Whatever happened to liberalism?


This post first appeared in the newsletter of the Australian Sensible Centrist

With a thud, we’ve been thrust back into business-as-usual. Government handouts for renovations at home, and race riot-fuelled culture wars abroad – normality is back.

The political class has picked up where it left off in February, seemingly without missing a beat. It’s doing the two things it knows best – tending its own home-grown variety of crony capitalism and pushing the culture wars down our throats.

Ah! it’s good to be back on familiar territory. After the surreal experience of a government-induced shutdown of civil society and imposition of an economic recession to manage a disease which, to date, has claimed one ninth of the deaths caused by last year’s flu, watching race riots on television feels strangely comforting. Pick a side – Trump or anti-Trump, Black Lives Matter or MAGA red caps. Pick a media outlet – SkyNews or ABC, Alan Jones or Waheed Aly. Forget nuance, forget complexity. Choose your side.

The political class lives off this binary division of the universe. Us or Them. Black or White. For a while there we had to navigate the uncertain business of epidemiology and the discomforting experience of watching scientists hold divergent opinions about ‘the evidence’. That was scary. But many of the cultural warriors were unfazed and quickly dissolved all ambiguity to grab the idea that lockdown was good for us – the tougher, the harder, the better. Old habits are hard to break.

We are now in recession, perhaps depression, in more ways than one. Officially, we are in economic recession, according to Treasury. The social recession is just as pronounced, but our boffins can’t yet measure it, and therefore it doesn’t officially exist. And mental health? The coronavirus curve has been flattened but make no mistake – the epidemic of mental illness in our midst is deep and pervasive and spreading faster than covid-19.

Why shouldn’t we join in the culture wars? Because they divert us from the vastly more important challenges we now face in rebuilding our own society and economy.

Civil society is shrinking and the social fabric is fraying. Bottle-shops remained open over the last three months, but churches, mosques and synagogues are still closed. The political class does not deem religious practice and mutual social support to be ‘essential services’. Government, of course, is ticking along nicely. Only the political class could think government bureaucracies are more important than mutual social support in thousand-year-old cultural settings.

The culture wars change nothing. They illuminate nothing. They entrench division and disconnection. They make constructive social change more difficult. They corrode civil society.

Social liberals and neo-liberals both love the culture wars. They jointly promote and perpetuate them. For individualists on the Right, there are only individuals, detached from their social and cultural traditions, pursuing their own interests.

For the deconstructionists on the Left, there are only individuals pursuing their preferred identities, detached from their social and cultural traditions. For both, there is no common good. There is no society, as Margaret Thatcher pronounced, presciently, on behalf of liberalism. In the end, neo-liberalism and social liberalism are one.

Why is this important? Because we cannot rebuild Australia without a working conception of the common good. Reconstructing the country without the necessary tools is impossible.

This week in the NSW Legislative Council, the ALP, Mark Latham’s One Nation, the Shooters Party and the Greens united to defeat a pay freeze for the public sector in NSW, initiated by the Berejiklian Government. As one, they voted it down. With 1.7m Australians now on the dole, another 1.7m set to join them when JobKeeper stops, and with one million small and family businesses destroyed, the public sector will continue with business-as-usual, and scheduled pay rises will go ahead.

In NSW, the median salary for teachers is $103,000, for police it is $94,000, and for nurses, $88,000. The Australian median income is $55,432. But Labor, One Nation, the Shooters and the Greens all think pay rises for public sector employees is a priority for the country right now. The half of Australians who earn less than $55,432 can only speculate on how the other half live, and why they matter so much more to the political class than we do.

A working notion of the common good would have stopped these parties voting down this proposal, so that the economic pain of recent months might be shared at least a little more equally. But no, politics-as-usual is back.

Partisanship, polarisation and social division are ready to rip again. What can stop their renewed ascendancy?

Only one thing can stop it – the 80 per cent of us in the sensible centre of Australian life have to get off our backsides, and get organised, creating our own political representation. Without it, politics-as-usual will prevail, and it’s echoes will accompany our steady economic and social decline. Nothing is more certain.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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