Culture catcher: 23

Julian Burnside on 30 May 2007 launching the Left think tank Centre for Policy Development:

It is a pleasure, but also a surprise, to be asked to speak at the launch of a new think tank.

It is a particular pleasure that this think tank is one of those rarities: a place for consideration of that missing part of the spectrum – the part now called the left, but which sits modestly, not on the right where most other think tanks are, but covering a wider territory: genuinely liberal. It is a lonely place these days.

It is interesting, and alarming, to consider just how far the dominant conversation has moved to the right during the past 12 years. The so-called Liberal Party has made it clear that former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser is no longer a welcome member of the party he once led, and I suspect that the Australian Labor Party would see him as a bit too far left to be electorally useful. I imagine that if Sir Robert Menzies were alive today he would be refused membership of the party he founded, despite the natural advantage of an Imperial knighthood, such a welcome adornment in a party so indebted to Queens and all things monarchical.

On balance I think Menzies would be excluded from John Howard’s Liberal Party, and he would probably not wish to join it. He was, after all, a man of principle, a true liberal. When it comes to policy development, no principle is so fundamental that it cannot be subverted or debased by John Howard. To add insult to injury, the betrayal of principle is dressed up in dishonest rhetoric so as to maintain the misleading appearance of the values the Liberal Party once stood for.

So, the indefinite detention of children is squared with family values by dressing it up as border protection; jail without trial and based on secret evidence is passed off as necessary to preserve democracy; the abandonment of an Australian citizen in Guantanamo Bay is fudged as a prelude to a fair trial on a retrospective charge and hearsay evidence obtained by coercion. Ministerial responsibility, one of the pillars of the Westminster system which Howard promised to honour, has disappeared without a trace, until its brief reappearance when practical politics required Ian Campbell to be sacrificed in an attempt to skewer Rudd for meeting Brian Bourke.

Global warming was ignored, doubted or scorned until suddenly, 6 months ago, it snapped into policy focus as Howard deftly recognised the plain facts science had been proclaiming for a decade at least.

In place of policy founded on principle, we get platitudes larded with rhetoric. Remember John Howard’s speech on the 50th anniversary of his fan magazine Quadrant. He again disparaged the ‘black armband view of history’. Ignoring the plain facts uncovered by the HREOC report Bringing Them Home, he hides behind the notion that what has happened in the past is no part of this generation’s heritage or responsibility. This from the man who increasingly exploits the tragedies of an earlier generation who died at Gallipoli.

Source: Centre for Policy Development

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