22 June 2008

Waking the dead

Many tears have been shed, mostly of the crocodile variety, for a political constituency that has been determinedly abandoned: liberals.

First, wily old careerists like Philip Ruddock and Robert Hill abandoned liberals and liberalism. Then, the Democrats sold out for a mess of, um, whatever it was Meg Lees got in exchange for the GST, or whatever it was Natasha Stott Despoja was supposed to have delivered. In 2007 we saw a contest between two conservative parties, one of which supported an authoritarian legal structure around employment and another wanted to replace it with something a bit more corporatist but definitely not liberal. The victory for the latter and the abolition of the Australian Democrats augured poorly for liberals and liberalism.

It comes as a surprise, then, that the Brendan Nelson DeathWatch theme has popped up despite, not because, he went in hard against the liberals. Seeking to deny health workers on Australian aid missions the ability to talk about terminating pregnancies has two aspects that appeals to conservatives: lots of churchy goodness plus being patronising to little brown foreigners. It should have Nelson praised to the skies by the rightwing cheersquad that got him up - but this would underestimate just what dingoes they are.

The rightwingers of today should have learned their lesson over the parliamentary debate over RU486, in which a bunch of Democrats and their fellow-travellers in the Senate of all places euthenased Tony Abbott as a serious contender for his party's leadership. The outrage over Nelson's capricious and self-defeating stance on abortion came from the same place as the groundswell for RU486. Even the savviest political strategist can be bowled over by a groundswell once, but to set up the party's leader for a second slapdown - and for Nelson to not avoid being set up - is sloppy tactics.

When you're on the nose politically, the rightwingers will abandon you. The rightwingers should have united behind Howard in 1987, but instead the threw the Joh spanner in the Coalition works. The rightwingers tubthumped about banning Australian athletes from the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but wouldn't ban far more substantial exports to prop up the tottering Soviet empire. The rightwing went on about communism in Vietnam, but when the whole war strategy had failed it was the veterans who bore the brunt. The rightwingers elevated McMahon over the trendy and shallow Gorton, yet they snickered when Whitlam lambasted him. To have the support of the conservatives in Australian politics is not the laurel wreath of victory, it is the sloppy hairy kiss of Judas.

Of course, the right wing rode high in the chariot under Howard, and they gloated like those who did not expect to win. The only liberals who stood up for refugees were old enough to remember when liberals were part of a liberal government, and were polite enough to be surprised that liberalism did not inform decisions on issues like refugees.

The 2007 election result cannot be blamed, in whole or in part, on liberals. There was no treason of the trendies. Everyone else had abandoned liberals and liberalism and the rewards for doing so, promised and actual, were rich.

The constituency of liberals has gone unrepresented since 2007. The groundswell on foreign aid abortions and RU486 seems like a real silent majority - but a negative one, one that would stop bad law but which can't articulate the good (or even some muddle that came from Senate-floor horsetrading when the Democrats were at their peak). A positive vision for positive liberalism is nowhere present nor to be expected.

Turnbull and Costello have a commitment to liberalism that does not survive polls, let alone substantial tests. Those who look to the Payne-Pyne double act are making the same mistake they made with Peacock: claims they are the people of tomorrow are belied by the staleness of their approach to contemporary issues, and so they'll be yesterday's people without a day of their own. Pyne quivers with ambition but will go the way of Ruddock. Ted Baillieu and Barry O'Farrell are the most interesting Liberal leaders, but neither is in Canberra and O'Farrell is probably right to assume he can attack Iemma anywhere other than from the liberal side.

Those who look to the Democrats/Climate Change Coalition/GetUp are waiting for a bunch of petty people to get over themselves, like a local government conference robbed of its practical grafters. A political movement that is not serious about government is politically dispensible.

There is the Labor Party, but we can be skeptical in accepting Chris Bowen's assurance that Labor is open to an influx of members of any large and broad-based community is crap.
Since its inception, the Liberal Party has attempted to straddle two political philosophies: liberalism and conservatism. These are two very different things, and overseas these roles are often undertaken by different parties.

Successful liberal-conservative parties in Australia and overseas balance the two. Howard is the exception but he ran on a balance, as are David Cameron, John Key and John McCain in the UK, NZ and US respectively.
Alexander Downer's monthly renewal of bans on the right of Falun Dafa practitioners to protest in Canberra must surely go down as the most illiberal act ever by an Australian foreign minister.

And Kevin Rudd is insisting on the rights of Falun Dafa, is he?
Payne must go through agony every six years, wondering whether this time the extreme right wingers, who run the NSW Liberal Party, will be successful in removing her from the Senate.

I wish I had six years in between worries about my job, Chris. The fact that you can make such a silly statement shows that you'd rather make a tenuous political joust than incorporate a liberal approach to your work.
In Britain, the Liberal Democrats often criticise the Labour Government from its left flank.

Ineffectively. Only when the Conservatives steal their clothes does Labour back down and the Conservatives advance, and to hell with the poor saps in the LibDems. That's the vision, is it Chris?
... traditional small l liberals are looking for a home. As a social liberal in the Labor Party, I can tell you that it is a very welcoming home.

Do we know, to quote your friend and colleague from Woy Woy, who you f*cking are? Yes, we do, and we know what you are too. You're only in Federal politics because you weren't good enough to roll Joe Tripodi. Go and shake down some developers, watch the half-hearted approaches to Aborigines, migrants and others seemingly unable to assert their civil rights, and know that Labor is the party of liberal-veneer - but only rarely, and thinly.

Yet, it's true that liberals tipped Howard out of Bennelong and it will be interesting to see if they tip Labor out again too (but not for a while). The first step is for liberals is to be clear about what they want. Once that happens, we'll see who's a silent majority. We'll hear the rightwingers howl folornly in the night and we'll see smart-alecs like Chris Bowen fail to give liberals any of the sustenance that comes with a proper welcome.

Mind you, "we'll see" implies the sort of determination and imminence which, as I've already pointed out, isn't there. Once that happens? If it happens, but it has the sort of groundswell that other political movements can only dream of.

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