Never have so few done so little for so many. That more or less sums up our political class in this country, and our media class. At least that is the case if you are, like me, a small government, Hobbesian, right-of-centre guy (sorry, did I say ‘guy’, Mr. – oops – Australian of the Year? Forgive me, please). Let us leave aside all the incestuous connections within the Labor party, and within the ABC, and, indeed, between the two of them. Instead, let us just look at the Liberal Party and what I think is the best newspaper in the country, The Australian. Now that we have had to live through the last ten months since the defenestration of Mr. Abbott and the rise and precipitous decline of Mr. Turnbull, I think we can say a few things about group think in the media and political class on the right.
First off, not enough of the politicians on the right seem to put principle above personal political success. They come across as happy to go along to get along. Repealing 18C is proving a tad hard? Ditch the effort! Or worse, maybe the Liberals preselected someone who didn’t care about free speech at all in the first place. Remember, not a single cabinet member resigned in protest over the ditching of the attempt to repeal most of 18C, not a single one. And there was barely a murmur amongst the backbenchers. Indeed, I had two separate conversations with two different Liberal then-MPs (back when Mr. Abbott had not yet abandoned free speech in favour of ‘Team Australia’) and neither was in favour of the attempt to repeal 18C. Based on our conversations, neither had a clue about the value of free speech. These are the people the Liberals are preselecting. Do they ever interact with ordinary Liberal voters?
Look at how many of them get into university politics, then go and work as dogsbodies for MPs or think tank, then use those connections to get preselected. These are people who spend their lives hanging around other politicos. They don’t put principle ahead of advancement because they have never had to do that – not in any real-world job, that’s for sure. When you are an advisor to an MP, it seems you never quit on a point of principle. And they overwhelmingly seem to focus their attention and care on what’s said on Q&A, or what is trending on social media, or what the columnists are saying in The Australian.
So consider Brexit. At least 70% of MPs in the UK Parliament were for ‘Remain’, and that includes a majority of Tories. The Conservative Party’s broad membership was over two-thirds for ‘Leave’. Same goes for the media class, which was massively for staying – and that includes a legion of Tory commentators like The Spectator‘s Matthew Parris, who welcomed the chance for the Conservative Party to clean out the loser disgruntled ‘Outs’ once he got his expected ‘Remain’ result.
The point is that there was a massive disconnect between the party base and the people supposedly representing them in Parliament, and talking to them in the papers. Brexit, possibly the best voting outcome in my life, may well be the start of the push-back against the anti-democratic aspects of so much of the institutional structures now in place in the West, including much of international law, much of over-powerful judges spouting their subjective views on what is rights-respecting, and basically all of the EU’s internal structures. The vote in Brexit exposed that disconnect between voters and the political and media class plainly for all to observe.
Well, I see an enervated version of that here now in Australia on the right side of politics. I refer to the assassination of Abbott and coronation of Turnbull. Would the paid-up party members have voted for this change? To ask is to know the answer. Were the 54 MPs thinking of anything other than their own personal electoral prospects (and they even got that wrong)? Seriously, how do you explain people who had just lived through the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd fiasco, saw what Australian voters do to those who defenestrate first-term PMs, and then went right out and did exactly the same thing themselves? Do they understand long-term consequences, or is everything short-term and immediate in their world?
Well, in part it’s no doubt because they don’t get out enough, by which I mean they take their information from the same sources. Alas, that does not widen the gene pool much. Here’s what I mean. There were two top columnists on The Australian with close connections to high-ranking Liberal Party movers-and-shakers, and I mean ‘close’ in every sense of the word. Was this announced on the top of each column these people wrote? If it were, the readers might be able to judge the comment articles in that light. The political caste’s insiders know all about these domestic arrangements, but most readers would not. In law, the test is never ‘real bias’ (as no one can know this); rather, the test is always ‘the appearance of bias’. And one way to remove that is to declare your interest or connection up front, so that others can judge accordingly.
Or how could it be that just about every single columnist on The Australian thought the coup against Abbott was a good thing that would help the Liberals? Okay, Maurice Newman was the exception. But talk about groupthink! Go back and look at the post-coup predictions by Niki Savva, by Peter van Onselen, by Janet Albrechtsen, by Paul Kelly, and even by the Labor-leaning columnists on the newspaper. All their prognostications have proven laughable. And yet today, post-election, most are still at it, still puffing up a man who looks to me to be wholly disconnected from the party base and who seems to think that the election fiasco was due to a Mediscare campaign that was prompted by – wait for it – not him but Tony Abbott. This after one of the most disgraceful election night speeches I have seen ever, and I’ve seen a lot, not just here but in Canada, New Zealand, the US and Britain.
Look, I will put my cards on the table and admit that I am a dyed-in-the-wool DelCon. From the day of the coup against Abbott I have said, in print, that it was a mistake, that it would end badly and, further, that I would never vote for white-anting, backstabbing coup ringleader Malcolm Turnbull. (And I said that as someone who had strongly criticised Abbott over his disgraceful capitulation on free speech and on his incomprehensible attachment to a Big Government paid-parental-leave scheme. Such criticisms in no way indicated my desire for a Gillard-like coup — or worse, the installing of the most left-wing leader ever.) What amazes me is that the Libs and Australian op-ed columnists seem not to think there were many people like me out there.
What was it that genius Mark Textor said about core Liberal party voters on the right? Oh yes, “The qualitative evidence is they don’t matter. The sum of a more centrist approach outweighs any alleged marginal loss of so-called based voters.” Leave aside the usual incoherence behind ‘qualitative evidence’ and marvel at the astounding condescension of such a comment. Why, it reminds me of the way David Cameron ran the ‘Remain’ campaign by insulting core voters and calling them stupid. “Loonies and fruitcakes’ were the words of the soon-to-be former British PM.
So here is the thing: If Turnbull remains the leader of the party, I will not vote for it, come what may. Turnbull could bring back Tony, I don’t care. He could have Tony run seminars around the country urging Libs to come back home, I don’t care. He could have a cabinet weighted towards conservatives. Well I don’t care! The thing is, for the long-term benefit of the Liberal Party, its MPs need to see what happens to those who defenestrate a first-term PM – and especially to those who white-ant and undermine and snidely deride that same former PM. They have to see that their own party base will not stand for it, because in the long-term the party will be the better for it. Listening to some of the main plotters in the Abbott assassination now ask for loyalty, and preach about the foolhardiness of removing a PM, is vomit inducing. Do Brandis and McGrath and Ryan and others not see the massive hypocrisy involved in such pleas?
By all means let’s see a rule or convention that the party won’t stab a PM in the first few years of his or her leadership.. But let us not bother bringing it in till Turnbull is gone. This, I am quite confident, is a widespread feeling amongst Liberal voters (almost none of whom were swayed to vote Labor because they are stupid fools who didn’t know the Labor line on Medicare was a scare campaign). If the Liberal political class cannot see this, if it really cannot appreciate the need for change, well then let’s get on with the next election so that we can have a big Labor win and change can come that way.
Meantime, why is it that the vast preponderance of the columnists on The Australian can’t see that Turnbull needs to go? Why do they still paint him as a potentially great PM, a saviour (albeit a tad chastened)? The whitewashing goes on and on? I don’t know. But in my opinion the political and media class in this country – and I refer now to those two classes on the right side of politics – need to widen their gene pools.
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland, is the author of Democracy in Decline