Twenty years ago, during a long, leisurely lunch-time conversation about the Liberals and their history, John Howard expressed the view to me that the party no longer attracted the sort of people it once had. He spoke frankly – at the time, his chances of a comeback looked close to zero – and I pressed him on the issue.
There were solid people in the party when he joined, he told me, solid citizens. People like his heroes, Robert Cotton and John Carrick. It was their example that attracted him, and that was what had typified the old Liberal Party.
It was the mid 1990s. Howard and his colleagues had been out of government in Canberra for eleven years, and prime minister Paul Keating had just launched another attack on the “spivs” in the Liberal Party. Howard said he wasn’t sure just what Keating meant by the term, but he did concede that “a different sort of person” had become attracted to the party. These people, he suggested, wanted something rather than wanting to offer something. It was a big difference.
Howard had some wounds to bind, of course. He was still smarting from the disaster of the 1987 election campaign and the conservative assault against him in Queensland, which had culminated in his abrupt removal from the leadership in a party-room coup the following year. Political money had been flowing freely in Queensland, mostly from the property developers who became known as the “white-shoe brigade,” and it was these funds that bankrolled the ill-fated bid by the Joh-for-PM campaign to install the corrupt National Party premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, in the Lodge.
It was no secret that Howard had made bitter enemies as treasurer in Malcolm Fraser’s government, many of them in Queensland, when he cracked down on tax-avoidance schemes. The best-known of these was the notorious “bottom-of the-harbour” lurk, in which companies were stripped of their assets and profits – that is, sent to the bottom of the harbour – before their tax became due. To his great credit, Howard pushed through the Crimes (Taxation Offences) Act, which put an end to that scheme, and followed that two years later with legislation that went further, allowing the government to recover tax avoided under dubious arrangements dating back to 1972.
The retrospectivity in this Act was even more controversial than the criminalisation of avoidance. There was disquiet within the Liberal Party, but those most affected, Queensland’s white-shoe brigade, didn’t stay to discuss the matter. They flocked to the National Party, where they found a welcoming political home. Elsewhere in Australia, where the Nationals weren’t dominant, some of the disaffected elements began to make their views felt within the Liberal Party, especially in Western Australia; these were the “spivs” to whom Keating referred. Howard, while he did not say so, was uneasy about such influences on the party in which he had grown up.
For the Liberals, this was another taste of a problem that had mainly plagued Labor in earlier decades. For a time, Labor was infiltrated from the left, with the Communist Party members and sympathisers joining branches and taking control of Labor-affiliated unions in the years after the second world war. But the party was also white-anted from the right, most dramatically when B.A. Santamaria’s Groupers tried to take it over – and caused it to split disastrously – in the 1950s.
In the decades since then, the conservative parties have been the most prone to infiltration. The far-right Australian League of Rights strove to influence grassroots members of the National Party for many years, though party stalwarts like Ron Boswell in Queensland and Peter McGauran in Victoria worked tirelessly to keep them at bay. More recently, the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption has revealed how the influence of a network of property developers has reached right into the heart of the Liberal Party.
Similar examples of infiltration of that state’s Liberal Party – from the 1970s ethnic branch-stacking by the late Lyenko Urbanchich, a Slovenian Nazi collaborator, to the activism of the current far-right religious faction led by David Clarke, which grew out of Urbanchich’s “Uglies” faction – suggest that mainstream parties are forever at risk from those who might use them as vehicles for their own purposes. And a recent series of incidents – the case of Scott Harrison, the neo-Nazi campaign worker in Victoria being just the latest – shows that the problem of extremist infiltration is not confined to Liberal branches in Queensland and New South Wales.
Harrison, a former vice-president of the Deakin University Liberal Club, had been working on the campaign of Liberal candidate Tony McManus in Lara. An investigation by the Age revealed he was a prominent member of the white supremacist group the Church of Creativity, founded in the United States in 1973 by neo-Nazis, which has several members in Australia, including known criminals. He has since resigned from the Liberal Party.
Since the end of the Cold War, which framed the key political divide for four decades, new fronts have opened up in the battle for power – notably what we have come to call the culture wars. In some ways these are a continuation of the old Cold War, but instead of arguing about economic systems, the focus has turned to cultural phenomena. A whole new array of binary distinctions – individual/collective, public/private, corporate/not-for-profit, free market/regulation, religious/secular and so on – have come into being.
Inevitably these tensions have spilled over into, and become part of, mainstream political discourse. With the broad social focus shifting from basic economic issues to what might best be termed “values,” political parties sensed an imminent political realignment and sought to position themselves advantageously. In the United States, the Republicans under Nixon (with some prodding from the charismatic conservative Barry Goldwater) saw, and exploited, a backlash among traditional Democrats against the civil rights movement and other left-liberal initiatives.
In Australia, things moved a little more slowly. But after regaining the leadership of the Liberals in 1995, John Howard seized on a rising discontent with the Keating agenda and made a pitch to the “battlers” that hinged on a constant hammering away at the dangers of a progressivist-dominated Australia. It was a pitch at which he excelled: on one side, he argued, were political correctness and the liberal elites; on the other were “families battling to give their children a break… young Australians battling to get a decent start… older Australians battling to preserve their dignity.” This was real Australia, Howard argued, not the Australia of Keating and his progressives concerned with abstract “big picture” thinking and the suppression of Australian national identity in Asia.
Howard’s narrative set out to smash what Paul Kelly called “the post-Whitlam alliance between the working class and the tertiary-educated left.” He did this by appropriating the anxieties that briefly brought Pauline Hanson to prominence, and by transforming the conservative culture war narrative into a coherent political agenda. It worked for Howard, who strung together four election victories using this new alignment of forces. But at what cost?
The ever-present danger of incorporating a culture wars narrative into a political campaign – in using values rather than policies and ideas as political currency – is that it is at once reductionist and dichotomous, inviting a simple “with us or agin’ us” response rather than careful consideration or close analysis.
If the enemy is the progressivist liberal-left – and, in the right’s discourse, it unquestionably is – then every social reform over the past half century is a potential target, whether it’s equal opportunity, multiculturalism, anti-discrimination legislation, Indigenous land rights or gender equality. What starts out as a political mobilisation exercise can very easily become a crusade in some people’s eyes, and crusades attract fanatics. You have only to look at the Tea Party influence on the US Republicans.
John Howard was right. There are different people in the party these days. Perhaps the moral of this is we always need to be careful what we wish for. •