Conservatism in Crisis

“In a fractured society”, writes The Australian’s Paul Kelly, “the Liberals are losing by choosing the wrong battles”. In his article, republlshed below, Kelly reveals the void in the heart and soul of a rudderless, directionless, dysfunctional government, and the loss of an ethos that once bound together the many mansions of the Liberal-National Coalition’s  broad but perennially fractious church.

He writes: “The upshot is that the conservative movement in this country has no organisational structure, no agreed agenda or strategic mission.It features rival leadership contenders, crisscrosses the Coalition, pulls in a few celebrities, falls for the false mantra from its media champions and seizes up any grassroots eruptions of support from the suburbs and regions. This is not a winning formula. Conservatives suffer from serious tactical ineptitude and misread public opinion”.

But behind all of this, challenging the Coalition, and haunting the long dark night of Mr Kelly’s  tortured conservative soul, is a social and cultural revolution that challenges all mainstream parties, and indeed, mainstream media (if the recent angst-ridden moralizing of the News Corp opinionistas is anything to go by) exemplified in the growth of social media and a new ethos of individual independence and “self-actualization”, accompanied by a decline in the status of and respect for the institutional political, commercial and cultural pillars of the past generations – government, church, family, and business.

Out there on ‘battler’, dinky-di, aspirational and struggle streets, the prevailing attitude is that of ‘a plague on all their self-interested, opportunistic and hypocritical houses!”

Kelly quotes the American conservative writer Yuval Levin:  “Our culture has been moved by an increasingly individualistic ideal and so by a drive for greater distinction, more customization and the elevation of personal choice and identity”. To conservatives, this has meant the erosion of a once-unifying moral and cultural consensus, and the loss of comfortable and reassuring certainties.

Many of these old certainties, and the values, perceptions and assumptions that sustained them were actually quite regressive, and indeed, entrenched prejudice, oppression and discrimination, and it was good to see the back of them.

Turnbull Liberals doomed while conservatism in crisis

Paul Kelly, The Australian 10th March 2018

Featured picture: Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull with ousted PM Tony Abbott after the Coalition’s campaign launch in Sydney in 2016.

Conservatives in the Anglo democracies are confused, divided and mainly in retreat. The meaning of conservatism is now riddled with disputation. Conservatives fight over whether Donald Trump is saviour or demon, whether Brexit is a calamity or a liberation and whether the Turnbull government deserves to be saved or denounced.

In Australia there is not a single leader among the six premiers and Prime Minister who is a self-declared conservative. The triumph conservatives enjoyed with Tony Abbott’s 2013 victory has surrendered to frustration under Malcolm Turnbull, who is not a conservative and shuns the label.
President Trump brings the conservative dilemma to a peak. Many applaud him for defeating Hillary Clinton and are seduced by his success — yet Trump champions ideas that violate traditional conservatism. Witness his blowing the US budget deficit by $US1.5 trillion in his tax cut package and this week’s protectionist lurch, with his tariff policy denounced across the world, including by Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe as “highly regrettable and bad”.

What do conservatives believe in 2018? Are they for massive public deficits and debt, or governments that pay their way? Are they for unilateral protectionism or a global free trade order? Do they, like Trump, favour quitting the Paris climate change accords or sticking by this global pact of 175 nations? Do they want a US president capable of extolling the values of liberal democracy and freedom against the rival Chinese model of state capitalism and dictatorial repression? Do they want leadership that respects women and shuns racist wedges, or are they unfazed by insults to women and racist political ploys?

Elected as a Republican, Trump is a pro-business populist nationalist who is a killing agent for traditional conservative norms. His success heralds the rise of a destructive populism that in the guise of revitalisation threatens to poison mainstream conservatism. But it is not just Trump who poses such fundamental questions. They are being put at home across the centre-right of Australian politics.

Turnbull’s 2015 removal of Abbott was driven by electoral alarm and self-interest by MPs, but its progressive character was potent. Conservatives are thinner along the corridors of power, yet their frustration is driving a pent-up ideological purpose. The Liberal Party now suffers the sharpest rivalry for a generation between conservatives and progressives. This risks becoming a dagger at its heart: it damages the Turnbull government and the threat exists of a serious convulsion after any election defeat next year. This is not just about personalities. It goes to rising differences over core Liberal and centre-right belief.

Conservatism is consumed by confusion over its principles and purpose. It is fragmenting in party terms — witness the Coalition bleeding votes to Hanson’s One Nation and Cory Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives. With John Howard long gone, it is devoid of any authority figure in office able to hold the movement together and retain it within the party. Abbott remains its figurehead with the faithful but his internal standing has nosedived.

The upshot is that the conservative movement in this country has no organisational structure, no agreed agenda or strategic mission, it features rival leadership contenders, crisscrosses the Coalition, pulls in a few celebrities, falls for the false mantra from its media champions and seizes up any grassroots eruptions of support from the suburbs and regions. This is not a winning formula.

Conservatives suffer from serious tactical ineptitude and misread public opinion. The array of prescriptions they demand from the Turnbull government — such as quitting the Paris accords, pitting coal against renewables, ditching Gonski funding, revisiting the National Disability Insurance Scheme and achieving small government with a new round of spending cuts — might delight conservatives but constitutes a package for guaranteed electoral suicide. No government would entertain it.

Many of these issues are legacies from battle that conservatives have already lost with current public opinion. Conservatives in Australia, far more than in the US or Britain, have almost no cultural power, little institutional power and have suffered near-annihilation in schools and universities.

The cultural ascendancy of the progressives has been a long and turbulent 40-year story originating with Gough Whitlam. The personal success of Howard as PM for 11 years merely disguised the extent to which progressives were taking control of institutions.

The three institutions that long sustained conservative sentiment in Australia have been transformed — the church, the family and the business sector. The church, notably the Catholic Church, long the conservative sheet anchor, is discredited, with its influence in eclipse; the traditional family structure with its values has surrendered to the “modern” family on the new norm that one type of family is as valid as another; and the business community, more pluralistic but unpopular, has abandoned financial support for the Coalition and, desperate to purchase credibility, presents as an agent of social and environmental change while singularly inept at selling an economic reform message.

Amid this political and cultural turbulence, former Liberal Party federal director Brian Loughnane has warned that restoration of unity on the centre-right — the condition that underwrote Howard’s success — is essential for Turnbull’s re-election.

Such unity is unlikely as de facto political warfare between the progressive and conservative rank and file only intensifies. It would be equally wrong, however, to think progressive ideology is the solution for the Liberal Party or Turnbull government. The notion of “modernising” the Liberal Party with progressive ideas only guarantees the fracture of voters on the right, a process now far advanced. Hanson is the beneficiary at present but other breakaways on the right will emerge.

The test for the Liberals is: can such fragmentation be contained or does it inevitably arise from the social and cultural forces being unleashed that have their most powerful demonstration in the Trump presidency? Trump’s success has ignited conservative energy, breakaways and populist revolts around the world.

The Howard formula of a Liberal Party that unites both the conservative and liberal traditions seems lost these days, a victim of turbulence in the political system and social transformation. Put another way, the ultimate question is whether Howard’s successful party model can be reconstructed or whether it has been terminated by social change.

In the US and Australia today the idea of a common culture is eroding. Ultimately, this threatens both sides of both politics — Liberal and Labor — since their ability to hold together a majority coalition of voters across shared values becomes harder if not impos­sible. It is a bottom-up revolution that has a long way yet to run.

The American conservative writer Yuval Levin described this process in his 2016 book The Fractured Republic: “Our culture has been moved by an increasingly individualistic ideal and so by a drive for greater distinction, more customisation and the elevation of personal choice and identity. “The highest rated television program of the 1950s, I Love Lucy, earned a 67.3 Nielsen rating … in 1953. This meant that roughly 67 per cent of active television sets in the country were tuned to the program. By contrast, the highest rated program of the current decade, Sunday Night Football, maxed out at a 14.8 rating in 2014…The idea that the publication of a new novel by a leading author or the latest production by a noted playwright would be a huge cultural moment … now seems impossibly quaint. Such moments matter to the subcultures in which they emerge, but there is barely a mainstream culture at all to receive them.

“The internet has been developing in our time in ways perfectly suited to advance this process of fragmentation …As each of us is encouraged by our culture, economy and politics to be more like our individual selves, we are naturally inclined to recoil from any demands that we conform to the requirements of some external moral standard — a set of rules that keeps ‘me’ from being ‘the real me’.”

This stretches to breaking point Edmund Burke’s concept of conservatism as a contract to transit time-honoured values and traditions: “It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue … it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to born.”

This cannot apply to a society where individuals practise “living my truth” with as much emotion as possible — emotion now widely accepted as proof of sincerity. As our shared moral culture recedes, it is replaced by individuals being true to themselves and having the “courage” to reveal their authentic self to all and sundry.

The issue for conservatism has been its paralysis before this gobsmacking rise in individual expressionism and its violation of Christian views of human nature. The first warning signs came from the pro-market economic-based individualism of the 1980s and then in the culturally based individualism of the past 20 years.

The crisis of conservatism is a moral crisis. This has been apparent since the 90s in Australia, and the inability of conservatives to recognise and respond has been remarkable. Warning about the unpopularity of necessary economic reform after the loss of the 1993 election dominated by the Liberal Party’s free-market Fightback! agenda, the leader of the “dries” John Hyde said: “What Liberals must do is explain these policies in moral terms: in terms of the liberty of workers, of a fair shake for unprotected industry, of justice for all and compassion for the needy.”

They failed. Reflect 20 years later on the inability of today’s Liberal Party to explain its policies in moral terms. From budget repair to inequality to climate change to same-sex marriage, the progressives win because they make a moral appeal — witness their campaigns around the need for compassion and fairness, egalitarian­ism, saving the planet and marriage equality. These became moral crusades.

This is to justify neither their policies nor their arguments but to make the essential point that progressives typically tie their stance to a moral position. It is part of their cultural DNA. The conservatives, by contrast, are exposed in moral terms. They lack the intellectual depth and the language to persuade others of the merits of their position.

The irony is that while conservatives obsessed over the decline of religion, progressives devised arguments based on secular morality. Just because the shared culture and religion of the nation is disintegrating doesn’t mean that morality is irrelevant. Morality always matters — the political contest over morality is pivotal and the conservatives mainly lose it.

Conservatives despise what they see as the phony morality of progressives. But that doesn’t count. What counts are the moral arguments conservatives have fail­ed to mount with sufficient persuasion. The list of battles they have lost is impressive or frightening, depending on your viewpoint.

In recent times conservatives have lost out over free speech and section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, spending cuts, opposition to creeping higher taxes, smaller government, less state regulation, trade union powers, industrial relations reform and jobs, same-sex marriage, union amalgamation, renewable energy, superannuation fund transparency and resistance to the Gonski model. They may lose the battle over the Adani coalmine and the defining contest over religious freedom.

This is not to deny substantial victories on border protection and national sovereignty, national security laws, the first phase of corporate tax cuts, better policing of the industrial relations system and a series of budget measures to restrain the deficit.

The failure of conservatism today is on vivid display when contrasted with Howard, a ruthless pragmatist. He surprised his opponents and the progressive class by turning his interpretation of conservatism into a weapon of political attack and electoral gain — yes, electoral gain.
The grounds on which he fought told the story — gun laws, national sovereignty by halting unauthorised arrivals, national security, social conservatism seen in family tax benefits, mutual obligation and individual responsibility, consumer choice and middle-class self-improvement, a social concept that popularised the “mainstream mob” against either elites or minorities, depending on the need, and a cultural agenda that spanned the patriotism of the Anzac legend, the bush ethos and monarchical stability.

There are three lessons from the Howard era that remain highly relevant. First, conservatism, like all movements, is lost without a leader whose task is to reinterpret the movement for the times and who delivers by exercising power. Second, it is a mistake to present conservatism as a rigid ideology, since that triggers the scepticism of the Australian public, but rather to frame initiatives as being practical, based in common sense, values and in the public interest.l

Third, conservatism’s success depends on tactical political judgment. Howard, for example, never restored knighthoods as PM nor would he have given a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh.

On the other hand, Howard as PM would have launched a high-profile national campaign against the Safe Schools program promoting gender and sexual diversity in schools, a campaign the current Liberal government declined to launch while insisting on reforms.

In short, don’t fight battles you are destined to lose. By picking battles you can win, your cause wins traction, prestige and more followers. Too many conservatives today break the Howard rules — they run on the wrong issues with implausible arguments, fail to persuade, delude themselves into thinking the silent majority is with them, and get shot down when the contest becomes serious.

The Liberal Party will not succeed while conservatism remains in crisis. Conservatism is too integral to the heart and soul of the party. If Turnbull believes his mission is to prove the Liberal Party can succeed essentially as a progressive entity, that project is doomed to fail as well.
An analysis, however, of Turnbull’s policies suggest that he seeks to govern from the centre; the problem with Turnbull is that he remains a transactional rather than conviction politician, weak in defining the terms of engagement against Labor and in projecting a clear message to middle Australia about living standards and values.

The 2019 election assumes a double meaning. It will determine not only whether the Turnbull government survives into a third term but also the future of the progressive-conservative power balance in the party, and whether the party stabilises or sinks into a full-blown crisis of identity.
The irony is that Labor, if it comes to power, will confront from opening day the demoralising social, economic and cultural forces that have played havoc with the Coalition.

There is no immunity for any government any more. Labor in office will reveal the equally lethal dilemma this time of a trade union/progressive party trying to hold together a fragile coalition of voters in an age of extreme individual self-expression.


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