Sheil counting neocon chickens

Christopher Sheil blogs a fascinating viewpoint that seeks to characterise current Australian political progressions in a sweeping ideological overview sense:

This era [neoliberalism of the 1980s] has in turn given way to an aggressive neoconservative reaction. The reaction was underway prior to s11, but the landmark event produced a context (or pretext) that brought it unequivocally to the fore, the era of Bush II. Distinguishing features of the neocon era include a renewed emphasis on the authority of government and a direct appeal to populism over the so-called liberal ‘elites’, via pro-religious, pro-nationalist, pro-crisis, anti-doubt, anti-social movement policies. This has been not just an attack on American ‘left’ liberalism but, at its most virulent, an all out assault on liberalism, root and branch, reaching back to undermine the classical parent with an anti-modern, anti-Enlightenment stance. …

Neoliberals, such as those personified by journalists Paul Kelly and Greg Hywood (but not, for example, Owen Harries), have supported Howard all the way, even if this has mean’t holding their noses at times. Now, as the election contest has inevitably focused on Latham winning back the one nationistas etc who the ALP originally lost to Howard (on the rebound from both free marketeering and socially including), business circles find themselves basically out of the loop.

What neoliberals (and all their business, media and academic associates) need to face up to, I submit, is that they have been dancing with the devil. It was their tacit agreement to allow their liberal interests to play a bit part (while holding noses) to the neocons which has placed them in irreleventville.

I think I mostly agree with Chris’s hypothesis, albeit with a couple of important qualifications. It’s an oversimplification to label Howard a “neocon”. In many ways he’s just an old-fashioned parochial Tory in the Menzies mould, albeit without Menzies’ oratorical skills or gravitas, and with a narrow-minded, unimaginative, stultifying bigotry that Menzies even at his worst didn’t portray.

More importantly, the “neocons” haven’t been counted out yet, either here or in the US. And I still have serious reservations whether Latham is the man to do it. When you’re a classical liberal with a slight social democratic overlay (as I would self-label), you’re always going to be nervous about replacing even a tawdry bunch of Tories like the current flock with a Labor crew led by a bull in a china shop like Latham. I wonder how many more metaphors I could mix into this paragraph.

Chris has a tendency to count his chickens before they’ve hatched. I hope those running Labor’s campaign don’t have a similar mindset.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

I think Sheil provides a rather confused account of intellectual and political history. In Australia the ‘neoliberal’ movement was always small, but was part of a broader issue alliance in economic policy with social democrats in the ALP, some conservatives (including Howard), and business interests. This alliance is less politically significant now than in the 1980s, as a lot of the original goals have been achieved and the economic problems are less pressing.

Support for the war in Iraq was another issue alliance, and was not dependent on support for ‘neoconservatism’. In the Australian context, it was a premium paid on the insurance policy of the US alliance. Internationally, again people from the left (Tony Blair, Christopher Hitchens) found themselves on the same side as the right (Bush, Howard, and genuine ideological neo-cons) on a particular issue.

I don’t believe liberalism itself is under any new significant attack, despite the hyperventilating of elements of US conservatism.

And Ken, you seemed to have fallen for the bizarre idea, around on the left these days, that Menzies was more tolerant than Howard. Have you forgotten the White Australia policy, which remained in place until after he retired? These days we arguing about whether gays should be allowed to get married or not, in Menzies’ day it was whether they should be put in jail or not. Even Lyndall Ryan’s footnotes start to look accurate compared to this re-writing of history.

Mork
Mork
2022 years ago

I agree with Andrew on neo-conservatism in Australia. It seems to me that there are extremely few ideological neo-conservatist here. Our involvement in the war was purely a function of a particular view of the U.S. alliance, and to the extent that arguments reflecting a neo-conservative world view were used to justify it, it was just a reflection of the fact that they had to say something, and these were the arguments that were being used by those actually making the decisions.

In other words, there are plenty of cheerleaders who happily parrot the neo-con shibboleths after the event, but there was virtually no-one who publicly held these views before they became U.S. policy.

On Howard v. Menzies, I’m more with Ken. Of course, Andrew’s right that the prevailing social mores were far less liberal then than now, but I think the point is that Menzies took a fairly benevolent approach to social change – classical liberalism, you might say, whereas Howard actively seeks to (a) undertake reverse social engineering to produce a society more to his tastes and (b) accentuate and exploit social fault lines for political profit.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

“These days we’re arguing about whether gays should be allowed to get married or not, in Menzies’ day it was whether they should be put in jail or not.”

I don’t think that there was a great deal of argument about it in Menzies’ day, Andrew :)

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Andrew,

As befits a woolly-minded centrist, I find myself agreeing in considerable part with many of your points as well! I suppose your rather clearer differentiation between the US and Australia, based on “issues alliances”, is partly what I was trying to express by suggesting that Howard is an old-fashioned Australian Tory rather than a “neocon”.

However, it does seem to me (and lots of others) that Howard’s identification with the US, at least under Bush, is wider than just “issues-based” e.g. the FTA, signing up for “son of star wars” etc as well as the Iraq coalition membership, and I’m sure there are numerous other examples. It really does seem like almost a latter-day automatic “all the way with LBJ” stance, rather than anything as considered or independent as “issues-based”. When Howard actually differs from any US position in any significant way, I’ll begin placing more credence in your “issues-based” hypothesis.

I take your point on Menzies. I wasn’t really old enough to be a truly analytical observer of those days, except in hindsight. But maybe there’s still a germ of truth in perceiving Menzies as less reactionary than Howard. Menzies was very much a creature of his times, neither more nor less conservative than most Australians in the 50s and early 60s. Howard seems rather a lot more socially conservative than the vast majority of today’s Australians, as far as I can tell. Of course, the social centre has shifted significantly in a “left/liberal” direction since those days (as you observe), so maybe it’s not all that useful an observation.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Chris has a tendency to count his chickens before they’ve hatched.

Just a shot Ken, just a shot to see what I can hit.

Re Andrew’s reductionism, it is, I’d argue, important to see the people involved, not just as individual agents (who can be individually ‘counted’ and who form ‘alliances’), but to also turn them sideways, so to speak, to evaluate them (and their ‘alliances’) as evidence of wider social forces (and the possibilities and limitations that these imply about the dominant ideas of an era); just as it’s also important not to look too far into the imponderables of individual political biographies at the cost of studying their trajectories ‘in effect’. Whatever their own stories, if they walk like a duck …

Still, it’s just a shot, just a shot …

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

I’m not sure that Howard or the Liberals have a greater distance from majority opinion than Menzies. There is an interesting article by Katherine Betts in the latest issue of People and Place showing Liberal candidates to be much closer to the electorate on a range of issues than Labor candidates. The republic is the only issue I can think of where Howard is significantly more conservative than the electorate – but still significantly less conservative than Menzies.

I’m not an historian, but I’ve read a few books about post-war Australia. Compared to the decades which preceded the ’50s and ’60s they were a great time in Australia, but not a period of great change in social norms or institutions. All that happened after Menzies.

Geoff – From memory, Tom Hughes (then A-G) proposed decriminalising homosexuality in 1970, but did not get party room support.

Craig G.
Craig G.
2022 years ago

IMO Menzies reflected mainstream attitudes (as I understand them to have been then) for most of his term of office. Probably in the last couple of years prior to his retirement in ’66 his position became more conservative relative to the population as a whole partly due to his age (he turned 70 in 1964)and partly to the demographic kink represented by the post-war baby boom and immigration.

Until 1957 and 1965 there were Labor Govts in Qld and NSW respectively and in Tassie right through to about 1970. Homosexuality vis a vis the criminal law was a state issue. I doubt if Vince Gair or Joe Cahill or Pat Hills were very keen on decriminalising homosexuality so to use gay rights as some indicator of Menzies social stance is bit of a dead-ender.

It’s been said (by who maybe Ken knows)to the effect that Menzies’ political career was a waste of talent and potentially he may have been the best Chief Justice of the High Court.

John Howard in default of a political carerr may have gone on to be the best conveyancer on the Lower North Shore.

peggy sue
peggy sue
2022 years ago

“Have you forgotten the White Australia policy, which remained in place until after he retired?”

Why tar Menzies with the White Australia brush?
White Australia was originally ALP policy. In fact, the very first ALP federal policy had only two planks “White Australia” and “Empire Loyalty”.

Curtin talked about his determination that “this country shall remain for ever the home of the descendants of those people who came here in peace in order to establish a British-owned colony.”
[i.e. White Australia and Empire Loyalty]

If Calwell had won the 1961, 1963 or 1966 elections, there would have been no change to White Australia.

Calwell was ‘traditional Labor’ and fought against attempts by Whitlam and Dunstan for immigration reform.

A Calwell labor government would have been about as likely as the Barrier Industrial Council to push for homosexual rights (they weren’t called ‘gay’ then).

The ALP did not have a non-discriminatory immigration policy until 1971, five years after Menzies had left office. I don’t recall Whitlam saying much about gay rights when he was PM.

Don Wigan
Don Wigan
2022 years ago

Peggy Sue is right, that Labor didn’t really liberalise a lot of social views until Whitlam and Dunstan.

Menzies was conservative but mostly a creature of his times.Unlike Howard, the only time I can recall him moving on social divisiveness was on communism (and that could be rationalised by the Cold War, but the real reason was to hurt the ALP). He was very cautious, a trait probably learned from his earlier failed leadership in 1939 -1941.

Yet within that context he was liberal. Improving access for poorer people to universities through Commonwealth Scholarships was one of his legacies. Something similar would seem unthinkable under Howard.

Menzies was, of course, a Royalist Anglophile, having been brought up on the glories of the British Empire. It was not too hard for him to switch that subservience to the US (he coined the term ‘Great and Powerful Friend’) when the Vietnam War occurred. And like the old Empire he probably viewed it as paying an insurance premium for protection.

It appears Howard inherited that Insurance Premium attitude to the US. There is no other logical reason for us to have supported the invasion when our own interests are much more clearly in South-East Asia and the Pacific.

But otherwise, Howard bears a much closer resemblance to Thatcher than Menzies, especially in his determination to control the agenda.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
2022 years ago

But poor people are much more likely to go to university under Howard than they were under Menzies (when few of them even finished school) or under Fraser or probably Hawke. We’ve been at or near saturation point for the top 30% of Year 12 students for a while now, and it is not clear that it is worth expanding the system further. That wasn’t true in Menzies’ day, when relatively few people of any class background went to university.

The one area in which Menzies record is unambiguously better than Howard’s is tax: a mere 20.5% of GDP in his last full year of office (1965), 31.5% in 2002.

John
John
2022 years ago

Coming back to neoliberalism, I think it was more important than Andrew suggests. Those in the ALP who pushed microeconomic reform were a mixture of social democrats seeking to “refurbish” the wage-earners welfare state after the crisis of the 1970s and converts to neoliberalism who continued to spout Labor rhetoric purely for form’s sake. Most of the time, the second group took the running.

Button and Blewett in the Cabinet, and Michael Keating in the bureaucracy are examples of the first class. Paul Keating and (with some idiosyncratic exceptions) Peter Walsh are the most notable examples of the second, along with a lot of senior bureaucrats and many second-raters in the Caucus such as Gary Johns, who is now with the Institute of Public Affairs.

Over the last ten years, neoliberalism in the Labor party has largely died out, being replaced mainly by pragmatic centrism.

James Hamilton
James Hamilton
2022 years ago

Howard seems rather a lot more socially conservative than the vast majority of today’s Australians, as far as I can tell. Of course, the social centre has shifted significantly in a “left/liberal” direction since those days

I could not agree less, Ken. I am surpised you would make such a claim. Perhaps you believe that levels of social tolerance have increased even amongst RWDBs like me (my definition of RWDB differs to yours as stated in the Marr thread btw) and you somehow line these views to a left viewpoint. I believe all of us are becoming more tolerant, left and right at about the same rate. I have always embraced reform while despising reformers with a passion.

Anyway we are facing an election eventually and we will see where mainstream Australia is. I believe and hope that Howard will get back (I am a bit like Chris and can confuse belief with hope at times, forgive us)