The Weekly Notebook – conservative basket cases

Why conservative parties have become basket cases

A common feature of today’s political environment is the identity crisis in conservative parties that have ruled much of the Western world in the post-war years.

For example, Christian Democratic parties that blossomed in Europe and Latin America after World War Two are now struggling for survival.

In Australia the chief party of conservatism, the Liberal Party, is divided between “liberal” Liberals and “conservative” Liberals.

Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies

The division is not new. It has existed since the birth of the Liberal Party in October 1944 but its founder, Robert Menzies, was clever enough to paper it over. He talked fondly of a “broad church” and classless fellowship.

In truth, Menzies was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative who recognised that his party had to appeal to working- and middle-class voters if it was ever to gain power. He couldn’t simply rely on his “base” which was a handful on rich males from the Melbourne Club, the Australian Club in Sydney and the Queensland Club in Brisbane.

Menzies’ one-man illusionist’s show worked until 1965 when he retired at the age of 71: he was worn out. His stream of “red scare” election campaigns had run their course.

If truth be known, his retreat marked the end of the Liberal Party itself. Fresh leaders like Harold Holt, John Gorton, Malcolm Fraser, John Hewson and John Howard, attempted to give it a new lease of life. In fact, they simply put it on life support and prayed that no one would notice.

Along comes The Mad Monk

The ascension of Tony Abbott, the most illiberal Liberal imaginable, sealed the party’s fate.

Abbott: wrecker

He made no attempt to bind the internal divisions of the Liberal Party. On the contrary, he went on a mission to create a Conservative Party out of the remnants of Menzies’ geriatric organisation. The zealot Abbott magnified the party’s ideological divisions and plunged it into a shambles of disloyalty, policy vendettas and back-stabbing.

There was a bright side to this: for the first time, voters saw the ugly internal workings of the Liberal Party. All those toffs with white hair in double-breasted suits were bullies, blowhards and uncaring twats.

Scott Morrison, the new Liberal leader, has been handed the task of uniting the squabbling tuckshop and leading it into the future. The task is utterly beyond him.

He too is trying to hold the old divisions of “wets” and “dries” together. It may have worked in Menzies’ day, but not in the 21st century where people are demanding answers, practical policy and dramatic changes. Our lives and future depend on it. And Morrison won’t find the answer in the “happy clappies” or in the pages of the Old Testament.

It’s a global shakedown

Meanwhile, over in the US, chief Donald Trump strategist Steve Bannon of Breitbart infamy wants to turn the Republican Party into a “workers’ party” while Bernie Sanders wants to turn the Democratic Party into a “socialist party”. Bernie has opponents tugging the other way: the Clintons want the Democratic Party to be a Wall Street/Washington/Hollywood enterprise with billionaires running the show and everyone (in the upper middle class – white, black, brown and Hispanic) making a lot of money.

Theresa May: minority rule

In the UK, Theresa May’s Conservative Party is split down the middle between two wings of Toryism. It is further divided by regional differences, social background and Brexit.

She led a majority Tory government into last year’s General Election only to finish as a minority government, now relying on a handful of Ulster Paisleyites to hold onto power.

Another election should see the Tories turned into a rump across the UK.

The Christian Democrats are washed up in Italy after being at the centre of power for decades. Tribalist forces from the far right have formed a government (Italy’s 66th since WW2) by co-opting a populist petty-bourgeois party as its coalition partner and whipping up anti-refugee sentiment.

The Gaullists in France have been swept to the sidelines by President Emmanuel Macron’s self-styled La Republique en marche and traditional conservatives across the EU have been shattered by twin hammer blows from the far left and the far right.

Editorial writers are screaming in frustration about the demise of mainstream conservative parties. They are losing a security blanket and they don’t like it. They are losing their meal tickets too, and they certainly don’t like that.

I am not mourning the disintegration of Menzies’ Liberal Party. It was responsible for holding back Australia’s cultural, educational and scientific development. It sabotaged every plan for society’s progress. Only the election of Gough Whitlam in 1972 pulled Australia out of its cultural cringe and backwardness. When they returned to office in 1975, the Liberals didn’t dare reverse a single measure that Whitlam had promoted. But they did put the brake on again.

Bad blood persists

In New York in mid-September, four former Australian prime Ministers were staying in Manhattan – Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull (Liberals) and Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard (Labor).

It was a remarkable coincidence and unique opportunity for social contact between old Canberra adversaries. What would be better than a jovial lunch, a pre-dinner drink or a quiet evening in club land?

The other possibility was some “across the aisles” socialising between Liberal and Labor. After all, they had all left politics and they all had all shared the highs and lows of the prime ministership.

However, no contact was made. The four ex-prime ministers never bothered to raise the phone or send an email. Why? Because they hate each other so passionately they wouldn’t cross the road to put them out if they were on fire.

The Rupert Murdoch factor

I have no doubt that Australia’s media magnates, Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Stroke, both billionaires, played some part in breaking Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s career, and then supporting Scott Morrison over Peter Dutton.

Rupert Murdoch: self-styled kingmaker

However, their involvement is hugely over-exaggerated. Murdoch relishes being painted as a kingmaker who can make or break prime ministers and presidents. It adds to his image as the “world’s most powerful man” and to the imperial strength of his global media company.

The more potent force behind Turnbull’s ousting was the Roman Catholic Church. It hired up to eight consultancies, paying them millions of dollars, to swarm the corridors of power in Canberra and marginal Coalition seats across the country. Their aim was to stop Turnbull’s revision of the Gonski plan to switch the funding balance in favour of impoverished state schools and lower the vast sums going to Catholic, “faith” and private schools.

Catholic schools: lobbied for extra funding

The Catholic Church’s lobbying war was hugely effective. It warned MPs that they would lose their seats at the next Federal Election if they didn’t “stop Turnbull”. It wasn’t a message; it was a threat wrapped in an ultimatum.

Liberals and Nationals in the church’s firing line put preservation of their careers first, and threw Turnbull under a bus.

Morrison and his cronies can’t come clean with voters and explain why Turnbull was dumped because they are fearful of damaging relations with Catholics. It’s much easier to blame Murdoch; he won’t mind.

The new PM started this week by dumping Turnbull’s revised Gonski plan and increasing the amount to Catholic schools and the private sector by more than $4 billion.

A jubilant Catholic sector immediately welcomed the extra funding. Why wouldn’t it? Working taxpayers are paying Catholics to receive a better-funded education than their own children in state schools.

Aussie journo goes Gonzo in California memoir

Low Life in the High Desert by David Hirst, Scribe, Melbourne 2018

The late David Hirst, an exciting, thoughtful and provocative Australian journalist, has left a memoir revealing the magical qualities of his writing.

In his reporting career for Melbourne and Sydney newspapers, Hirst was a fiery operator who strayed across politics, economics and crime.

In this book, he gives a first hand account of his decision to turn his back on Australian media and make a new life in the United States, starting in California’s Mojave Desert.

David Hirst

Hirst is no shrinking violet. He leaves the reader in no doubt that he considers himself an Aussie version of Hunter S Thompson or Tom Wolfe, two exponents of the “new journalism” which became the staple diet of Rolling Stone magazine during the Vietnam War years and the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The publisher’s blurb accompanying the book goes further. It says: “His prose is lively, captivating and highly entertaining, reminiscent of Clive James, A A Gill and Jon Ronson.”

Unfortunately, he is a pale imitation of all the above. He is no “Gonzo” journalist. How could he be? Gonzo journalism was a passing genre adopted by a handful of American writers trying to break out of the confines of the staid boundaries of US journalism owned by privileged white rich guys. Whereas Hunter S Thomson’s devotion to drugs and guns is hilarious in a sick-minded kind of way, there is nothing amusing about Hirst’s almost obsessional worship of the mind-bending influence of various psychotropic drugs.

However, his wild adventures in the US have an attractive quality, largely because of the wonderful characters he befriended and his vivid pictures of the American landscape, whether it is hugely wealthy cities or the desert.

It is a “trip” in more ways than one.

In the opening pages I was staggered to read Hirst’s glowing tribute to Les Hollings, editor-in-chief of The Australian. Rupert Murdoch plucked the doer Yorkshireman from a paper in Wales to come to Sydney to repair the damage to The Australian after Murdoch poisonously backstabbed Gough Whitlam during The Dismissal in 1975. Journalists staged their first ever strike against proprietorial interference when Whitlam, the elected Prime Minister, was sacked by drunken schemer, Governor-General John Kerr, with the secret approval of Buckingham Palace.

“He wore a long grey cardigan that lesser men mocked,” Hirst wrote of his hero Hollings. “He spoke slowly, at the speed of his thoughts. He was now a very powerful man in Sydney, and a man of influence across the nation. His shoulders had stooped under the weight of his importance.”

Suffice to say, Hollings was a very average editor and a very average bloke with a very average mind. Hirst’s extraordinary tribute left me asking myself: “If he thought Les Hollings, a vapid Murdoch sycophant, was such a great bloke, what other judgments are questionable in his book?”

If you enjoy existential voyages in self-discovery this is the perfect Christmas present for you or your like-minded friends.

PS: Hirst’s California memoir has been lovingly edited by his widow Valerie Morton who is herself an accomplished writer, photographer and blogger. Morton this week published her own book, Blame it on the Rain: Life Around Byron Bay, available at selected bookshops and from Booktopia.

NEXT WEEK: Pauline Hanson unmasked – review of Hoodwinked  by Kerry-Anne Walsh

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