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"...public opinion deserves to be respected as well as despised" G.W.F. Hegel, 'Philosophy of Right'

Canberra Gaze: populist conservatism « Previous | |Next »
December 4, 2009

One aspect of this weeks events in Canberra, which resulted in Tony Abbott becoming leader of the Liberal Party, was the white-hot fury of the conservative base of the Coalition. It appeared that they reckoned that they were "losing our country", and they were not going to take it lying down.They were not going to be walked on. These were my impressions.

The accumulated grievances of this base (a minority in electoral terms) were expressed in terms of a hostility to an emissions trading scheme and and anger towards Malcolm Turnbull. But the accumulated grievances of this conservative populism are broader and deeper: global warming, government spending, public debt, censorship and moral panic of sexuality/pornography in consumer culture and art, the drought, Asian immigration, refugees and powerlessness.

The populist conservatives want respect and recognition, but it is not forthcoming in the representation of them as climate change denialists, full of ignorance and prejudice, by the ALP and the Turnbull wing of the Liberal Party. They are dismissed as irrelevant and they are being politically displaced. They are furious and angry. They are losing their country --their Australia--and they want to grab back their control of Australian politics

First, they regain control of their Liberal Party, then Canberra, and they will do so by standing and fighting for what they stood for. Once they ran country. Now they have been displaced. They are angry and resentful. The Coalition resurgence begins with Abbott gaining leadership of the Liberal Party, and they hope that the detestable Rudd will implode---a Latham moment---under the relentless pressure of the well directed attacks launched by their warrior leader. This is a e battle for the heart and soul of Australia.

The tone that is being brought to the public discussion of issues is more than folksy ordinariness: it is also one of unyielding partisanship, the culture wars and saying no no no to the direction of the Rudd Government. The latter's conception of Australia is one that is explicitly rejected and their politics is a needling of those they doesn't much care for -- inner city professionals, liberals in general, and the media. The tone is one of scorn. It's a "love my friends and hate my enemies" sensibility.

What is missing from this defining their identity by their enemies in politics is a more positive vision of the country they want to create; some conception of what they want to do and who they are, other than "not what Rudd is doing" and "not where those rotten Labor and liberal types are taking the country" by adapting to the dynamics of global capitalism, the shiny spectacles of global culture and their enticing market pleasures.

The ALP did not run candidates in Higgins (Victoria) and Bradfield (NSW) on the grounds that these very safe Liberal heartlands would not return a Labor member even in a by-election. The spin from the conservative noise machine has started is being rolling out.The talking point is that the reinvented Liberal Party is back in business as a Conservative party and it is now making ground on the Rudd Government. So they were right to dump Turnbull.

Glenn Milne, one of the voices of the Liberal party in News Ltd, interprets the results of the weekend by-elections in Higgins and Bradfield in terms of the Liberal leader reinventing Howard's battlers as Abbott's army:

The point here is that, in the areas of Higgins and Bradfield that most reflect the outer suburban seats of the major cities where general elections are won and lost, voters gave the thumbs down to Rudd and the Greens on climate change. They forgave the Liberals for the destructive soap opera that the party had become until Abbott arrived and they endorsed both him and his stand against the ETS.

Dennis Shanahan concurs --the Liberal Party members and voters who were moving away are now returning. Abbott can win back the Howard battlers by fighting Rudd on the ETS.

For heavens sake, Higgins and Bradfield are Liberal heartland--social liberal heartland at that. Why would you expect lower-income rusted on ALP supporters to embrace The Greens? You would expect Labor's base, when confronted with a choice between Green and Liberal, to fracture. Why would Labor's lower- and middle-income base to be interested in switching to the Greens? If lower-income Labor booths swung to the Liberals, then higher-income Liberal booths swung to the Greens.

The strategy of The Greens is to maximise their performance in the next Senate contest especially if it is a full Senate election.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 11:33 AM | | Comments (24)


One irony of Abbott leading this round of conservative populism is that he was instrumental in the legal take-down of Hanson and her conservative populism.

It's been weird to see Sophie Mirabella & Bishop, B cheerleading for Abbott. Hopefully this is the last gasp for their brand of 1980s conservatism.

On the cultural issues re Rudd's long relatively high level of popularity, Mungo McCallum has some interesting speculations in the latest Quarterly Essay. Rudd he claimed has tapped into and reframed in quite a subtle way some basic Australian cultural assumptions in his rhetoric and leadership style.

Neither his critics from the left, nor his opponents seem to have taken time to calmly examine what he is saying and doing and at least understand him before launching into their criticism.

Much of the criticsm that I have read on some of the blogs is incoherent and lacks any self awareness.

Civility seesm to be increaslingly missing in action in political debate and throughtfulness in analysis.

Michael C.
let us see if Abbott develops this 1980s populist conservative so that it is relevant to, or addresses, the realities of the 21st century. The political elite on the right usually use his populist conservatism to their own ends-----they incorporate it even though they know that their free market economics (Workchoices) works against the battlers.

I haven't read Mungo McCallum's Quarterly Essay so I cannot really comment since I don't know his argument.

I am critical of Rudd because of the gap between his rhetoric and action on a number of issues--eg.,mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, the NT intervention, the education revolution, the Murray-Darling Basin, federalism. On the ETS, for instance, I agree with the IMF that Rudd has given far too much by way of subsidy to the emitters, thereby impeding the process of reducing emissions and the government deficit.

I don't know how this fits with your claim that the criticism "I have read on some of the blogs is incoherent and lacks any self awareness." I'm not sure what you mean by that.

It really is an ugly incoherent brand of conservatism isn't it? The Howard era meant accepting that Australians were still immature, clinging to the skirts of the USA, obsessing about nothing apart from insular 'values' and getting rich without much care for anyone else.

The Tuckey/Minchin/Abbott conservatives aren't for anything; as you point out, they are simply against any threats to their comfortable lifestyles of privilege. The privilege consists largely of their self-professed status as 'real Australians' as opposed to all those 'others' who want to change things. It's a pathetic way to feel but their fury is nonetheless genuine.

The remarkable thing to me, observing events from overseas, is the panic that has afflicted certain Labor supporters, as if Abbott has suddenly morphed from an anachronistic figure of fun into a formidable opponent who could take government next year. At first I couldn't understand the fear (just read comments at Larvatus Prodeo to understand what I mean) but then the penny dropped: Labor supporters know deep down that their party doesn't stand for principles any more than the Libs do. The day the ALP is forced to explain what its goals and values are is the day it will be exposed as an empty shell - as we are seeing now in the states.

Re Doug's comment, Turnbull's relative cosmopolitism was actually complimentary to Rudd's. Therefore, to the electorate, why change government next election.
It does seem that the removal of Turnbull might have been less random and and a lot more long term as far planning was concerned.
The aim is differentiation, also.
If times (are made to)seem more troubled, then Abbott becomes to Rudd what Howard was to Keating.
If not, they've still got most of their younger leadership warehoused. Attrition will weed out the old guard. Minchin and Abbott will the last two out, turning out the lights on McCarthyism, surely, as they go.
The brief alternative vision offered under Turnbull is the longer term destination, with Turnbull or one or other of the newer generation ready when times are better suited to an opposition than now. The unseemly spectacle we have just had the misfortune to witness is just the death of the Howard era.
But sadly this death is especially noteworthy for its grotesque at times hilariousness squalidity, particularly when juxtaposed with unsavoury; equally unsightly events in NSW.
And less seriously, local (SA) Ranndygate, Chelseagate and StClairgate. Aesthetically iconic but morally unforgiveable and a paradigm for sheer bad taste, if nothing else.
But when the likely outcomes are considered, maybe even these Rabelasian frolics of the last few weeks become tolerable, not least for a prospective evacuation or purge of now-extraneous matter from an otherwise healthy body politic.

And of course the USA equivalent of all of this is the "conservative" campaign to have Sarah Palin be the next President.

Her book is addressed to Plain Folks America.

"the panic that has afflicted certain Labor supporters, as if Abbott has suddenly morphed from an anachronistic figure of fun into a formidable opponent who could take government next year"

I suspect that has more to do with still raw memories of Howard's appeal in the outer suburbs. Abbott is another one whose populist rants could convince that demographic to vote against their own interests.

The difference is that Howard was a slow burner, like Rudd. Abbott is a loose cannon, more like Latham.

It's an irrational fear from the left, but references very recent and strong outrage.

I hope you are right, Lyn.
Could you consider reconsidering or clarifying the " fear from the left" of Abbott as "irrational"?
The laughter in my ears from '94, after Keating post Hewson through Downer and finally astride that hobgoblin Howard, the little right pug with an appetite for labour "reform" is like the laughter in '74 after Whitlam's victory over Snedden- vanished very abruptly indeed.
A week is a long time in politics, it sometimes seems.
And who was the new Menzies, set to go on forever even as late as late 2006?

Doug, I had a look at Mungo's launch interview for his Quarterly Essay at The Monthly's Slow Tv site, and McCallum argues that Rudd's polling popularity is due to his real 'integrity' and his commitment to employment under relatively egalitarian conditions. McCallum never put it in this way, but his claim is that Rudd is fundamentally Labourist. I'm yet to be convinced and as the economic stimulus is reduced I think we'll see how Labourist Rudd's government is.

On Abbott's populist conservatism, I heard Abbott yesterday announce that he was heading out into Australia where he'll be doing a lot of radio talkback. It'll be interesting to see if his talkback skills are are sophisticated as Howard's were, and to see if Abbott can generate the sort of feedback loop necessary for his populism. Considering the rise and rise of social media and online news can Abbott get this populism off the ground without it being short-circuited by media outside the talk radio-News Ltd loop?

I don't know whether you were around in the lead up to the last election when, despite a year's worth of polls, everything we knew from various leaks, Possum's reassurances and sundry other indicators, plenty of ALP supporters maintained fear that Howard would 'pull a rabbit out of the hat' or there'd turn out to be more shy tories than anticipated or there'd be a terrorist attack or something.

Given the mountains of evidence we had available, accumulated over a whole year, I'd say those fears were irrational. Of the 'too good to be true' variety.

Apart from the columns of polemicists well known for spraying crazy nonsense, there's no indication that people think Abbott is a better choice than either Turnbull or Hockey. And neither of them could make a dent in Rudd's popularity either.

We keep being told the Australian electorate is conservative, but everything from elections to social attitude surveys tell us they're not conservative in the political sense. They just like their politicians to be boring and predictable. Boring and predictable Abbott aint. He'll have too many question time opportunities before the next election to beam himself into suburban living rooms saying alarming things.


Re: your second par, Channel 7 news tops the ratings. Talkback and News Ltd are already Abbott worshipers. 7 news grabs will be a better indication of his ability to appeal to wider demographics I would think.

Indeed, we did watch Howard try to pull a sequence of the usual myxo rabbits out the hat in that last twelve months or so, Lyn.
Obnoxious antics like the Intervention and Dr Haneef. These were poorly executed on a public now awake to Howard, its true.
But the "electorate failure" of 2004, with Howard again reelected, this time despite the Tassie rainforests outrage when scab elements from the Tassie CFMEU forestry division colluded with anonymous reactionary elements within Labor as well as the common Tory enemy, caused many to lost all faith with the electorate.
I did indeed, NOT breathe a sigh of releif until well INTO election night 2007, and after reading some of the rubbish written about climate change over the last couple of weeks, am not sure if things are "sorted", with sections of the electorate, even now.
Still, "she'll be apples", one supposes!

re your comment:

the panic that has afflicted certain Labor supporters, as if Abbott has suddenly morphed from an anachronistic figure of fun into a formidable opponent who could take government next year.

Does this "panic" refer to Howard's battlers who swung to Rudd in 2007 but who have suffered from unemployment from the global financial and economic crisis?

John Black from Australian Development Strategies runs the line that the battlers will suffer more pain rising from unemployment, interest rate rises and increasing prices and they--trade people and young outer suburban families)---don't care about Green issues.

Michael C
At this stage Abbott and Joyce's conservative populism, with its appeal to oppose change/reform, is speaking to their base in order to to lock them in. It is not an appeal to the electoral middle ground.They are saying in their grass roots campaign that reform is bad because an ETS means higher energy prices. This grass roots campaign, which is being interpreted as a political backlash in the mainstream media, is a scare campaign that glosses over the compensation that is paid out to households as part of the design of the ETS.

On this interpretation Abbott must reinvent himself for the mainstream, since he currently appeals only to people to the right of centre who are already rusted-on Coalition voters.

GST, re Mortgage Belt comments, could it not be claimed that the mortgage belt, out of gratitude (bwaahh!), might not stick with Rudd's "safe hands" as to the economy, given the favourable response to this group, re fiscal stimulus?
On another aspect of the fragmented big picture, Brian Toohey administered a right flogging on Insiders this morning as to CPS.
Nothing to do with discouraging excess carbon outputs, or an extra "tax" as alleged by the opposition cornpones. Just the setting up of another derivatives style market; a new playpen for the Madoffs to play away in.

Gary my observation reflected comments made over at LP by rusted-on ALP supporters. Lyn is spot-on; the same kinds of people were terrified of Howard right up to polling day. I suspect they believe deep down that a majority of Australians are anti-Labor and it only needs the right leader on the conservative side to unleash that latent hostility. They might be correct of course.

Sometimes I think Rudd shares that belief. He seems determined to avoid doing anything remotely progressive, in case he frightens the horses. The ETS for example is a joke, considered as a response to AGW. Likewise Swan's last 'horror budget' turned out to be anything but, and I confidently expect the much-anticipated 'tax reform' will consist of little more than tinkering at the edges.

The only real reform I can think of is the move to create a new class of welfare dependents whose lives are micro-managed by the state. It's a profoundly illiberal initiative that Howard, Abbott and the like would have been proud of.

" ...a new class of welfare dependents... micromanaged by the state".
Am presuming Ken is referring to the victims of the Aboriginal "Intervention", who Jenny Macklin has so egregiously recently added insult toinjury to, with more welfare "reform" (eg, regress), on top of the damage already done by Brough and Howard.
If you can robotise refugees, aborigines and other "undeserving" welfare beneficiaries suffering through systemic failure induced by Madoff clones across the world, then you have the means in place to spread this right across civilisation.

I remember when Abbott was going through that "kid that was his but then wasn't drama" he conducted himself very well through what was very public scrutiny. He even came off looking good with women which will be remembered by many. From a marketing point of view given that Hockey does have a tendency to get muddled and bushwhacked by reporters and say the wrong thing Abbott is perhaps a better alternative. I think the punters will warm to his big ears like a big cuddly teddy bear and he will be more popular than expected with the group of voters that vote visually and he may only need a side order of policy and rhetoric unlike Rudd who has dished up the rhetoric by the cannon blast.
At this point with Abbott vs Rudd for the next election I will say he's a 50/50 chance.

George Megalogenis in The Australian says that if the benchmark is saving the Liberal base in the bush, then Abbott can afford to lose a seat or two in the inner city. He adds:

The paradox of the base vote is it can never define the nation. It can sustain a party out of office, but it doesn't deliver power. For the Liberals, the clash between the urban and the regional on climate change marks the first point in its history that bush has dictated terms to the city.

He adds that In the past, the Nationals served this purpose in Coalition governments. But the Liberals now hold more regional seats than the Nationals, which is why the conservative response to climate change is being argued on two fronts -- between Liberal and Liberal and between the Liberals and the Nationals.

Abbott has reasoned that the Liberals have more to gain in the regions by opposing Labor on emissions trading than it has to lose in urban areas. However, elections aren't won in either side's heartland but in the suburbs.

Agree with all of that except

"Abbott has reasoned"

From the minute he unexpectedly won the spill he started proclaiming on all things. I don't believe his positions are reasoned at all.

Eg. he's ruled out most options for dealing with climate change, other than nuclear, while saying he will develop policy to address climate change, which he thinks is crap anyway, but it shouldn't cost anything and he wants to debate Rudd despite not being across the literature.

Still, the big new tax line is going down well. Labor might be well advised to have an election on something else.

Under Abbott' and his old-timey Conservative front bench the Liberal Party is now basically run by climate denialists.

They only pretend interest in addressing carbon emissions for political reasons, and their policies reflect their view that there’s no problem to address. They just have to look as if they are. Hence their current position of an easy, cost-free solution to climate change.

When I said Abbott should dust off B Bishop and Ruddock I was joking.

The most interesting thing about Abbott's new front bench, in my view, is how Labor will handle them. You can't just laugh your way to an election.

We have the folksy provincialism versus the pointy-headed intellectuals, and with those in the despised city of "Canberra". As Christopher Hitchens says in reference to Sarah Palin's populism in the US:

But the problem with populism is not just that it stirs prejudice against the "big cities" where most Americans actually live, or against the academies where many of them would like to send their children. No, the difficulty with populism is that it exploits the very "people" to whose grievances it claims to give vent.

Abbott + Co are using the right wing folks who rail against science, modernity, technology, and higher education to get elected, then they dump them.