|Is Right the New Left?, 2 October 2010|
|Speech for the Festival of Dangerous ideas by David Hetherington, Executive Director, Per Capita|
|Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.|
Isn’t it refreshing that we come here today to discuss the lofty battle of left versus right. Because – let’s face it – Australia is an almost post-ideological place. I say almost because actually we’re more pre-ideological. We just don’t do grand ideas that much – never have.
For proof of this, think no further than the dozens of people who’d planned to be here today, but who have been forced to miss the event because one grand final wasn’t enough for our indigenous football code. Given this incredible temptation, I’m very grateful to all of you for sticking with the ideas fare.
Is right the new left? In a word, no. No. While there are similarities in the intellectual journies travelled by the two movements, and while the distinction between them has become blurred in parts, left and right retain fundamental differences.
But the question itself is a good one because the right is now wrestling with the same existential questions that have gripped the left in times past. If right is not the new left, it’s fair to say that the right is now travelling the same voyage of self-discovery recently trodden by its philosophical opponents.
Both belief systems have experienced profound intellectual failures in the past 30 years.
In the 1970s, the limitations of the welfare state championed by the left became painfully clear as growth contracted and social unrest bit throughout the developed world. In 2008, the right had its own collision with reality when our 25 year experiment with ‘let her rip’ free-market capitalism ended in the biggest market failure the world has ever seen.
Both movements were badly bruised by their brush with mortality. The reason the right appears to be soul-searching now is that its failure is so much more fresh. For an extended period, the Reagan-Thatcher approach seemed to deliver on its promise of low-inflation, stable growth, making the crash that much more stark.
A second reason why the right might seem like the new left is that the boundaries between the two have become blurred, as each side has cloaked itself in positions associated with the other, like some sort of retro fashion movement.
Consider some of these contrary positions. John Howard oversaw the biggest government in Australia’s history, with lashings of middle-class welfare. Tony Blair’s New Labour introduced choice and competition – right-wing mantras – into public services. We’ve had Tony Abbott proposing government ‘direct action’ on climate change, and the mother of all parental leave schemes – hardly small government initiatives. Meanwhile, the Rudd/Gillard government advances an internet filter scheme to make sure we can’t see all that smutty stuff on the web – again, hardly in the spirit of free-living, free-loving lefties.
The interesting question is why has this happened. One reason is that the traditional support bases of left and right have splintered as class structures have broken down. Where tradies were once of the left, they now vote conservative – they’re Howard’s battlers. Where inner-city professionals were once reliably Liberal voters, they now vote Labor and increasingly, Green.
Not only have the old support bases broken down, but the old debates have broken down, and the protagonists are struggling to define the contours of future debates. For decades, the intellectual battleground consisted of a set of well-worn contests… Market versus State. Bosses versus Workers. Economy versus Environment. These debates have sustained the ideological warriors of the left and right. But they have now been transcended, not because one side won or lost, but because economic and social change has made them redundant. The market and the state work best in tandem. Millions of workers are now their own bosses. Environmental adjustment provides economic opportunity.
Just s an aside, one of the risks of moving on from old debates is that we embrace false debates in their place. Population is a case in point. At the last election, both sides retreated from Australia’s longstanding support of population growth through migration, supposedly because of impacts on infrastructure and quality of life.
This is a nonsense. Quality of life has declined in western Sydney because the state government has failed to deliver infrastructure, not because of migrant numbers. And reducing migrant numbers will diminish our quality of life in the long-term, because the demographic bubble means we won’t be able to pay for our ageing population. So false debates can do real damage.
What we need instead is to debate the real challenges facing the country. How to manage the dividends of our mining boom. How to transition to a low-carbon economy. How to improve our education system so that it delivers the skills, capabilities and resilience that will allow Australians to prosper in a dynamic, open society. These are the future battlegrounds of left and right.
So this borrowing of ideas, this cross-dressing we have seen from both left and right, is really the product of three things. One, intellectual failures on each side which have provoked great uncertainty amongst their adherents. Two, a fracturing of electoral support which has led political leaders to chase new constituencies by borrowing ideas from the other side. And three, economic and social change which has left old debates redundant and forced the contestants to search for new points of difference. These are the reasons why the right might seem like the new left.
But as I said at the outset, the right is not the new left. Here’s why. The right believes and will always believe in the primacy of the individual – this is its defining idea.
Individual freedom, in particular, is the cornerstone on which most right-wing arguments are built: small government, free markets, Hayek’s magic catallaxy. Add to this a deep distrust of the collective - as Mrs Thatcher famously said, there is no such thing as society.
Conversely, social justice, and the power of society to deliver it, is the defining idea of the left. The left believes that society is more powerful than the sum of its individual parts, that we create better lives by working together on common challenges and common endeavours. This building we’re sitting in today and that bridge out there are testaments to this philosophy.
These defining beliefs are powerful and they are enduring. Today and into the future, they will define the contours of the debate and the positions on which each side settles. These defining beliefs are the reason that, for all the cross-dressing, right is not the new left.
This is a festival of dangerous ideas and, in the spirit of the festival, let me leave you today with my own dangerous idea – an Australian Liberal Party. A Liberal Party for Australia. Not a conservative party masquerading as a liberal Party, but a real liberal party, for people who believe in liberalism, that cornerstone belief of the right. A home for both Malcolms. A political standard bearer for Luke and his CIS colleagues. A counterweight to the populist conservatism of Tony Abbott. Perhaps even a credible exponent of intelligent centre-right thinking.
This would fill a gap in the Australian political spectrum. The Left has responded to its internal divisions by spawning new parties from its social democratic parent – the DLP, and now the Greens, who are here to stay and will continue to challenge Labor’s base. The only mainstream body of political opinion without its own party is liberalism - a genuine liberal party would change that.
This idea is dangerous in both senses of the word. It’s dangerous to the incumbent conservative party who’d see their base fractured, perhaps why I’m helpfully putting it up. And some would argue, dangerous to the stability of Australia’s bipartisan system (though I don’t buy that).
But where it would be wonderfully, mouth-wateringly dangerous would be in the battle between the leaders of the new liberal party and the old conservative party which calls itself Liberal. Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull battling head to head for spiritual leadership of the right. Who could resist that?