An Australian conservative ascendance? In 2021? | Sean Jacobs
It has long been held that demographics would pave the way for progressive politics and ideas.
Old beliefs, from capitalism to climate change, to identity politics and immigration, would eventually cave to ‘gen next’, with conservative parties, and conservative politics, becoming a thing of old.
The reality, at least measured by recent Australian politics, has been somewhat different.
Labor, for example, in attempting to ‘carry the torch’ for progressive politics, often at the expense of blue-collar traditional voters, finds itself unable to connect and build traction.
To be sure, primary votes for both major parties have long been on the slide (33 percent ALP, 41 percent Coalition – neither close to a majority).
But Labor is in a unique position of straddling too far an ideological divide, ironically muddled by an identity politics of its own that appears unable to capture generation next.
As journalist Paul Kelly recently wrote in The Australian:
“The [2019 Labor election review] report says at the 2019 election the average swing towards Labor in the 20 seats with the highest portion of university graduates was 3.78 per cent while the average swing against Labor in the 20 seats with the lowest portion of university graduates and poor incomes was 4.22 per cent. Labor failed to win sufficient votes in the former to offset its losses in the latter.”
Here conservatives may find it tempting to rest on the old saying that “A young man who isn’t a socialist hasn’t got a heart; an old man who is a socialist hasn’t got a head.”
But it offers very little strategy for a modern conservative, and something must be said for centre-right politics meeting people ‘where they are’, not always ‘where they will be’.
Values and ideas are critical to politics. And both – in present-time – need to connect with people.
Let’s take a look at how conservative values and ideas link with key ‘in vogue’ issues among everyday Australians – capitalism, climate change, identity politics and immigration.
Most young people, like anyone else, learn from reality – holding down jobs, paying rent, studying until all hours, let alone playing a sport or keeping up a social life.
The aim is to build skills, be part of a good community, earn a decent income and live a good life – not to tear down the capitalist system, devote oneself to Marxism or tinker excessively with the private means of production.
Nods to ‘woke’ corporatism, although appealing on face value, won’t tug the heartstrings of the aspirational, especially when it becomes so clearly aligned to multimillion dollar sponsorship arrangements and propelled by a fear of negative media exposure.
In political terms, therefore, when Scott Morrison says, “Get an education, get a job, start a business, take responsibility for yourself, work hard,” many Australians aren’t likely to know he said it – or even tune into the political philosophy behind it. But they’ll nod at the sentiment. And understand that a government taking less money out of your pocket will probably understand this better than one that will readily take more.
Few young people I know have enough money to buy an electric vehicle (EV).
In fact Australians can’t afford them – “The percentage of new car sales that are EVs is well under 1 per cent” – notes Judith Sloan, “and among those new 7000 EV sales last year a reasonable proportion were not paid for by the user of the car.”
Two things are generally understood about EVs that can apply to most of the current emissions reduction debate.
The first is that, when you actually have enough money to buy a car and get off public transport, you don’t want to spend more than you have to, and you want to be able to get from A to B as easily as possible.
The second is that you notice EVs actually use coal-fired power stations for the electricity to charge them, not to mention the tonnes of non-renewables used to create wind turbines and solar panels.
Most Australians clearly care for the environment.
But in a world of high energy bills and housing costs they also seek convenience and choice, and are eager for lower emissions to form part of a low-cost lifestyle.
A technology-led emissions reduction strategy, versus political posturing on targets, has proven much more likely to get the environmental results that our political landscape has been tilting towards over the past decade and a half.
Australia does not have a ‘hot house’ campus environment like many universities in America – a point Australian writer Claire Lehmann has made.
This means that Australian students are generally exposed to wider society rather than being incubated from mainstream attitudes.
It is an important point, an ‘un-coddling of the Australian mind’ – to adapt a phrase from the American scholar Jonathan Haidt – that respects individual identity yet urges pause at the limits, and dangers, of playing identity politics.
Of course, not all students think like this. There are strong public attitudes proposing identity – complexion and gender in particular – should be leading attributes of one’s place in life.
But someone who conducts themselves exclusively in this manner isn’t likely to get far in mainstream society. This is because society demands cooperation, and a wider understanding of the general attitudes that command a decent community or workplace – good manners, mutual respect.
A conservative preservation of these behaviours does well to help individuals prosper but also keep communities together.
People are much more likely to respect immigration, said John Howard, when they believe the government is ‘running the show’.
It is a fair point – one that underscores how a conservative government ultimately administered more migration from Asia than any other period in Australian history.
Australia is fortunate to have a strong border regime – something that became apparent following Kevin07 and, conversely, with the significant drop in migration following Covid.
Many policymakers and others are beginning to realise that excessive migration levels have had a negative effect on wages, infrastructure, traffic congestion, real estate and even family size, according to some respected economists.
While this clearly doesn’t mean that Australia should ‘close up shop’, the changes in our short-term service sectors, as well as in public transport and infrastructure take-up, is introducing us on a daily basis to the need for a sustainable migration intake and an improvement in how we administer our own affairs.
How are any of these ideas or views strictly conservative? It is an ambitious claim. But I sense it is because they speak to a preservation of choice, individualism and responsibility, and a deferral to a market economy and ‘what works’.
Granted, there is strong enthusiasm to Scott Morrison’s current rejuvenation. The hit pieces – Hawaiian vacations, Paris-targets, gender tone-deafness – are failing to stick, at least in the way that a knighthood very unfairly scuttled Prime Minister Abbott.
Something, too, must be said of Labor’s hunt for progressive voters, which isn’t adding up.
However, politics simply is at times being better, or at least more appealing, ‘than the other guy’.
This is clearly the case.
But it’d be foolish to not think that values, ideas and a conservative rejuvenation doesn’t have, at the very least, something to do with it.