24 December 2016

Cory & George's excellent adventure

Mmmmm, standin' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Standin' at the crossroad
I tried to flag a ride
Didn't nobody seem to know me
Everybody pass me by

- Robert Johnson Cross roads blues
I am growing tired of professional paid political commentators who don't actually understand how politics works.

Conservatism is largely about cultivating a fug of complacency and wallowing in it. Complacency becomes impossible for conservatives when a growing groundswell of opinion leads to non-conservative outcomes. When that happens, they have to rouse people to action, conservatives often use the crossroads metaphor: we have come, ineluctably, to a point where a decision must be taken on our future direction.

The trouble with Cory Bernardi is that he does this so regularly, the call to action loses the immediacy it needs to take action. If you're going to rouse the silent majority to speak, to motivate a peaceful and industrious people to take to the streets, you do not do so lightly. Yet, Bernardi does so every time he misses the kiss of the limelight upon his face. Why would it do so? He's not a minister, with decision-making power. He is not a novelty; he has been a Senator for a decade now. He lacks both the freshness and youth of, say, Senator Patterson, as well as the gravitas of, um, pick any Senator old enough to be his parent. Bernardi is about the same age as Joe Hockey or Nicola Roxon, who entered parliament about a decade before him and - whatever you think about Hockey or Roxon - achieved more than Bernardi has. South Australia's Liberals keep sending Bernardi to the Senate on the basis that he's a man of promise; but apart from threatening to leave the very party that put so much faith in him, it's hard to see what that promise is. Some ministers in the government, and the current Leader of the Opposition, weren't members of parliament when Bernardi started crying from the wilderness Senate backbenches.

The same applies to George Christensen. A Young Nat who worked for the previous National MP for the seat he now holds, George Christensen has no prospects beyond remaining in the position he is now. He regularly threatens to cross the floor, yet as a Whip (with a pay increment) his job is to prevent other Coalition MPs doing so. He lacks Bernardi's comfortable middle-class background. All around him in post-mining-boom mid-north Queensland lies economic uncertainty, with declining farm and mining jobs and low-paid service jobs in tourism the only alternatives to not having a job at all (fears that will not be alleviated by the spectre of the Adani mine). He has the best job in town, and every couple of years Labor and a bunch of other bastards try to take it from him.

Christensen should have lost all credibility when he threatened to vote with Labor over a royal commission into banking, failed to do so, and the motion was lost by a single vote. Right there is your proof that Christensen's principles do not extend beyond his own advancement or preservation. Yet, press gallery continue to cover his every utterance as though they were important than they are.

There is no such thing as a slow news day. There are dumb editors, and there are lazy journalists, but no day can really be said to have little or no news. Maybe some of that news that fell outside space constraints on busy days, or timed deliberately to avoid scrutiny, could get a go on 'slow news days'. Yet, the press gallery always jumps like maggots in hot grease at the idea that Cory Bernardi will leave the Liberal Party, or Christensen the LNP. They never twig to the idea that they might not be able to cope outside the Coalition - not even after decades of experience in the press gallery.

Conservatism has never been popular in a country that trashed its traditional owners, failed to replace it with a meaningful "bunyip aristocracy", and which still gives lip-service to egalitarianism and a tall-poppy syndrome. It works best when it is spread thinly but broadly across the political spectrum.

Over the first two decades after World War II, Menzies' Liberal Party and Evatt's Labor each had substantial progressive elements that might have created opportunities for women, public health systems, or other progressive outcomes manifested in other countries. When John Howard was Prime Minister, he faced a Labor Party with a substantial conservative presence: the SDA controlled key preselections in Victoria, NSW and South Australia, with cautious leaders in Kim Beazley and Simon Crean (sons of Whitlam ministers). Conservatives speak well of Menzies and Howard eras, and seek to emulate and perpetuate them. Conservatives succeeded in making conservatism look bipartisan, and we know how the press gallery can't resist bipartisanship.

To illustrate the same point by contrast:
  • Those who think the Whitlam government was so progressive and dynamic should look at the actual ministers Whitlam commissioned in December 1972; few shared their leader's commitment to dynamic, progressive causes.
  • When Howard-era Liberals Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan spoke out against cruel and regressive asylum-seeker policy, Labor stayed silent or sniggered at Coalition disunity (then cried rhetorically "but where are all the so-called liberal moderates?").
Today, our political system is not particularly conservative. Labor has largely dismantled its SDA machine, and found popularity with positions such as same-sex marriage or renewable energy that appal conservatives. Within the Liberal Party, Turnbull is not trusted by conservatives to stand up for conservative ideas. Merely reaffirming his hope for an Australian republic, without any commitment to doing so while he is actually Prime Minister, sends conservatives into a tizz.

When conservatives go into a tizz, the foundations of the Turnbull government begin to quake. Like the man himself, those foundations are a mile wide, an inch deep. Conservatives gain their power by stopping progressive Liberals from doing progressive things. The worst thing you could do to conservatives would be to corral them into one party.

The poverty of their ideas and their inability to translate them to practical policy or legislative outcomes would become obvious even to the dimmest lights in the press gallery. Conservatives can stop same-sex marriage within the Coalition; outside the Coalition they become a token, impotent protest to a unity ticket between progressive/pragmatic Liberals and the ALP, which can assert its party platform now that the SDA has been weakened. Conservatives can disdain multilateral foreign policy arrangements and admire kick-arse nationalist leaders like Duerte or Trump; progressive/pragmatic Liberals and the ALP agree that this is simply not how foreign policy is done. Conservatives want extra payments for nuclear families, church organisations, or conservatively-inclined older voters; progressive/pragmatic Liberals and the ALP agree the Budget cannot afford it. Conservative would screech at moderate Liberals who voted with Labor; Labor would reap the political credit, as happened in the early 1970s.

The one area where they will lunge for credibility - and where the press gallery will follow, given optics etc. - is with national security and xenophobia. While earnest progressives will wrestle with complexities, they will play up national-security theatre and xenophobia, and because these are bipartisan the press gallery will give these undistinguished politicians the benefit of the doubt, grilling and disparaging genuine experts from beyond the political class.

Bernardi, Christensen, and other conservatives believe they can keep the Coalition in office by uniting what we might call the broad right and bringing it within the Coalition, and that this is both easier than and preferable to moderating Coalition positions to compete with Labor. They believe that they can bring together Family First, Pauline Hanson's One Nation, the Citizens' Electoral Council, Fred Nile's Christian Democrats, what remains of the Democratic Labor Party, and sundry other religious, anti-immigration cranks. They believe those groups can flush out moderates within Coalition ranks, and that the public will vote for the Coalition much as it has but with extra votes instead of preferences.

It isn't at all clear that Pauline Hanson would give up being leader of Pauline Hanson's One Nation to Bernardi or Christensen, not even if they asked nicely. Fred Nile has been in NSW's Parliament since Cory and George were little boys, having built his political machine and fended off usurpers, with his bare hands; like Cory and George, he has achieved little apart from getting re-elected. Same with Bob Katter in far north Queensland - you'll notice he isn't embracing Christensen. Bob Day did something similar with Family First in South Australia - but Bernardi has failed to exploit the chaos that has come from Day's resignation and financial woes to build his own machine beyond the Liberal Party. If he can't do that in South Australia how might he build and lead a national movement? Tony Abbott is a former Prime Minister - if he leaves the Liberal Party to hang out with drongoes like Cory and George, Peta Credlin and other hangers-on will fall away and his legacy will be less than Malcolm Fraser's.

As for the DLP - Bernardi isn't even Catholic, but both Turnbull and Shorten are, and the Catholic Church could use a bit of bipartisanship right now.

Uniting the right would be an impossible task at the leadership level, at the membership level it would be a joke. Bernardi and/or Christensen would not attract capable and talented people, for they would threaten their positions. They would not attract the sort of people who have been overtaken them within the Coalition. They would not attract the capable people who made effective politicians of Tony Windsor or Cathy McGowan. They would attract the sort of political jetsam that flakes off One Nation like dandruff. Bernardi and Christensen might resent being left behind by people they disdain, and who disdain them - but is it really better to be in the sort of role in which Hanson finds herself and revels: leader of a bunch of ding-dongs? Bernardi once described Jacqui Lambie as "thick" in a diatribe that veered very close to snobbery; you can't build a national movement if that's your attitude, if you have more in common with Christopher Pyne than either dares admit.

Bernardi, and Christensen to a lesser extent, have spent years mincing around trying to balance their self-belief against the political oblivion yawning before them should they fail. They throw the idea out to the press gallery on slow news days, stop returning phone calls once they've overplayed their hands, then repeat until the press gallery wake up to it. It's interesting that none of them have actually asked Bernardi about what he was actually doing at the UN - yeah, Trump and all that, but you could have spent that time sleeping in a subway station and still picked up that stuff. The Australian delegation at the UN does real and important work - how did Senator Bernardi augment, or even observe, that work? Politicians usually insist they work hard and achieve much on their overseas trips; Bernardi seems to have used a foreign study tour for his own benefit, and no journalist has applied an iota of scrutiny.

The press gallery don't know anything about politics that doesn't happen beneath a particular hill in Canberra (and aren't even awake to most of that). Do the have any capacity to look at politicians' political bases in the far provinces? When conservatives insist the Liberal Party's base consists of conservatives, how could they question it - even if they were inclined to do so? When the press gallery clogs up time/space with antics from Cory and George, they might thrill those two as much as they thrill themselves, but they tell us less about how we are and might be governed than the secure futures of either might require. Still, Cory and George get a lot of coverage from media outlets with declining consumer bases, and that's the main thing.