Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

A series of congratulatory regrets… A quick post on Richard Cooke’s ‘Alt-Wrong’

If you haven’t had a chance to read Richard Cooke’s ‘Alt-Wrong: The Australian right is startling for its incoherence’ on The Monthly, get into it.  It spans a few different subjects and is an extremely satisfying read.

I put together a few points on Twitter but, on account of me having a locked account, I thought it might be productive to jot them down here.

The piece takes on a few different subjects related to Australian conservatism, largely through the lens of the key parties and the key media outlets.  I wonder what might arise from a sustained interrogation of one thesis; there appears to be more than enough material to explore.

Take, for instance, the critique of Pauline Hanson’s style of politics.  To what extent is she different from other contemporary politicians in her mercenary approach to political engagement?  There is a habit of the media to compare Hanson with some ideal statesman, rather than compare her with her peers.  Look at Monday night’s episode of Four Corners, ‘Please Explain‘.  My favourite part of the episode was where the journalist discovers an anecdote that Hanson or her adviser said that a man was too old to be a candidate.  ‘Too old?!’ she reacts, incredulously.  The man, it should be noted, looked like he was older than recorded language.  But here, in the context of Pauline Hanson, this was bizarre behaviour indicative of deep problems.

Similarly — although less egregiously — Cooke presents an argument of Hanson willing to say anything to get elected.  But isn’t this the contemporary style of politics?  The Liberal Party backed an ETS until it was profitable not to do so.  Kevin Rudd, on the eve of his election win over Howard, said that he would turn back asylum seeker boats.  Shorten quickly changed his tune on the Fair Work Commission’s power to determine penalty rates when it became convenient.

The question is really the extent to which we believe political parties are the custodians of political philosophy and tradition.  Is the ALP still the democratic socialism party?  Is the Greens still the environment party?  Is the Liberal Party still the jumbled mish-mash of Disraeli’s conservatives of tradition and romance, industry’s conservatives of small government, and middle Australia’s conservatives of petty racists?  It has definitely been a while since the Nationals served the bush.

If we see political parties as structures to win elections, then Hanson’s One Nation fits perfectly.  It has no romantic myth about its creation; instead, it has a living fantasy about its present.  Here is a party for the common people, saying whatever common people want to hear.

But even that’s not really true.  What would One Nation be without the media desperate for attention-grabbing controversy and outrages?  What would it be without cynical political leaches wheeling and dealing while the media is busy broadcasting Hanson’s latest clunky oratory?

That seems to be the step in the analysis that we keep missing.  To what extent is she different because we need her to be different?

On the point of conservative Australia, the piece is frustratingly accurate.  It is impossible to know what the most prominent conservative ‘thinkers’ actually stand for these days… except the trolling of largely imagined progressives.


I can’t think of a contemporary prominent conservative writer who is not intellectually lazy, who has something fresh to offer contemporary debate, or who would not set fire to all of their principles just to write something inflammatory.  Their targets are always those who will give the biggest reaction: university students, activists, and other media outlets.

But when I read Cooke’s article, I think: ‘As a conservative who agrees with this analysis, what do I do about it?’  And that’s what is missing from a lot of the debate: yes, we agree that Australia’s conservative scene is a toxic wasteland, but what options are there for making it better?

There is a complete lack of talent in Australia’s conservative punditry.  Part of the problem is that ‘Conservative’ and ‘Baby Boomer’ is a horrible, horrible mix of all the worst aspects of both.  But the larger problem is the structure which keeps conservative Australia in place.  The incestuous relationship between the Liberal Party and the conservative media means that there are no consequences for outrageous behaviour.  Latham broke the arm of a taxi driver, wrote defamatory things about women, abused a child, and he’ll have a column next week.  Bill Leak drew obnoxiously racist cartoons; the Prime Minister gave a eulogy at his funeral.  This is a consequence-free zone for people.

But I suspect the intended audience for Cooke’s article was other Left wingers.  The illusion of the piece is that it allows them to distance themselves from the problem: the Right is imploding; grab some popcorn.  And yet I cannot describe how frustrating it is that so many Left wing people will routinely give a platform to the very worst people on the Right.  Do we need Chris Kenny at an ideas festival?  The IPA?  Do we need Latham at a literary festival?  Do we need Alan Jones on Q&A?

When Mark Latham decided to launch a new show on Facebook, how many viewers do you think he would have had if Buzzfeed hadn’t drawn attention to it?  How many viewers do you think Sky News would have if clips weren’t routinely circulated by the Left on social media?  If you think the Right wing attention-seekers are toxic to Australia’s political culture, why are you rewarding them with attention?  You can’t shame the shameless.

But, again, to what extent is this a feature of the Right?  Attention-seekers appear on both sides of the spectrum, writing absolute nonsense all because it feeds into the outrage.  And you see the same abandoning of principles just because the political winds have changed.  Yes, there is an incoherence in Conservative Australia, but the Left is also struggling to keep the labour movement, the environmentalist movement, the socialist movement, and liberals all within the tent.

These are mere quibbles.  If you haven’t read the piece, you should.

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