Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Rundle: Napthine’s loss the beginning of the end for the Right –

Rundle: Napthine’s loss the beginning of the end for the Right –

Rundle: Napthine’s loss the beginning of the end for the Right

Denis Napthine’s government has been comprehensively booted out of Victoria in a historic loss for a one-term government. And Crikey’s writer-at-large says there is more to come.

There were probably better things to do in Atlantic City in
the early hours of Friday night/Saturday morning than watch the ABC feed
on bad wi-fi, but truth be told I couldn’t think of any. I could have
set the laptop up on the tables at the Trump Tower, or stage side at
Scores by the Boardwalk, but nothing could match the sheer deliciousness
of watching the Napthine government bubble down the drain of history.
From the early and unmistakable trends away from the government to the
strong showing by the Greens in Melbourne to the rapidly forming
certainty — that was exactly what you want from a vote count. None of
that heart-stopping coming-from-behind sudden-reversal stuff. This was
steady and remorseless erasure, exactly in line with the polls.

True, there was a bit of a wobble with The Age’s
Napthine endorsement, but that just turned out to be another instalment
in the world’s longest suicide note. Other than that, it was steady all
the way. The first one-term government in Victoria since 1955, the
pundits said, omitting to remark that that had occurred during a
wrenching split down the middle of the ALP, with Labor (anti-communist)
preferences going to the Libs. To try to find a common-or-garden
first-term defeat you’d have to go back I dunno how far into our
electoral history.

The significance of the victory can’t be understated for
Victorian politics. Given a fixed four-year term, by 2018 Labor will
have ruled Victoria for 24 of the last 36 years — 28 of the last 40, if,
as seems likely, the party wins a second term. That is domination of
politics over an era, with the consequent shaping of the political
culture. Whatever lasting depredations Jeff Kennett left us — a
Mordor-style casino “awarded” (with monopoly privileges!) to a Liberal
Party treasurer like the place was Louisiana, a needlessly vandalised
school and hospital system — or the attempt by Matthew Guy to kill the
livability of the city in a single term, they haven’t had lasting

Thus, the history of the Victorian Liberal Party in the
post-Hamer period is a history of failure. Liberal parties, based on a
philosophy of individualism, do not weather opposition well — people
depart quickly for fresh opportunities rather than face the bitter task
of opposition. The Victorian Libs are engaged in a continuing struggle
between a Christian Right and the old business establishment party. If
the suburban god-botherers take control of the party, they could keep
the Libs out of power indefinitely.

Post-election analysis has pointed to the various national
and state-based factors responsible for the Napthine government’s
defeat, with the emphasis on the Abbott factor foremost. Yet the
Baillieu/Napthine government was in trouble from early on, long before
the shenanigans with Geoff Shaw started. And trying to attribute blame
to particular policies ignores a key fact: across the English-speaking
world, the Right is in trouble. When you put Victoria together with the
federal government and add in the Cameron government in the UK, three of
its major governments are facing a one-term proposition. The Newman
government in Queensland would be in the same boat, were it not for the
vast majority it gained on election. And in the US, the Right can only
win seats via gerrymandered Congressional votes — the Democrats win the
presidency and an overall majority in the raw vote for the House.

Everywhere, the Right is losing its legitimacy, and the
Victorian election can be seen as a small example of that. That lost
legitimacy is the key factor — without that loss, the Napthine
government might have received the benefit of the doubt traditionally
extended to a first-term government. The problem for the Right is not
the superficial screw-ups or the federal contamination effect — it’s
that the social-cultural ground is shifting beneath their feet in ways
that benefit the progressive centre.

That is especially so in a place like Victoria, dominated by
Melbourne, which is in turn coming to be dominated by knowledge,
science and culture industries. The growth of such industries creates a
growth in the numbers of a particular type of
professional — knowledge-oriented, reflexive, universalist and global.
They are, in some ways, a distinct social class in themselves, but they
can also be seen as a recomposition of the bourgeoisie. The old ranks
that made Victoria the jewel-in-the-crown of liberalism are thinned and
transformed by these new groups. They do not, of course, have the
numbers to change the political culture by themselves, but neither did
the old professional bourgeoisie. Rather, there is a sort of
“leadership” effect whereby the rising social power of a small class
will change the wider political culture more generally.

In Victoria, decades of this process have accumulated,
expressing itself in neighbourhood change, cultural change and social
activism, which makes the state inherently progressive. The Cain (Jr)
government of the ’80s nurtured much of this by creating a whole
quasi-state apparatus network of arts festivals, small group grants
funding, multicultural networks and the like, reaching far into every
aspect of social life. Kennett wisely decided not to attack this
structure en toto, merely to prune it back and redirect some of the
cultural activity away from the community and towards the commercial. A
decade later, that distinction has somewhat collapsed, and the
Cain-Kirner-Kennett model of Victoria continues to infuse society with a
progressivist, statist ideal of how society should work.

But to varying degrees that is happening everywhere. Every
four years, a cohort of voters from the old class division check out for
good, and a new cohort of voters turn 18, or equally importantly, pass
from youth into their 30s retaining much of the progressive political
thinking they had as teenagers or students. This is not because they
have become more idealistic. It is because the progressivist
message — that society should be steered by rational, socially just,
best practice, systems-oriented thinking, with universal equality of
gender, race, sexuality etc — is simply the base idea of their social
class and of the world they have started to build around them. The sad
fantasy of Bolt, Roskam, James Paterson et al — that if only the party
had stuck to a more hard-Right austere classical liberal message — does
not even begin to fit the current situation. It’s the endless nostalgic
reprise of Thatcherism — and of Kennett. It takes those
victories — which arose from the collapse of post-war social democracy
under the weight of its own contradictions — and mistakes their one-off,
system-rebooting moment for a general principle.

There’s never going to be a time from now on when it’s a
smart move to combine social conservatism with free-market liberalism.
Social conservatism doesn’t even fit the form of social life we now
have, the hybridity and fluidity that was edgy in the ’80s and ’90s and
is now central to the culture and the economy. As for the free-market
austerity, the swingeing cuts, the low-church moralising about earning
and saving, well, we are all not merely Keynesians, but also Rawlsians
now. It’s precisely because people want the dynamics of freer markets
that they also want the recuperative effects of the current
progressivist formulation of how economy, state and society works. The
Right can come up with whatever fantasy it wants — Chris Berg’s (the
Build-A-Bear classical liberal) assertion that fixed terms are to blame
is my favourite — but unless it begins to reflect on the composition of
its polticial philosophy, it’ll be one, two, many Victorias from here on

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