The stupid party

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.

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Slim
Slim
11 years ago

A compelling analysis of contemporary conservative politics in the UK with many parallels for oz politics – Thatcher, Thatcher, Thatcher by John Gray in the London Review of Books.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

The 1980s were an unusual time in Australia where politics became about good government. I agree that Hewson would have made an interesting PM and probably given his policy mix a very short term PM. 1993 really was an election where history was made. I was and remain a massive fan of Keating as much for his faults and his capacity. Therefore I’m glad he won, but I accept that Oz would never have had Howard if he hadn’t.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

My guess as well is that a lot of the guys who lived through the 80s reform Govt never quite got over the fact it hasn’t materialised since. It’s a little bit like the first few music festivals you go to, it never can quite get back to that briliance …

For what it’s worth, Nick, I think you had the best of it.

For Andrew I’m afraid, I’m not so sure ….

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

I couldn’t agree more. I think Dawkins was the best Minister in that Govt.

It’s amazing that for people ‘who care’ that most people probably wouldn’t even know his name now.

I think Dawkins has done well in not becoming like Peter Walsh, his views sin ce leaving office have only dated him. Button is in my view not as great as Dawkins but in some ways he had a tougher gig with Industry. What would he think of Kim Ill Carr hey …

In many ways the classic eccentric nature of politics has been lost … I would say the ‘over-education’ of our Labor politicians has not improved them. By over-education I particularly mean the reading of polling data and the preparation of polling focus groups.

I think Britain is showing that there is a hunger for ‘newness’ in politics but it is some time off for Australia …… may be Andrew will be in the right place at the right time for something new to emerge. Does he have 15 years!!

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

I’d be the first to agree that the Howard goverment was disappointing from a ‘reformist’ perspsective.

On the other hand, they made few policy mistakes with major social or econmomic consequences, and so with a few good reforms of their own, on top of the legacy of Hawke and Keating governments, on the before and after test Howard ended up looking pretty respectable. The vast majority of social and economic indicators were better than when he arrived, and many of them were better than they had been in decades.

Even on the tolerance issues, while we are hampered by few consistent questions over time, public opinion turned in a more tolerant direction. The general hysteria over boat arrivals – on left and right – has distracted from the bigger and more important trends.

TJW
TJW
11 years ago

Every time Gruen says or does something that causes me to respect him he then goes and does something else to throw it all away, like finding “Hitler’s Pope” a convincing read or writing immature crap like this.

James Farrell
James Farrell
11 years ago

Let’s not feed the trolls, Nicholas.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

Andrew Norton, I guess the $64,000 question over Howard is whether he promoted prosperity or just did nothing to stuff it up, a little bit like Menzies in that sense. Personally I agree that he did better han many credit. His views on race though have only made him a difficult figure for ‘liberal’ minded people to admire. Howard was never aided by adventurous Ministers like Hawke was, so the calibre of the Cabinets was always lower. I would say Rudd’s Cabinet is even less adventurous … this might reflect Rudd’s micro-managing as much as his talent pool. I would say though that only Gillard is of a similar stature to the early Hawke Cabinet Ministers. Tanner doesn’t comapre against Walsh, Carr v Button, Dawkins v Gillard, Keating v Swan, Hawke v Rudd. Only Gillard and Rudd get into the top bracket. Rudd certainly wouldn’t be PM in that Cabinet room.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

I agree with that. I think the quality of leadership in the ACTU is also lower. Kelty is a stand out thinker for one and a man after the true national interest. Combet is a big loss and one can only hope he gets to have the type of power that would justify leaving the ACTU to a bunch of less able people.

Strangely I think the BCA have less power than in the 80s but perhaps they are now more rational and better suited to providing good policy options to the main parties.

Matt C
Matt C
11 years ago

You have to credit Howard for supporting the reforms from opposition. Very unlike Labor in the 90s.

Howard also reformed the waterfront, made the RBA independent and oversaw National Competition Policy, which was at some risk when Hanson was in vogue.

It’s not a football game. Both Hawke/Keating and Howard/Costello have good records.

Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Corin – Given that governments are very prone to stuffing things up, not doing so on a large scale is in my view a major achievement in itself.

Rajat Sood
Rajat Sood
11 years ago

Nicholas, I think you fail to acknowledge that the reason Hewson lost in 1993 is the same as why Howard didn’t go further with economic reform sooner. Hewson proposed a comprehensive economic reform program and lost. Howard proposed a GST and nearly lost (he only got it up at all because he compromised on food to get the Democrats to agree). Howard then introduced a degree of labour market flexibility and did lose. And while you can complain that Howard’s Act was 600 pages long, no one seriously disputes that it increased the scope for negotiated workplace agreements.

Moreover, it is churlish to compare the economic reform record of the Hawke/Keating governments with that of Howard when the Coalition did not block most of Labor’s reforms but Labor tried to block almost every single one of Howard’s. Even getting income tax cuts up was a battle with Labor in opposition, or have you forgotten!

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

Andrew, here’s the thing Hawke and Keating stuffed up massively with over-egging the economy after the 87 stock market crash but then causing the 91 recession to be very deep by running i-rates too high as a result of the credit boom …. when this conflated with the economy performing its largest structural adjustment in the last 100 years, well we all know that those who left school in 92-93 were in trouble, me included. Except that the very thing that caused the economy to spin so badly in 91 was the thing that has now made me richer than my parents. What’s Howard’s legacy in 15 years time … not stuffing things up. So I agree with you but it’s not the ‘most exciting’ one. Personally, I always thought Costello was the smartest politician by far that I’ve known, by smart I mean he was across the brief, knew the thoery, had the oratory for Parliament and was sane. But he lacked Keating’s hunger and hunger counts more than anything. Hunger for history is more important than hunger for simply winning.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Corin – Microeconomic reforms generally pay off in the long run. Macroeconomic errors of judgment do not. There can be good and bad luck in these things; even with good institutions policymakers still have make calls based on limited information about the future. The previous government’s revenue hoarding in its last years was criticised by many at the time (including from my ideological background), but turned out be a very good call, cooling the Australian economy when it was running too fast and then providing a far stronger base for stimulus than in any other Western economy. It is one of several reasons we will come out of the GFC in relatively good shape.

Patrick
Patrick
11 years ago

I’m curious. Is there really a point at which one can meaningfully distinguish Labor/Liberal attitudes to immigration?

I certainly don’t feel like I or the Australians I know, from millionaires to telemarketers and brickies to NGO expats, have become ‘less tolerant’. Maybe I don’t know the ‘real Australia’ that never shows up in the stats?

Also, I would be interested in some relative perspective – have Australians perhaps become more intolerant (my arse they have) but less so than everwhere else? That, for example, would suggest the opposite of your thesis! And anecdotally, assuming the highly contestable premise, that would not be unlikely.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Patrick – I think you are right on this. While there are ‘xenophobes’ identifiable in social science research, their attitudes at best under-explain public reactions to boat arrivals.

For example, we know that many more people oppose boat arrivals than oppose the official refugee program, and that more people oppose the official refugee program than migration in general – through which the vast majority of the people from supposedly disliked backgrounds arrive.

We also know from two social distance surveys with the same wording in 1988 and 2007 than attitudes became more tolerant over that time period.

I think the pro-refugee campaign has been significantly mishandled in a political sense. There has been far too much use of personal insult (you are not going to persuade people by calling them xenophobes), far too much mention of international treaties that won’t mean anything to most people, and too little of the only thing that can cut through – the personal stories of the refugees themselves. There has been some of this, but not enough.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

Andrew, I think Rudd’s stance on refugees is about as weak as dish water … smart politics … yeah but surely being PM is about spending political capital as well as getting elected. I mean who seriously think Rudd would have been beaten even if he’d not changed policy. May be he would have lost a couple of seats instead of gaining a few …. the only thing that would make a redeeming stance in any way is if he did a big reform stand on tax and hence wanted to make that his ‘stand’. My guess is that this is unlikely.

Sometimes we can all read polls and all work out that it’s ‘smart’ but frankly that is a race to the bottom. I’m no passive onlooker on this stuff.

Andrew Norton
Andrew Norton
11 years ago

Corin – I doubt Rudd is personally deeply worried about the boats. But though it is hard for the intelligentsia to understand, the Australian public clearly has since pre-federation days wanted the borders controlled. It is not surprising that he does not want to resist this feeling too strongly, or sacrifice too much political capital on an issue that is marginal to Australia’s future.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

Look that is fair enough, but you’d have to suggest there is a lack of conviction in most politicians now. I think the era of the politician seeking to change opinions is pretty much finished, at least for the moment.

Rajat Sood
Rajat Sood
11 years ago

The following comment is a re-post of a comment made on April 27 that has been awaiting moderation since then:

Nicholas, I think you fail to acknowledge that the reason Hewson lost in 1993 is the same as why Howard didn’t go further with economic reform sooner. Hewson proposed a comprehensive economic reform program and lost. Howard proposed a GST and nearly lost (he only got it up at all because he compromised on food to get the Democrats to agree). Howard then introduced a degree of labour market flexibility and did lose. And while you can complain that Howard’s Act was 600 pages long, no one seriously disputes that it increased the scope for negotiated workplace agreements.

Moreover, it is churlish to compare the economic reform record of the Hawke/Keating governments with that of Howard when the Coalition did not block most of Labor’s reforms but Labor tried to block almost every single one of Howard’s. Even getting income tax cuts up was a battle with Labor in opposition, or have you forgotten!

Stuart
Stuart
11 years ago

An interesting analysis and it could go some way to explaining why the right, despite years of underperformance by Labor governments, appears to be incapable of winning power in any of the major states.
Instead of patting themselves on the back for coming close in the recent SA and Tasmanian elections, they should be asking why they did so badly against two clearly tired and unpopular incumbents.

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

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.

You forgot opposition fascism.
The fact that high school history books put fascism on the “right”, but this has resulted in amnesia about the Western political forces that were most opposed to fascism. That it was Conservatives such as Churchill that saw the enemy for what it was. So if you combine opposition to Nazism and Communism, you can build a compelling case that the big thing the right got right, in the 20th century, was opposing totalitarianism in all its forms. Sure, they over-reached and got it wrong with Vietnam, but even that misbegotten war arose from the same instinct to oppose totalitarians.
Also, it was the right that went in and stomped the Taliban, who were also totalitarians. That’s three for three.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

Didn’t Goldwater run in 64, is he not the nut who said ‘better off dead than red’ … perhaps that was another. However Goldwater was a class A crazy!

I’d take McCain over Goldwater anyday … indeed I think it was a tradegy that McCain didn’t get the 2000 nomination, he would have made a great President during the whole 9/11 age.

Corin
Corin
11 years ago

No, I think Goldwater said: “We’re gonna bomb them (Vietnam) back to the stone age” …

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

I think Quiggin’s mistaken. This talking point that the right has run out of intellectual steam is simply not true, especially in America. The bottom line is that the modern conservative movement has planted a flag for democracy, capitalism, liberty, and small government. Not everyone likes these ideas, and they are surprisingly hard to defend, even in Western democratic systems. Notice, for example, the wistful gazing towards China among Western intellectuals, with sighs of admiration about how they can just “get things done” without the annoying inconvenience of cumbersome democratic systems.
So democracy/capitalism/personal liberty. You could throw in ‘defense of sovereignty’ as well. That’s a pretty simple, ideologically defensible, cohesive set of principles for the right to defend. And there are serious thinkers on the right who are defending them.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“The bottom line is that the modern conservative movement has planted a flag for democracy, capitalism, liberty, and small government.”

Planting a flag is not an intellectual achievement. Explaining how those above concepts need to adapt to a increasingly globalised, tech-boosted and culturally intertwined world where the relationships between capital, labour, national sovereignty, local security, community values and peer networks is rapidly morphing in unpredictable ways is an intellectual challenge.

And so far what has the right come up with? Deregulation, cut taxes, magic tech will solve global warming – if it exists, open borders for everything except people and claiming the totally centre-right current POTUS is a socialist.

Not saying the Left has been an intellectual powerhouse of late but at least the John Quiggins of this world are asking the questions that could never asked yet alone answered by the likes of Philip Blond and his Red Tory solipsistic sophistry about retreating to a high tech little England.

“And there are serious thinkers on the right who are defending them.”

Name one. The emphasis here being on “serious thinkers” not eloquent yet unoriginal defenders of a fast fading status quo.

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

Name one.
Okay. Jonah Goldberg.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“Jonah Goldberg.”

OK, that was funny. But seriously though, name a current serious and original right wing thinker.

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

Oh I see how this fun game works. You ask for a name, I name someone, you mock them and repeat the question.
Whatever.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

Oh fuck my muskrats boots! What!!?? You seriously believe Jonah Goldberg is serious and original thinker!!!???

Easy to prove me wrong. Just link to one example of his serious and original thinking.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

And before you start getting all huffy about left wing basis, I should point I am not a lefty. In fact I suspect I’m probably more right wing that you are about some stuff. But basically I’m just anti-stupidity and I have seen nothing in Jonah’s output to convince me he’s nothing more than a wingnut welfare careerist. Ar least Mike Moore goes out and works hard to earn a real living from his far more entertaining kneejerking agitprop.

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

In fact I suspect I’m probably more right wing that you are about some stuff.

I dunno about that… I’m pretty right wing.
Okay, I take you at your word that it was a serious reaction to Goldberg, but yes, I would describe him as a serious and original thinker. But I’m not interested n debating his intellectual merits, or for that matter, anyone else associated with the National Review.
But if you want to look beyond individuals to publications and outlets, for my money the best right wing commentary these days is in City Journal. Provocative, interesting, intellectually solid. And a really good read.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

Still waiting for a link to Jonah’s original and serious thinking.

And yep just had a poke around City Journal. The Guy Sorman takedown of Stefan Hlper is pretty good. But on the other hand you have Andrew Klavan railing against a pop culture driven by the thing he claims to be for – capitalism.

Nicole Gelinas on the muni-bond bubble was good writing and well researched until at the end she just sank her whole argument in her own words.

“Faced with a choice between preserving “social cohesion” and saving municipal or corporate bondholders, the feds would be likely to pick social cohesion, throwing some creditors out of the bailout boat.

That’s the better scenario, in fact.”

Collapsing the underlying thrust of your polemic in the final paras doesn’t strike me as particularly intelligent.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

What the fuck? Given my track record here, I’d have thought I’d have had my name on the door in perpetuity.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“But I’m not interested n debating his intellectual merits”

And yet you raised him as an example of a right wing intellectual.

Oh I see how this fun game works. I ask for a name, you name someone, you then dodge any discussion of why you named them.

Whatever.

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

“Oh I see how this fun game works. I ask for a name, you name someone, you then dodge any discussion of why you named them.”
The prima facie case is that Goldberg is a right wing intellectual, given that he’s right wing, he writes political and social commentary, and gets into intellectual debates. Plus, he’s one of the public faces of intellectual conservatism in America.
Okay, so you think he’s weak as piss, no reason given. My feeling is that this is a potato/potahto thing, and since your initial response was sarcastic, dismissive and content-free, you weren’t exactly signalling an intention to debate in good faith. So that’s why I dodged.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“The prima facie case is that Goldberg is a right wing intellectual, given that he’s right wing, he writes political and social commentary, and gets into intellectual debates.”

Um, no. Not my understanding of what “prima facie” means. Anyone can dive into an intellectual debate. But how do they surface?

My initial point remains the same. Just link to something which you think shows Jonah is a serious and original thinker.

If you don’t respond within seconds of this comment, I shall do a victory dance around my lounge room – with my underpants on my head.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

“…you weren’t exactly signalling an intention to debate in good faith. So that’s why I dodged.”

Speaking as a hardened old blog stoushing salt, I can tell you that responding to an apparently facetious comment with a devastatingly effective example of what you were talking about does make your interlocutor look rather hapless.

So go ahead and devastate me with a killer example of Jonah at his brilliant and original best.

Meanwhile my jocks still keep creeping headwards.

Nabakov
Nabakov
11 years ago

My underpants are now on my head and I’m dancing around the lounge room to this.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=POv-3yIPSWc

Who looks stupid now?

jtfsoon
jtfsoon
11 years ago

Munroe as someone who identifies with the right, I’d rather not have Goldberg on my ‘team’ so I don’t know why you’re defending him as an intellectual. Call him a satirist if you want. The guy is a joke, and intelligent conservatives like the ones at American Conservative and paleo-libertarians think he is a joke,

munroe
munroe
11 years ago

Speaking as a hardened old blog stoushing salt, I can tell you that responding to an apparently facetious comment with a devastatingly effective example of what you were talking about does make your interlocutor look rather hapless.

Any “devastatingly effective” example will be disputed by you.
For instance, I think that “Liberal Fascism” has had a big impact on political discourse in America, and to an extent here. it’s set the cat among the pigeons as it were and is an objectively influential book. Ahhh… .but you you think “Liberal Fascism” is a load of bollocks, and that’s something I have to convince you of otherwise. See? There’s no end to this discussion.
This whole blog post and the comments discussion reminds me of a passage by um, who was it? Ah yes. Jonah Goldberg.

They wail: Oh only if we had a real, vibrant, serious, empirical, conservatism that could perform the vital task of conservatism (which, according to Sam Tanenhaus, is to make liberalism better). But we don’t have such a conservatism. Instead, we have this vulgar and mean-spirited irritable mental gesture masquerading as conservatism! Woe, woe, woe for the Republic!
This is one of the most hackneyed rhetorical lines in the liberal script.
Ramesh and I wrote a piece a few years ago on the tendency of liberals — and some conservatives! — to argue that the best conservatives are dead conservatives. Goldwater, detested in his own day by liberals, is now loved by them as a model of what they “wish” conservatives could be like. If only today’s conservatives could be more like Goldwater! And Reagan! And Buckley! And, now, Kristol! everything would be wonderful.
The thing is, as much as I wish we could have all those guys around today, if they were around today, most of liberals now lamenting their passing would go right back to hating them and demanding that they disavow whomever liberals have demonized this week.

Incidentally I stand by my usage of prima facie.