I did it again. I picked up ‘The Australian’ to do the Sudoku, but I started to look at the front pages, and quickly found myself disquieted, annoyed and puzzled by the conservative choice of language and content, especially in the opinion pieces. I’m partly recovered from my previous obsession; this time I only skimmed a few articles before I stopped and tried to concentrate on the Sudoku. But it was enough to set me thinking about conservative and liberal leanings—what the core of them is, whether they stand up under scrutiny, and where I really fit in.
One journalist was declaring baldly ‘It’s too late to save the ABC (Australian Broadcasting Commission) from its left-wing bias’. The examples given were from the recent reporting around the deaths of 60 Palestinians on the borders of Egypt. Commentators and some guests on two ABC programs asked why Australia and the US were the only two countries to vote against an investigation by the UNHRC. The journalist above believes the UN body to be fiercely biased against Israel, and there is good evidence that she might be right. But that leaves the question, why did every country in Europe abstain, rather than back the US opposition to any investigation? And is the journalist therefore convinced that all the abstainers are also irretrievably left wing, anti-American and anti-Israel?
How did being anti-Israel get to be left-wing in any case? Maybe she thinks the Palestinians represent the little guy, the battler that rusted-on lefties will support no matter what, while the powerful well-armed and wealthy Israelis are part of a status quo that fair-minded conservative people should respect; admire even. Of course, with her bias, it suits to conflate Hamas with all Palestinians, and see them as poor advocates for their cause, because of their anti-semitism and frequent violence, to the extent that they are not really worthy of our sympathy. She implies those feelings would be better directed to the terrified Israeli settlers in the border towns.
Maybe this isn’t the best example of conservatism versus liberalism, because it is so complicated that good people find themselves at a loss about where right and wrong, good and evil, lies in this constant quagmire of fear and death that has outlived most of us—beginning in 1948 and intensifying after 1967. So maybe I’ll move on to the Banking Royal Commission that got underway in Australia a few months ago.
Virtually perfect left-right divisions opened up on whether there is a need to investigate and bring to account banks and other financial institutions. The Greens and Labour were all for it, the Liberals and Nationals against. The cross-benchers split, going to positions more or less consistent with their known conservatism or otherwise. The subtexts went something like this:
Left-wing—too many people have been hurt by these huge institutions that have only profit in mind, even if it means misleading and even lying to hard-working Australians. They are so powerful, that only a Royal Commissioner can force them to explain themselves in the public eye. Anything less will result in the usual whitewash, as conservative politicians continue their quiet but unwavering mateship with the big end of town.
Right-wing—Australia has proved time and again to have one of the best-performing banking and financial sectors in the world. Of course there will always be a few rotten apples, but we have good systems in place to catch them before they can do much damage. Raising domestic and international doubts about the robustness and integrity of our financial institutions just hurts everybody. A Royal Commission will cost many millions of dollars, a fat report will result, and nothing much will change, except that we will then struggle to get past the damage inevitably done to Australia’s reputation.
Every conservative news outlet sang the conservative song, supporting the firm opposition of the Prime Minister to a Royal Commission. The Greens tried to outdo Labour with their passion to uncover wrongdoing, and the cross-benchers moved all over the place depending on what enticements they were being offered to side with the Government. But then, left and right-wing stopped being a reliable guide. A handful of Liberal and National Party back-benchers began to say they were not so sure the Prime Minister was right. They were starting to detect an appetite for change in their electorates. They were hearing some awful stories of blighted lives, caused by incompetence and/or deceit by financial institutions, and they began to report them in interviews on television. Was this a moment to doubt the status quo? Even if you were a deeply convinced conservative?
Well, where the issue is public popularity and re-election, the answer, sadly in some ways, is yes. Move fast, make a U-turn, make up a narrative that sounds vaguely convincing, and announce a Royal Commission. WTF? From ‘there is no way’ to ‘this is the only way’ in two or three days? And that’s where it might have ended, with a long hiatus while the Commissioner got organised, then endless inscrutable gentlemen making up stories designed to show that occasional aberrations proved very little, except that messing with the fundamentals was, as usual, an idea that appealed only to the simpletons who don’t know how to run things.
Except, within days, it became clear the Commissioner and his supporting counsel were super-smart; smarter than the average bank CEO as it turned out, and the shameful, possibly criminal activities that were exposed changed the whole conversation. The litany of egregious and illegal behaviour mounted daily. No occasional aberrations these—we are talking about Board and CEO-planned and approved routine daylight robbery. How would the PM respond to the obvious? By saying sorry? Not likely. It went like this: ‘The political cost of continuing to oppose a Royal Commission lead us to change our position, and we have been vindicated by subsequent events’. That hit the gag reflex pretty hard. But the worst thing was that the conservative journalists started to say ‘Well, we all knew about that stuff going on’. Really? When were you going to tell us?
For those of us who are caught between left and right on these issues—wanting to move beyond capitalism without a social conscience, but living comfortably from our investments with the people who run capitalism—this political theatre is troubling, stultifying even. What is the value of our left-leaning positions now and in the future? Are our conservative concessions to economic realities unconscionable?
I’m a classic baby-boomer, born nine months after WW2, educated for free, enjoying full employment all my life, entering retirement with no debts and better off than most millennials can dream of. But this public airing of the rotten core of capitalism throws so much of that into question. How to make sense of the way I am living? For now, I remain thoughtful and have done nothing. But something is going to have to change. I’m just not sure what that will be.