My favourite painting is J.M.W. Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. Whenever I’m in London, I visit Room 34 of the National Gallery and sit in awe before Turner’s master-piece. To me, it’s a secular shrine.
The mighty Temeraire, veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar that saved England from Napoleon, is being towed to the breaker’s yard more than 30 years after her greatest glory. Yet Turner focuses our gaze on a sinister, black, smoke-belching, paddle-wheeled tug, its squat features outlined sharply as the unresisting Temeraire follows behind, a hazy romantic presence brought meekly yet unwillingly to her fate, a magnificent beast led to the final indignity of slaughter.
The Fighting Temeraire is a magnificent allegory of change, transfiguring the death of England’s heroic past, supplanted by the Industrial Revolution and an inevitable future of ugly, noisy machines and dark, satanic mills. Now, once again, we are on the cusp of massive technological disruption. Our established political institutions and philosophies are not just under threat, but look as certain to be broken up as HMS Temeraire in 1839. Enlightenment liberal-conservative tradition formed by the likes of Edmund Burke, John Locke and John Stuart Mill is under siege from a tide of anti-intellectual populism propelling Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders abroad, and Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernardi at home.
Under intense pressure of the polemic politics propagated by this new generation of demagogues, and the social and economic disruption, dislocation and insecurity they’re exploiting, the Australian sensible centre is going the way of the mighty Temeraire.
The Australian centre as we have known it
Australian centrism has no philosophers. It has no prophets. The political consensus that is Australian centrism has evolved gradually over more than a century. Innovations and values of the political left and right have shaped its evolution, and the competitive tension between the Liberal and National parties and their predecessors on one side, and the Australian Labor Party on the other, have moderated and tempered it over time. Changes of government are the electorate’s way of correcting excesses when one side or the other strays too far from the centrist consensus. This much, voters say, but no further.
The resulting evolutionary journey of the sensible centre has taken us from the insular, economically protectionist, largely monocultural and frankly xenophobic Australia of 1901 to the open, globalist and proudly multicultural Australia of the twenty-first century.
From the left, we have a strong social safety net and a shared commitment to the protections of a welfare state, from age pensions to Medicare and, most recently, the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The left also ensures that while capitalism generates wealth, its benefits should be shared fairly and that workers deserve to be safeguarded from exploitation.
From the right, there is a commitment to capitalism and a strong private sector economy, a healthy distrust of the omniscience of the state, a belief in giving people reward for effort and looking out for the safety of the community as a whole. It has also given us lasting political and legal institutions, including our federation.
From both sides, a faith has evolved in a tolerant, pluralistic and democratic society, where people generally are free to live their lives as they please, provided they don’t do harm to others. We commonly reject extremism of any sort, and the tradition of a fair go for all has been a largely bipartisan golden thread running through our public policy.
Centrist consensus has influenced civil discourse. Our democracy is lively and robust, but has embraced and respected differences of opinion and ideas. Mostly we play by the rules of that civility: the ability of our sporting teams to have a beer after a fierce match is legendary, but so is the ability of our MPs to forget their partisan differences and forge deep friendships transcending party or faction.
While some on the left may find it hard to accept the description, Australia’s centrist consensus is classically conservative. Respect for institutions, acceptance of change when necessary and not for change’s sake, and valuing individuals as part of a greater community is so very typical of the patron saint of Enlightenment conservatism, Edmund Burke.
Like Burke, most Australians have an innate respect for the rule of law, but not such a rigid regard for it, or the rigid permanence of our institutions, that we don’t either question them or preserve them in concrete. Otherwise, why is there widespread public acceptance of gay marriage, adapting society’s most ancient institution to accept contemporary realities? And, despite our self-image of rugged independence, why are we so very willing to accept rules imposed by authority: how else can we explain our passive acceptance of one of the most extensive nanny state regimes anywhere in the world, right down to our national obsession with wearing bicycle helmets?
Unlike its bastard offshoot, libertarianism, classical conservatism embraces the family and community as well as the individual. While respecting personal freedoms, it sees each of us as part of a much wider whole, a society that is, as Burke put it, a contract between the past, present and future. So too does Australian centrism. We rightly take pride in our community spirit, our volunteering and our willingness to lend a helping hand to those in trouble. Full-on libertarian thought and its insistent ‘up yours’ individualism is just as alien to mainstream Australia as Marxism-Leninism and cradle-to-grave European welfarism. All in all, it’s a pragmatic and moderate political consensus that has served Australia well. Until now.
The sensible centre is missing in action
In the final sentence of his Quarterly Essay on Pauline Hanson and her constituency, David Marr writes: ‘Nearly all of us are somewhere else (other than the far right), scattered around the centre, waiting for a government that would take this good, prosperous generous country into the future.’
Even with opinion polls indicating three out of ten of us have deserted the Coalition and Labor parties, whether flirtingly or for good, most Australians are denizens of the sensible centre. They want to see their politicians concentrate on problems directing affecting their daily lives, and offering their children a path to happier, healthier, more economically secure lives than theirs.
They want governments that understand them, their concerns and aspirations. They don’t rant on Facebook or Twitter, obsessively watch round-the-clock news channels, listen to Alan Jones or Neil Mitchell, or barrack panellists on The Drum. They’re more likely to care about personality clashes on My Kitchen Rules or Married at First Sight than care deeply about Malcolm Turnbull or Bill Shorten, Pauline Hanson or, for that matter, Sarah Hanson-Young.
Mainstream Australians, however, do watch or listen to the news and get at least the Laurie Oakes version of what’s going on. Nevertheless, most voters are not activists but set-and-forget democrats, voting dutifully in federal and state elections every three years or so, buying their ‘democracy sausages’ and then leaving politics to the politicians.
Until 2010, Australians could switch off between elections confident that governments and oppositions between them contained enough men and women of competence, good judgement and a shared commitment to keep our politics in the sensible centre—whether centre-left under the pragmatic social democrats like Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, or centre-right under Robert Menzies and his successors up to John Howard.
It’s become standard to say Tony Abbott and his ruthless opposition to the Rudd and Gillard governments invented today’s parliamentary chaos. But it was opposition leader Kim Beazley who started walking Labor back from the Hawke–Keating redefinition of Australia’s centrist consensus, with its combination of economic liberalism, social democracy and institutional conservatism, that paved the way for Abbott and now Bill Shorten’s ruthless total opposition. Now even Paul Keating is saying ‘since 2008, liberal economics has gone nowhere and to the extent that (new ACTU secretary) Sally McManus is saying this, she is right’.
But whoever is responsible, when one or both parties of government in a parliamentary democracy reject centrist consensus for insurgency, as in post-Howard Australia, the price is permanent instability. Add to that a revolving-door prime ministership since Labor’s night of the long knives in June 2010—Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull and whoever’s next—and a Senate voting system all but guaranteed to ensure no government will have an upper-house majority to exercise an unfettered mandate, and the result is endemic chaos.
Populism, nationalism and extremism have risen elsewhere in the West, and even in Donald Trump’s America, there are centrist Republican political leaders to counter-balance their President. Not, however, in 2017 Australia. Here, the entire sensible centre of Australian politics is missing in action when it’s most needed. Neither the Liberal–National Coalition nor Labor are fulfilling the consensus-supporting roles our traditional two-party system intended for them, forcing disaffected voters to look to the fringes for leadership and inspiration.
The balkanisation of the Liberal Party
The Liberal Party of the great centrist, Menzies, is failing in the centre. After six years of opposition and three in government, it still hasn’t worked out what it stands for and where it is going. It is riven by ideological factions, personality cults and power struggles.
Part of the Liberals’ problem is the way that Abbott came to power in 2013: with his potent yet narrow political campaigning focused relentlessly on Julia Gillard’s hated carbon and mining taxes, and stopping the boats, aided and abetted by the Labor death struggle between Gillard and Rudd forces. Abbott and his advisers knew that all they had to do was sit back, enjoy the spectacle of Labor’s self-immolation, and turn up on polling day to waltz into office. Not being Labor was enough, but lack of a detailed plan for government, and failing to prepare voters for the tough medicine the Coalition knew was necessary in the 2014 budget, helped eventually destroy Abbott’s prime ministership.
There’s no question the Liberals were in big electoral trouble when Turnbull launched his coup against Abbott in September 2015. But it quickly became obvious that Turnbull was like Robert Redford’s title character in The Candidate, who having beaten the long-time incumbent, turned to his campaign manager and asked, pathetically, ‘What do we do now?’ Turnbull was not the solution: he was just another—worse—problem.
Since then, Turnbull’s political naivety and indecision have been found out by his opponents, in as well as outside the Liberal Party. Last year he turned a sizeable Coalition majority into a near loss in a campaign where repetition of his ‘Jobs and Growth’ mantra was no substitute for a visionary narrative based on strong, coherent and affordable policies. In turn, that close electoral shave robbed Turnbull of whatever leadership mandate he had post-Abbott, something Abbott himself has exploited ruthlessly in his personal quest for redemption. But it has also killed Turnbull’s authority to lead and unify his bitterly divided Liberal broad church of MPs, grassroots party members and supporters.
Say what you like about Abbott, it’s he, not Turnbull, who from backbench exile is most mapping out a plausible centre-right vision for the Liberals. Turnbull, by contrast, so far is showing little clear vision of his own to compete with Abbott’s, and is at the mercy of factional players, ideological MPs, and backroom powerbrokers who love the political game but care little about the higher purposes or principle and policy for which it is played.
Balkanised, leaderless, rudderless, racked by factionalism and internal tensions: is it any surprise that the party of Menzies is bleeding votes, supporters and funding to the polemic politics of the fringe right, to pretenders to the conservative mantle such as Cory Bernardi and Pauline Hanson?
Labor has found its inner populist
Yet what about Labor? Opinion polls consistently showing Labor streets in front of the Coalition reflect voter frustration with the Coalition, rather than a vote of confidence in Bill Shorten and his team. Not that this deters Shorten from stealing Abbott’s oppositionist and opportunist clothes, and he’s going still further. Hanson likes to claim she’s the Australian soulmate of Donald Trump, but it’s Shorten who is borrowing from the shamelessly populist playbook that propelled Trump to the White House, building a coalition of the displaced and disaffected to win elections, with no thought to the tougher realities of principled governing that must come afterwards.
Since becoming Labor leader in 2013, Shorten has opposed the Coalition at almost every turn. In government Labor helped create a chronic budget deficit problem, and with de facto Senate support from the Greens and fellow populist crossbench travellers such as Tasmania’s Jacqui Lambie, Shorten now refuses to help repair the damage. He has happily exploited government misjudgements from the infamous 2014 budget onwards, and has strengthened his position since a bungled Coalition election campaign allowed him to get away with murder, especially Labor’s now notorious (or legendary depending on your loyalties) ‘Mediscare’ campaign that came within a hair’s breadth of dumping Turnbull from government.
Shorten’s ruthless opposition and unabashed populism have put Labor in the box seat for victory in the next federal election. He looks like a winner and prime minister-in-waiting. But in the process Shorten has interred the proudly Labor centrist settlement of Hawke and Keating. Shorten Labor has become just another shrill populist voice on the left, happy to serve up big-spending nostrums to soothe voter grievances, while booting the generators of wealth—private businesses, investors and savers—who are needed to pay for the extravagant promises of our political class.
Labor’s shepherding of Greens and Senate crossbench opposition to derail the Coalition’s 2014 budget was more than applying a corrective to Abbott’s most unpopular measures. It was also a conscious decision to ditch fiscal responsibility and policy leadership in favour of winning votes. Ever since, Shorten’s modus operandi has been crude but effective: has that nasty government hurt you? Labor will throw a few billions at your hurt and kiss it better. And if the government hasn’t actually caused hurt, then Labor creates fear that it will. That was the essence of Mediscare, and underpins 2017’s blanket scare over the future of penalty rates.
Having played his populist game so well, Shorten risks coming to office with a bulging file of unfunded IOUs, with no intellectual or political credibility left to tack back to the centre he has so enthusiastically abandoned. Surely, that’s no prospect for believers in good government.
Since 2013, therefore, we have been witnessing the fragmentation and destruction of the centrist consensus that has kept Australia prosperous for so long and has underpinned the quarter-century of continuous economic growth that both side of politics crow about. Labor has gone populist, and the Coalition parties, especially the Liberal Party’s ideological factions and personality cults, are tearing themselves apart in their frustration and political impotence. The government is not governing, but nor is there a credible alternative government fit to replace it.
Where the sensible centre once ruled and gave Australians stability and confidence, now only an intellectual vacuum remains. A vacuum needs to be filled, and the fringe players of both right and left—the dreamers, idealists and the downright nutjobs—are rushing to fill it.
In his Quarterly Essay on Hanson, David Marr unfairly treats her followers with condescension and contempt. Most of these people are not, as Hillary Clinton would have it, a ‘basket of deplorables’. They essentially are decent people who have been neglected by the political centre they so long trusted. But even the most decent people have their dark sides, and people’s fears of change, of difference, of the future are being exploited ruthlessly by Hanson and others on the fringe right because the politics and politicians of the centre aren’t there to appeal to the better angels of their nature.
It’s political opportunists of the formerly sensible centre, who allowed this vacuum to arise, who are the true deplorables in this political calculus.
Now the fringe is the mainstream
Those who shout loudest get the attention and, without a coherent sensible centre to moderate political discourse, the fringes of both left and right are shouting loudly, angrily and viciously. Since the mainstream news cycle has gone 24/7 and online, editors and producers crave the three Cs: conflict, colour and, above all, content. Social media too thrives on polemic, conflict and invective, delivered without the editorial filters that at least attempt to keep mainstream media discourse civil.
Polemic politics therefore is becoming the norm in Australia. Fringe players are moving to centre stage, each claiming to have the prescription to treat our social and economic ills, but each also knowing they can play the game all they like without worrying that they may someday have to govern. Stanley Baldwin’s pithy comment about press barons, ‘power without responsibility, the prerogative of the harlot through the ages’, is apt for them too.
Most media attention is being lavished on Pauline Hanson and her One Nation movement as a rallying point not only for social conservatives disgruntled with the mainstream Coalition parties. As Marr points out in his Quarterly Essay, Hanson redux is slicker, savvier and better managed by her latest Svengali, James Ashby, but One Nation itself is the same haven for kooks and conspiracy theorists that ever it was.
The appeal of Hansonism and further right groups such as the Australian Liberty Alliance, has grown because without a centrist alternative to reassure them, respond to their needs and to moderate their fears of change and difference, the ever-diminishing Anglo-Celtic working class feels ever more threatened. Many older and relatively less-educated voters believe they’ve been forgotten by the political class, and hanker for a time when life was simpler, more ordered and simply better, who wistfully remember standing for ‘God Save the Queen’ at the end of the pictures. It’s easy to distrust foreigners, especially those with different customs, religion and dress, and the fringe right plays to those fears for all they’re worth. #Pray4MuslimBan? They make no distinction between the vast majority of peaceful followers of Islam and the few fanatics and extremists who maim and kill in Allah’s name. Hate in a hashtag.
But Hanson isn’t all. Media-savvy figures such as Nick Xenophon seem reasonable but are equally unabashed populists, trimming their sails to the fickle winds of public opinion. Xenophon always seems to sound reasonable yet often chooses the most popular option, happy to spend big with taxpayers’ money as the currency of his parliamentary Monopoly game. Then there are pure libertarians such as Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm, who subscribe to the notion that rules are for other people. For them, it’s the individual who matters, not the community. Edmund Burke surely would reject libertarians as no conservatives. In their turn, libertarians reject the Australian centrist consensus. What of Mr Common Sense Starts Here, Cory Bernardi? When Bernardi proudly took a cheesy selfie in his Make Australia Great Again baseball cap, and more recently allowed anti-Muslim activist Kirrilie Smith to join his Australian Conservatives micro-party, he abandoned whatever pretensions to genuine conservatism he may have had. He’s no messiah, just another naughty boy.
And even those supposedly riding to conservatism’s rescue from the right, the so-called ‘punk conservative’ movement led by the now-disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos and his Australian acolytes such as the in-your-face Daisy Cousens, are hell-bent on smashing an honourable intellectual heritage in a frenzy of millennial narcissism. Punk conservatives are punks but not conservatives. Yiannopoulos is no new conservative saviour but a Clockwork Orange demagogue: an Alex leading his ideological droogs in an orgy of intellectual violence and destruction. These ‘punks’ have forgotten true conservatism is about community, courtesy, respect and manners as much as ideology, and through their narcissistic antics trash the very ideals and principles they claim to uphold.
When it comes to Polemic Politics, however, even the intellectual left is just as strident, intolerant and aggressive as those it opposes. In 2017 Australia, the horseshoe theory of ideology, that the fringe left and right are closer to each other than the centre, is alive and well. Both have their demagogues and polemicists who are outspoken to the point of crudity, utterly convinced of their own rightness, and reject the legitimacy of any views but their own.
Take the divisive issue of freedom of speech. Many on the left rejoiced in shooting down the Turnbull government’s recent if half-hearted attempts to change the hate speech tests of the infamous section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Many, including some Labor MPs, were happy to vilify those supporting change as endorsing racism and prejudice of all kinds. Yet, smug in the absolute conviction of their own rightness about capitalism, racism, refugees, feminism, gender and marriage equality, climate change, and any other cause they see as confronting their world views, leaders and foot soldiers of the left are all too ready to shout down their opponents, engage in ad hominem attacks and practise moral McCarthyism instead of moral leadership.
Recent attempts to muzzle those offending the left, from the boycotting and humiliating of a brewer for sponsoring a civil conversation between two Liberal MPs on gay marriage to the threats of disruption and violence that led to the cancelation of the visit of Islamic apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Clementine Ford’s determination to Fight Like a Girl as a social media feminist warrior, or the shouting down of American writer Lionel Shriver at the Brisbane Writers Festival, highlight an intolerance of freedom of thought on the left that’s no less distasteful and ugly than that on the fringe right.
Yet with Shorten Labor off with the populist pixies, the moderating voices of the centre-left are muzzled. Sadly, too many so-called progressives have become loud, intolerant and authoritarian, effectively no different from the likes of Hanson, Bernardi and the more extreme nationalists on the right they so virulently attack. In the absence of a sensible-centre consensus to moderate the civil discourse, in 2017 Australia the only opinions that deserve free speech and thought are your own: when polemic politics and the political fringes that practise them are unchecked, such is the new normal.
The future will be jobless while our politics flounders
Futurist Martin Ford, in his 2015 book Rise of the Robots, writes starkly of the realities of a future where the next tidal wave of technological innovation and automation will swamp the world of work as we have known it.
According to Ford, economies will continue to grow, productivity will improve, and businesses will make profits. But this will all happen without more jobs for people being created. More and more, robots will take over routine and repetitive functions, and not just blue-collar factory jobs. Rapid progress in artificial intelligence means complex white-collar and even professional jobs will be replaced by computers guided by algorithms. Soon, for example, radiologists won’t be needed to interpret X-rays and MRI scans: a computer will do it more quickly, cheaply and, crucially, more accurately.
Already computer programs can write coherent newspaper articles. And if driver-less vehicles became the norm, Ford estimates they would disrupt or destroy the 40 per cent of jobs that involve driving a vehicle in some way, from pizza delivery to driving buses to long-haul lorries. Forty per cent of the jobs base gone, just like that. For the great many of us who define ourselves and our self-worth through the work that we do, the rise of the robots means irrelevance stares us in the face. This, not climate change, threatens to be the greatest moral challenge of our time.
The imminent social and economic change that AI and robotics represent can’t be stopped, but its changes can be managed and mitigated by sensible policy leadership. But political populists and opportunists, whipping up and exploiting people’s fear and resentment, will not do that. Anti-capitalist ranting from the left, and Luddite, xenophobic demagoguery from the right do nothing to confront the social and technological storm to come.
If Martin Ford is right, it’s painfully clear that the class-war political agenda dominating our politics, highlighted by bitter clashes over penalty rates, company tax cuts and the minimum wage, totally miss the coming reality. There will be economic growth, but fewer not more jobs to produce it. Yet here we are fighting over the crumbs of a moribund post-industrial economy.
Instead of having a strong political centre to offer policy and social leadership as we navigate our way through the next great wave of technological disruption to our very way of life, the polemic politics of the fringes hold sway. From the most watermelon Green to the wackiest One Nation conspiracy theorist, whether in our parliaments or the darkest recesses of social media, nothing is being done to prepare Australians for a robotic, jobless future. When we need sensible heads and ideas the most, we have a toxic doughnut of a polity with a gaping hole in the middle where moderation, rationality and principle should be.
We need Australian centrism now more than ever
Populism excels in turning grievances and fear into political capital. But, as Donald Trump’s struggle to conduct a coherent American presidency is now proving, while populism identifies and exploits problems for political gain, it doesn’t solve them.
Dealing with profound and potentially destructive change takes leadership prepared to manage sweeping social and economic disruption; leadership daring to do what’s right and not necessarily what’s popular; leadership embracing Burke’s ‘little platoons’ of family and community; leadership that doesn’t try to stop change but uses sound and rational judgement to preserve cherished institutions and protect what we, as a society, most hold dear; and leadership that rejects populism, demagoguery and scapegoating, and promotes tolerance, pluralism and freedom tempered by individuals’ responsibility to the wider community. In short, sensible centrist leadership.
But in Australia ugly Polemic Politicsis in the ascendency. Both centre-left and centre-right are failing us when we need them most. We can’t fix the populist and nationalist madness seizing the United States and Europe, but we can save ourselves from its clutches at home. Yet Shorten Labor has rejected the centrist heritage of great Labor reformers Hawke and Keating in favour of Trumpian grievance-exploiting, and the Coalition’s lost its intellectual way.
Yet although Shorten’s flagrant populism gives the centre-right a golden opportunity to redefine the centrist consensus in its favour—something Abbott has recognised in his policy forays of recent months—Turnbull Liberals seem more determined to practise mutual assured destruction, preferring defeat and risking a generation of political oblivion to reasserting prudent, practical, centrist leadership. And all despite Turnbull’s declarations that he indeed governs from the sensible centre.
The major parties may be failing us, but we can’t lay the blame solely upon them. The polemic politics of grievance, populism, intolerance and extremism succeed—because we allow them to. As the declining electoral standing of the major parties shows, too many of us would rather bury our heads in the sand and quarrel pointlessly over jobs and ‘rights’ that soon will be swept away by the robotics revolution, let alone by global economic and political instability.
Where moderation and sound judgement go missing, fear, grievance and hatred will prevail. If Australian centrism is permitted to wither and die, our liberal society’s future risks being nasty, brutish and short. Deprived of effective centrist leadership from either Labor or the Coalition, we will be doomed to act out the scene of Gericault’s nightmarish painting The Raft of the Medusa: a flimsy raft made from wreckage tossed on the angry seas of intolerance and populism and, on which we, shipwrecked and leaderless, cannibalise ourselves without hope of rescue.
Meanwhile the fighting Temeraire of Australian centrism is being towed, remorselessly and inevitably, to her doom. That is our collective tragedy.