Inside Story

Protest politics

Malcolm Turnbull’s predicament reflects the crisis of modern conservatism

Norman Abjorensen 20 August 2018 1046 words

Politics has become “an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected,” historian Richard Hofstadter wrote half a century ago. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

A 1973 pop song by the Scottish band Stealers Wheel featured a lament by an anguished “self-made man,” unable to decide what to do with the “clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.” He wonders why he is there, but he can’t escape, can’t even move. He is “stuck in the middle.”

The words serve as a neat, eloquent and entirely apposite characterisation of where Malcolm Turnbull finds himself today. Amid poor showings in by-elections, flatlining opinion polls and policy stalemates, not to mention internal subversion, he is seemingly mired, along with his government, in a state of permanent crisis. But it is more than that: the crisis is that of conservatism itself.

Whether Peter Dutton is persuaded to mount a challenge matters little; with him or without him, the maladies afflicting the Liberal Party and the political right generally, racked by ideological confusion, reeling from insurrection and distorted by populist whirlpools, won’t go away.

The politics, as they are, are more symbolic than actual. And, if anything, they hark back to the culture wars of the 1950s and the 1990s and centre on a crude left–right (or liberal–conservative) axis rather than competing policy positions.

In terms of purely pragmatic politics, a lurch to the right and the replacement of Turnbull by Dutton makes no sense at all. The opinion polls tell us — and have been doing so for many months now — that more people intend to vote (or preference) Labor than Liberal or National. Is moving further away from Labor really the way to lure them back?

Besides, traditional centre-right parties — here and overseas — find themselves being outflanked on the right. Here, we have Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, Bob Katter’s Australian Party and the libertarian Liberal Democrats all vying for a portion of the vote that once belonged to the Liberals and the Nationals. Those on the traditional right are naturally worried, and to add to their woes a concerted insurrection is under way in the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party by elements associated with the religious right.

A feature of conservatism in crisis is its ambiguity. It can say what it is against (public ownership, migration, taxes, welfare spending, social equality) but finds it difficult to articulate anything like a cohesive set of beliefs or values. Such a situation is ready-made for the politics of the dog whistle and the cheap appeal of populism, as Senator Fraser Anning so clearly demonstrated in his maiden speech.

How to fashion anything resembling a program is the challenge, as has been the case for much of the time since the end of the cold war, almost thirty years ago, when simply opposing communism seemed like a sufficient cause. Once the United States became the sole superpower, the resurgence in the American right saw an explosion of the unabashed triumphalism that led to such unmitigated disasters as the invasion of Iraq. With the apparent demise of socialism came a crusade against regulation and the rise of anything-goes capitalism, which eventually took the world to the worst economic and financial crisis since the Great Depression. Not surprisingly, the mopping up was left to governments (read taxpayers).

Under the Howard government, Australians were told repeatedly that competition would bring untold benefits. The power crisis we face today — and it has a double meaning for Malcolm Turnbull — can partly be traced back to this foolish blind faith in market forces. It was, in many ways, a colossal con job. (How ironic that the same people who once preached the sanctity of the market now advocate drastic intervention, including price-fixing.)

The replacement of Tony Abbott in 2015 was a simple necessity: he was arguably the most inept of all Australian prime ministers. Certainly, his behaviour since then, a lot of it designed to undermine Turnbull, has more than vindicated his removal. Nothing better exemplifies his shortcomings than his risible speech in London playing down climate change and claiming global warming is not so bad considering more people die from cold than heat.

In fact, Abbott’s politics and his political demeanour illustrate as well as anything the hollowness at the core of contemporary conservatism and its essentially nihilist character. The same approach saw the rise of McCarthyism in the United States during the “red scares” of the early 1950s, which sowed division, eroded trust and needlessly destroyed reputations. It was the rise, and subsequent legitimation, of insurgency as a style of politics. It reached its American apogee in 1964 with the Republican presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater, who almost certainly would have taken the world to nuclear war.

In 1963, the historian Richard Hofstadter characterised the emerging style of politics on the right as a form of cultural protest, an analysis that is as relevant today, in the era of Donald Trump and Tony Abbott, as it was at the time. “The growth of the mass media of communication and their use in politics have brought politics closer to the people than ever before and have made politics a form of entertainment in which the spectators feel themselves involved,” he wrote. “Thus it has become, more than ever before, an arena into which private emotions and personal problems can be readily projected. Mass communications have made it possible to keep the mass man in an almost constant state of political mobilisation.”

The figure most associated with formulating the principles of conservative thought — the Irish-born Edmund Burke, responding to the upheavals of the French Revolution — would have been aghast at the populist turn that contemporary conservatism has taken. Blindly clinging to the status quo — or even some imagined previous golden age — leads nowhere, he warned, writing: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.”

In words that would have no meaning or resonance for those who call themselves conservatives today, Burke warned that the task of political leaders was to maintain equilibrium between “the two principles of conservation and correction.” To govern, he wrote, was to engage in perpetual compromise, “sometimes between good and evil, and sometimes between evil and evil.” In other words, crude ideological purism should have no place.

No doubt Malcolm Turnbull, stuck in the middle, knows this all too well. •