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The rise and rise of the Right

By Bruce Haigh - posted Thursday, 28 June 2012


Where to start; when did the right get a big leg up in Australia? Whatever point is picked will be somewhat arbitrary and therefore contestable, but with my age and colours firmly nailed to the mast I will go for 1964/65.

On 10 November 1964, the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, introduced conscription for possible service in Indonesia or Malaya. The necessary amendments to the Defence Act were made on 6 April 1965 and he committed Australian troops, including National Servicemen, for service in Vietnam the next day. In my opinion that was the apex of a right wing Liberal government, which Menzies led from 1949 to 1966.

The legacy he bequeathed it, in the form of Australia-wide protest at conscription and participation in Vietnam, led to the rise of the Labor Party and the election of Gough Whitlam in December 1972.

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But it fell apart for Gough with the likes of Cairns and Morosi, Connor and Khemlani and Murphy and Morosi and ASIO. It was all too much for Malcolm Fraser who got Kerr to sack Gough. But although a politician of the right Fraser was an enigma, he demonstrated a commitment to getting rid of Apartheid, compassion for refugees and concern with the welfare of Aboriginals.

Hawke, elected Prime Minister in 1983, together with Keating as an adviser and Treasurer, determined they would not go down the path of Whitlam and courted the big end of town. They introduced enterprise bargaining, which did much to undermine the power of the unions, and sold the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas. They moved the Labor Party to the right of centre and Keating as Prime Minister introduced mandatory detention for refugees, although he kept a small flame flickering on the left for the dignity and rights of Aboriginal Australians. Both Hawke and Keating embraced a jingoistic nationalism, centred around Kokoda and Gallipoli.

Howard redefined the right in Australian politics. He strengthened it. He extended and built upon the jingoism and nationalism of Hawke and Keating, he incarcerated and vilified refugees for political gain; he went to war in Iraq on the basis of false information supplied to the Australian people. He went to war in Afghanistan for the sake of the US alliance but without the sanction of the UN. He gave the ADF a blank cheque book and promoted the notion of entitlement, for senior officers and for himself, living off the best at Kirribilli House, Sydney. The Lodge was made into a bachelor pad. He demonised and turned the lives of powerless Aboriginals upside down over an intervention designed to win an election. He set the tone and scene for the conduct of Australian politics today.

Rudd won the election from Howard by shadowing his every move; a tactic which gave left wing agendas very little oxygen; but as we were to find out, issues of the left had little appeal for Rudd. He had stronger right wing credentials than Hawke and Keating, which seemed to appeal to them.

Rudd kept in place Howard's basic agenda, which was a big loss for the Labor Party and its shrinking support base.

The Greens showed through as a political party with a strong sense of environmental and social justice. The battered mantle of left wing politics passed from a masquerading Labor Party to them.

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There are not enough of them in parliament to balance the right wing of the Labor, Liberal, National Party and erstwhile Independents, who soon may not be, if Richard Torbay is anything to go by.

Julia Gillard, says she comes from the left, but in fact she comes from the right, where she seems comfortable. Refugees and Aboriginals will not erect statues to her. Neither will the rest of the Australian population. She has managed to convince or please no-one least of all herself. She is an honorary and honourable member of the right.

To some extent the Fairfax press provided some balance to the forces of the right. It was hardly left wing, but it did understand social justice, which is an alien concept to the Murdoch media. Out of the desert prophets come and other ancient forms of life. Gina, larger than life, a figure from the Wiggles or Sesame Street is bearing down upon the eastern seaboard like a scorching summer storm. The dust is rising and we are attempting to seal the windows and doors, but I fear she will still make a mess of our homes.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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