The right is coming apart — and Labor needs to step up and help it self-destruct
Guy Rundle writes in Crikey
The media right need hardcore ratings, the political right needs votes from a progressive electorate. Grab the popcorn.
You’d have to be impressed with the way the right is stuffing up the post-election transition into opposition. It had the wobbles from the start, electing Peter Dutton as its leader and promptly trying to soften his image. The intent appeared to be to make Dutton look tough but with a heart, a man who had managed to raise three children to a reasonable age without eating them.
Alas it backfired, making Dutton look both sinister and wimpy. He slammed the decision to return the Nadesalingam family to Biloela after the raw sadism that prompted their incarceration was a top story across all channels. This was simultaneous with apologising for a joke about Pacific islands being underwater — which presented him as succumbing to wokeness in the matter of jokes.
The opposition then tried to blame a two-week-old government for the gas crisis, before large sections of the public roared back at it. Now Dutton is taking the position that there have been faults on both sides, something Angus Taylor promptly denied.
All of this was punctuated by long periods of silence as it tried to work out what to do about Labor’s rapprochement with China, gaining the minimum wage rise sought, and soothing royalists by naming an island after the Queen for the jubilee.
Finally Dutton re-emerged — to ask the High Court if he could appeal against the judgment against him in the Shane Bazzi libel case.
Total unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Should Dutton survive as leader to contest the next election, it is quite possible these first few weeks will have lost him it.
While there was no doubt that Dutton took to such foolishness with gusto, he also had little choice. While some members of what remains of the Liberal Party gestured towards a post-defeat listening process, the media right charged righter, thundering that votes had been lost to the rightest right by being woke.
Dutton’s deliciously excruciating interview with Andrew Bolt on Sky Pravda Dark set the tone. As Bolt tried to pin him to climate scepticism, Dutton offered as a compromise a rather lame tirade against “woke” curriculums. Top stuff!
Throughout those weeks it was difficult to work out who among the right knew that this was running a line, and who actually believed it.
Much of the palaver about going right, it turned out, was playing to the members in the branches — for the task of getting Peta Credlin preselected in Cook when ScoMo goes. News Corp, having previously tried to boost Credlin into leadership of the Victorian Liberal Party, is now trying to lob her into the House of Representatives. The great hope of News Corp is to have one of its own in line for the leadership and then the Lodge to tie the media and political right together under one command.
But that process is becoming difficult as the gap between the broad values of the party’s supporter base and that of News Corp’s audience widens so greatly that politics threatens to fill it.
News Corp must feed its beast, and the Coalition must win the margins. For a quarter of a century, there has been sufficient overlap of values for that to be effective. When, in the mid 1990s, the company’s tabloids shifted from being right-leaning city papers to being total and aggressive propaganda units, we were still an Anglo-centric, class-dominated society, with the culture wars that had started in the final years of the Keating era proving a powerful rallying point.
There was thus a big and willing audience, with many wanting a more racy and ideological take than an older style of journalism. People from their 30s to their 50s were seeing their world change around them in ways they did not like — which allowed the right to set itself up as a permanent insurgency, even when in power. But as this generation of readers aged, the culture changed with them. Hyper-globalisation, the shift to a genuinely multicultural society, the rise of diversity prompted by new forms of individualism — these took the sting out of the right’s political panics.
Thus while many such readers retain strong opinions on borders, refugees, immigration, they have simply acceded to a progressive vision on social mores. The terrible thing has already happened, and yet life still goes on.
Even an irritation with speech codes, trigger warnings etc, appears to have flared briefly and died. And the radical notion of progressive politics — the idea of gender wholly by self-definition, for example — never caught on beyond a certain point and has failed to generate anything like the outrage such groups had hoped for.
The issue of trans people, namely trans women in sports, also registered little interest throughout the election. Across 20 electorates, discussion forums etc, I witnessed no one raising it. No one got excited about it when the issue was raised to them.
Some everyday discussion of it has now returned, with the world swimming body FINA’s recent ruling excluding most trans women from women’s events. But talking to a few people about this over the week, I haven’t felt this has been seen as anything other than a “fix” to what would become an unworkable situation. It doesn’t change a broad agreement that the trans condition is real; equally, acceptance of that doesn’t persuade people that every claim by the trans movement should be accepted.
Why has the issue re-emerged after the election? It’s not just a reaction to FINA’s ruling. It’s that most people simply thought during the election that there were more important things to talk about, things that affected more people. The right is taking increased chatter about such matters in the post-election period as a sign that the “revolution against the woke” is resurging. It’s the exact opposite. It’s what people start to talk about once sovereignty has been settled for a while, and we can just talk again. The situation in the US is obviously different, but the US is a disguised theocracy, and we’re not.
During our transitional years, which coincided with the Keating and Howard years, our shift from being an Anglo-centric protectionist society to a globalised neoliberal multicultural one produced flare-ups, such as the Tampa event of 2001, which looked like the theocratic wars of US culture. But they didn’t have the same depth.
The right keeps looking for every issue to be a new Tampa, thinking they can work up the same social-cultural war. But the process is subject to diminishing returns, until it reverses into absurdity — a point reached, post-election, with the elegant Katherine Deves appearing on Sky Pravda Dark to tell Rowan Dean and Rita Panahi that she had withstood the storm: “I am the storm, and I am not going anywhere.” Grrrrrr. It couldn’t have been lamer if it had been filmed in a cubbyhouse. (They’re currently trying to work up as new talent retiring Kew state MP Tim Smith. How’s that going? Judge for yourself about 20-30 minutes in. Oh, Tim. Another car crash?)
Why isn’t the audience there for these things to become major events? Well, because a lot of them have died for starters. Those who clicked into Bolt, Tim Blair, Piers Akerman and others in the ’90s, when they were in their 50s and getting really angry about everything, have largely departed. Those who started at a younger age? Some would have hardened into wholly right-wing figures and would now form the audience for the global conspiracy theory movement. Another group would have simply got a new hobby. They’ve retired, they’ve sea changed, tree changed, they’ve got into bushwalking. Once you’ve read your 2000th Bolt column, you’ve got the schtick.
No one is replacing these departing readers in anything like the numbers required. Those who are, are the hardcore. Arguably, Bolt’s most celebrated younger reader is Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik.
Because people who might, or often, vote Liberal are diversifying, changing: they’re not reading right-wing media. And because that’s happening, said media need to try to hold on to those loyal audiences by becoming ever more hardcore right. Because that media have sway within the self-selecting membership of the parties, those seeking preselection and preferment must kowtow to said media.
But surely such a situation cannot be maintained indefinitely. The right media has only ever gained its power by claiming to speak for the “silent majority”. The parallel claim of cultural insurgency was necessary to the notion that it represented the masses against an elite, who had staged a cultural-political coup (thus Arcimboldo meat man Paul Murray has dubbed his show “the resistance”).
When the right becomes an actual insurgency against a majority that is now moderately progressive, the whole project falls apart. The reason’s in the name. The term “left” is purely positional. The term “right” has a dual meaning: not left, but also that of representing what is true, deep down. The right’s claim is always that its politics represents pre-political forms of life, and that if these forms are being questioned or challenged this amounts to an intrusion of ideologies into reality.
In the US, this contradiction may well lead to a sort of decentred civil war, as legitimacy breaks down utterly. In Australia, with different traditions, it could lead in the other direction: to a progressive consolidation election in 2025, where the Liberals lose still more seats, the Nationals lose a couple to rust independents, and the Greens gain one or two more in inner cities and boho zones.
The aim is to reduce the Liberals to a rump party, where their automatic status as the opposition can be questioned, and Labor’s true opposition can be from the progressive “left”.
But this will occur only if Labor has the courage to take on the coming global crisis by being a visible critic of a system in crisis, and not its cop, enforcing austerity, after a decade of Coalition largesse. If it does that, its failure will be the means by which the media and political right recombine long enough to destroy its majority, and get itself back in the game.
The right represents, above all, the residual reptile side of the human condition, and the times ahead may suit them.
Guy Rundle is correspondent-at-large for Crikey. He is also an associate editor at Arena Quarterly and contributes to a variety of publications in Australia and the United Kingdom.