Thursday, March 02, 2017
The crisis for conservatism
Paul Kelly reminds us below that Australia's great conservative Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, had a message similar to Trump. That does suggest that an Australian version of Trumpism might be very successful today
The fragmentation in Australian politics that sees the fracturing of the voting base of the Turnbull-led Coalition parties highlights a phenomenon evident around many Western democracies including Australia — the crisis of conservatism.
This varies from nation to nation but is most convulsive in the US, where Donald Trump has energised the conservative base yet shattered its unity, leading to the question: what does conservatism stand for in the world of 2017?
This question and its competing answers lie at the heart of the contemporary upheavals in the West. Is true conservatism dying in an age of disruption and globalisation where habits of life, work and family are radically shifting?
Will Trumpism save conservatism through populism or herald its intellectual collapse?
The crisis of conservatism is just part of a bigger story in the West: the weakening of the political centre. The tearing apart of the centre is a universal trend, seen in the Brexit vote (against both the Tory and Labour parties), the victory of Trump (against first the Republican and then the Democratic establishment), the rise of the European populists (often at the expense of mainstream parties) and in Australia, albeit to a much lesser extent, the decline of the primary vote for the main parties (the last Newspoll shows the Coalition on 35 per cent and Labor on 36 per cent, not far from a split nearly three equal ways).
Around the globe, conservative and progressive/labour parties are in the gun. Their meaning and support base are under extreme pressures. But in Australia, greater damage is being done to the Coalition as the governing party during a time of popular grievance with the existing order.
It was in 1994 when John Howard, from the wilderness, first enunciated what became the central organising principle of his success in office: that the Liberal Party was best seen as embodying the two great classical political traditions, liberalism and conservatism. While Malcolm Turnbull admires Howard as a role model, he declines to operate on the same strategy.
In Australian today, there is no leadership figure accepted as the authoritative voice of conservatism. Turnbull does not occupy such a role. Tony Abbott aspires to this position but suffers from the problem that his declarations of conservative belief cannot be separated from the leadership issue. Howard has been retired a decade. Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi have made their claims but neither is a high-profile mainstream figure.
This week Abbott unveiled his full mission as he launched a struggle for the soul of the Liberal Party. Abbott’s charge is that Turnbull does not understand the nature of the party he leads because he cannot grasp the essence of conservatism and, as a result, he is doomed to fail. While Abbott is unpopular in the country, he purports to be the more authentic voice of Liberal conservatism in an age of Trump-inspired upheaval on the centre-right.
The first question for Australian conservatives is whether Trump is their ally or a false prophet. Should Australian conservatives follow in Trump’s footsteps? “No, I don’t agree with that,” Howard tells Inquirer. “It’s misreading the political landscape for conservative commentators in Australia to see Donald Trump as the embodiment of modern conservatism.
“Trump is not my idea of a conservative. He is very hard to label and it’s far too early to make a judgment. He may turn out to be a very good president. But it’s a mistake to see him as part of the continuous conservative tradition in the US. Trump is no Reagan or Thatcher and they are the two conservative lodestars in my lived political experience.”
Howard points to Trump’s “apparent abandonment” of trade liberalisation as proof he does not fit the conservative model. His behavioural differences are apparent. Howard says Margaret Thatcher did not publicly attack the British intelligence services, nor would Ronald Reagan have attacked the family of a US soldier killed in action.
“My argument is that Trump does not fit the Reagan-Thatcher model of a conservative,” Howard says. “Now, of course he doesn’t have to. I think it’s too early to identify where you can locate him philosophically.”
Trump is also far removed from the Howard model of conservatism though Howard says there are overlaps, notably on Trump’s rejection of political correctness, a Howard trait as well.
Yet Howard’s rejection of “Trump as model” is furiously disputed by conservative populists, notably Hanson and Bernardi and many conservative commentators. The lesson Abbott draws from Trump is that without stronger conservative policies, the Coalition will “drift to defeat”.
This leads to a pivotal test for the Liberals. Former Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane tells Inquirer that Trump threatens Coalition and Liberal Party unity in this country.
“The fracturing driven by Trump threatens to contaminate mainstream conservatism,” he says. “Preserving the best of conservatism to ensure it can offer a viable alternative to Trumpism will be a key challenge in the next few years.
“(Trump’s) success makes the political management of the centre-right in Australia more complex. This means there is a political precondition for the Coalition to govern effectively and that is keeping the disparate groups on the conservative side tied into the Coalition’s umbrella and not doing their own thing.”
Yet, as Loughnane knows, they are doing their own thing. Nobody can predict how far the Hanson breakout will extend but it has the potential to destroy the Turnbull government. This reinforces Loughnane’s most vital point, that governing well is not enough if the conservative base is fragmenting.
The Turnbull Coalition is being damaged not on the Left but on the Right. Its priority should be a strategy to hold conservative voters to the Liberal Party. Howard makes the same point yet admits the structural nature of the problem.
“This is a function of the generic fragmentation of the major party vote,” he says. “In a sense the fragmentation that afflicted the Labor Party via the Greens has begun to catch up with the Coalition on the Right. We saw a bit of this at the 2013 election with Clive Palmer and we saw a repeat at the last election. It’s now almost a detachable flank on both sides.
“There is a danger for the Coalition in losing people who are instinctively conservatives to parties like One Nation. The Liberal Party must be alive to that. People who vote for One Nation would be, in the main, cultural traditionalists and these people should find their natural home in the Liberal Party or the National Party. We’ve got to hold on to those people.”
Abbott agrees but goes further in a sustained indictment of Turnbull without naming him. He says disillusioned conservatives believe the government “has become Labor lite”. He wants a more muscular conservatism, an agenda to contest the Left’s “long march through the institutions”, and now offers a series of policies that he either dodged or ditched in office.
Abbott admits his own failures. But the real issue being raised by Howard, Loughnane and Abbott, each pivotal to recent Liberal history, is Turnbull’s ideological and philosophical leadership of the party. Turnbull, as a natural progressive, is a different Liberal leader — still evolving, but from a different mould.
This raises the critical question: what is the key to Liberal Party success? History points to a sustained theme, the ability to champion and hold together the liberal and conservative traditions. The remarkable individual and collective success of Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser and Howard in office testifies to their mastery of this art. Each managed to hold the allegiance of conservatives and liberals, striking a balance between stability and progress. The experience of the Abbott-Turnbull era suggests this art is either lost or awaiting rediscovery.
It is astonishing, therefore, that perhaps the strongest media critique of Turnbull in his first year as PM, delivered on a virtual weekly basis, was that he should have moved decisively to the progressive side by sharply lifting the government’s climate change ambitions, authorising a free vote on same-sex marriage and even taking up the republican cause.
Anyone who thinks this was marrying the conservative and liberal traditions must live on another planet. It was doing the exact opposite. Such media critiques assumed, dubiously, these moves would lift Turnbull’s public standing while ignoring what would happen to his standing among his colleagues and voting base. The ensuing turmoil would have wrecked his government and jeopardised his leadership. Imagine the scale of the conservative voting haemorrhage today had Turnbull followed such advice, particularly on climate change.
The deeper point here is the sheer confusion and disputation about the essence of the Liberal Party and how it succeeds in power. Unsurprisingly, this confusion extends into the ranks of the party itself. The great folly in grappling with non-Labor politics is to assume the Liberal Party is primarily a liberal party or alternatively that it is a conservative party — a natural instinct, yet such interpretations merely shrink the scope of its broader appeal.
Much of this confusion arises from the endless debate about Menzies himself, his purpose and practice. Explaining the party’s name, a defining decision, he famously said: “We took the name Liberal because we were determined to be a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary but believing in the individual, his rights, and his enterprise and rejecting the socialist panacea.”
This reflected three themes pivotal in the Liberal Party ethos, meaning and contemporary significance. First, Australia as a new-world society without any aristocracy, ruling class or established church and riven with a convict emancipist outlook that “one man was as good as another” was a polity where conservatism was weak.
There was no conservative ruling order and those who tried to pretend otherwise were usually mocked. Indeed, as historian John Hirst said, the word “conservative” was frequently used as a term of abuse. Europeans settled on this continent after the American and French revolutions and as the 19th century advanced, political liberalism was as potent in this country as at any place on earth.
In 1909, when the fusion took place and the party system was formed with the merger of Alfred Deakin’s Protectionists and the Free-Traders, previously led by George Reid, the new party became the Liberal Party. The separation between Australia and Britain was sharp: this nation has never had a Tory party.
The non-Labor side remade itself four times during the 20th century. After the 1916 Labor split, it became the Nationalist Party. During the Depression it became the United Australia Party. And in 1944 under Menzies it became the Liberal Party again. It was never called the Conservative Party.
The sustained historical impulse on the non-Labor side is unmistakable: that conservatism alone will never suffice in Australia. Stand-alone conservatism has never had a hope in this country and it never will. Promoted as a tradition and practice in its own right — witness many noisy advocates today — it will always fail at the ballot box. Menzies knew this.
The second theme is embedded in Menzies’ words. The new anti-Labor Party had to embrace a powerful set of positive ideas. As historian Judith Brett says, the non-Labor side in Australia was distinctive, operating in a young society, aware it must promote change as well as stability, and appealing not just to economic interests but to the moral virtues of the middle class.
The context was vital. Menzies saw the interwar years as a time of poisonous division and stagnant policy. His mission was not just to defeat socialism but to offer a more persuasive alternative. Convinced that non-Labor had made the mistake of being “the man who says no’”, Menzies said: “There is no room in Australia for a party of reaction. There is no useful place for a policy of negation.”
The Liberal Party he created would stand for a repudiation of class division, the espousal of savings, investment and reward. Individual freedom and enterprise was the heart of his philosophy. “Governments do not provide enterprise; they provide controls,” he said. “There cannot be rising living standards if all we propose to do is redistribute what we now have. We must produce more and produce it more cheaply.”
This view is as relevant today as it was in the 1940s.
Menzies believed in the battle of ideas and principles to combat Labor and, for most of his time, he won the battle of ideas, as did Fraser and Howard. If Liberal governments do not engage in the battle of ideas and do not win the battle of ideas, they fail. In short, good governing is not enough
The third theme is that Menzies also governed as a conservative, with the power of his conservatism originating in his “forgotten people” philosophy. In his immortal phrase, the middle class was “the backbone of the country” and the values of home and family became the invisible political current between himself and an expanding nation during the 50s.
Declaring the “real life” of the nation was found in homes of the “nameless and unadvertised”, Menzies located the national virtue in “homes material, homes human, homes spiritual”. For a long time, Menzies tapped into this current until, towards the end, the middle class outgrew him and left him behind.
The conclusion is unmistakable: the conservative tradition that tapped into the powerless and forgotten was indispensable to Liberal Party identity. Those who say the Liberal Party is essentially a party of liberalism and progressivism misread Menzies and the basis of his success. His credo was inclusive: the party must reach the hardworking, conservative but powerless “backbone” of the country.
When interviewed, Howard says his 1994 two traditions construct was based on “my lived experience” in the party. “I based that view on what I thought the Liberal Party had become,” he says. In reality, he offers fresh life to the Menzian philosophy. Coming after the fierce wet/dry internal conflicts of the 80s, this “broad church” construct was highly useful in providing “an umbrella under which the party could function”. In office, it became an instrument for electoral success.
In simplified terms, Howard deployed the liberal tradition of ideas (mainly policies to buttress economic growth and jobs) to hold the centre and resist voter defection to Labor while he used the conservative tradition to buttress defections to the Right and One Nation. Howard saw politics as a battle of ideas via the media.
He took positions in public debate to project his profile as a values politician with a mixture of liberal and conservative positions: tight gun laws, limiting native title, privatisations, budget surpluses, tax reform, work for the dole, anti-drug campaigns, support for traditional marriage, fighting Islamist terrorism, backing East Timor’s independence, initiating tough border protection, honouring the Anzac ethos and championing the fair go.
Operating 20 years before Trump’s victory, Howard was brazen in his use of populism, saying: “I am fairly mainstream. I can’t be, in any way, typecast as an establishment figure.”
He wanted the word “mateship” in the Constitution while protecting the monarchy. He hated the phrase “middle ground” as too weak. He used “mainstream Australians” as a parallel to Menzies’ “forgotten people” to appeal to those who felt sidelined by the elites.
Howard used his conservatism as a weapon of political attack, often confounding Labor and his media critics, just as he used his economic liberalism as a weapon of attack from his 1998 success with the GST-led tax reform to the 2007 epic failure with Work Choices. In office, he probably developed the clearest philosophy of any Liberal leader, summarised as economic liberalism and social conservatism.
Asked whether this philosophy remains relevant in the age of Trump and populist upheaval, Howard says: “Yes, I do think that, in some respects even more so.
“Everything is a bit different after 10 years but I find in Australia today there are still a large number of people who see themselves as cultural traditionalists. For instance, just look at the positive response to the suggestion in NSW that the school curriculum is going back to basics. What’s disappointed me is an issue like Safe Schools. When that emerged it should have been hit on the head by centre-right governments at federal and state level. It should have been a simple and vigorous response. We need to understand that on cultural issues, symbols and attitudes are important.
“We have to explain — and I think Malcolm Turnbull is well positioned to do this — the global benefits of openness in trade and economics and how much better off the world is because of globalisation and the export of competitive capitalism to Asia.
“This is a moral argument. If you want a moral challenge for the world, it’s eliminating poverty. That’s a much greater challenge than eliminating climate change. In the last 15 to 20 years we’ve lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. This is a terrific story and it’s something the centre-right parties of the world should go on the attack over.
“The economic reform debate is still there. Yes, you have to look after the losers. But if people think the Liberal Party should retreat from economic reform, then they’re wrong.”
Howard, like Menzies, was not just a governing PM. He was an agent of populist and ideological attack, aware this was the only way to combat the Labor Party. This method arose, as in Menzies’ case, from the depth of his own understanding of the Liberal Party tradition and his confidence in seeking to reinterpret that tradition for his own time.
Turnbull, as Liberal leader, is yet to offer a fully matured and developed view of his own philosophy of the Liberal Party, the balance between liberalism and conservatism. Maybe he won’t. The past few weeks have seen a resurgent Turnbull, more aggressive, more ready to engage in political combat and the battle of ideas. The party desperately wants him to succeed. There is little support for Abbott and his widening assault on Turnbull threatens to isolate him further.
The historical record, however, cannot be ignored. The successful Liberal prime ministers, Menzies, Fraser and Howard, spent much time developing, outlining and projecting their philosophy and ideas. Fundamental to their success was putting the Labor Party of their time under challenge from core Liberal belief.
The Liberal Party waits on Turnbull. Its philosophical history is rich enough to meet the challenge of the Trumpian age. Under assault from the different brands of Bill Shorten’s populism and Pauline Hanson’s populism, Turnbull cannot keep delaying. He needs to articulate his inner core, expose his heart, address the dilemmas facing his party, offer his own version of liberalism and a credible reason why conservatives should remain within the tent.
Plea to fix ‘girl-friendly’ bias in NAPLAN testing
The headmaster of Australia’s oldest independent school, the King’s School, has called for an overhaul of the national numeracy and literacy tests, arguing the current assessment favours girls over boys.
Tim Hawkes said four of the five domains in NAPLAN, the National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy, were focused on literacy and the exam was “substantially a test of literacy and that’s a traditional area of strength with girls, who typically enjoy a word-rich learning style’’.
About 50 per cent of students sitting NAPLAN, he said, were typically stronger in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) than they were in literacy and, coupled with fewer numeracy questions, this was “massively disadvantaging boys’’.
“There would be very few serious educators who would not conclude that the existing NAPLAN exam is much more girl-friendly than it is boy-friendly. It is time this bias was corrected,’’ Dr Hawkes said.
Last year’s NAPLAN results showed girls in Years 3, 5, 7, and 9 outperformed boys in literacy but the tables were turned for all grades in numeracy.
Australia Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority chief executive Robert Randall said the NAPLAN tests were designed to be fair to boys and girls, and any difference in achievement could be the result of a range of factors, including levels of engagement or teaching.
“NAPLAN test development process and analysis includes checking all test items for gender bias and removing any items that appear to favour either gender from test analysis,’’ he said.
Dr Hawkes’ critique from the prestigious Parramatta school in Sydney’s west comes as another leading principal, Paul Browning from the co-educational St Paul’s School in Brisbane, warns Australia is in danger of losing sight of what an education worth having really is. He blames a highly politicised “culture of fear’’, which he says is forcing some schools to “teach to the test’’ instead of inspiring creativity and entrepreneurial skills.
“We’re not saying that testing isn’t important — students need to learn how to read and write — but this fixation on standardised testing as the ultimate measure of a ‘successful’ education is not healthy,’’ Dr Browning said.
“Nobody is talking about the correlation of when we started to report and create leagues tables of our schools’ performances and the decline in our international standing in the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) results.’’
Dr Hawkes, who backs NAPLAN as a diagnostic tool and believes results should be publicly reported, said “fortunately, our NAPLAN results at King’s are good, but I feel for boys’ schools in general because they are being compared with co-ed and girls’ schools who traditionally do very well in literacy-based tasks”.
Mr Randall said: “NAPLAN tests the important skills of literacy and numeracy. The assessment of these skills, through the NAPLAN domains or subjects of reading, writing, language conventions and numeracy. has been agreed by Education Council. Any changes to the domains assessed as part of NAPLAN would require approval of ministers.’’
18C: Gillian Triggs gets it wrong again
The lawyer for Bill Leak has accused Gillian Triggs of being “just wrong’’ over the origins of the 18C complaint against The Australian’s cartoonist.
In a radio interview this morning, the Australian Human Rights Commission president was at odds with key statements by Justin Quill, the lawyer representing Leak, who was subjected to an 18C case over a cartoon depicting indigenous disadvantage.
Professor Triggs told ABC Radio that she did not believe that Mr Quill had responded to the Human Rights Commission by offering a defence of his client under section 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act.
Section 18D offers protection from rules making it unlawful to offend or insult somebody on the basis of their race if it has been done “reasonably and in good faith” as part of an artistic work or intended as a contribution to the public debate.
Professor Triggs yesterday claimed she would have immediately dismissed the complainants against Leak had she received a justification along these lines, arguing the Commission had twice requested one.
But Mr Quill told The Australian that he had responded, defending the cartoon as being “created in good faith and for a genuine purpose in the public interest in accordance with 18D.”
Professor Triggs sought to cast doubt over this claim. “That’s not my understanding of the matter,” she told ABC radio. “And as he’s raised that, that is directly contrary to my advice about this case.”
Mr Quill said: “Professor Triggs is just wrong’’.
“Rather than shifting blame to the ‘advice’ she was given I would suggest she read the correspondence herself before appearing before Senate estimates again. In particular, she should read the letter sent to the commission on October 21, 2016 (see below extract)”
Professor Triggs also said the proposed changes to section 18C as handed down yesterday in a parliamentary committee were “disappointing” because no new ground was traversed in terms of reform to racial vilification laws.
“It’s been extremely disappointing because we’ve really only had a consensus to list a series of options that were already on the table and already well known,” she said.
She also argued that replacing the words “insult” and “offend” with another term like “harass” would only achieve “very little” change.
“The point has been made that these are suggested solutions to a problem that doesn’t exist and we really don’t have a problem with 18C. The Australian public doesn’t really follow it very much, doesn’t really see it as an important on the agenda. And we know that it works extremely well.”
Professor Triggs also sought to tackle arguments that pushed for reform of the complaint making process to the Human Rights Commission amid suggestions too many “frivolous” complaints were being made.
She argued reform on this score would achieve only very minor changes.
“One of the very sensible recommendations is that the President should have the power not to proceed with a matter that’s not warranted,” Professor Triggs said. “The truth is ... that the matters we deal with in the main do have substance.”
Pressed on how many frivolous complaints came before the Commission each year, Professor Triggs said: “I think it would be minuscule (or) very tiny. There would be some.”
“Fortunately, the ones that are actually in the public arena, and they would be one in thousands ... they would probably be cases that would not be dismissed as frivolous.”
Professor Triggs also clarified the Leak case was not deemed as frivolous. She said that, even if reforms to weed out frivolous claims were implemented, this would not stop similar cases from proceeding in future.
“That case would almost have certainly have been one that we would have taken a preliminary view on. On the face of it, that cartoon is one that raised an 18C issue,” she said.
School testing "fixation" ruining creativity
This is an old cry. But can creativity be taught? I doubt it
A Brisbane school principal says the Federal Government is missing the point by launching an inquiry into Australia’s innovation challenge while refusing to look at the school system.
St Paul’s School principal Dr Paul Browning said the Federal Government’s inquiry into Innovation and Creativity: workforce for the new economy had laudable aims but was flawed while its terms of reference focused only on tertiary education.
“It is not merely the tertiary sector that should be examined from the perspective of growing the workforce’s creative capacity,” Dr Browning writes in St Paul’s School’s submission to the Federal inquiry.
“Western economies are going through a hollowing‐out process of middle‐class jobs. These jobs are being automated or off‐shored at an increasing rate. The emerging jobs require high levels of creativity and an entrepreneurial capacity.
“Furthermore, increasing amounts of research indicate a capability gap between the skills and mindsets of students emerging from our schools today, compared to those they will need to perform the jobs of tomorrow.
“It is imperative that we begin to regard creativity and entrepreneurial skills as part of what counts in education today. For this reason, we believe the terms of reference for this inquiry should be expanded to include primary and secondary schools.”
Dr Browning said it was disappointing that the office of Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham had reiterated recently that primary and secondary education would not be considered by the inquiry.
The Minister’s office stated that a curriculum review was recently completed. However, Dr Browning says this misses the point.
“The issue isn’t the curriculum, it’s what we prioritise. Schools and teachers are developing an unhealthy fixation on having to achieve improvements in literacy and numeracy at the detriment of creativity because a school will be named and shamed if they don't,” he said.
Dr Browning said schools could make changes while remaining within the bounds of the national curriculum. He said St Paul’s School was proactive in fostering creativity and innovation within its students, pioneering several programs including the design of a new subject in the Junior School called Immersion Studies Time.
“The truth is, it’s possible to foster creativity within the current curriculum. You can do this by releasing the pressure created by standardised testing and providing professional development for teachers to help them nurture and grow a person's natural creative abilities,” Dr Browning said.
“We’re not saying that testing isn’t important – students need to learn how to read and write – but this fixation on standardised testing as the ultimate measure of a ‘successful’ education is not healthy.”
Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.). For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup of pro-environment but anti-Greenie news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH . Email me here