During the Hawke years one conservative columnist used to bemoan the lack of professionalism of the right in Australian politics. I don’t much read columns of professional columnists anymore, so I don’t know if this theme has recurred but somehow he seemed to become more protective of his favoured side of politics when they were in power.
Within the mainstream of democratic politics (though not internally where some were sympathetic to communism) the right were on the wrong side of so many things in the 19th and 20th century that they got known by the intelligentsia as ‘the stupid party’. They didn’t want women’s suffrage and equal pay, civil rights, gay law reform, social welfare and on it went. Apart from the implacable hostility to communism, and it’s a big caveat, it’s hard to see the right having had much to say for the first seven decades of the 20th century.
Then there was the great backlash. And the right did have some important things to say from the sixties on, though those things took a couple of decades to come into vogue. They were comfortable with a smaller role for the state and were the ones prepared to document the growing failings of the state whether it be from over-regulation to the enervating effect that welfare could have especially multi-generational welfare.
For some time now I’ve described myself as equally irritated by the ideological excesses of the left and the right. There are a vast array of things about ‘political correctness’ that irritate the hell out of me. There’s something quite disorienting about the extreme aversion to blaming the victim and the corresponding aversion to personal and family responsibility. This has by now been written into our language and our thought patterns. I’d like an expression other than ‘disadvantaged’ to describe the state of dysfunctional families because, at least in many cases, it seems important to put their disadvantage into a less passive voice – their own behaviour is disadvantaging them. (Of course their children really are disadvantaged and are not architects of their own disadvantage.)
I think Australia would have been much better served by a John Hewson victory in 1993,not just because I think Paul Keating was a big disappointment whose divisiveness prefigured John Howard’s, but also because his lackadaisical political performance handed the keys of the Lodge to Howard as disastrous as that was. Hewson would have taken us in a more honest and positive direction. In addition to being a liberal, he had some policy ambition and so the country might have benefited from the best both sides had to offer.
But around the world one looks at what the right did with their resurgence. In Australia what do we have to show for ten years of John Howard? A GST (I’m personally not a fan, but I respect Howard’s political courage in getting it into place.) Then again it was a desperate measure from someone who had managed to exasperate most of the country, and certainly his own base within about one year of his election with his lack of policy vision. ). That’s pretty much it. I think I’m in favour of freer workplace laws, but the Act Howard introduced was 600 pages of regulation which constrained free negotiation over all sorts of conditions. Compared to the Hawke/Keating period it’s a pretty lame legacy. A lazy legacy. Remember those years – about five of them – when every time they checked the budget there was another $5 billion there and they just shovelled it out the door – $800 for ‘tool kits’ for apprentices one year, cheques in the post to all and sundry.
The social legacy left by Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating was constructive, liberal and tolerant. Not so John Howard. And not so the mainstream right in the US. In Australia we have continuing paranoia about ‘those people’ – you know those people most of whom are desperately fleeing persecution whom we accused of chucking their kids in the water for a photo op. As John Quiggin has documented recently the right are back to being the stupid party. It was a fond hope that they might serve as a foil to the excesses of the left – which as it turns out are largely at bay within the Parliamentary Labor Party in any event.
I was reminded of these things reading Christopher Joye’s celebration of Andrew Leigh’s preselection for the ALP.
Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any serious economists, or indeed any individuals with serious financial economics expertise, serving the centre-right side (with the exception of MBT [Turnbull]). Now that gives one some pause. Arthur Sinodinos would help the cause. But for some reason the Liberal Party appears to be suffering from a real brain drain. And I am not exactly sure why. Of course, intellectual horsepower and electoral success need not be positively correlated.
Well your disappointment is mine too Christopher. Yes, given it’s franchise it will win elections in the future when an ALP Government has been unusually unlucky or has got itself sufficiently on the nose, but right now it’s not really a serious policy party. Given my respect for conservative ideas (like I said, I’m a conservative, liberal social democrat) – it’s a pity that the right is, once again, back to being the stupid party.