05 March 2008

That untravell'd world of moderate liberalism

After so many years in the darkness, Liberal moderates can be forgiven for stumbling blinking into the harsh light of media attention, and relishing the novelty that a wider public might want to hear from them. You'd have hoped that Chris Pyne and Marise Payne spent their long years in exile thinking, but no.
As Mark Twain might have said, rumours of our death are greatly exaggerated.

Not greatly exaggerated, Marise. The dying pillow was smoothed, and thankfully it lay under your heads rather than over your faces. This is only the first term of Opposition, and you remember what 1995-99 was like in NSW.

Such a defiant image contrasts with this:
"edge of the waterfall"

Well, which is it? She'll be right or panic stations? As long as you're part of the Main Stream, who cares about a waterfall? Makes a change from being up the creek without a paddle, eh?
There is tremendous scope for fresh ideas, for new thinking, for being prepared to use 2008 as a year of modernisation of our organisation. The party needs to embrace a change that will replenish our membership.

Just one year, mind you. By Christmas, the Liberal Party will have all the members and all the ideas it needs, thank you very much, and my haven't they got the inspiring leadership to make it happen. Fuck the membership, I can hear party hardheads blockheads say, give us some votes.
A strong membership base is a strong resource - for developing policy, in campaigning, in fundraising, in spreading the word, in providing the candidates, staff and personnel that every political party needs.

Yairs - it's a resource, certainly not the resource it was in the 1940s, which is why the Liberal Party membership will continue to be passed over when it comes to ideas and money, and yes even candidates. The ideal Liberal Party candidate is someone who wouldn't dream of sitting in a draughty room on a cold wet weeknight in May, listening to policy ideas regurgitated straight from talkback radio and helping plan desultory fundraisers that wouldn't cover the cost of mailing meeting notices to branch members.
We need to acknowledge the growing inevitability of the political cycle.

This is bullshit. Governments that are disciplined enough to purge lazy ministers and lazy thinking can be much more durable than wankers who just shrug and blame their own venality upon "the cycle".
What we should take from our recent federal experience is the challenge of creating our future, and avoiding wallowing in the past.

The Liberal Party's troubles is that it could not distinguish between what was currently viable and what was past, and one can have no confidence this recognition is much further advanced.
The Liberal Party of Australia has been custodian of two strands of political thought: liberalism and conservatism.

The Howard government neglected liberalism to the point where it is right to question whether the Liberal Party can seriously claim it at all. Last seen during the Fraser years, it is as musty and decayed as a catechism in the later years of Henry VIII. This is partly the fault of Howard and his orcs like Minchin and Abbott - but only partly.

Moderate liberalism should have manifested itself more strongly, in the debates over refugees but also in other areas of policy. It was up to moderates to make the case that education funding need not mean more resources for Trotskyite womyn's collectives. It was up to moderates to make the case that there is nothing at all "trendy" about Aboriginal policy, to grab them by the lapels and make them see that all the rhetoric about 'fair go' and 'family values' is so much bullshit because it is so palpably denied to Aborigines - and others, but don't start.

One of the key challenges of moderate liberalism lies in the meaning of civil liberties in an age of terror. Do checks-and-balances, parliamentary dramaturgy and rules-of-admissable-evidence really contain some precious kernel of freedom, and if so what is it? Are those things, handed down (yes, down, unto thee) from an ancient and distant land and which can apparently only ever be preserved or diminished, helpful in preventing us from terror and other evils? I am equally certain that these are central questions for moderate liberals, and that Pyne and Payne have squibbed them. They are much more important than monarchy/republic. I doubt they've thought about these issues much, and I think less of them for not having used their time in philosophical exile more productively.

Did they even try to adapt moderate liberalism to Australia in the early twentyfirst century? Did they bollocks. All we got was a slow wet fart like this:
We should embrace a practice that has been initiated by right-of-centre political parties around the world to their benefit: allowing all party members to select the parliamentary leader. In one sweep, we would give Australians a reason to join and become active in the party.

There is, of course, no connection between an idea like that and a rejuvenation of a political party. In 1986 - where the idea belongs, and obviously the last time Pyne did any actual thinking - it would have yielded Joh Bjelke-Petersen or John Elliott as leader, or even Wilson Tuckey. Imagine something like that happening today, with David Clarke or some sun-baked pinhead from Western Australia, and Pyne having the guts to admit that such an outcome wasn't what he had in mind.

Part of the reason why someone like Jeff Kennett increasingly lost touch was because he was convinced that he was carrying his parliamentary colleagues, and that they were a hapless lot. A leader not elected by the parliamentary party would be confirmed in that view. People with greater political sophistication but less appeal would run rings around them, which is why David Cameron is not UK PM yet (nor, indeed, has Barack Obama yet convinced Democrats that he is their future).

Chris Pyne spent many years holding a flame for Peter Costello to become Liberal leader. Costello would never have won a ballot of party members. Tony Abbott, Mal Brough perhaps; but not Costello. Not Nelson either, and definitely not Pyne.

But that is to treat the idea seriously, which is more than it deserves. This idea is born out of panic. It follows the same three-step of political skittishness identified in Yes Minister:

  1. We must do something.

  2. This is something.

  3. Let's do this.

It's a silly idea and not at all attractive - like the Democrats' idea of lowering the voting age to 16 (and look where that got them).
There can be little argument that in the US, where the Republicans have involved their membership in this way since the middle of the 19th century, the Republican Party is a healthier specimen because of it.

Healthier than what, Chris? Is it healthier because it purged itself of moderates? Is it healthier because money and lobbying have invalidated the contribution of branch members? Is it healthier because it will never remove the taint of one poor leader who snuffed out debate and left the party bereft after he'd had his go?
So, in building broader representation and diversity, we must attract more members from multicultural Australia ...

The more multicultural an electorate is, the less likely it is to vote Liberal and the more likely branches there are to be rightwing "rotten borough" branches. Marise Payne has no excuse for not acknowledging that, let alone taking steps in her newfound freedom to act.
... more women and more young Australians who see membership of a centre-right party as a way to express their ideals in a stimulating environment of open minds and open debate.

Not that such debate would change anything, mind you. Chris Pyne said that wouldn't be healthy.
We need an agenda where the modern priorities include: climate change and water issues; addressing why women are still paid less than men in exactly the same jobs; dealing with the reality of modern family life in its many versions - particularly the notorious work-life balance. We cannot afford a head-in-the-sand approach to these and other pressing life challenges of the 21st century.

Work-life balance does not include spending one five nights a month week at branch meetings discussing stormwater recycling when someone like Peter Debnam will airily dismiss as impractical, after being patronising of course, whereupon any attempt to pursue debate will be viewed as divisive or undisciplined. The environment Payne talks about requires a critical mass which isn't there, and Payne and Pyne both know it.
We must encourage open discussion and robust debate. If we feel constrained about open expression, if there is any culture of intimidation, we are venturing into illiberal territory and I have had enough of any suggestion that a political party is the last place to discuss policy.

Hear that? She's had enough. I can almost hear the foot being stamped. How it stops the philosophical noodlings of the 1980s which only served as a foil to a can-do government is not clear.
Also, a similar view from families, who believed that the life of their family member was perceived by our government as insufficiently "mainstream" to merit the respect and basic human rights that the rest of the community takes for granted, just because they were gay. We can talk about the importance of family all we like, but once we are perceived as telling Australians that we disapprove of the lives of members of their family, I believe we are crossing a line, and we also pay a philosophical price for that.

Indeed. But gay rights have hit the mainstream with such force that any action by the Liberal Party would just be backfilling rather than actual progress. The legislation defined by a recent HREOC report as discriminatory to same-sex couples will be repealed within the next five years, and probably not by a Liberal government. The Liberal Party will always have conservative dogs in the manger of minority rights, always.

Interesting that equality for gays is closer at hand than equality for women - if I were a moderate Liberal, I'd have thought about that and it would show.
Australians are more actively interested in politics than at any time in our nation's history.

This is garbage. The decade or so after World War II, the systematic failure of capitalism in the Great Depression, the conscription debates in World War I or Federation saw much more political activism from a greater proportion of the population than we have now.
They have more ways to be involved.

Or, not involved. Nice assertion, it's just the reverse of what's true.
The internet has transformed politics.

The impact on Australian politics has been pretty minor. There have been no mass fundraising efforts like those in the US, and it's just another delivery channel. TV was introduced in Australia in 1956 but it took more than a decade to have an impact on the country's politics.
There are 1.8 million members of the "Australia" network on Facebook. That equates to 14 per cent of the people who voted on November 24 last year. That number will only grow.

Equates, not includes. The political parties in Australia will not succeed in using this effectively unless a foreign politician of the future finds some way to crack it, and even then the Liberal (or liberal) approach will be a feeble imitation. No plan, no sign of any consideration from Pyne - and yes, signs of intellectual life are possible in a wide-ranging, heavily edited speech.

Like Odysseus, like Robert the Bruce or Nelson Mandela or Jose Ramos Horta, moderate Liberals have done time on the outer and seen their life's work traduced. Unlike these others that exile was not sufficiently terrible to prompt far-reaching questions about their motivations and applicability of their beliefs; they basically dusted off stale and irrelevant ideas and are now going around stirring up apathy, like street hawkers offering chipped crockery and stained and dented cookware to passers-by.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate ...

Yep, sounds like the moderate liberals I knew.
... but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Nah, sorry - you must be thinking of somebody else. Who exactly I'm not sure, but not Marise Payne or Chris Pyne. Even their opponents within the Liberal Party have encouraged them to take long hard looks at themselves: Pyne has clearly taken this to justify his preening. If they haven't spent the past fifteen or so tumultuous years thinking, what have they been doing?

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