Media

Part 2: Conservative Dissent in the Blogosphere

[Part 1 of “The Rise of Conservative Dissent in the Blogosphere” is here…]

Australia’s successful “tea party moment”

Australia does not have an equivalent historical or cultural legacy on which to build a “Tea Party” styled populist reaction to an elite agenda.[1] A corresponding movement that encapsulates the same mass emotional fervour would necessarily take a different form here. It may therefore be a little odd to describe the defeat of the “Rudd–Turnbull” Emissions Trading Scheme as an Australian “Tea Party moment”, but some striking parallels do exist.

The most obvious was the kind of people involved at both ends of the controversy: a grass-roots campaign seemed to derail elite political consensus in both major parties, forcing it to abandon an agenda otherwise considered a fait accompli by reason of Labor’s electoral victory in 2007, and the ascent of the so-called “moderate” wing of the Liberal Party to the leadership of the Coalition. However, while the US Tea Party is still in the process of consolidating a political identity and program, the Australian “moment” had a clearly defined target and knew precisely what method was required to achieve its desired objective. Like the US Tea Party, it did not appear to have any co-ordinated organisational structure; but this too changed as a consequence of the dramatic shift in the political climate after the failure of Copenhagen and the outcome of the Coalition’s leadership challenge in December 2009.

To understand the role of the public outcry, it’s worth noting how carefully synchronised the views of the Labor government, elements of the media and the Opposition’s “moderates” were around this time. Earlier in the year calls for the Liberal Party to move to the left by “neutering the hardline right-wing elements who are increasingly making the party electorally unattractive”[2] were not uncommon in the press. The visit of Lord Monckton was accompanied by a near complete media blackout, reinforcing the elite consensus in relation to human-induced global warming theory (2GB’s Alan Jones was a notable exception). Since the legislation of an ETS was a feature of the leftist program, opposition was spearheaded generally by conservatives. Passage of the law not only became a litmus test for the ability of the Left to dictate the parameters and direction of reform, but also a trial of how far left the nominally conservative Coalition could be pushed. Thus, in a clear swipe at ETS sceptics, the “father of the Moderates faction in New South Wales” Nick Greiner cautioned his followers “not to mix with ‘cave dwellers’” and avoid acting on the terms of “troglodyte people”. The rising pressure of dissent within the Opposition induced one government minister to claim that “the extremists have gained control of the Liberal party”.[3] The broader Left on both sides of politics and their amen corner in the fourth estate appeared to be of one mind.

Electoral reality however painted a very different picture of voters’ attitudes. At the peak of public discontent, and on the eve of the leadership challenge, 80 per cent of voters did not feel they had the scheme adequately explained to them (including an overwhelming majority of Labor voters themselves). The intensity with which the scheme was pushed was matched by a growing public opposition to it. According to Tony Abbott, MPs’ phone lines were in “meltdown” and a flood of correspondence encouraged other prominent conservatives such as Senators Nick Minchin and Cory Bernardi to defy their party’s stance, triggering a domino effect within its parliamentary ranks. Peter van Onselen reported that no less than two thirds of Coalition backbenchers disagreed with plans to renegotiate with Labor, and the position of outspoken sceptics “reflect[ed] the view of an overwhelming majority of their colleagues”.[4] More importantly: “Three times as many House of Representative MPs do not want to negotiate at all (21-7) and when the data are broken down to include only marginal seat MPs, 11 out of 15 MPs do not want to negotiate.” Since none of this would have been possible without popular backing, only the most ideologically committed leftists with total disregard for public sentiment could honestly believe this was the work of “cave dwellers”, “trologdyte people”, “extremists” and “hardline right-wingers”, yet that was exactly the narrative pushed.

Like the US Tea Party, it was the people that animated the seismic shift in the political consensus. Unlike the US experience however, it appears that Australians have more faith in the role of their elected representatives. This faith was not misplaced. Instead of compromise with a leftist program, so often the best hope for a conservative outcome in legislative reform, an entire policy was stopped dead in its tracks. It was their pressure that drove the Coalition’s leadership challenge and the success of the conservative lobby under Tony Abbott, which led directly to a radical policy reversal on a major legislative agenda that previously enjoyed bipartisan support. It was that change that sank the legislative agenda, arguably contributing in some way to the failure of a Copenhagen accord itself. What eventually followed was the undignified toppling of a Prime Minister before the expiration of his first term in office. Australia’s Tea Party “moment” may have been far less theatrical than its American counterpart, but by no means was it less dramatic.

Concluding thoughts

MacCallum claims that contemporary media culture has been detrimental to the development of serious politics. McGowan, Goldberg and Switzer would suggest that political ideology has harmed professional journalism. In fact, they are all correct in their own particular way. The rise of Keen’s “amateur” is the product of a common cultural phenomenon that can be traced at least to the social revolution of the 1960s, a revolution which aggressively fostered a culture not only hostile to traditional hierarchy and its values of excellence based on established authority and objectivity, but also fostered the radical autonomy born out of a morally relativistic mindset in which individual preference and whim became the guiding rule of human conduct. Consequentially, appeals to objective truth were associated with the abolished traditional order, inaugurating the reign of subjectivism in literary, journalistic and political discourse. Over time, the countercultural avant-garde developed its own dogmas and hierarchies, eventually permeating existing establishments such as the two discussed here: media and politics. Like an ouroboros devouring its own tail, this in turn fed a disenfranchised populist reaction drunk on its own “individual authority” and a revolutionary spirit ironically inherited from the soixante-huitards themselves.

In other words, the perceived legitimacy of user-generated media is the product of the professional media’s failure as much as it has been fostered by a resulting culture of online libertarianism. The vested interests, partial attitudes and intellectual laziness of the commentariat have done more harm to the traditional press and mainstream politics than the blogosphere could ever hope to do. If non-liberal arguments are shut out of the system, the political ramifications were just a logical extension of this. Traditionalist conservatives have been presented with an opportunity to create a viable political alternative and market it directly to the people at a time when the electorate appears to be exhausted with the same tired ideas repackaged each electoral cycle.[5] This will be a colossal task made more difficult by the negligence of institutions entrusted with the role of ensuring political accountability, but that negligence will continue to feed the momentum of these “amateurs” in their work.

Therefore, the problems identified by Keen and Osnos are inherently cultural at heart and their solution will require a radical paradigm shift not only on the editorial board, but among the individual reporters themselves and the schools of media and journalism—an unlikely thing to happen in the near future. In this climate, the rise of the “cult of the amateur” is difficult to avoid, and the further growth of rightist populism is impossible to prevent. Parallel institutions will need to rise. History has proven that the growth of truly popular “alternative” media and grass-roots political movements will coalesce and formalise to become establishments in their own right. The premium placed on accurate reportage and truth in politics necessarily means that mechanisms through which regulations and standards are enforced will also naturally develop. The grass-roots attractiveness of both would gradually fade, but that would still leave a fourth estate enriched by an injection of genuine diversity of opinion.

Those threatened by these new usurpers are right to fear a period of disruption; however, such periods do not occur randomly but are the result of an already decaying environment. If they are distressed by these developments, they would do better to turn their attention to their own role in facilitating this decay rather than object to the public’s natural reaction to it. With the right commitment and experience, today’s dissenters on the right could become part of tomorrow’s establishment; this can only have a positive influence on the next generation of journalists and politicians. Those who value popular democracy and free political expression have nothing to fear.

 

Edwin Dyga has worked with various members of parliament, state and federal, in government and opposition. He is presently employed as an adviser to the New South Wales Shadow Minister for Justice and Attorney General. The views expressed here are his own. A footnoted version of this article is available at Quadrant Online.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Patrick Allitt, “How to Succeed in Politics’ The National Interest No 108 (July-August 2010)

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[1] For a brief historical reflection, see: Allitt op cit p 36; Tom Piatak, ‘George Wallace and the Tea Party’ Chronicles Magazine 34:7 (July 2010).

[2] Nick Dyrenfurth, ‘Turnbull needs to learn from Whitlam’ The Australian (21 August 2009) p 12.

[3] Phillip Coorey, ‘Malcolm in the muddle’ Sydney Morning Herald (10 October 2009) p 23. The ‘extremist’ missive was hurled within hours of Abbott’s succession: Phillip Coorey, ‘Climate change sceptics triumph’ Sydney Morning Herald (9 December 2009) p 1.

[4] Peter van Onselen, ‘Majority of Libs oppose ETS plan’ The Australian (29 September 2009) p 1. For an analysis of the public reaction, see also: Dennis Shanahan, ‘Battlers switching back to Coalition’ The Australian (7 December 2009) p 1; Matthew Franklin, ‘Coalition boosted by shift on ETS’ The Australian (30 January 2010) p 4; ‘Abbott keeps pulling back Labor’s lead’ The Australian (2 February 2010) p 1.

[5] It is unlikely traditionalism will experience a broad and popular renaissance, however, social conservatives remain an important and under-valued demographic that can wield considerable influence within the present political upheaval. Rebecca Mead interviews Andrew Breitbart: ‘His conservatism fails him on issues such as the legalisation of prostitution, and he sometimes tilts towards favouring gay marriage. “But, when the entire media is structured to attack conservatives […] there is a huge business model to come in and counterbalance that,” he said’: Mead op cit p 27. Another optimistic view is that ‘[t]he conviction that animates the Tea Party could lead to a more authentic conservatism. The Tea Party could also represent the biggest political opportunity yet for a Middle American Radicalism’: Antle op cit (July 2010) p 15. The opportunity is there, but it has not yet been realised (cf Fleming in n 13 of Part 1). It is hoped that Australian conservatives have paid attention to these observations in the US, since the experience in the UK shows what a failure to do so could lead to: the complete evaporation of a conservative alternative within the political mainstream and the danger this presents for the likelihood of growing support among disenfranchised voters for fringe movements.

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