Thanks to Tony Abbott, Australia doesn't need a Tea Party

Australia's conservative Coalition appeals more effectively to blue-collar social conservatives than the U.S. Republicans do

Christopher Pearson

MOST of the commentary on contemporary US politics published in the Australian press has a pronounced left-liberal bias. It's hard to think of an account of the Tea Party, for example, where the author is primarily concerned to understand the phenomenon rather than to register Olympian disdain about it.

This year The American Spectator featured a remarkable essay by Angelo Codevilla on "America's ruling class - and the perils of revolution" . Its main interest is as a corrective to all the PC attitudinising that passes for analysis. As well, for Australian readers, it provides a useful prism through which to view Tony Abbott's prospects in the continuing campaign.

Codevilla's starting point is the high level of cross-party support for Barack Obama's initial $US700 billion rescue package and the eventual commitment of about 10 trillion nonexistent dollars. The cognoscenti had no qualms about this unprecedented expenditure, but he tells us the US public objected immediately by margins of three or four to one.

"When this majority discovered that virtually no one in a position of power in either party or with a national voice would take their objections seriously, that decisions about their money were being made in bipartisan backroom deals with interested parties, and that the laws on these matters were being voted by people who had not read them, the term 'political class' came into use. Then, after those in power changed their plans from buying toxic assets to buying up equity in banks and major industries but refused to explain why, when they reasserted their right to decide ad hoc on these and so many other matters, supposing them to be beyond the general public's understanding, the US people started referring to those in and around government as the 'ruling class'. And in fact Republican and Democratic office-holders and their retinues show a similar presumption to dominate and fewer differences in tastes, habits, opinions, and sources of income among one another than between both and the rest of the country. They think, look, and act as a 'class'."

According to Codevilla: "Differences between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas are of degree, not kind. Moreover, [in] 2009-10 establishment Republicans sought only to modify the government's agenda while showing eagerness to join the Democrats in new grand schemes, if only they were allowed to. Senator Orrin Hatch continued dreaming of being Ted Kennedy, while Lindsey Graham set aside what is true or false about 'global warming' for the sake of getting on the right side of history. No prominent Republican challenged the ruling class's continued claim of superior insight, nor its denigration of the American people as irritable children who must learn their place. The Republican Party did not disparage the ruling class, because most of its officials are or would like to be part of it."

He thinks sociological factors account for what he sees as the unparalleled lack of diversity within America's dominant elite. "Today's ruling class, from Boston to San Diego, was formed by an educational system that exposed them to the same ideas and gave them remarkably uniform guidance, as well as tastes and habits. These amount to a social canon of judgments about good and evil, complete with secular sacred history, sins (against minorities and the environment), and saints. Using the right words and avoiding the wrong ones when referring to such matters - speaking the 'in' language - serves as a badge of identity."

The latent heat and energy of the Tea Party is best understood in terms of the US's asymmetrical political representation. The self-styled progressives can expect more of their agenda to be delivered by Democrats. Conservatives of any hue can hope for little satisfaction from anyone other than mavericks. "In short, the ruling class has a party, the Democrats. But some two-thirds of Americans - a few Democratic voters, most Republican voters, and all independents - lack a vehicle in electoral politics."

Codevilla calls the excluded majority "the country class" and makes the point that as a class it's hard to describe because it's so heterogeneous.

"It has no privileged podiums, and speaks with many voices, often inharmonious. It shares above all the desire to be rid of rulers it regards [as] inept and haughty. It defines itself practically in terms of reflexive reaction against the rulers' defining ideas and proclivities - ever higher taxes and expanding government, subsidising political favourites, social engineering, approval of abortion. Many want to restore a way of life largely superseded. Demographically, the country class is the other side of the ruling class's coin: its most distinguishing characteristics are marriage, children, and religious practice."

Whether such a diverse grouping can hope to construct the common cause and congruent agendas it needs to make headway against America's ruling class is a vexed question. But the parallels with Australian politics are as instructive as the differences. It's worth noting, for example, that comparisons in local media between the Tea Party and Hansonism are misleading, because the former can't be described as racist and the latter's agenda was secularist.

Thankfully, Australia is unlikely to have a movement like the Tea Party in the foreseeable future. The main reason is obvious. While Labor seems hell-bent on tearing itself apart over progressivist issues such as gay marriage and a carbon tax, which have no appeal to its traditional support base, candidates in the parties of the centre-right tend to understand the values of their electors and take them seriously.

The drift of socially conservative blue-collar votes to the Coalition, for most of the Howard years and at this year's federal election, is suggestive.

It tells us that when voting is compulsory people will ignore the tribal claims of party and vote for whoever seems to them to represent most closely their values and aspirations. It also tells us that the Liberals have managed to shake the perception that they're the party of big business, at a time when state and federal Labor's links with the big end of town and with property developers are damaging the party.

While the wet end of the Liberal Party in some ways resembles the Republicans, Abbott's approach to greenhouse gas emissions has made him a pin-up boy in conservative America; a reminder that leaders of mainstream parties in developed countries don't have to be captive to the bien pensant. His support for lower taxes, smaller government, vouchers in education and family-friendly policy reinforce the point.

No doubt that's why Arthur Sinodinos, in his opinion pieces in The Australian, has taken to referring to Abbott as Spartacus and likening the Coalition's resurgence to "the revolt of the slaves".


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