat of a great and confident national political tradition. He’s a searching neurotic product of a convert Catholic family, deeply conflicted about the role ordained to him – “Tony will be pope or PM,” parents and family said – expressing his European reactionary mindset, pre-1789, in the manner laid out by B. A. Santamaria in his last decades, as a politics of pessimism and noble failure. There was little attempt to create a coherent 21st-century right, as David Cameron has in Britain, and in its absence self-indulgence took over, as marked by the soap opera hysteria at the heart of it, recounted by Niki Savva. It may or may not be embellished in the telling, but who doubts its substance? People leading serious political revolutions don’t get caught up in some mash-up of House of Cards and Gossip Girl. People for whom politics has ceased to provide a meaningful vocation do.
There was an emotional decadence at the heart of the Abbott government, a result of its attempt to project its right-wing fantasies onto a country that no longer felt defined by them. What’s happening now is simply the endgame of the Abbott push, and the right-wing culture politics attached to it. Healthy movements propose entire programs; movements that are nearly dead glom onto things such as Safe Schools and turn them into the End of Civilisation and an occasion for fringe conspiracy theories.
That’s all the more telling because there is plenty to criticise in Safe Schools, from the left as much as the right. Never let it be said that progressives aren’t champions at snatching defeat from victory. The conservative movement thrives when such groups overreach. That is the case in Safe Schools, where an admirable attempt to limit bullying has been wrapped in a set of highly tendentious ideas about gender and identity that many would not agree with but which are presented as if they had the status of mathematical truth. Progressives no less than conservatives need to acknowledge that social values are multiple and contradictory, and profess pluralism – the tolerance of, and respect for, people we do not understand or even like much, with the freedom to disagree with them, or dislike them, preserved. Pluralism is not only the only possible public ethic for a complex society; it also frustrates right-wing attempts to build the resentment and self-pity their movement thrives on.
The right’s thought leaders freak out in real time – as demonstrated by Andrew Bolt, who has made himself over as the personification of paranoid conservatism – and thus cannot cope with the exposure of callousness, arrogance and hypocrisy within a conservative anchor such as a church. Ditto Sheehan. Hysteria is, among other things, the mistaking of a symptom for a whole-body crisis. The right has that in spades. A lot of them should just have a lie down.
Clearly Turnbull has come to a similar conclusion. The showdown with the senate and the election arising, therefore, is targeted at the enemy within not without. Should he win, he can draw a line under the Abbott era, and reconstruct the Liberal Party as a centre-right socially progressive party. Conservatives can either go to the Nationals, or irrelevance, insofar as there’s a difference. They represent very little in Australian society, other than the largesse of Murdoch and our capacity to let political sinecures and boondoggles run on far too long.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 26, 2016 as "The end of the long neocon". Subscribe here.