In his latest book, ‘Rise of the Right: The War on Australia’s Liberal Values’, barrister and commentator, Greg Barns, traces the rise of the hard right in the Liberal Party. Right-wing populists, he finds, are engaged in mutually assured destruction with the remaining party “centrists”.
AS WE head into the 2018 Federal Election, we might reflect on the fact that liberal values – openness, diversity, tolerance and social progress – have taken a hammering since the election of John Howard as Liberal Prime Minister in 1996. But in this election there are signs that genuine liberals might make real inroads into Liberal Party territory. Already Kerryn Phelps has won in Wentworth in Sydney’s east and Zali Steggall may do the same in former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s northern Sydney seat of Warringah. In Melbourne the Liberal’s Deputy Leader Josh Frydenberg faces a real challenge from liberal candidates such as the Greens’ Julian Burnside and genuine liberal Oliver Yates.
While the decline of liberal values in Australia can indeed be traced to the government that Mr Howard led from 1996 to 2007, some might say it should more specifically be traced to the tacit approval, by Mr Howard and his government, of the rhetoric of the then newly minted Independent Member for the Queensland seat of Oxley, Pauline Hanson; by the infamous 2001 Tampa incident; and by the Australian Government’s response to the events of 9/11 in the United States of America.
There has been no effective turning back of the tide since the Howard years. In the same way as the former UK prime minister and the UK Labour Party effectively embraced the neoclassical economic agenda of the Conservative Margaret Thatcher, who led the United Kingdom from 1979 until 1991, the Rudd and Gillard governments made no sustained attempt to restore the liberal consensus that had existed before Mr Howard began to rip it apart in 1996.
Tellingly, a Rudd commitment to enshrine human rights into law in the form of a Human Rights Act or charter was shelved early in his prime-ministership. And in his desperate attempt to win another term for the ALP and himself after he deposed Julia Gillard in 2013, Mr Rudd embarked on a shameful exercise in neo-colonialism by doling out billions of dollars to impoverished Papua New Guinea and Nauru in an attempt to convince voters he could “stop the boats”.
Within the Liberal Party, former prime minister Tony Abbott (himself a self-confessed hard-right Anglophile), Mr Dutton, Mr Morrison and outspoken backbench MPs like the former soldier Andrew Hastie have all accelerated the decline of liberal values in a marked fashion. They have done so with little or no opposition from those in the Liberal Party who regard themselves ideologically as more liberal than conservative.
While, even in the years of Mr Howard, a handful of Liberal MPs such as Petro Georgiou, Judi Moylan and Judith Troeth would speak out about the shame of the detention of asylum seekers, and in particular children, there has been no public or even private opposition since they left the national scene a decade ago.
And in the ALP as well, there is silence on this issue; its representatives perceived as denoting weakness and vulnerability their only slightly more compassionate policy settings when they were in office from 2007 to 2013. This from an allegedly progressive political force and certainly one that in the past had espoused and practised liberal values (think the Whitlam government and landmark anti-discrimination laws of the Hawke government).
While this book is not about asylum seekers – much has been written on this topic, mostly revealing the horror of the regime – the matter of how legislators and government treats its fellow human beings is emblematic of whether liberal values are being eroded or indeed altogether ignored within a nation. But it is not only on the issue of asylum seekers that the ALP is guilty of joining in the assault on liberal values.
Rarely does Labor oppose the attacks on courts and the rule of law that individuals like Mr Dutton and his allies launch with astonishing regularity. The party seems easily cowed by the tabloid media, abetted by its slavish devotion to marginal seat opinion polling numbers.
In fact, the ALP is sometimes happy to join in the assault on liberal values. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews – generally regarded, believe it or not, as a progressive leader – has regularly joined in the attacks on his state’s judiciary made by Mr Dutton and others and it has stripped fundamental rights from defendants in criminal proceedings. Mr Andrews and his government jump to the dissonant tune of Melbourne’s Herald Sun, a highly influential illiberal and authoritarian force in Victoria.
On 24 May 2018, the then New South Wales ALP leader, Luke Foley, scored himself a headline in the Daily Telegraph – which, in its world view and outlook, is a carbon copy of the Herald Sun (or vice versa, take your pick) – by bemoaning what he called the flight of white Anglo-Saxon families (“white flight”!) from parts of Western Sydney because these areas were being overrun by Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
The rise and rise of the heirs of Mr Howard – epitomised in Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton and what they represent – poses a challenge to those who believe in a liberal Australia. That is, an Australia that is open, tolerant and progressive and one that values the rule of law both domestically and internationally. We cannot expect the ALP to restore liberal values, but we can hope that in the Liberal Party’s heartlands those who support genuine liberalism unseat Howard’s heirs.
Greg Barns is the author of Rise of the Right: The War on Australia’s Liberal Values (Hardie Grant Publishing 2019).
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