We unfortunate Australians have just lived through another ugly farce orchestrated by people who like to call themselves ‘conservatives.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. Alternatively, if this is what conservatives can do to us, the less we see of them, the better. They are venomous and destructive. And the masters of denial have no program for the future. Building up is far harder than tearing down.
A while ago, I said:
The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked. Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The English preferred evolution to revolution. They relished their history and traditions; they reveled in their own mystique. They suspected change. Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations.’….
An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta….Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’ Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’. Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’ A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.
Speaking of eighteenth century England, Sir Lewis Namier said:
Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.
The fundamental terms are as boring as they are inevitable – compromise, moderation, restraint, and tolerance. Yet none of those terms could in any way be applied to those in the Murdoch press and Sky News who wanted Turnbull out and Dutton in. On the contrary, these people favour the direct opposite – the view that ‘the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’ I would happily eschew both labels ‘conservative’ and ‘populist,’ but if either has any use, it is to allow us to conclude that a ‘conservative’ cannot by definition be a ‘populist’. (And anyone who can look at Peter Dutton and think of ‘plain human kindness’ is in serious need of medical attention.)
When Tony Abbott lost office as P M, it was by a vote of the party. He and his followers did not like that truth. They said he was the victim of a coup. A coup involves the use of force to change leaders. (A revolution involves the use of force to change the whole regime.) Turnbull has now lost office by the same process. Whether this could be described as a coup or not, the behaviour of Abbott and his media supporters was a direct repudiation of moderation or restraint.
To make it worse, the ignition point came after the party as a whole approved a policy that offended the plotters; just as it happened in England after the governing party there adopted the ‘Checkers policy’. And in a world crying out for political leadership, the dissidents in each case complained that their Prime Minister had been able to get majority approval for a policy.
Last week’s farce was as predictable as Blue Hills. But two strands seem clear. One is that neither party stands for anything. Labour v Capital went out years ago. So did Left v Right. In the last ten years, big business has become as unpopular as trade unions – and churches, government agencies, and sports administrators. On the two moral issues – refugees and foreign wars – the two big parties both gave up and are now rock solid in a way that the community is not. Those parties therefore seem driven to argue about things that should not rationally be arguable. We then get a real problem like climate change being reduced to a shopping item of electricity prices. The inanity is brazen. What you then end up with is a crippling triumph of ideology over evidence. Can you imagine a more complete rejection of the ‘conservative’ mind?
The second strand is that this is yet another big win for mediocrity. We had a Prime Minister with intelligence and flair. We now have a talking head that has got God. That is such a sad Australian story.
We are left to console ourselves at the chagrin of the lynch mob. Andrew Bolt was beside himself with rage. You could taste his loathing of Turnbull through the television screen. God only knows who shall feel the gall of his frustrated envy next. He was like a taipan uncurled. Credlin is frankly vicious. But unlike Bolt, there is a chance that she believes some of her own product. If Abbott were a dog, they would put him down.
Finally, most of these fake conservatives are overt or covert admirers of the most unconservative man ever born, the current President of the United States. This may be just another instance of some mountebanks saying whatever comes into their heads provided it sells. To that extent I agree with those who see our most recent debacle as just another instance of the world-wide descent of democracy into the gutter.
This is the second time that Malcolm Turnbull has been put down by jealous boobies for being both successful and rational. On each occasion his successor was a surprise. We shall have to see if this surprise is as nasty as the first. Well, whatever else, it will at best be mind-numbingly ordinary. The people of Australia are fairly wondering what we have done to deserve this.
I now see that some years ago, I wrote:
Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people. The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor…. By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people. Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves….
The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics. The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians. How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful?
Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country. The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic. Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:
‘Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations’……
At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble. Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not. I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’
For reasons that will be apparent, I have yet again cancelled a subscription to The Australian. They make it as hard as they can. After two emails and a delay, I got back a machined response. It contained the eternal lie: ‘We appreciate your feedback.’ It was marked ‘No-Reply.’