John Stuart Mill once wrote that not all conservatives are stupid, but most people who are stupid are conservative. That is probably because they are afraid of what they don’t know. People seek guidance at every turn and accept the time honoured practices and formulae of the past; they view such a strategy as safe. In short, they don’t know any better and don’t want to. They just want to be reassured. Conservative politicians are good at offering that. It’s politically clever but it’s not leadership.
Prior to the time when Gough Whitlam came to power I was apolitical. Back around the late 1950s my parents were DLP voters which was hardly surprising coming as they did from an Irish-Catholic background. They thought they were supporting a Catholic breakaway party resisting what was perceived as an unhealthy communist influence within the Labor party.
This was the era of Bob Santamaria, the National Civic Council and Archbishop Daniel Mannix. Santamaria was depressing fellow who saw danger at every corner. If he wasn’t paranoid about communists, it was trade unions, sexual deviants or left wing university students. He even advocated the abolition of the ABC. But it was a different time and mindset from what we value today and in the end not a lot of what he espoused or campaigned for, ever came to pass. What Tony Abbott saw in him is unclear other than that of an anti-communist Catholic zealot but, I suspect Abbott still clings to the image of what he thought the man was. Daniel Mannix was of similar mind to Santamaria but he went further. He misused his position as Archbishop of Melbourne and told Catholics that if they voted for Labor they would be committing a mortal sin.
So, in my first voting foray in 1963 I followed my parents lead and voted DLP. That continued until 1972 when Labor gained power after 23 years in opposition. Mannix was dead and the communist influence in the party had been marginalized and the Coalition looked tired and lacking of a vision for the future. I thought Whitlam was a breath of fresh air. He ended conscription (of which I had been a part) and brought home the remaining troops from Vietnam and began reforming the education system; he socialized health and encouraged reform on some of the more sensitive moral issues of the day.
Labor, under Whitlam, had a vision and it seemed that we were heading down a more enlightened path. But, they seemed not to understand economics very well and inflation and interest rates were taking their toll. The coalition smelt blood and rejected several bills in the senate. This was new to the baby boomers and to those of us who were part of the silent generation. The government seemed not to be able to govern. Whitlam decided to go back to the people in 1974 and ask for a fair go. The people said okay, but fewer voted for them compared with 1972.
From that point on, the coalition was relentless in its efforts to stop the government from functioning. Inflation and interest rates continued to soar and, in what I viewed as disrespect for the democratic process, the coalition decided to block supply. This demonstrated to me that the Liberal party was more interested in governing than they were in democracy. Their actions precipitated the Governor-General dismissing the government, installing a care-taker prime minister, Malcolm Fraser, and we had another election in1975. Whitlam and Labor lost in a landslide. It was humiliating. Nothing that happened subsequently convinced me that the actions of the conservatives were justified. Indeed, it was their own economic mismanagement under the then treasurer, John Howard that saw them thrown out seven years later.
Then came the Hawke/Keating years when the economic parameters we used for decades underwent major reforms to give us what we have today.
Having seen and experienced the benefits of Labor’s reforms over the past thirty years, I have come to view the Liberal party with great suspicion. They appear to lack a moral compass, preferring to ride whatever train would take them to government and keep them there. They appear not to have a vision for the future, preferring to govern for today and not worry about tomorrow. They appear uninterested in shifting from the accepted norms of the day or ever question some of the time honoured traditions of western society. Is it any wonder then that their principal support comes from the more conservative echelons of a white middle-class Anglo-Saxon mindset.
With such a limited vision what chance does Australia have of ever moving forward under their watch? The manner in which they approach issues such as health, education, cutting edge technology, climate control, asylum for refugees, drug law reform as well as working class and minority rights are all testament to a party that is more concerned with staying in government than in reforming outdated social attitudes. Their obsession for frugal, fiscal management masks their financial flaws and underlines their belief that if the people are happy with the state of their hip pocket, that is all they need to worry about to stay in power. It is a sound political philosophy but it is not leadership.
That brings us to the present day. We put this government in power and they are, therefore, a reflection of us. So much of what politicians tell us comes from information that focus groups tell them. Over the years I have witnessed some interesting performances by a variety of politicians on both sides. Some have leadership qualities superior to others and I have often thought that the wrong person was leading the country. Leaders today get elected on the basis of three-word slogans; they become the people’s choice for the time being. They use catchy little phrases to attract uninformed voters. They borrow most of them from past, equally unimpressive leaders and have nothing original to contribute. With Tony Abbott, this is one such time.
But today, they all seem to stand or fall down under the weight of a national media that is more relentless than anything we experienced back in the days of the DLP. As long as the media continue to call the shots on image and visual performance of our politicians, we will always get what we deserve, and those with real leadership quality will be left on the sidelines.
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