Friday, January 10, 2014
Drum and Drummer 2: Wilson & Bernardi, Menzies & Howard
During the 2013-14 silly season, the Coalition government has presented the Twitterati with two of its brethren for which to lock in the stocks and have a jolly old time pelting rotten fruit. Before Christmas it was Tim Wilson, the lilywhite knight from the Institute of Public Affairs, being appointed Australian Human Rights Commissioner. The new year has brought scrutiny on Cory Bernardi, last seen pouring oil down the slippery slope between gay marriage and bestiality, for writing a book which contained conservative views.
Unlike most of the left, I am sanguine about both of these two sagas. Wilson is a capable and seemingly decent fellow, and I wish him all the best in his new role. There is a lot of work to be done to preserve human rights in an Australia with plenty of opponents to freedom on all sides, and Wilson is a true believer in his classical liberal credo so I trust he will fulfil the role to the best of his ability. That much of his job will consist of criticising right-wing governments - as in his statement on the Queensland anti-bikie laws - only underlines the worthiness of his appointment. Who better to stand up for liberty than a libertarian? It is the job that IPA mavens should do regardless of who is in government. Making them part of the system is more likely to change them than to change society.
As for Bernardi, I suppose Christmas is a time for the religious right to shine, but it's a side show at best. I didn't hear much out of the Catholic Church this festive season, no doubt Cardinal Pell was keeping schtum for fear of the media latching onto the royal commission. Who else is there in Australian public life to prosecute the case for sectarian feudalism but Cory? No one else is seriously auditioning to be the next B.A. Santamaria or P.P. McGuiness. Bernardi himself is an acolyte of Nick "Ho Chi" Minchin, one of the faceless men who control the current Liberal Party. He is essentially harmless, notwithstanding dark murmurings about Tea Party backing.
Wilson is an example of the Menzies tradition of the Liberal Party, as outlined by current Attorney-General George Brandis in the Alfred Deakin Lecture in 2009. Menzies founded the Liberal Party primarily on freedom according to Brandis, who is himself arguably the most prominent parliamentary carrier of this particular spear. Bernardi is the current champion of the Howard tradition, and he succeeded none other than the current Prime Minister in this role. The Liberal Party is thus defined as the broad church which spans from the Menzies classical liberals like Wilson, to the Howard conservatives like Bernardi.
What these two men are doing, inadvertently, is allow Abbott as PM to have a breather while the ideologues from opposite corners of the Liberal Party fight over what it means to be in government. Is it to restart the culture wars, as Bernardi would bid and Christopher Pyne would implement? Or is it to dabble with libertarianism, end industry protectionism and finally make good on the rhetoric about small government, unlike recent Coalition performances? This battle is necessary only because Abbott has not articulated which side of the Liberal church he will align himself with. This leaves the public to conclude that he has no bloody idea what to do, and no strategy to marshal his forces like Howard used to (on this, I do agree with Andrew Elder). Different factions inside the government are waging turf wars, with no consequences for embarrassing the government in public - Abbott saw to that very early by refusing to sack those who were obviously guilty of rorting travel entitlements, as Howard did in his first months in office. The party unity that defined the Abbott opposition is fast crumbling in office.
Ah, you might say, but why do they need to fight, can't they do both conservative social policies and liberal economic policies at the same time? To some extent yes, but there are issues in which the conservative elements clash with the small-l liberals in the big-L Liberal Party. Many of these revolve around the Libs' coalition partner, and so far the National Party has had its way. The Nats wanted the Graincorp foreign takeover stopped; it stopped. The Nats wanted talk of Australia Post's privatisation nobbled; it was nobbled. The Coalition is a three-cornered contest between the pastoralists, the moralists and the individualists.
The reality, though, is that Abbott is from the Howard school and no matter how much Brandis and Wilson shout, Abbott and the other wets in Cabinet, in conjunction with the Nationals, are going to make this a solidly conservative government. Abbott's job is to create the impression that he is navigating a "sensible" centrist course between fringe figures like Wilson and Bernardi, who will be frozen out when the real business of government is transacted. They will have to enjoy their moment in the sun now.