Thursday, 31 May 2007

An Australian Experience-The Liberals' fingers and toes

The Liberal Party of Australia has something of a misreading of its name, since the party is in effect an Australian party of conservatives, similar to that party in the UK and sharing many things in common with the right wingers in the US, rather than an Australian version of Canadian Liberal Party. Being Liberal and Conservative at the same time seems contradictory, and parties bearing these names in other countries commonly stand way apart in politics. The key is that this Liberal is not liberalism of usual understanding, but seeks to promote the market, free enterprise, and privatisation, genuinely against government intervention into the economy.
The rule of charismatic leaders, obviously applicable to Labour, may not be true to the Liberal Party of recent times, for their star leaders often fell hard and plain natured, uninspiring leaders survive well and run government offices. It is the "honest little Johnny", not other statesmanlike, charismatic Liberal leaders, who ended the rule of populist Labour and gained support from the majority of voters at elections. High calibre Liberal leaders missed their prime time and once in a lifetime chance to becoming Prime Ministers, such as Andrew Peacock and Dr. John Hewsen. Their sorry experience in Australian politics are not unlike those of many American NBA stars, for instance Karl Malone and Patrick Ewing, who received not even one single championship gold ring after decades of hard labour and excellent individual performance, simply because they were playing the game at a time when superstar Michael Jordan reigned supreme.
Andrew Peacock was too gentlemanlike and urbane to win an election for the Liberal Party. He suffered in the hands of populist Hawke, as the leader of opposition, but his style and posture conformed to fine parliamentary traditions, even when fielding a few insults. Inevitably his leader position was under constant threat from various ambitious party politicians. His successors in the party turned out to be more opportunist, conservative, and nastier in politics, and these demonstration of traits ironically brought about certain hope of winning. Overall, you can say that politics has deteriorated.
From the time being the Treasurer in the Fraser government, John Howard has outstayed all other major contenders in his party and finally outshone them from the late 1990s, with an unbroken election winning record. A Howard dynasty is built under this little charismatic leader, in which internal dissent, discontent, and slight to him are seldom tolerated. This seems understandable. Liberal party faithfuls are extremely grateful for his incredible deeds leading them out of opposition wilderness of 13 years and for having so far stifled a Labour resurgence. The Liberals who moaned the loss of 1993 election udder Hewsen can not rightfully celebrate.
The Hewsen run finally convinced the party that drastic actions are not welcome and popular, even under an undisputed smart leader. They should stick to their fundamentals while seeking wider support and acceptance. They thus chose the long time standard bearer and steady hand John Howard. To this, he did not disappoint. Attempting to receive the widest support possible, Howard has been outstanding in leading by following, tracing public opinions before making any major moves. The rise of the Liberals Party on his watch also represents turn in political history that the mood was now swinging to more conservative and traditional values of the West. Radical socialist practices and political correctness began to lose appeal, and attacks on the left and affirmativeness were justified. This trend is greatly enforced by the rise and strength of the right and conservative blocs in the US.
I saw John Howard from a distance one sunny day in Sydney in 1986, when he was the opposition leader hard pressed by the Labour government. Howard was standing in front of an office building and fast-talking to someone by his side. With that glance, I remain puzzled to this day why so many Australian political cartoons and TV comic shows portrayed him half knelt to indicate him being dwarfed by may other political figures of the time, at least in height. This perhaps is a little unflattering and unfair to him. Regardless, John Howard today stands tall for his cause, as well as for the nation, and those popular shows ceased to be aired, partly in response to Liberal supporters who feel upset watching their successful leader being dramatically ridiculed. This is in the similar vine to that in the US that the popular TV series "The West Wing" first toned down rhetoric about the Republicans and then simply ceased to be aired, as a staunch Republican President has resided in the White House for two full terms and is therefore not to be subject to any slight from "unpatriotic" script writers.
The Liberal Party has made strides in Australian politics, in terms of a string of election wins. This derives chiefly from their leader's shrewdness in judging Australians' sentiments at particular times. After years of Labour reforms and social welfare initiatives, a reversal in fashion has been on the rise, and people began to cast doubt on certain political correctness, in rhetoric or in policy. If one keeps talking about Aborigines' rights or generous treatments to new immigrants, people grow an uncomfortable feeling of themselves being marginalised in this egalitarian society. The bulk of middle groups has their primary concerns over household spending and standard of living, and has minimum interest in raising others' standards, especially during less optimistic economic times. When existing pastoral property owners felt emerging threat from Aboriginal rights and native title claims, their top priority is certainly not righting past wrongs, but their daily survival and legal protection. This kind of sentiments has become a potentially fertile ground for a re-emerging of White Australia, mostly in areas of the north and with more abusive attacks on new immigrants.
The Howard government has put fingers on the pulse of the populace and detected the turning in public opinions. On issues of Aborigines and an Australian republic, they nurtured sufficient fear and fatigue among people to defeat those motions, from which acquired elections victories as well. The handling of the Tampa in 2001 is against international practice and Australia's own standards in cases of humanitarian obligations toward refugees, including a false claim of children being thrown off boats. This bad record did not matter, since the electorate at that time became fed up with constant news reports of intruding waves of immigrants and refugees to Australian land and wanted something, anything, to be done firmly, or even ruthlessly. Howard accurately judged the situation and showed his tough side of personality. The outcome was a Liberal government re-elected. Labour had only made feeble or useless protests, under the circumstances of shifting national sentiments.
The Liberal Party has so far carried on with their pragmatic centre right approach, sensed public sentiments correctly, and maintained sizeable popularity. Conservatism has become a fashion. The question is on their ability to continue the current course towards ultra right, as a matter of acceleration and heightened passion, when public moods shift again and return to reasonable tolerance. The party has fingers and toes, to stand firm on their ground of principles and follow favourable sentiment shifts, but lacks vision and insight, to move forward. Conservatism by nature is being drawn back to the known and turning back to the old. The Liberal Party, bathed in economic gains generated from previous Labour restructuring, is drifting comfortably but aimlessly as a ruling party. It is doing dismantling, rather than constructive, work, obviously for grabbing popularity and short-term benefits. This smacks the years of post-Menzies Liberals.
It is a precarious job to make bold predictions of political fortunes of a particular party on the basis of current success and invincibility. Such analyses are often shaky, unreliable, or even false, and may soon be swept away by turns of events. During the helm of Kennett of Liberal Party reign in Victoria, politics scholars lavishly threw their praises to his courage and vision, and labelled his administration the most prominent example of the new era of Liberal governance in Australia. State Labour seemed to have lost hope and plot in regaining office, according to analyses and academic rationalisation. As soon as some of such research writings were published, Labour won government in Victoria and grabbed consecutive wins thereafter in the face of unconvincing Liberal leaders. Considering the odd feature of political unpredictability, the swings of the pendulum as shown in the above example of current affairs, one is to be alert about complacency in politics and cannot casually assume the continuity of present status quo, with a dominant party in perpetuity. It is hard to draw a definite concluding remark on the fate of a political party, especially in a lively democracy of Australia, with its regular swings and turns of public opinions. The current hold on power by the Liberal Party might not be an "end of history", but more likely an end to a cycle in politics.
The Liberal Party has its blue blood Anglo-Saxon traditions and gathers Australians of money, either business or professionals. This background is distinctive, if one takes a look around the Liberal safe seat of Higgins in Melbourne, covering the second most expensive district in the nation, Toorak. In more recent times, however, there are growing numbers of Liberals with ethnic immigrant background, including many Chinese small businessmen. It seems more sensible for them to take Labour as the designated party, on the basis that they got entries to Australia during Labour years and that Labour is definitely a party more sincere over multiculturalism. Plausible explanations for this divergence are a few. Businesspeople tend to agree with the party that looks more pro-business and advocates reduced taxes, charges, etc. They demand to have adequate legal protection and minimum government interference in business, more earnings and less care to workers. The Labour emphasis on workers' rights ma lead to more expenses and cost upon those in business, especially small businesses. In addition, those from authoritarian or socialist economies have their prior experience of command or centrally planned economies. The free business and market environment is extremely appealing to these people, and some of them could become more ideologically transfixed and driven than locals on issues of regulations and markets liberalisation. Further, they have an inclination to embrace Liberal Party as a way to realise dreams of higher social status. The Liberals are usually the members of upper social groups, well-to-dos, elites, businessmen, professionals, and large land owners. This prospect is more inspiring than the blue collar groups commonly represented by Labour. Social stereotypes work here. A combination of these factors leads to rising willingness and desire from immigrants to be identified with the Liberal Party.

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