Australian Conservatives

Frist Published New Matilda mid-March 2019

I have always had a grudging tolerance for the classical conservative position with its defence of the established order, a belief in the imperfection of human beings, the necessity of privilege and leadership. Associated with the conservative position is adherence to traditional values (such as the primacy of the extended family), the importance of work and of sexual restraint, the sanctity of private property and an abhorrence of utopian social change.

It will come as no surprise to those who know me, that I see myself philosophically wedged between socialism and anarchism. I acknowledge the importance of the collective yet am driven to promote individual freedom over State domination. Apart from small heterogeneous communities, anarchism can’t provide the social services which a socialist or even a progressive social democratic State can provide. In more than one sense, the ideals and spirit of socialism have never been implemented. Instead, various autocratic / authoritarian governments have made the false claim they were ‘socialist’.

Whilst, a philosophical commitment to sexual restraint is a dominant conservative preoccupation, the reality for many conservative heads of households has been much more like that portrayed in Flanders and Swan’s:

“Have some madeira, my dear
It’s really an excellent year.
I’m not trying to tempt you that wouldn’t be right
One shouldn’t drink spirits at this time of night
So, have some madeira my dear.”

Which invariably leads to his:
“putting out, the cat, his cigar and the lamps…
as he secretly carved one more notch
on the butt of his gold handled cane.”

Who gave court references for Cardinal George Pell, following his conviction on child molestation charges?
Amongst those who gave court character references there was a craven vice chancellor of the Catholic University, an ex-“socially conservative” prime minister who had a track record of being reluctant to sack ex-Governor General, Peter Hollingsworth, who had previously been an Anglican Archbishop, who was, at the time, enmeshed in his own sex scandal.

It takes a particular style of mysogenous, misanthropic troglodyte, with a total commitment to turning away from the obvious towards the promotion of arch conservatism to stand where these men found themselves. They can’t claim to have been blinded by God, and fear and light – it is just that they have lost sight of any sense of right.

Then, of course, there were the trainee galahs in the media such as Andreas Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen who despite, the twelve and true finding Pell guilty of five counts of child molestation, declared the Cardinal innocent.

Howard, Albrechtsen and Bolt are all part of a right-wing putsch determined to drive out decency and humanity from our nation. But are they conservatives in the classical meaning of the term? In Howards court reference for Pell he writes: “I am aware he has been convicted of those charges; that an appeal against the conviction has been lodged and that he maintains his innocence in respect of these charges. None of these matters alter my opinion of the Cardinal.”

“Cardinal Pell is a person of both high intelligence and exemplary character. Strength and sincerity have always been features of his personality. I have always found him to be lacking hypocrisy and cant. In his chosen vocation he has frequently displayed much courage and held to his values and beliefs, irrespective of the prevailing wisdom of the time.”

I suppose that when Pell was rabidly denouncing gay sex, same sex marriage, abortion, divorce, adultery and environmentalism Howard considered him to be “displaying much courage and holding to his values and beliefs, irrespective of the prevailing wisdom of the time.” Clearly as the same sex plebiscite established, Pell was neither reflecting the general will nor the wisdom of the time.

The schmozzle of ideas professed by Pell, Howard, Albrechtsen and Bolt seem to have little to do with sexual constraint or conservatism generally but rather more to do with a particular reading of a neoliberal, protofascist conception of conservatism. Such as I found when I had a discussion during the early 1990s with the Director of Catholic Social Services who argued that paying an income guarantee to every individual Australian, in their own right, would increase divorce, sloth and licentiousness.

When I pointed out that the Australian social security system demands that if one is in a relationship and the other partner has an income, even though he or she might refuse to share it equitably, the partner without an income is presumed to be supported by the other. I argued that such a situation is more likely to lead to separation because, once separated, both partners are treated as if they are individuals. I was met with a blank stare.

The Melbourne response and the downsizing of payouts for institutional sexual abuse
The Catholic Church is clinging to the Melbourne Response, the architect of this scheme is in prison for child sexual abuse, pending an appeal. The Coalition Government, despite protestations that it would implement the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse recommendations, has cut the top payment, has introduced a mean-minded range of other payments which fail to adequately consider the severity of the abuse suffered and has failed to get payments to all but a small number of victims.

There are certainly grounds to believe that the traditional conservative concept of sexual restrain is not riding this horse. An integral part of traditional conservative beliefs is the idea of “Noblesse Oblige” which implies that there is an obligation on the advantaged to assist those less fortunate than themselves – literally “nobility obliges”.

I am not unaware of the pitfalls of philanthropy, particularly following Danni Raventos and Julie Wark’s remarkable little book entitled Against Charity. But at least true conservatives temper their enthusiasm for riding roughshod over the interests of the less fortunate. The present Coalition Government has no such qualms, with their robo-debts, cashless welfare, excessive benefit breaching and payment suspensions imposed upon those forced to rely upon the State for sustenance. Perhaps, if these Australian conservatives had a sense of “There but for the Grace of God go I” they might find sufficient charity to temper their obsession with stamping out “dependency” upon the State.

What other conservative values are in abeyance?
Howard whilst prime minister, made much of his neoliberal economic fundamentalism, in addition to his “social conservatism”. He certainly was opposed to change at many levels apart from trying to rig his culture war debates and his determination to relegate moderates to the wilderness.

The dominant Australian conservatism is frequently associated with dividing the working class, driving a wedge between the working class and the unemployed, promoting business ownership, lowering taxes, boosting profits, denigrating those less fortunate than oneself, smashing unions and a preoccupation with oneself rather than being committed to any sense of the common good.

In the late 1980s, Brian Howe, allegedly on the left of the Labor Party, returned from a sojourn in the United States of America committed to stamping out “welfare dependency.” But it was Jocelyn Newman, who herself, upon retirement, received two parliamentary pensions and a military pension, took the anti-dependency rhetoric to new heights. She, aided by Patrick McClure of Mission Australia, produced for the Howard Government a report entitled The challenge of welfare dependency in the 21st century.

Howard had already done much of the groundwork in promoting downward envy, whereby taxpayers who were reasonably well off were encouraged to denigrate single parents, particularly lone mothers, those with disabilities, people without employment and others down on their luck.

The better off were encouraged to envy their less fortunate neighbours seemingly oblivious to the fact that the affluent had no need or entitlement to disability, parenting, or unemployment payments.  Many an aspiring Howard Battler was sucked into a whirlpool of righteous indignation about the payment of social security. Cocooned in state of ignorance many applauded US social commentators, likeLawrence Mead, who preached “tough love” without recognising the connection with domestic violence. They seemed oblivious to the social devastation and marginalisation that such policies caused. There was little recognition of the vicious paternalist and mysogenous nature of such policies.

There is a brutality embedded within the policies and practices of Australian conservatism which has succeeded in undermining our sense of social solidarity, humanity, egalitarianism and generosity. Now is the time that we should turn our attention to critiques of the Australian form of conservatism in the forlorn hope that those who hold such views are capable of turning away from greed, banality and brutality.