It is often forgotten that when Edmund Burke wrote his sensational best-seller two centuries ago, The Terror was still three years off. Reflections on the Revolution in France was not a lament for the lives lost to the guillotine, but an attack on the chattering classes of France who with their Rights of Man had conspired with the “monied interest” to incite the Revolution.
Today we do not execute the vanquished, but little else has changed. Burke was convinced that the Revolution would end in bloodshed; we have yet to see how the Turnbull government will pan out. Historical comparisons can be stretched only so far, but there are useful similarities to be drawn between Australia’s bloodless coup and France’s great constitutional upheaval.
Let’s start with the structure. Parliamentary government in Australia is not unlike the royal court at Versailles. There, the Sun King, Louis XIV had defined absolute monarchy, “L’êtat, c’est moi.” He fortified his power by keeping potentially rebellious nobles close, occupying them in the complex etiquette of daily ceremonial. As with the French king, much Canberra activity centres around the figure of the prime minister. He has his inner circle of advisers, his cabinet constituting the nobility of the party, and an outer group of supposedly loyal and subservient back-benchers. All in this swirling circle of influence and ambition depend for their success and happiness on both the performance and popularity of the prime minister, who can allocate portfolios and dispense rewards. All players have to be kept satisfied if equilibrium is to be maintained.
When Louis XVI succeeded to the throne, his first mistake was to let slide the ceremonial role of the nobility at court; he was more attracted to the idea of being an enlightened despot, patronising the philosophers of the Enlightenment. The result was unhappiness; disaffected nobles were later to join the revolt. It appears that Prime Minister Abbott too frequently departed from the traditional process of cabinet consultation and decision-making. Even the public could see this was both surprising and upsetting his ministers with the “captain’s calls” of a despotic monarch.
Then there’s the economy. Both stories began badly, with debt and deficit. Louis inherited a treasury depleted by the Seven Years War. Attempts to raise taxes failed and large international loans to finance France’s support of the American Revolution increased the deficit. More public spending failed to stimulate growth. The king sacked a series of advisers who could not solve the country’s financial problems.
The Abbott government came to power facing a $47 billion budget deficit and public debt of $274 billion, the result of excessive stimulatory spending by the previous Labor governments. It proclaimed a crisis and made reducing both as a priority. But the 2014 budget to end entitlement and restore fiscal rectitude met widespread public disapproval and was largely blocked by a hostile Senate. The deficit and the interest bill on the national debt increased. The Prime Minister’s stocks fell, back-benchers became alarmed and demanded a politically acceptable budget for 2015.
When the king called a meeting of the Estates-General for 1789 – nobles, clergy and middle-class formed the three ‘estates’ – to deal with the crisis, that ‘third estate’ representing 98% of the people, erupted into hostility at its lack of power, formed the National Assembly and demanded reform. Forced to recognise reality, the king accepted the Assembly as the joint representative body; with the adoption of the French Constitution in 1791 his reign subsided into a constitutional monarchy, not a democratic republic. Only after that did a mixture of fear, suspicion and rumour bring violence to the streets.
Australia has progressed. It has a ‘fourth estate’ wielding increasing power. From the 2013 election, commentators, cartoonists and interviewers unleashed the full force of their disapproval on the government, and on Tony Abbott in particular. Alexis de Tocqueville in The Old Regime and the French Revolution (1856) had recognised the importance of influencers:
The duty of leading public opinion naturally fell to the lot of philosophers. Hence the Revolution would be conducted less in view of specific facts than in conformity with abstract principles and general theories.
So the Abbott government was criticised for being on the wrong side of history on issues such as climate change, same-sex marriage, the republic and asylum seekers’ rights. Abbott was ridiculed for his ‘budgie smugglers’, despite those skimpy bathers being the official uniform of the volunteer Surf Lifesaving movement to which he gave his time. He was despised for his athleticism, caricatured for his ears, derided even for his walk and, of course, his Catholicism. The charge was led by ABC interviewers-turned-abusers, alleged reporters who embraced the role of sneering commentators. At one point, the national broadcaster’s chief political correspondent provided this voice-over to accompany images of Abbott on a charity bike-ride: “He is running for election the only way he knows how.”
The Fairfax press, reduced to a rump of surly Marxists and uncouth youths, unleashed its disapproval in print and via its writers’ incestuously regular appearances on ABC television political programmes. The Australian , although excoriated as flag carrier of the evil Murdoch empire, hosted Abbott critics in know-all Peter Van Onselen and Nikki Savva, who became the Madame Defarge of the Turnbull revolution — the most virulent attacker of the prime minister’s chief of staff, and through her of the prime minister himself. Worth noting, perhaps, is that one of the first appointments to Turnbull’s prime ministerial retinue was Savva’s husband, Vincent Woodcock.
The media seized upon and amplified every negative aspect of government. Ignoring or down-playing achievements, it highlighted poor decisions, an economic illiteracy, an inability to negotiate with political obstructionists, verbal stumbles, a lack of common touch and instances of misjudged loyalty to supporters. Allegedly, these faults combined to prove the leader was “out of touch”. Every criticism, magnified and drawn out, richoched around the twittersphere. For the politicians, as for the mobs in Paris, 226 years earlier, fear did the rest.
It has been a commonplace of the public comment seeking to analyse the Turnbull coup that it represents a decisive movement of the Liberal Party towards ‘progressivism’, aka the left, and the eclipse of the conservative wing of the party. Consequently, the hopes of those in the media and the cultural elites who barracked for Turnbull have been excited by his declared support for soft small ‘l’ liberal causes.
Burke’s famous pamphlet, which turned British opinion from support of the French Revolution to hostility, has been interpreted as a great defence of conservatism, although he never used the word. He deplored the destruction of tradition, comparing it with the steady development of British democracy, and citing the ‘glorious revolution’ which bloodlessly replaced James II. He focused his criticism on the Declaration of Rights as a “digest of anarchy” … “an under-ground mine that will blow up in one grand explosion all examples of antiquity, all precedents, charters and acts of parliament…They despise experience as the wisdom of unlettered men….any thing withheld from their full demand is so much of fraud and injustice.”
Burke was not against all rights; rather, he opposed abstract rights. What particularly roused his oratorical vigour was his discovery that the 17 articles of the Rights of Man had been drawn up largely by undistinguished provincial legal hacks who came to dominate the Third Estate, and thus the National Assembly and the drafting of the Constitution.
He then set down for us his great definition of the real rights of men, which, he said, their pretended rights would destroy (emphasis added):
If civil society be made for the advantage of man, all the advantages which for which it is made become his right. It is an institution of beneficence; and law itself is only beneficence acting by a rule. Men have a right to live by that rule; they have a right to do justice, as between their fellows, whether their fellows are in public function or in ordinary occupation. They have a right to the fruits of their industry; and to the means of making their industry fruitful. They have a right to the acquisitions of their parents; to the nourishment and improvement of their offspring; to instruction in life, and to consolation in death. Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to a fair portion of all which society, with all its combinations of skill and force. can do in his favour. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not equal things.
Things move faster in the modern world, so we skipped the bit about lopping the heads of some 17,000 aristocrats (read conservatives), missed the opportunity to televise bath stabbings and spared the churches. The Illuminati prevailed peacefully. We went straight to our very own Napoleon.
The real test for the new emperor will not be whether he heeds Edmund Burke’s warning that progress is not made by destroying the past. His dilemma will be that, because he will not be able to move as fast in the direction the chattering classes demand, the immediate euphoria surrounding his ascension will quickly dissipate.
Malcolm Turnbull’s initial Newspoll approval rating of 55%, not to mention the sycophantic 7.30 TV interview by Leigh Sales, indicate just how high are the progressives’ expectations. Despite the cheering at the number of women in cabinet, there was a distinct coolness at his early announcement that the government would be sticking with decisions for a plebiscite on same-sex marriage and the emissions policy to be taken to Paris.
The first “new” decision to spend $100 million on measures to combat domestic violence — in reality, an Abbott initiative — was well received, predictably by the sections dedicated to proving all men brutes, but twelve hours later the practitioners in the domestic-violence cottage industry were loud in the media complaining it was too little too late. The progressives have got their champion into the palace, but Canberra is no Versailles and the latest Prime Minister no constitutional monarch. When Turnbull seemed ever so slightly to soften his views on asylum seekers, Scott Morison reminded him of the policy for which he had fought so hard.
Nor do Turnbull’s supporters want to be distracted by the tedium of budgetary and tax reform. When Morrison said the budget had a spending, not a revenue problem, the warning bells rang and the ABC quickly wheeled out Chris Bowen to contradict him. Likewise, his decision to concentrate on the real problems in the country, and not attend G20 and IMF talkfests, drew instant condemnation from the loud intelligensia.
The slim support for the government in the first polls is testament to the fact that Turnbull is greatly suspected, probably by a large majority of liberal supporters. He has been narrowly defined – as a cheer leader for those causes dear to the hearts of the leftist elites, interested only in protecting and extending the welfare system, getting same-sex marriage up, promoting alternative energy (and preserving its subsidies), killing off coal and CSG, engorging the ABC, relaxing asylum and migration policies, achieving the republic, and destroying all conservative threads in Australia’s political life.
Woe betide Turnbull if he doesn’t deliver on these priorities! The warning was given in the first radio interview, in the ABC’s AM on Monday September 21. Michael Brissenden (the reporter whose flexible journalistic ethics permitted him to reveal a treasurer’s off-the-record comments) began with the cliché question: “Have you got blood on your hands?” Then, referring to Scott Morrison, who had not supported him, and is now in the second most powerful position in the government, he asked: “Did you do a deal with him; are we likely to have a Kirribilli Agreement some time in the future?”
Except for defence, Turnbull has assembled a promising ministry. For an anti-slogan man, he has begun with all the right-sounding slogans – “A government for the 21st Century” and his treasurer’s “Work, save, invest.” But to the extent that he does pursue the real issues that confront Australia – the unworkability of Parliament; creeping welfare demands; the complex, inadequate and unreformed tax system; and above all the selfishness of a national complacency and resistance to change, he will find himself disappointing and confronting the elites.
For they are fair-weather supporters, interested in Turnbull only for what he can deliver for them. He would be well advised to define clearly his policies, throw down the gauntlet to the electorate while his initial stocks are high, and call an early election. Otherwise, we shall see, in the months before an election in 2016, a gradual chipping away by the Canberra press gallery led by the ABC, at any reform agenda that matters. Every decision will be questioned, every peccadillo, every gaffe magnified, all personal foibles exploited.
It is indeed an exciting time to live in Australia, but not for the reasons Malcolm Turnbull imagines. Over the next twelve months we can watch a determined ideological attack attempting to prevent the re-election of a Liberal (albeit centrist) government. It will be a real test for the power of the Fourth Estate.