16 February 2010

Raising doubts

In recent days we've seen the self-defeating vacancy at the heart of the modern right: the desire to create doubt rather than certainty.

Edmund Burke expressed this sentiment best when he said: "We fear God, we look up with awe to kings: with affection to parliaments; with duty to magistrates; with reverence to priests; and with respect to nobility". That sense of assurance that the country is in good hands and that the common weal managed prudently, is the very essence of conservatism. It takes a lot of hard work to make that manifest - but not so much that you look like a try-hard, as Rudd and Swan do.

Cory Bernardi, in Friday's AFR, hooting about fobbing off both the ETS and Turnbull: "people like me were out there raising doubts [about the ETS]. The leader usually shapes policy in our party, but in this case Malcolm was unable to carry the party". It's not the role of a conservative to raise doubts, you fool: the role of the conservative is to allay doubts.

Then we have this shambles of a piece of journalism. Barnaby Joyce has gone from being The Scourge Of Labor, Bill McKell in reverse (but without the organised crime links), Cincinattus leaving his accounting practice - to being such a pitiable figure that Malcolm Colless is calling for the city folks to subsidise him.

Colless points out that Joyce raised a lot of doubt about the ETS, and also (however unwittingly) points out that he has failed to do much else since, particularly anything of a constructive nature.

This is all very well but now, as a member of the opposition front bench, Joyce must exercise a discipline in his approach to policy issues that does not come naturally or easily to him. Against this background it is difficult to understand why, so early in his new role, Joyce chose to make his recent televised address to the National Press Club in Canberra.

And once aware that he was fronting this media bearpit, why didn't Abbott suggest that Joyce run through his proposed speech with him and his staff, along with suggested responses to the sort of questions his address would likely prompt?

More to the point, why did Joyce wing it? Why did he think he'd take to an unfamiliar and daunting environment with ease?

Why did he not seek to exude an air of calm that the finances of the Commonwealth would be in good hands if those hands were his? This is what Peter Costello did, to the point of complacency: a few stats here, a bit of cross-referencing to observable phenomena in our society, and before you know it he'd lulled you into a torpor and you couldn't imagine the nation's finances in any hands but his. Credible future finance ministers are not dismissed in three minutes on light-entertainment programs. Their role is too important to be dismissed entirely, as Roskam did in the AFR on Friday.

Colless could have explored that, but he trots out the usual Nats whinges verbatim and unexamined. The Nationals' vote in Richmond declined from 70% under Doug Anthony to 30% under Larry; the Nats are irate not because they have "no chance of winning Richmond", but because their chances of are better than the Nats'.

... despondent Nationals are discussing retaliating by standing candidates in federal Liberal seats in NSW, including Macarthur, Hume and possibly Farrer on the NSW-Victorian border.

All of those seats were once Country Party seats - none has been held by the Nats for a decade, if not several. The moment the Nats' bluff is called is the moment it is all over.

The threatened hissy fit over the dumping of David Clarke from the NSW Parliament is another example of this. As a man in his late sixties Clarke should be sanguine enough to hand over to a youngster, secure in the knowledge that church and family and all good things will prevail and prosper once he is gone. Instead, he has no achievements and no pride, and is thus threatening the Liberal Party with what it fears most: fear, uncertainty and doubt. Clarke isn't concerned that his absence will mean the defeat of all that he holds dear: he knows that everything will be fine - no, much much better - without him.

The reason why the far right has abandoned conservatism is because it is too hard. In a shifting world all that is solid melts into air, which is why the metaphysical has become more important, not less, for many. What the far right have embraced, however, are intellectual boat-people from the far left, who have treated moderate territories of the political terrain as flyover country. These people have brought with them their Leninist assumptions: assertions that the people are with you, a perverse comfort that your position is unpopular but inherently right for that, and the assumption that your enemies will wither in the face of sarcasm and ad-hominem abuse.

Old time Liberals like Peter Coleman treated these intellectual refugees like prodigal sons, setting aside suspicion and slaughtering fatted calves. These days the fatted calves are gone and the hills are bare, yet the far-right Leninists hold the high ground and are leading the Liberals not to certainty and comfort, but to the kind of indolence and irresponsibility we have seen from the California Republicans since Reagan left the Governor's mansion.

It takes a good man to build a barn, said Lincoln, but any old mule can kick it down. Like mules, modern Liberals can take no pride in their recent heritage nor have much hope for their future. Conservatives need to start creating certainty, not doubt, and if that means that mules like Joyce and Bernardi must be replaced then we can take comfort that it is for the best.

Postscript: I've quoted from and referred to the AFR here, which is behind a paywall. That's the risk you take I suppose, I hope the AFR is happy for me to interpret its precious content as I wish.

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