You can lead them to the right, but you can't make them think
When we were in the NSW Young Liberals together, John Ruddick told me what a nice guy he was. Now he has tried to convince readers of The Australian that someone who used to pay him was a nice guy and was important to the intellectual and political life of the country.
Stan Zemanek was a stirrer, and got noticed by being rude about things that people cared about. He tapped into the same market as Rodney Rude and Kevin Bloody Wilson, whose lasting political impacts are non-existent.
What follows here is not an attack on either Ruddick or Zemanek. Ruddick regards any criticism of him and anything he might say or do as "vicious", and Zemanek is dead. What follows here is despair that when you get to where the right want to lead you, there's nothing there.
Take John Ruddick's ideal man, Rush Limbaugh. He has a drug problem, has three failed marriages and made his name by bagging the then-13 year old daughter of a Democrat President. It ought to go without saying that real conservatives don't beat up on young girls, and those who do are nobody's hero. Like other "conservatives" of his generation, Limbaugh dodged the draft to Vietnam without having the guts to stand for principle. I make no comment about Zemanek or Ruddick, except to say that a conservative who cannot act as a moral exemplar is no conservative at all.
Limbaugh is not "unbridled", he's just rude. He doesn't care about accuracy when he can just revel in the attention, as though drawing attention to himself were more important than issues which affect millions other than himself. Thankfully no Australian broadcaster comes close to Limbaugh's reach and influence, although it is Alan Jones - and not Zemanek - who comes closest.
But when they heard someone spell out loudly and clearly why Keating was wrong on Mabo, or an apology to rampant welfarism, or his Asia-first foreign policy, they loved it. And so they went to the ballot box in 1996 and voted Liberal for the first time.
Loudly? Sure. Clearly? Only in some technical acoustic sense - Zemanek would only say that Keating was wrong, not why. He had a predominantly male radio audience, whereas the key to Howard's electoral success was the vote of women. Those easily-flattered old slappers from Beauty and the Beast would never have tolerated the crudity of his radio program, and if it follows that Zemanek wasn't really a beast then were his defenders truly beauties?
He worked for a right wing radio station, of course he'd proudly claim to be pro-Liberal. And as with Limbaugh, Zemanek picked the wrong targets: Zemanek's real competitors were those who played music to help people forget about their working conditions, love lives or whatever. Phillip Adams' Late Night Live was broadcast at the same time but tailored to a niche audience - it was silly for Ruddick and Zemanek to regard Adams as a competitor of the latter, in the same way that it is silly to compare a bonsai to a box gum. It is patronising for Ruddick to talk about the people of western Sydney and Queensland as though they'd never heard radio before.
Keating’s final years were Zemanek’s heyday.
Indeed they were. He failed absolutely to capitalise on the ascendancy of his views into public policy, and if Howard owed him anything he did little to repay compared with, say, John Laws. Zemanek had a role to play in keeping Howard honest, but others took up that mantle without descending to Limbaugh-style tactics. You'd have thought that standing up for a government that did everything you claimed to want would help in the battle against the asterisk, but apparently not.
It cannot be claimed that Zemanek realigned the intellectual and cultural climate of the nation because he was determinedly anti-intellectual and uncultured. In Melbourne, Australia's most self-consciously intellectual and multicultured city, Zemanek was a flop. I wonder why? Ruddick offers no answer ecause this, like so many others, is an inconvenient truth.
In 1996 people voted on the economic and social direction of the country as well as the economic and social circumstances in which they found themselves. The same is true today. Nobody gave a damn about a bridge in South Australia, it was a issue for a small number of commentators on both left and right and shifted no votes elsewhere in SA, let alone the rest of the country. Even John Ruddick does not care enough about said "battlers" - including local Aborigines - to work out how that bridge is going, and whether it was all worth it.
It falls to me to point out that Ian McLachlan submitted his resignation to John Howard - the same John Howard who sought and demanded Pauline Hanson's resignation from the Liberal Party. Howard later appointed McLachlan a minister, an appointment hardly rewarded with competent administration or innovative policy. Did Zemanek ever force Howard to change tack, as Jones or the ABC regularly have?
Ruddick implies that Stan Zemanek helped Pauline Hanson get elected in 1996. This is dishonest as others deserve more credit (insofar as credit can be claimed for this), and it is telling that Hanson never thanked him or acknowledged the contribution Ruddick ascribes to him. Hanson was turfed out by the same idealised blue-collar voters after one term, restoring Labor's dominance in Oxley, a fact that discredits Ruddick's piece for its being omitted. If Zemanek had the effect that Ruddick implies he did, why did it evaporate so quickly? I doubt that the good people of Oxley all suddenly became turtleneck-wearing intellectuals and determinedly returned Labor to represent them in the face of a Liberal ascendancy.
Can any sensible person look at Howard's foreign policy and deny the centrality of Asia, from Iraq to East Timor and Japan? At APEC later this year, do you think he's going to spend the whole time with Bush and the Prime Minister of Canada? You don't have to be an inner-city intellectual to see what rubbish it is to disparage Australia's practical and bilateral foreign policy focus on Asia.
I will now make an accusation against John Ruddick what will cut him to the quick, from which his reputation and feelings will never recover and which will lose him friends and allies. Here it is: John Ruddick is an intellectual. Oh yes! A university graduate with more than one degree, and good marks too if memory serves. That will trash his reputation on the right as surely as his own embellishments, wishful thinking and straw-man punching has done for the rest of us.
I left the Liberal Party because the less liberal it became, the less interesting it was. The right stopped thinking out their position and what they could offer a dynamic country, and instead lapsed into asserting that all their opponents had to go and join the Labor Party (notwithstanding that the overwhelming majority of Australians to the left of Ruddick and Dave Clark form a massive, permanent majority - which is only an issue so long as you respect democracy). But never mind all that - this post was inspired by John Ruddick, what could be more important than that?