This edition of Quadrant contains three articles dissecting issues of government policy which, taken together, represent a national crisis beyond anything yet experienced by current generations of Australians. If we continue down the paths now pursued by both major political parties in these three areas—energy policy, debt accumulation and multiculturalist immigration—we threaten the existence of both our economic well-being and our social cohesion.
The consequences of the directions we are taking are hard to dispute. The national government and the majority of state governments are embarked on a trajectory that will restrict any growth of the natural-gas-producing industry and will eventually close down completely the Australian coal industry. Governments have taken these decisions knowing full well how central these industries are to the Australian economy. Coal has been our biggest single export earner since the 1980s and the dominant fuel for electricity for business and domestic use. If in the nineteenth century political leaders had acted on environmental grounds to close down our then greatest exporter, the wool industry, we would now look back on their action as insanely profligate and profoundly selfish.
The same degree of crisis has emerged in the staggering growth in government debt accumulated in the past decade by both major parties. The most recent budget of the Turnbull government predicts an even more rapid acceleration of the rate of debt, and treats it as politically inevitable in our own time, something that someone else will have to solve in some indeterminate future.
Another basic premise of the 2017 budget is that one of the necessities for future economic growth is a continuation of immigration at record levels. There will be 190,000 places for immigrants in 2017-18 plus 16,250 places for refugees. The central problem with this policy is the cultural assumptions that accompany it. Multiculturalism always assumed that the modern public sphere was now dominated by secularism and that religion had been consigned to a range of private belief systems that impinged little on our laws and politics. It also assumed that, under a non-discriminatory entry policy, each ethnic identity group would always remain a minority. We assumed that all immigrants would painlessly convert to Australia’s generous, liberal democratic way of life.
Multiculturalists never suspected that one group would arrive in numbers declaring that conversion to anything but its own religious and political dogma was apostasy, and strictly forbidden. In short, Muslim immigration on a large scale is not only incompatible with the assumptions of multiculturalism but with liberal democracy itself. Its social practice has turned its suburban ghettoes in Sydney and Melbourne into enclaves that are positively un-Australian. Yet, because we have enshrined the concept of non-discrimination into Australian law, including immigration law, we are stuck with more of the same for the foreseeable future.
This column appears in the latest edition of Quadrant.
Click here to subscribe
It is true that immigration to Australia will not for some time produce the level of demographic change now facing Europe—where one quarter of French teenagers are now Muslims, and where a surge of Muslim electors produced a solid block of votes that made the radical Sadiq Khan the Lord Mayor of London—but now that the Australian Labor Party depends for its future success on retaining all the seats in the Muslim ghettoes it now holds, the political clout of this religion is beyond dispute.
So what is to be done? In each of this edition’s three articles I refer to, our authors canvass options for the future. But there is one further issue I want to raise here, the role of political leadership in identifying the looming crisis and in working out how to respond to it within a framework that guarantees the preservation of Australia’s traditions of liberal democracy.
In the federal election last year, some 23 per cent of voters supported minor parties and independents, 5 per cent voted informal, and 9 per cent did not even bother to turn up. In other words, more than one-third of the electorate was disaffected from both the major political groupings that have governed Australia since Federation.
Discussing these figures in a speech to the Liberal Party in Perth last month, Tony Abbott observed that they represented a political polarisation within Australia that does not accord with the traditional divisions of Left versus Right, or Coalition versus Labor. Instead, Abbott said the division that is now emerging is that of political insiders versus outsiders.
He said the principal concerns of the major political parties and their rusted-on supporters were not shared by the outsiders, or even by the majority of the voters who normally preference the major parties. He argued the underlying cause of this political disaffection was a failure of political leaders to commit to Australian values. Politicians on both sides of the fence had lost sight of the centrality of values to the electorate. But when most Australian people think what politics is about they have a different view: “When it’s not about practical help in their daily lives, it’s about values. It all comes back to values. What do you believe? Whose side are you on?” He said:
There are many causes of our present discontents: jobs are less secure; families are less stable; our personal and national security and our personal and national prosperity is less assured. There’s economic disruption. But there’s values disruption too and that’s even more unsettling. Overwhelmingly, our people believe in our country—but it’s hard for them to have faith in politicians when the politicians and those they promote don’t believe in the things they do.
Abbott said that as well as pride in their nation, Australians also needed to recognise their inheritance from the broader Western civilisation of which we are part:
We are part of a civilisation which has exported scientific learning, material prosperity, and concepts of democracy, justice and freedom to the entire world. We don’t discriminate on the basis of race, creed or gender. We do our best to judge people by the content of their character. The modern world is unimaginable without this legacy of Western civilisation.
However, he observed that almost no one talks this way any more:
Especially the leaders of centre-left political parties no longer even mention, let alone celebrate, the abiding virtues and benefits of Western civilisation. The march of identity politics has rendered today’s left-of-centre politicians incapable of appealing to the West’s high culture as the best antidote to racism and to all other forms of discrimination.
Abbott’s speech endorsed the recently announced changes by the Turnbull government that require applicants for citizenship to be more familiar with Australian values.
However, it is hard to regard this as any substantial change. It only affects the wording of a small number of topics in the government’s guidebook for applicants and for the online test they must pass to gain citizenship. The changes do not require applicants to publicly renounce any ethnic or religious laws, customs or principles that are incompatible with Australian laws and mores. That would be a contravention of multiculturalism itself, which no one in either of the major parties seems willing to identify as the problem.
The issues Abbott discussed in his Perth speech are far from confined to Australia. In his address to last September’s Quadrant conference, “The Future of Civilisation”, the editor of the British conservative magazine Standpoint, Daniel Johnson, focused on similar problems of political credibility for both Left and Right parties.
However, he noted that most Western democracies in Europe were moving slowly to the Right:
Social democratic parties are shrinking everywhere; parties of the centre-Right are dominant. No longer do electorates feel intimidated by liberal elites, however much these elites scold them for rejecting their own liberalism, which ordinary people have noticed is often quite illiberal.
The conservative problem Johnson sees, however, is not that voters do not share conservative values. It is that the voters intuitively sense that the established representatives of the Right are themselves dismissive of those values. Johnson adds:
Conservative politicians for the most part just aren’t conservative enough. Corrupted by power, they have become inauthentic and duplicitous. Voters just don’t trust them to defend their own back yards, let alone Western civilisation.
So, what we need in Australia is a political leader who recognises that the three issues discussed here are profound problems that threaten our way of life, who can be trusted by the electorate to understand and pursue the right policies, and who has the ability to win a commanding enough position in the parliament to implement them. At the moment, there is only one serious contender for the task: Tony Abbott.