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The slow-motion death of conservative politics

The disruption wreaked by Tony Abbott is an echo of the disruption that besets conservative parties worldwide.

Waleed Aly

Just as well Malcolm Turnbull is such a fan of disruption. Right now, he's in a world of it. This is the week Tony Abbott's wrecking, undermining and sniping campaign went nuclear, or at least marine. His intervention on the Turnbull government's alleged delay in acquiring new submarines is about as destructively disruptive as it gets, really.

Abbott has already undermined his successor on same-sex marriage (or even bullying), tax policy, industrial relations, even national security. But now even the veneer of respectful disagreement is gone. "I'm not just disappointed, I'm flabbergasted at this decision," he told The Australian, before suggesting Turnbull had compromised our "national self-respect".

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He's accepted the role of disillusioned commentator on a story about a leak of classified documents. A leak, by the way, the Australian Federal Police have now seen fit to investigate. Even in the event the leak has nothing to do with him, it's a hell of a thing to dignify, and a hell of a way to do it.

And so, inevitably, come the Rudd comparisons. Now, openly from his front-bench colleagues. And sure, it's beginning to look a lot like Labor. But it's perhaps a little too easy a reference point. Rudd's white-anting was really about the fury of a Prime Minister scorned; a man seeking to right a wrong through revenge. Otherwise, it had no real content. That's why when Rudd finally retook the throne, there was no policy reason given and no obvious policy consequence.

Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Illustration: Andrew Dyson 

I don't doubt Abbott's story is also one of revenge. But there's more to it than that. Abbott's sniping is actually about something. He's trying to rehabilitate not merely his reputation, but his entire brand of politics.

That's why he's constantly choosing totemic issues to agitate: even ones for which he had no appetite as Prime Minister, like industrial relations. That's why his supporters are a crew of ideological warriors and not a reluctant collection of pragmatists as in Rudd's case. And that's why it threatens to do more long-term damage to the Coalition than even the Rudd-Gillard catastrophe did to Labor.

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Illustration: Simon Letch

This, I suspect, is the slow-motion disintegration of conservative politics that's bigger than Abbott, or Turnbull, or even Australia. Indeed we're seeing it most spectacularly in the United States, where, following his domination of Super Tuesday, Donald Trump is cruising towards the Republican presidential nomination.

This he has achieved despite the fact almost every Republican elder opposes him. They always have. During the last election season the Republican candidates cancelled a scheduled debate when the relevant news outlet announced Trump would be the moderator. Now, some Republican heads are spitballing ways they can use party rules to deny him the nomination even though his mandate from Republican voters is so strong.

This, too, is a party now out of control. But in truth it has been slowly spiralling out of control for years. Do you think Trump is heinous on immigration because he wants to build a wall to keep out Mexicans? So does the establishment's own Ted Cruz. Do you think Trump's declaration that climate change is a hoax makes him unworthy of office? Here's the other establishment candidate, Marco Rubio: "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it." At least he seems to believe the science is in. He just chooses not to accept it.

It's true in a sense that Trump has stolen the Republican party. But it's also true it was there for the taking. There are many reasons Trump is succeeding – anger and disillusionment among a humiliated electorate is one of them. But there's also the fact that the Republicans have been training their voters to indulge every reactionary prejudice for years. Trump simply does this better, louder, and with less varnish than his rivals. Can we be surprised when he vanquishes them? Can the Republican establishment really cry foul when he outdoes them?

And is it so different here? Well, in a way, yes. A moderate is presently in the top job and the reactionary forces aren't yet taking endorsements from former Ku Klux Klan wizards (they'll have to settle for Reclaim Australia for now). But there's an important commonality too: that the contradictions that were once holding conservative parties together, and delivering them political success, have now fallen apart. The most important of these is the contradiction between liberal economics and the politics of "values".

It's hard to be the staunch defenders of family, culture and tradition while you're also staunch advocates of things like high-skilled immigration and workplace "flexibility" of the kind WorkChoices offered. It's hard to believe the market should be free to exploit and commodify whatever consumers will tolerate – sex, culture, children – and yet pretend we are bound together by inviolable, sacred values.

Liberal economics has this habit of being, well, disruptive. Trying to mitigate that by playing the politics of culture will eventually descend into bigotry. The more the culture being defended is hollowed out, the more it can only take the form of finding symbols to rail against. That's why we've seen such an inexhaustible parade of targets: immigrants, refugees, Muslims, greenies, gays, women, blacks, Mexicans.

Every broad political movement has its contradictions. Successful ones conceal them long enough to enjoy power – and there's no doubt this neo-conservatism had its glory. But eventually, you face that moment when an earthquake turns a fault line into a canyon; when a movement's contradictions consume it. At that point it either splits, or one side becomes unleashed.

There's no easy resolution for Turnbull because the disruption is deep and determined. And there's no easy response for the Republicans who must now witness what they have unleashed.

Waleed Aly is a Fairfax Media columnist and a lecturer in politics at Monash University.

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