Forgive me for not getting very excited by, or involved in, the current election campaign. Despite (or perhaps because of) saturation coverage of the rather mediocre national leaders who dominate proceedings and who are the most likely to influence the eventual outcome – Morrison, Shorten, Clive Palmer (incredibly) and the Nat guy whose name I may have once known but have since forgotten – the sense of occasion is almost entirely lacking. This is so even though we are constantly told this is an election of great consequence. A “fork in the road” election, no less.
On the right, the Liberals have done what they always do. They circle the wagons, attempt to bury momentarily the worst evidence of their deep and abiding disunity, claim credit for whatever positive economic news they can find, and allege that the other mob would be worse. They say that electing the Labor Party would be a disaster. That has been pretty much the Liberals’ electoral strategy over my lifetime and probably all the way back to the party’s birth in 1949. The Nats merely claim now that they “get stuff” out of Treasury for the bush. The quixotic and deeply unimpressive Palmer, seemingly now a potential kingmaker, stands for who-knows-what.
The rest of the fractured non-Coalition right merely fight over the Senate spoils. Of these parties, the Australian Conservatives represent perhaps most closely the values that once attracted conservatives to the old, “broad church” Liberal Party, but their electoral progress has barely registered on the radar and they lack cut-through leadership and a compelling, vote-gaining focus. One Nation perhaps will always be associated with its own highly visible leader, but its focus on immigration, though correct and important, is limiting and the politically incorrect edge previously owned by One Nation has gone. With Fraser Anning firing the most outrageous shots now, even Pauline is muted in impact.
Labor’s pitch, despite the gaffes and the almost comical performance of its leader these past years, is certainly pushing leftwards, and many of its intended policies are alarming. As someone recently said, though, while governments are made in the lower house, what they can achieve in government – for good or ill – is determined by what happens in the upper house. And, thanks to the quirky electoral system, anything could happen there. What we do know is that Labor won’t be able to do many of those things it has promised which scare sensible centre types the most.
So is fear enough to cause a conservative, whether deluded, discontented or merely habitual, to rally once more around the Liberal flag? After all, the Libs got rid of Turnbull eventually, Morrison seems decent and is at least a centrist if not of the right (to the extent that one can discern what, if anything, he believes in) and Tony is so distracted by his own backyard battle in Warringah that conservatives have ceased to long for his return or see it as remotely plausible.
I believe the answer is no, even absent a compelling alternate, disruptive leader in the Farage, Orban or Trump mould. The Libs get away with this time after time after time, suggesting that the pollster Mark Textor’s smug conclusion of some years back – that conservative voters simply have nowhere else to go – might actually be right.
Bob Catley and Bruce McFarlane famously adapted the phrase “tweedledum and tweedledee”, popularised by Lewis Carroll, to Australian politics, in particular to make the case in 1974 that there wasn’t much between the two parties vying for office. Yes, that is one argument about elections not mattering much, and an argument that I am attracted to, despite all the bluster about forks in the road and suggestions to the contrary.
But there is a far bigger reason now why elections don’t much matter. It is that most of the ideological action occurs elsewhere, outside government. The culture wars are fought in institutions other than the parliament and, moreover, what goes on in the parliament doesn’t much affect what happens at the various fronts of those wars. It is simply the case now that institutions outside traditional politics, in other words non-state actors, do more harm to our lives, our freedoms and our livelihoods than any government. Parliaments can tax us more. Yes, and they do, and this is painful. They then spend our money, mostly they waste it, and this is often disastrous. Yet life goes on. On the other hand, certainly from a right-of-centre voter’s perspective, what right-of-centre political parties don’t do is far more damaging than what they, or indeed their leftist opponents, actually do.
Political parties, for a range of reasons, are now very bad at stopping the culture from deteriorating and stopping the attacks from elsewhere on our freedoms and our lives.
That principled right-of-centre Queensland politician George Christensen recently claimed, at a Church and State Summit in Brisbane, that the most effective things that traditionalists or conservatives could do to “move the needle” in relation to safeguarding their values in modern society had little to do with politics. The runaway success of the cultural Marxist left in transforming our critical institutions to conform to their own visions is such that focusing on parliamentary politics nowadays is pretty much a waste of time. George’s advice to an aspiring “influencer” would be – don’t go into politics. Do something else to make a difference.
There is much in what George says, though it is very depressing. It means, in essence, that the many good people on the broad right who stand for office, or support them, who man the polling booths and distribute how-to-votes, or do letterbox drops, may as well not bother.
I use the word “office” deliberately. For as Mark Steyn has often noted, now parties of the right merely attain office. They seldom wield power. They occupy the Treasury benches without ever reclaiming the territory lost, without even tinkering with leftist institutions that make life miserable for conservatives and centrists, without threatening in any meaningful sense the power of those who actually shape and control the culture.
This is generally because they either lack correct grounding in conservative values, aka commitment to the cause (most obviously, seen in Turnbull), or simply lack spine (most recently seen in, well, quite a few front-benchers). It might be a case of both (as in Theresa May). The examples of endlessly disappointing right-of-centre governments are as legion as they are obvious. Even supposed right-wing zealot Tony Abbott was severely chastened for not doing enough on several fronts — not privatising the ABC, not disempowering or abolishing the Human Rights Commission, abandoning any attempt to do away with Section 18C. Conservative governments, especially those in Westminster democracies, will always disappoint their base. Given many conservatives’ support for the monarchy and for the Westminster system as the ideal form of government, it is ironic that it is probably more likely that real political disruption will be successful in a republic, where there is an extra arm of government capable of decisive action on any number of fronts: the capacity to appoint ministers from outside the parliament, for starters, and a magical thing called “executive orders”.
But what if it is the case that conservative governments fail us, not because they are led by conservatives in name only or that they believe the right things yet lack spine, but that rather they achieve nothing of lasting value to conservative voters because the institutions in our society that do shift the needle in awful ways are simply beyond parliamentary reach? In other words, what if politicians are actually unable to do much that is effective in relation to many of the issues that ail us all?
The thesis is simple. Now it is public bureaucracies at all levels of government, corporations, universities, schools, churches, sporting bodies and the media that shape our everyday lives, threaten our free speech and freedom of belief, annoy us with their political correctness, and make our lives miserable far more than governments have the will or capacity to achieve. Indeed, governments sometimes enable their behaviour. But governments cannot readily control, nor restrict, nor even modify that behaviour, it seems. Certainly not the wimp governments of the right that most Western democracies have recently endured.
Some analysts have termed this new form of governance the “administrative state” that is run by a new ruling class. Most recently, John Marini’s Unmasking the Administrative State (2019) has continued a long line of thinking that began with James Burnham’s The Managerial Revolution in the early 1940s. Others to have posited a similar thesis include Angelo Codevilla’s The Ruling Class (2010) and Kenneth Minogue’s The Servile Mind (also 2010) which seek to explain the decline of our political culture and the takeover of governing by experts and thought leaders who tell us what is right, how we should behave and what we should think. Quadrant’s own Salvatore Babones has weighed in with a crisp analysis of the new liberal authoritarianism, a “tyranny of experts” (2018). There are still other recent works on like themes, many of which seek to explain the mindset of the unhappily ruled who have struck back against their oppressors at the ballot box, seen most obviously in the US Presidential election of 2016.
The very breadth, the enormous reach of the modern state means that its administrative arm impacts just about every nook and cranny of life. The cloying, Davos brigade sanctimony of political correctness that is so simultaneously offensive and shallow is offensive precisely because we seemingly cannot vote it out. It will still be there, in all of its horror, after May 18.
Political correctness is in many ways led by the State. But it isn’t just the State that controls our lives and determines the way society works in the twenty-first century. It is third parties that we do not vote for or get to endorse in any way. The organisations for whom we work and interact now reach into areas of life that have nothing to do with our jobs. We are punished for thought crimes. People are sacked. Promotions are denied. Careers get terminated. Sometimes this is enabled by the State, especially its administrative tentacles, but often both the sources and the enforcement sanctions of those who control us are nothing to do with the State.
The cultural Marxists, postmodernists and their fellow travellers who now dominate our critical culture-forming institutions didn’t advocate a long march through the parliaments, after all. They decided they didn’t need to. Sadly, libertarians who say they are passionate about our freedoms seem not to have noticed cultural decline, or at least they do not much care that it has occurred. They are too obsessed by the State and have not noticed that it is merely one source of control in the contemporary polity.
The processes by which the cultural control of the Marxists has been achieved are complex, and their strategies have been cunning and patient. They have poisoned institutions that are subject very little to direct government, and therefore popular, influence.
Just think of the following cases over the past few years, even the last few weeks – Israel Folau, Professor Peter Ridd, Sir Roger Scruton, Jordan Peterson. The punishment of these prominent, decent people creepily resembles mob rule, but it is in the cause of the carefully husbanded moral strictures of those who have come to control the commanding heights of our culture. There are dozens and dozens more examples to which one might point.
Professor Niall Ferguson correctly calls this thought control. He advocates a NATO-style fightback by intellectuals and others to defend the freedom of thought of the West. Ferguson’s particular focus is on the universities, where critical thinking now goes to die. The recent Ridd case in Australia is but one example. Well might Ferguson zero in on the universities. And the impacts of the transformation of the universities into centres of thought control is so important because now so many Australians, alas, attend them as a result of the massification of higher education. And it is the graduates of our universities who then assume positions of power in the new ruling class, and who run the newly abhorrent organs of thought control in the media, the woke corporations and, yes, the sporting bodies.
That American national treasure David Horowitz has warned that the challenge we all face is war. This is a street fight. The tactics of the Left and of progressive secularists over many decades have worked brilliantly. They have used the institutions of the State, such as human rights commissions, media qangos like the ABC, school education departments which set curricula, and most notoriously, the universities, to control thought. It is nothing less that a full assault on our freedoms and lifestyles.
So, we have three major reasons to conclude that elections, especially individual elections, don’t matter much. They cannot be the source of hope for the depressed conservative. One, right-of-centre parties don’t actually believe what we believe, and so do not do what we want them to. Second, those that do share our beliefs typically do not have the spine to act decisively and strategically in our interests. (Did any minister give James Cook University a hard time while it was making life miserable for Peter Ridd? There, you take my point) And third, too much of what ails us is beyond the reach of elected officials, and is either controlled by the administrative State or by institutions outside government.
But there is another reason why elections don’t make a difference. This is because so many big issues decided by governments, of both the Left and the Right, are never discussed in election campaigns. So many decisions by governments get made without our permission, and once new things are introduced, it is all but impossible to reverse them. They are “slow burn” issues whose evil impacts are simply not seen at the time they are introduced, but whose (perhaps) unintended consequences only emerge over a longish time.
The great Douglas Murray has been onto this. The issue he talks about in his classic book The Strange Death of Europe (2017) is mass immigration. It was introduced by Tony Blair, a good left liberal multiculturalist, a true son of the zeitgeist, and it has simply grown and become embedded in the British system. As Murray explains, mass immigration was never voted on. It was never an election issue. Yet it is hard to think of anything that has been more insidious in the UK in the past half century.
Australian examples include multiculturalism (remember Fraser’s seemingly innocent and well-meant late 1970s play?), mass university education, hideous public architecture (approved by government planners), the homosexualisation of society, the sexualisation of children, the well documented, increasing soft persecution of Christians, the “excessive toleration of Islam” (to quote Bob Catley), the emasculation of superannuation, the war on coal (including by the banks), the power of celebrity university vice-chancellors, the tyranny of renewable energy targets, and, like the UK, continually high immigration. When did Australians ever give governments permission to do/allow these things? We didn’t!
Those who understand what has been going on, probably a fairly small group, are totally at a loss as to what to do about it. There are those who advise joining political parties in order to shape policies and redress the worst effects of what has occurred. But good people have been joining political parties for decades, to little effect. In the case of the Liberal Party, that comforting “broad church” with room for all, it is run by self-serving, venal factions populated by leftists and closet progressives who mostly don’t even pretend, won’t even call themselves conservative. Now we even have Modern Liberals! No, joining a political party will have absolutely no impact on the decline of our culture.
Paul Keating once said that “if you change the government, you change the country”. Well, I wonder about that. Our country has changed, bit by bit, over several decades, in massive ways and forever. And all the while governments of all persuasions either stood by and watched, knowing what was going on, or perhaps even worse, did not even notice it was happening.
The ruling class of our age, those who impose tyranny upon us through their control of the core public and private institutions, can yawn their way through yet another dreary election campaign in the comfortable knowledge that little will change, except perhaps at the edges, and that their rule will continue undisturbed.
Kerry Wakefield (spouse of Nick Minchin and board member of the Advance Australia group) recently recalled the famous dictum of that wonderful and now sadly departed “accidental culture warrior” Andrew Breitbart – that “politics is downstream from culture”. The real and decisive action is at the headwaters and only there that the reversal of at least some of the fruits of the frighteningly quick march through the institutions can begin to be reversed.
Voting at elections is a side show. These days in Australia you don’t even get to keep the prime minister that you voted for!
So no, I certainly will not be getting too excited about the coming election, or indeed the return of the Morrison government, should that occur.