You can’t call the outgoing Australian Liberal-National Party Coalition fascist on Twitter without the risk of having your account suspended, or Peter Dutton suing for defamation. You can’t say it on Facebook without risking being sent to the naughty corner, or precipitating an avalanche of confected right wing nutjob outrage. The ABC or the Guardian won’t publish your letter if you call out the Liberal Party’s fascist tendencies. And even your most progressive friends will likely frown if you use the f-word about Morrison’s team.
Why is that?
For one, the attribution of fascism has become so misused that it can appear to be a meaningless insult to some people, even if the word still has a proper meaning. For another thing, many people think fascism is historically fixed in a pre-WWII world, and must come with jackboots, riding pants, brown or black shirts, and a Sam Browne belt. However, political observers who cannot tear themselves away from 1930s stereotypes of fascism should look more closely at the new kinds, such as those in Britain (Nigel Farage’s Brexit movement), France (Marine le Pen’s National Rally party), Austria (Herbert Kickl’s Freedom Party of Austria), Hungary (Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz), and the USA (where elements of Trump’s support base include white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Christo-fascists).
More than enough of the attributes of fascism Umberto Eco listed in a famous 1995 essay apply so obviously to the Coalition that it is puzzling you can’t talk about the relentless march to the right in formerly ‘conservative’ parties since the 1980s as leading inevitably into fascist territory.
Significantly, Eco argues that ‘ur-fascist’ tendencies have been around for a very long time historically, and are not a coherent set of philosophical ideas so much as anti-intellectual reaction to change. In contemporary terms that change might be considered progressive and egalitarian in any given society. It’s like bogan pub talk. The kind that formed the cornerstone justification of former shock jock Alan Jones’ bigoted, reactionary rants.
Eco was quite clear that fascism does not have to meet all of the specific characteristics he lists.
… I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.
Political dynamics outside Australia are examined here only in terms of American influences, later on, when we consider what has happened to traditional conservatism, but first, we’ll look at how Morrison’s Coalition stacks up to Umberto Eco’s 14 characteristics of fascism.
Appeal to tradition
The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition. Traditionalism is of course much older than fascism. Not only was it typical of counter-revolutionary Catholic thought after the French revolution, but it was born in the late Hellenistic era, as a reaction to classical Greek rationalism.
This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.
Eco’s words align precisely with the Coalition appeal to ‘traditional’ values, meaning a fanciful glorification of a mythical past that never really existed as it is imagined–most often referenced as the Menzies era–but in which white male privilege was institutionalized with the consequence of equally institutionalized misogyny, racism, homophobia and other forms of paternalist bigotry. An era that was highly protectionist, completely contradicting contemporary chatter about free markets and competition. An era whose wealth depended heavily on resources and relatively high corporate taxation with relatively high wages, creating contemporary contradictions about the Coalition’s ‘low taxation’ championship in combination with suppression of wage rises and an unwillingness to move away from reliance on primary production that is now heavily subsidized and ecologically unsustainable.
Traditionalism is also the sole underpinning principle driving the Coalition’s culture wars since the 1990s, given that there are no rational defences for bigotry and authoritarianism.
It is also no accident that Scott Morrison tried to capitalize on his Pentecostalism as a reassurance to right wing voters that he was traditionally minded, even if it was not widely understood that Pentecostal beliefs include a highly anti-democratic visions, and corrosive views on an egalitarian society.
Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism. … it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.
The Coalition’s culture war, since the Howard era, has been framed mainly as hostility to intellectual argument, empirical evidence, and scientific facts that do not support Coalition narratives, such as the one on climate change, but extending to many other policy areas in which Coalition figures have suppressed or contradicted experts. The newest height to which the Morrison government took this rejection of rationality was the defunding of universities and raising the cost of non-vocational degrees (the degrees in which critical thinking is taught).
This irrationalism has been strongly supported by News Corporation, which has acted as a disinformation network, spreading conspiracy theories and false premises to justify populist insurrectionism (such as the Victorian anti-lockdown riots).
Relentless attacks on the ABC to muzzle impartial reporting and intellectual discussion of current affairs also played into this strain of irrationalism.
Action for action’s sake
Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation. Therefore culture is suspect insofar as it is identified with critical attitudes. Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.
Scott Morrison’s Coalition perfected the illusion of taking action by making frequent announcements, few of which actually led to any of the actions promised, but which made the government look as if it were energetic.
The anti-intellectualism of the Coalition has already been discussed above, and in place of actual fascist intellectuals, the Coalition has relied on columnists and commentators employed by the News Corporation to denounce leftists and traitors to ‘traditional’ Australian values, or even in national security contexts.
Disagreement is treason
No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.
The case for disagreement with the Coalition being treason has long been made by the Murdoch media, particularly on the Sky TV channel, with its stridently extremist commentators.
Only days ago, Sky’s Paul Murray talked about a ‘resistance’ having begun, as if a democratically elected government not to his liking was a form of betrayal and treason.
At the same time, Murray’s colleague Rowan Dean talked about even Scott Morrison as if he had betrayed his party, and some ill-defined ideological purity.
The implication in News Corp rhetoric is that the Australian electorate itself betrayed some shining, true path in voting the Coalition out, and the election, as well as liberal democracy itself, is illegitimate for that reason. That appears to be an only slightly softer version of the rhetoric News Corp pursued in the USA to suborn insurrection.
Fear of difference
Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.
Scott Morrison built a reputation as a xenophobe for himself as immigration minister, in his comments on indigenous policy matters, and on the subject of his erstwhile challenger for the seat of Cook, Michael Towke. There have been other senior Coalition figures who demonstrated astonishingly unashamed racism, such as Peter Dutton’s disparagement of African migrants in Victoria, or Eric Abetz’s use of the Senate as a Star Chamber in an attempt to force Australians of Chinese extraction to denounce a foreign government.
Morrison’s Coalition is probably more readily defined as bigoted rather than just narrowly racist. It embraced misogyny, homophobia, racist foreign policy, racist immigration policy, and an unstated but highly visible opposition to diversity in preselections as much as public service policies.
What distinguishes the Morrison Coalition from formerly hardline policies is how gleefully it turned its bigotry into perverse public spectacle, as demonstrated in the extraordinary cruelty to the Murugappan family, or the disturbing callousness by the Coalition in response to allegations of violence and rape in Australia’s refugee concentration camps.
Appeal to alienated middle class
Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.
Eco’s observation almost perfectly matches the ‘silent Australian’ narrative perpetuated by Morrison’s Coalition, as continuation of the Menzies ‘forgotten Australians’ speech, but with an emphasis on appealing to high-visibility vest-wearing tradespeople and labourers who were once assumed to be traditional Labor voters. It was also this class of well-paid petty bourgeois suburbanites who were appealed to by divisive narratives in News Corp platforms that sought to legitimize the entirely fictional conflict between them and an imaginary latte-drinking urban intelligentsia.
Further afield, Morrison sought to capitalize on this artificial divisiveness in regional seats, with notable success in Queensland, where anti-city rants have long featured prominently in speeches and media comments, like those from George Christensen.
Obsession with conspiracy
To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged.
Apart from the culture war paranoia about left elites, already discussed above, a prominent feature of the Morrison Coalition was the embrace by many of its MPs and staff of conspiracy theories originating within Trump’s Republican Party and its even more extreme allies. This was nowhere more evident than in the ridiculous disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, but extended to News Corp lies about a stolen election in the USA, and various other American tropes.
It is no secret that Morrison himself was late to condemn the Washington insurrection and the conspiracy theories peddled by prominent members of the Coalition, like Craig Kelly, George Christensen, and Matt Canavan. Yet these tendencies are a predictable outcome of an unambiguous shift to right wing extremism, in which every issue is politicized to remove from it any rational discussion; being ‘on our side’ means uncritically supporting ‘our’ views and savaging ‘theirs’.
The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. … the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.
Rather than locating this characteristic in the stridently anti-Chinese rhetoric we recently heard from the Coalition, it seems more evident in in the carefully cultivated class warfare Morrison and other senior Coalition figures have pursued, suggesting, for example, that ‘dole bludgers’ are the enemies of the bourgeoisie, particularly the hi-viz vest petty bourgeoisie, and that ‘urban lefties’ hate ‘salt of the Earth’ country folk, or that some migrant communities are un-Australian, threatening local jobs and safety from crime.
In each of these areas, the ‘enemy’s’ strength is vastly overstated. Welfare payments have not prevented jobs growth for the petty bourgeoisie, and are not linked positively or negatively to wages growth. The inner city ‘lefties’ in Victoria and News South Wales have turned out to be traditional liberals running as independents, and two or three Greens seats is hardly an avalanche. Crime statistics stubbornly fail to evidence any higher crime rates originating in migrant communities than across the whole population.
What emerges as national consensus is that Morrison’s Coalition government could not succeed forever with divisive rhetoric playing off Australians against each other, no matter that this appears to remain News Corp doctrine.
Life as struggle
For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.
Again, rather than observing this characteristic of fascism in conventional international relations, or warfare, it was more evident in an acerbic culture war, seeking to make class and social divisions a permanent feature of Australian politics, as already mentioned above, fuelling what they hoped would be a continuing internal Australian class and social divide. It is a strategy directly cribbed from American Republicans (and the Murdoch media, again), to polarize all civil debate in terms of politically partisan positions that banish expertise, science, and critical thinking in favour of a kind of cold civil war tearing the country apart.
You can, however, also see the attitude mentioned by Eco in all the rhetoric surrounding defence expenditure in recent years, including the grotesque attempts by senior Liberals to wrap themselves in flags and associate themselves with the Australian Defence Force, to the extent Scott Morrison and other Liberals attempted to illegitimately include defence force chief Lt General Angus Campbell in entirely political media conferences. This spilled over into an attempt to reposition an incompetent and laggard pandemic response as a patriotic military exercise.
The intention appeared to be to establish and maintain a narrative that only right wing extremists could be patriots, which is essentially what Morrison claimed when he tried to defend not briefing the opposition on AUKUS, contravening even US President Biden’s insistence on such information sharing.
Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. But there cannot be patricians without plebeians.
In Australia, the elitism spoken of is most obviously tied to a privileged, white private school boys’ club that survives into the careers of its members in public and private spheres. It is a sense of entitled disdain for others that has been called out as the direct cause of sexism and racism. And it is reflected, too, in the arrogance of several brands of evangelical religions, such as like the Pentecostalism of Morrison and some of his ministers, and the Mormons said to be hijacking Liberal Party branches.
This sense of elitism is certainly tied up in Morrison’s Pentecostal conceptions of righteousness that came across to most people as just smug arrogance. Curiously, Morrison’s moral elitism is almost entirely undermined in by the moral hypocrisy-related scandals within his own party, with the National Party leader not far behind.
In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. … In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
Having already discussed the Liberal penchant for draping themselves in flags and associating themselves quite illegitimately with the defence force, we can also see attempts within the Liberal Party to ascribe heroism to its white male MPs, with puerile fraternities like the ‘swinging dicks’, and the ‘wolverines’.
Perhaps the most telling Morrisonian trait in this category is the death cultism of ‘the rapture’ that is part of his religion. It seems compelling to associate this death cult mentality with the callousness evident in the Morrison Coalition’s disregard for the lives of the poor, the aged, the sick, and the disabled.
It is also often overlooked that the initial pandemic policy of the Morrison Coalition was to ‘let ‘er rip’, which has become again its default policy in its last months; this is effectively a policy of democide.
Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
Liberal credentials in misogyny and homophobia are well documented already, hence the loss of so many urban Liberal seats to professional women. Nor do we need to rehash the sexism and rape allegations that have dogged Morrison’s Coalition.
What remains is to point out that gunplay is difficult to glorify in Australia, but the Coalition has attempted to do this by proxy, in seeking to misappropriate some kind of special connection for itself with the military, as already described above.
Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view – one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.
Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. … Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.
Eco’s points again speak directly to the Coalition’s frequent appeal to ‘silent Australians’, and to the News Corp/Nine Entertainment echo chamber amplifying only right wing points of view, as if no others existed or could possibly be valid.
Add that to the brutal politicization of the ABC, the effective shutdown of parliamentary democracy disguised as pandemic management, and the extraordinary use of standing orders to prevent parliamentary debate in the Morrison years, and we have ample evidence of a preference for anti-democratic practices.
Such practices were also illustrated throughout the Morrison term in office by the use of the PMO to act as a source for smear campaigns against critics and imagined enemies, bullying critics, and ‘briefing’ the friendly News Corp/Nine Entertainment propaganda machines, while keeping others in the dark.
Who will ever forget that Morrison’s response to urgings for an integrity commission to hold ministers and bureaucrats to account was to call it a ‘kangaroo court’. What greater contempt for the rule of law and the institutions of democracy can there be.
Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. But elements of Ur-Fascism are common to different forms of dictatorship. All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning. But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.
This aspect of Morrisonian fascism was probably driven more by the penchant for euphemisms in the News Corp/Nine Entertainment propaganda axis (the Liberal and National Party machines are staffed with people not quite bright enough to come up with anything more clever than ‘how good is …’).
There is some history to debasing the language for political purposes. For example, the ABC did an excellent job summarizing Morrison’s changing language during the pandemic. And it seems Australia is a world class player in political jargon to hide actual meaning.
More recently we’ve become used to hearing media and politicians talking about:
- ‘productivity dividends’ when they really mean slashed budgets, including staff redundancies;
- ‘woke’ as universal adjective to demonize progressive political views across such a broad range of issues the word has become meaningless catch-all;
- ‘vaccine hesitancy’ instead of rabid conspiracy theorists or anti-vaxxers;
- ‘informed consent’ as another way of saying that individuals who watched a couple of conspiracy theory YouTube videos are now better informed about vaccinations than medical experts;
- ‘herd immunity’ as cover for proposing mass deaths in the older, sicker percentiles of the population, which is itself cover for incompetence and doing nothing;
- ‘missteps’ to describe a deliberately moronic policy implementation that has to be walked back because of an entirely predictable public backlash;
- ‘surge capacity’ instead of the ability of already overloaded hospital infrastructure and staff to deal with health catastrophes bungled by bureaucrats and politicians;
- ‘uncertain/unprecedented times’ instead of our bureaucrats and politicians failed to do any risk management planning of any kind and were caught flat-footed by predictable disasters;
- ‘hermit state’ as a pejorative reworked from referring to North Korea to apply to a remote Australian location adopting strict quarantine disciplines, but usually pretty well isolated and ignored anyway;
- ‘pre-covid trajectory’ instead of ‘optimistic fantasies’ about what might have happened if the pandemic had not been mishandled quite so badly, in which recession and inflation are always excised as real possibilities even without a global pandemic;
- ‘flattening of the curve’ as another way of talking about all the vulnerable people who died, or are expected to die, due to mismanagement of the pandemic;
- ‘post truth’ as cover for disseminating unfounded opinions, gossip, and outright lies; and
- ‘pivot’ as a lazy way of saying that ignorant people might be unable to multitask the way we expect of professionals and highly paid executives.
These are just a few examples of ‘weasel words’ or euphemisms being used to disguise complex or unpalatable truths.
Newspeak aside, if Morrison is remembered for anything other than bigotry and corruption, it will be his penchant for marketing slogans, all of which invariably turned out to be dishonest and meaningless.
Whatever happened to conservatism?
Given that any kind of fascism is not really a coherent ideology or set of policies, and that the Coalition was not always what it became under Morrison, it’s important to understand how it arrived at its fascist tendencies. That’s a matter of historical developments both in the USA, from which the nominally ‘conservative’ Coalition has increasingly cribbed its ideas since the Reagan era, and in Australia, which saw the Liberal Party fundamentally transformed during the Hawke-Keating years, and the Howard ascendancy that followed.
But the impetus is likely not to have been party political at all rather than plutocratic.
During the Reagan-Thatcher era, a more or less libertarian ideology gained traction, misinterpreting thinkers from Adam Smith to Friedrich Hayek to mean that unregulated ‘free market’ ideals should dominate democratic societies at all levels. Privatization, not state assets, private consultants, not public servants, and no legal constraints on business, not public benefit regulation. It seems largely forgotten that Smith, Hayek, and many other thinkers about political economy never contemplated, much less endorsed, the amoral, unaccountable, and even overtly criminal conduct that the richest individuals and corporations saw as justified to make their misbegotten ideology a reality. Those plutocrats still vigorously pursue such amorality today. And none more so than Rupert Murdoch and his heir apparent, son Lachlan Murdoch.
They do so by using the extensive Murdoch media assets as propaganda platforms to shift what’s come to be known as the ‘Overton Window’ ever further to the right. A project that has now been in train for decades, with no end in sight.
What is the Overton Window? In the early to mid-1990s, an employee of the libertarian think tank, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, Joseph Overton, started to tell potential sponsors they should donate money to his organizations in return for it throwing out into public debate radical right wing ideas, with the aim of forcing a public debate that would acclimatize voters to accept as mainstream even quite bizarre ideas, just by being exposed to them repetitively. This shifting of public perception has come to be called the Overton Window, referring to a set of ideas regarded as publicly acceptable at any one time.
An idea can start far outside the political mainstream – flat taxes, abolish the IRS, more guns in schools, building a beautiful wall and making Mexico pay – but once it has been stated and argued for, framed and restated, it becomes thinkable. It crosses over from the fringe of right-wing think-tankery to journalistic fellow-travellers; then it crosses over to the fringe of electoral politics; then it becomes a thing people start seriously advocating as a possible policy. The window has moved, and rough beasts come slouching through it to be born.
In truth, the underlying idea is not nearly as contemporary as Overton. You can see its direct ancestor in the statements by Nazi Germany’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to the effect that if you repeat a lie often enough, even skeptics will come to regard it as truth. And older still are the papal bulls of the Roman Church (gaining ‘consensus’ political views on pain of torture or death), ancient Roman and Greek myths based on nominally oracular divinations, and probably prehistoric shamanistic predictions and explanations in pre-rational social environments.
So, what motivates people like the Murdochs, who have both the wealth and media assets to undertake a deliberate shift in public perceptions? The answer is likely quite simple: if you undermine democracy, pit people against each other, and prevent progressive politics from ever being implemented, there will never be governments that examine the amoral and illegal activities of the plutocrats, including especially tax evasion, but extending to cartel misconduct like price fixing, market rigging, and even the subornment of militarist adventurism to gain control of resources and assets owned by ‘hostile’ nations.
If that seems far-fetched, consider how influential the Murdoch Fox News in the USA was in promoting social division and conspiracy theory to get Donald Trump elected, and then to incite an attempted insurrection by spreading the outright lie that shadowy figures had rigged the election that ousted Trump. Consider also the concerted efforts in Victoria and New South Wales, through the Murdoch owned newspapers, but especially Sky News, to incite insurrections against pandemic public health measures in the name of ‘freedom’ from ‘Dictator Dan’ and other notional tyrants (never mind they were democratically elected). There is strong evidence of News Corp’s one-eyed condemnation of every Labor and progressive policy and politician, since at least Tony Abbott’s prime ministership, when compared to the largely uncritical support of Coalition policies and politicians.
Over the course of decades, News Corp pursued a deliberate policy of shifting public attitudes by spreading propaganda, misinformation, disinformation, and even outright lies, working closely with the Institute of Public Affairs right wing think tank, which Rupert Murdoch and other plutocrat interests support precisely to publicize extremist ideas for the purpose of shifting the Overton Window ever rightward.
It is compelling to argue that a good number of Coalition politicians and apparatchiks saw in this strategy an opportunity for gravy train public offices, taking up News Corp’s extremist ideas, by ‘kissing the ring’ of Murdoch and other plutocrats, to gain their patronage. Most of those politicians can be properly described as mercenaries with no real convictions of their own, even if they did start to uncritically support the lazy fascist ideas fed to them. Some others are convinced reactionaries, ideologically opposed to change, including especially a feared loss of white Anglo male power. It has been argued that there are also ‘moderate’ Coalition politicians, but it is questionable whether you can claim to be moderate if you support party machines controlled by extremists.
If we accept Edmund Burke’s carefully navigated positions on refrain from revolutionary change, and conserving all that has worked well, but moving cautiously to progressively reform laws and institutions in favour of the least privileged, as the basis of modern Westminster-style conservatism, the Coalition parties are far to the right of those principles. In fact, the only recognizably conservative party in those terms is the ALP.
So why do we still talk about the ALP as ‘centre left’ and the Liberal Party as ‘centre right’ (only very few pundits venture to guess at what the National Party might be)? Mainly because the parties themselves contrive it that way, and our ‘news’ media uncritically repeat those self-serving propaganda statements. Never questioning what ‘centre’ actually means. In other words, when we say left and right, what are the reference points to give meaning to those terms?
If we are talking about Australia’s party political spectrum, the answer should be fairly simple.
We have the Communist Party of Australia, and the Socialist Workers’ Party defining the extreme left. Neither party has ever won enough votes to gain parliamentary representation. Then we have the Greens, probably defining all that is to the right of the extreme left, but to the left of the ALP and any centre. By those reference points alone, the ALP is definitely to the right of centre. And that shouldn’t really surprise anyone, given that the ALP’s electoral wins in 2007 and 2022 came on the back of a ‘me too’ guarantee of emulating most of the Coalition’s economic policies, and an absence of genuinely progressive policies. As Tom Haskell put it in 2019, the light on the hill talked of by Ben Chifley is being slowly ‘suffocated by the politics of opinion polls rather than the politics of ideas’.
The Coalition parties have never claimed to be anything but right of centre, but have been pushed out of any credible claim to a ‘centre right’ position by the ALP, having moved progressively further to the right since the 1980s.
What’s to the right of the Coalition? Some would argue One Nation, but it’s hard to tell whether that party is a fantasist socialist party, looking only for handouts appealing to its narrow support base, or a movement of imbeciles with only bigotry as a discernible political orientation. For a short while there was Corey Bernardi’s Australian Conservatives, but it vanished for lack of support, probably because it was simply too much of a grotesque fetishization of right wing positions. There is also Palmer’s UAP, but calling it right wing is to suggest a plutocrat with delusions of grandeur has any greater sense of political alignment than One Nation. The most extreme right wing party today appears to be the Liberal Democrats, which is probably as close to a national socialist party Australia has come since the 1970s, but seems to have failed to see a single member elected. Using these reference points, the Coalition occupies all the ground between right of centre and national socialism. To argue it has fascist tendencies is far from fanciful even in those terms.
This has not always been the case. How did the Coalition move from being an alliance between traditional conservatives and National Party agrarian socialists to its present state?
It is fact that the ‘war’ on actual liberals in the Liberal Party has been ongoing since at least the 1990s, when the ‘wets’, like Ian McPhee and Fred Chaney, were hounded out of the party. That war continued under John Howard, driving the party ever further to an amoral, meanspirited, selfish right, facilitated by successive electoral victories. At some indeterminate point the Coalition became no longer ‘conservative’ in the Burkean sense, but reactionary, to preserve existing privilege (predominantly benefiting a white, male, Anglo demographic), and even more extreme, as demonstrated by the public stances of figures like Corey Bernardi, Eric Abetz, Matt Canavan, Barnaby Joyce, and some others.
The Howard governments are distinguished from the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison ones by one key factor: in the 1990s and 2000s, there was still a sense of shame about some improprieties, bigotries, and ideologically or patronage-driven activities, and therefore these were enacted mainly behind closed doors, away from public scrutiny. But since Abbott’s prime ministership, Coalition politicians have become increasingly shameless and brazen about wielding power for its own sake, for personal benefit, in the service of party patrons, and sometimes even for criminal venality.
It is likely this brazen shamelessness that made the Morrison government’s approach so recognizably fascist in many areas.
Looking ahead, the Murdoch propaganda platform has already foreshadowed its demand, made by various Sky News talking heads, that the Liberals and Nationals need to move even further to the right. Rowan Dean went so far as to suggest Morrison was a ‘lefty’. This, despite the fact that the National Party didn’t lose a single seat, and Liberal Party losses were all to more moderate candidates, indicating a rejection by the electorate of what Dean called bedwetting leftism.
At the end of considering all these issues, any rational observer could be excused for wondering how much further to the right the Coalition needs to travel before it is no longer taboo to call it what it has already become: an extremist, fascist political grouping.
Why is that important? Because not to call it what it is will encourage all those who have supported the development of fascism in Australia to vote for it again. Just look at the numbers: up to five million voters chose candidates who were, at the very least, not vocally opposed to fascist trends. Not to acknowledge what it is they voted for lets all those voters off the hook for being, at the very least, not opposed to fascism themselves. And that includes our so called news media, failing us for being too timid to call out what we’ve become.