It was dark on the ground. There was frost all around… When the Right shifted Left #auspol

There’s a lot of hyperbole about the Left shifting Right.  The idea is that there is some Mythical Centre from which the parties distinguish themselves as being either to the Left or to the Right of that Centre.

What doesn’t seem to get much recognition is that ‘Centre’ isn’t a normative description: it’s wherever the bulk of the voters are.  The theory is that most of the voters won’t be fringe lunatics, so they bulk up in the middle somewhere.  If the population takes a giant shift towards either extreme, the centre moves with it.

It therefore becomes a bit confusing when people complain that left wing parties have taken a shift to the right.  You mean, ‘A party has decided to adopt the views of the bulk of voters?  What sort of tyrannical democracy where voters’ views are represented is this?!  I thought I bought this was an oligarchy.’

Even when I stop playing masturbatory semantics games, the intended meaning isn’t even true.  In Australia, it’s usually used as a claim that the ALP has taken on more traditionally right wing views.  But the views being adopted aren’t traditionally right wing ones…

Take, for example, ‘border protection’.  The Refugees Convention was signed in 1951.  Who was Prime Minister?  Conservative Robert Menzies.  Vietnamese asylum seekers cascaded down to Australia in the late 1970s.  Which Prime Minister took them in?  Conservative Malcolm Fraser.

The right wing of Australian politics has (or should that be ‘had’?) a good reputation when it came to this issue.  The left, not so much.  ALP introduced detention centres.  ‘Two Wongs Don’t Make A White’ Calwell (first Immigration Minister) was from the ALP.  The exclusion of non-whites from immigrating to Australia was driven by the ALP and had to be tempered by the conservatives Barton and Deakin.

Would that Howard had continued the tradition of conservative immigration policy and abolished the detention centres implemented by the Australian left.

It’s a bit rose-tainted, true.  I’ve skipped over the embarrassing classism and moralism which unjustly disenfranchised large sections of the community.  The right has had more than its fair share of the ignorantly hateful, but they were usually far too incompetent to do any great damage (it wasn’t until the old school started to die off that the Religious Right started to ramp up its political profile).  But the core part is true: conservatives never saw other cultures as a threat, because the underlying hubris was that our culture was so great that it would assimilate everybody who arrived and would eventually spread to every corner of the globe.  As a result, good immigration policies.

Populism was typically a left wing trait.  The danger, too frequently encountered, was that by being anti-populist, conservative parties became elitist and patronising.  Conservative parties opposed interesting reforms to the status of women and the poor because they refused to acknowledge the merit of other points of view.

While conservative parties could appeal to the aspirations of civility and the mos maiorum, they failed to engage the public and couldn’t maintain the image of integrity when they were caught in embarrassing scandals.  If you look at the conservative parties of the first half of the 1900s, you see a monoculture of people who had all the power, didn’t want to lose it, and engaged in some pretty grubby affairs trying to cling on to it.  You also see a side of politics which failed to live up to its own rhetoric, disenchanting the population in the process.

Left wing parties, on the other hand, were much better at engaging broader audiences because left wing parties were more diverse.  So left wing parties could manage a broad church of left wing issues, even if they contradicted or were uneasy bedfellows.  Workers’ parties (the natural enemy of migration: ‘They want to steal my job!’) were shoulder to shoulder with human rights groups who wanted nothing more than for everybody in a war-torn country to move to Australia.  Naturally, this meant that left wing parties were less stable (which the history of the ALP shows rather well).  To combat this instability, they had to be more populist (usually in the form of appealing to disenfranchisement: ‘You don’t have power because conservatives are keeping it all for themselves and their mates.  Vote for us.’).

So what happens when a right wing party (still overwhelmingly homogeneous) adopts populist strategies?  The current LNP.

I’ve always been slightly confused by complaints from the left that the LNP is a populist party.  Whitlam had a song-based campaign, and Rudd managed to get elected without having to explain any of his policies beyond ‘I’m going to get rid of WorkChoices’ (remember when he was going to turn back the boats?  How quickly we forget).  Hawke was nothing if not populist.

It should surprise us that the average, disinterested worker has more affinity with the right wing parties than with the left, and yet now so many of the left sneer at the ‘bogan vote’.  The ALP, the party of the worker, no longer has the trodden-upon worker as its base.  It was stolen using the same techniques, the same anti-elitist rhetoric, the same appeals to disenfranchisement which the left had used for decades.

From my conservative perspective, the problem with Abbott and Howard was that they weren’t conservative enough.  Abbott, in particular, seems to be a devotee of the ‘Tea Party Right’: a populist strategy of appealing to the worst aspects of the electorate, their fears and their angers.  The real problem in modern politics is the shift of the Right to the Left.

The anti-populist conservatives are a dying breed; I’ve moaned about this before.  But if the ALP really were taking a shift to the right, we’d be seeing better policies.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

2 thoughts on “It was dark on the ground. There was frost all around… When the Right shifted Left #auspol”

  1. To a great extent I think you are correct. The right has become radicalised and populist: they are no longer ‘conservative’ inasmuch as they aren’t interested in conserving the best of our culture, and only changing what needs to be changed, more that they are following a populist and, in many respects, Poujadist agenda which I often think of as ‘Fascism Lite’ [sic].

    However, I do think in this instance ‘right’ and ‘left’ cease to be meaningful in the old-fashioned sense. Anti-populist paternalistic conservatism, with a good solid dose of noblesse oblige might as well be full-blown Marxism as far as the ordinary voter is concerned. If you’re not a Tea Party Libertarian you are a statist member of the Liberal elite and verging on Communism. And only given a choice between the two evils I’d opt for Uncle Karl rather than Mad Auntie Ayn.

  2. Describing the Left’s shift Rightward as ‘following the voters’ is too simplistic. The way we handle discourse impacts the way voters engage with politics; when the rhetoric shifts, it can move votes in weird ways.

    As to conservatives having good immigration policies, I shall point to Paul Hasluck, who made Colwell look timid by comparison and who was a member of Menzies’ government. Hasluck most certainly saw other cultures as threatening; assimilation wasn’t a safe assumption, it was *mandated*, to ensure that the existing culture be preserved. And while Liberal politicians watered down the White Australia policy, it was Whitlam’s government that pulled it down entirely and legislated much of the system that the Fraser government operated under. That said, Fraser deserves a good deal of credit for building on that and establishing a fairer and more robust system.

    I think populism is far more general and pervasive than you suggest; Menzies ran the blatantly fear-mongering ‘a Red under every bed’ campaign as a direct bit of harvesting popular concerns. The major shift, to my mind, is not that conservatives have become more populist, but rather that they have become more hard-line. The LNP was culled of moderate ‘wets’ under both Hewson and Howard, which left a power vacuum that was exploited by the religious and free-market factions. The Coalition in general also more socially conservative and xenophobic, because those who were less extreme had been booted.

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