November 9

The conservative ascendancy

On 9 November, 2001, The Australian published this opinion piece, describing me as being  involved in the Referendum as National  Convenor of Australians for Constitutional Monarchy. These views are of course mine and outside of our mission, not  those of ACM. 

"We humans design our political institutions, but they then take on their own
life.  Change them, and we may change politics significantly.

For example, if we moved to proportional representation, we would put paid to
our stable two party system.

And if we were to adopt the only republican model in which the public shows any
interest at all, Australian politics would change beyond recognition.  With the
mandate of direct popular election, and with vice-regal powers untrammelled by
convention, the president would be formidable.  He or she would – and would be
expected to – pull the politicians into line.  The President would in effect be
a politician chosen because of perceived leadership qualities.

At times the people do make a good choice, e.g. Ronald Reagan.  Sometimes they
don’t – e.g. Jimmy Carter. 

But some politicians can suddenly enjoy a meteoric rise in their popularity –
e.g. Cheryl Kernot and Pauline Hansen.  If this occurs in a presidential
campaign, they can sweep all before them, especially at those times when a
relatively low plurality – even around 20% – ensures victory. 

Death or impeachment excepted, the nation is locked into their choice of
political leader for a full term.

The American political system has some good points.  But elite opinion looks
down on it, in particular its justice system.

It is not that Europeans or Australians are more sophisticated or less
conservative than Americans.  It is because the strict separation of the
Administration from Congress makes it more difficult to impose an elite agenda. 
Subject to minimal party discipline – unnecessary because they can’t bring down
the government – legislators are much more influenced by the rank and file
opinion in their constituencies than elite opinion expressed by, say, the New
York Times.

Does this mean that the conservative rank and file are powerless in Australia? 
Only when there is a consensus between the parties.  This works until one side
loses its core support – as Kim Beazley Senior suggested when he lamented that
while Labor activists used to be the cream of the working class they were now
the dregs of the middle class!

Labor certainly did not carry its heartland when Paul Keating administered his
astounding volte-face on Labor’s economic policy.  He cleverly avoided a split
by making the labour market sacrosanct, except the airline pilots.  Keating went
where Malcolm Fraser never dared.  In fact, until John Howard, the Liberal Party
in office mirrored St Augustine in saying:  "Lord make us truly competitive –
but not yet."  And being a reformer, John Howard in opposition resisted the
temptation to obstruct – a clear indication that if he is returned, reform will
not end on 10 November.

But a good part of Keating’s agenda angered Labor’s traditional supporters –
above all the sale of the Crown Jewels.  Ben Chifley must have turned over in
his grave when the Commonwealth Bank was knocked down!  Worse, the proceeds were
not only squandered, successive deficits caused interest rates to skyrocket. 
The last straw was an elite cultural and social agenda which either alienated
supporters or just did not resonate with them.  Among the latter was the
republic.  Paul Keating had the good sense never to put this to the vote.  This
allowed him not only to display his elite credentials to the intelligentsia, but
also to sow division in the Liberal Party.

Once in power, John Howard decided to lance what had become a festering sore. 
He put the republicans’ preferred model to the people.  He was ridiculed when
60.13% of his electorate voted ‘Yes’.  But over two-thirds of his supporters
voted the way he recommended.  As Malcolm MacKerras says, if John Howard is the
member for the Republic of Bennelong, there is a stronger case for Kim Beazley
being the member for the Kingdom of Brand.  Most of the 66.3% voting No there
would have been Labor voters who had been told to vote Yes.  Labor had made the
republic a crucial issue, yet it failed to carry half of its safest seats.  (The
Nationals won all of theirs).  In giving its traditional supporters not only the
possibility of, but the taste for active dissent from any of those parts of the
elite agenda they find unacceptable, Labor had changed politics in Australia.  A
telling example was Kim Beazley’s apparent retreat from his previous commitment
to change the flag – he now regularly appears beside not one, but two Flags!

But it was the issue of unauthorised arrivals that has starkly divided elite
opinion from the conservative rank and file.  And unlike the republic, people
actually care.  While some of the elites assume they alone occupy the high moral
ground, it should be stressed that the majority reasoning is not based on
racism, but on a balancing of an innate sense of fairness with feelings of

The conservative forces unleashed by the referendum, and encouraged by the Flag
and East Timor, have now achieved a remarkable ascendancy, straddling the
traditional supporters of most parties.  This was demonstrated by the army of
volunteers who worked for the No case in 1999.  Whatever the result on 10
November, this conservative ascendancy will have a major impact on the national
agenda for many years to come.


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