SPIRIT OF AJAX WON’T DO LIB­ER­ALS MUCH GOOD

Redemp­tion is al­ways pos­si­ble, but not while for­mer PMs are spit­ting chips

The Australian - - COMMENTARY - HENRY ERGAS

Watch­ing Mal­colm Turn­bull’s re­cent con­duct, it was hard not to think of Enoch Pow­ell’s fa­mous con­clu­sion to his bi­og­ra­phy of Joseph Cham­ber­lain. “All po­lit­i­cal lives,” Pow­ell wrote, “un­less they are cut off in mid­stream at a happy junc­ture, end in fail­ure, be­cause that is the na­ture of pol­i­tics and hu­man af­fairs.”

No less rel­e­vant, how­ever, was the less widely cited ob­ser­va­tion Pow­ell added. While some, he said, fall like Achilles, the ca­reers of oth­ers, in­clud­ing Cham­ber­lain, end “in the pathos of Ajax”.

Achilles, of course, died a hero. But Ajax, hu­mil­i­ated by Agamem­non — who, in­stead of giv­ing him Achilles’ ar­mour, gave it to Odysseus — went mad with rage.

Con­sumed by the de­sire for re­venge, Ajax man­aged to dis­grace him­self, shred­ding his good name and be­tray­ing the com­pan­ions to whom he owed his glory.

Pow­ell’s point was that pol­i­tics, like war, has its ter­ri­ble in­jus­tices: it was not en­tirely un­rea­son­able of Ajax to be­lieve that he had been griev­ously wronged.

But even in the face of those in­jus­tices, pol­i­tics de­mands loy­alty, for with­out it the re­ver­sals that scar ev­ery hu­man en­deav­our would un­leash a frenzy of de­fec­tions, de­stroy­ing the co-op­er­a­tion on which suc­cess de­pends. And whether to be loyal is not a fate but a choice tested in ad­ver­sity.

It would, of course, be wrong to sug­gest the is­sue is Turn­bull’s alone. On the con­trary, one could, with a slight de­gree of ex­ag­ger­a­tion, write the his­tory of Aus­tralian pol­i­tics over the past decade as a long suc­ces­sion of acts of per­fidy, each pro­vok­ing an­other.

Time and again, the term “hubris” has been bandied about by way of ex­pla­na­tion; but the Greeks also gave us the word “hamar­tia”, which is help­ful both in its even­tual mean­ing of “tragic flaw” and in its root from hamar­tano — to fall short, to lack the qual­i­ties the times de­mand.

Yes, each of the lead­ers who has gone through the prime min­is­te­rial re­volv­ing door has had strengths; but none fully mea­sured up to what the sit­u­a­tion re­quired. And when that be­came ap­par­ent, Ajax too of­ten pre­vailed over Achilles, en­trench­ing the dif­fi­cul­ties.

La­bor paid the price for that in 2013. Now it’s the Lib­er­als’ turn. But if the tur­moil in the Lib­er­als is so far-reach­ing, it is be­cause the lead­er­ship con­flicts arise from much deeper con­tra­dic­tions.

The re­al­ity is that the so­cial coali­tion on which the party rests is in dis­ar­ray. That coali­tion has al­ways been ex­tremely het­ero­ge­neous, go­ing from con­trac­tors and small busi­ness own­ers to well-off pro­fes­sion­als, pick­ing up groups such as self-funded re­tirees along the way.

Hold­ing it to­gether has never been easy. But even the most able lead­ers would not have suc­ceeded with­out some­thing that united its com­po­nents. Three el­e­ments pro­vided that glue.

The first, and most sig­nif­i­cant, was the abid­ing fear of La­bor’s in­abil­ity to man­age the econ­omy.

The sec­ond was a moder­ate de­gree of con­ser­vatism, his­tor­i­cally typ­i­cal of the Aus­tralian mid­dle class, which ex­pressed it­self in a dis­trust of La­bor’s close­ness to the unions and of its agenda of in­tru­sive gov­ern­ment.

Last was the con­vic­tion that Lib­eral gov­ern­ments would look af­ter each part of that coali­tion’s in­ter­ests and re­spect its core val­ues, re­ward­ing thrift, pro­tect­ing in­de­pen­dent school­ing, pre­serv­ing pri­vate health and en­sur­ing taxes re­mained moder­ate.

Each of those el­e­ments has weak­ened, if not come undone.

Per­haps most im­por­tantly, eco­nomic fac­tors have be­come far less salient. The young have never ex­pe­ri­enced high in­fla­tion and large-scale un­em­ploy­ment, while for the older gen­er­a­tion they are dis­tant mem­o­ries. As those mem­o­ries fade, the long-term rise in house prices has boosted pri­vate wealth, cre­at­ing a wide­spread sense of well­be­ing.

And with growth con­tin­u­ing year af­ter year, eco­nomic out­comes no longer seem to de­pend on gov­ern­ments, re­duc­ing the credit they get for good times and breed­ing com­pla­cency about the po­lit­i­cal out­look.

At the same time, so­cial val­ues have changed, as have the pri­or­i­ties at­tributed to them. Ris­ing wealth would, in any event, have in­creased the weight placed on goods such as the en­vi­ron­ment and on the de­sire to en­joy the warm in­ner glow that comes from “do­ing the right thing”. In large swaths of the more af­flu­ent ar­eas, ed­u­ca­tion and sec­u­lar­i­sa­tion have ac­cen­tu­ated that trend, pro­mot­ing so­cially “pro­gres­sive” at­ti­tudes that jar with those of other parts of the Lib­eral base.

Com­pound­ing the prob­lems that causes, while less ed­u­cated vot­ers are of­ten com­fort­able with some in­con­sis­tency in their value sys­tems, bet­ter ed­u­cated vot­ers tend to hold their be­liefs as a co­her­ent pack­age that is shared by their peers and which de­fines their per­sonal and group iden­tity. Any de­vi­a­tions from that pack­age are there­fore hard to tol­er­ate.

Fi­nally, while the gov­ern­ment has real achieve­ments to its credit, the changes to su­per­an­nu­a­tion and the con­flict over Catholic school fund­ing have shat­tered the con­fi­dence cru­cial con­stituen­cies have in the party, cre­at­ing an en­dur­ing rift.

The com­bined ef­fect of those changes has been dev­as­tat­ing. With eco­nomic is­sues los­ing their sway, the party no longer has a strong mes­sage that cuts through and is ca­pa­ble of off­set­ting the weak­nesses it has al­lowed to de­velop in health­care and ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy. With so­cial at­ti­tudes di­verg­ing, and be­com­ing gen­er­ally more im­por­tant for “pro­gres­sives” and “tra­di­tion­al­ists” alike, the party no longer has an ide­o­log­i­cal cen­tre of grav­ity. And with sup­port­ers such as the self-funded re­tirees and Catholic par­ents feel­ing be­trayed, the party no longer has the re­serves of good­will needed to tide it through ad­ver­sity.

Lit­tle won­der the cen­trifu­gal pres­sures have proved so pow­er­ful. And lit­tle won­der that totemic is­sues such as cli­mate change have ac­quired such promi­nence, act­ing as a poor re­place­ment for se­ri­ous thought about the party’s na­ture, prospects and di­rec­tion. As the fab­ric that once held the party to­gether dis­solves, per­son­al­ity con­flicts have be­come in­creas­ingly in­tense.

When it emerged in an­cient Greek, the word “cri­sis” re­ferred to the cru­cial mo­ment in the course of an ill­ness that de­cides be­tween life and death. The word it­self was in­vested with dread, but im­plicit in it was the pos­si­bil­ity of redemp­tion.

Whether the Lib­er­als can grasp that new be­gin­ning de­pends only on them­selves — and on whether their past lead­ers choose to be re­mem­bered as Achilles or to die in the pathos of Ajax.

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