It’s the tale of two stories, from a left-of-centre perspective.
The May issue of The Monthly came out on Wednesday. Its lead comment piece is by La Trobe University emeritus professor Judith Brett and titled “Self-interest groups: The Liberal Party has little left but appeals to the hip pocket”.
Brett begins by asserting that “this election campaign there seems little left to the party but appeals to the hip pocket” since even the (alleged) “politics of race have turned against it”. She concludes in a similar vein: “The party must be hoping that enough of its supporters are as morally bankrupt as it has become, happy to trade the planet’s and their children’s future for a pocket full of silver.”
It’s the familiar leftist rant by someone who believes that their morality is higher than those with whom they disagree. For the record, Brett’s career was spent in taxpayer-funded universities and in retirement she benefits from academe’s generous superannuation schemes. Only the comfortable can disdain self-interest.
Interviewing Bill Shorten on Wednesday, 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales drew attention to retired carpenter Chris Phillips, 83, who “has $36,000 a year in income and he’ll lose $9000 per year” under Labor’s franking credits policy. It would seem that, in Brett’s terminology, Phillips belongs to that class of “self-righteous seniors” who are “morally bankrupt”.
Two decades ago, Brett was an editor of Arena, which described itself as a “magazine of left political, social and cultural commentary”. Then, Arena types looked back in happiness on former Labor prime minister Ben Chifley, who publicly recognised the importance of a voter’s “hip pocket nerve”. Nowadays the likes of Brett regard the Liberal Party’s “appeals to the hip pocket” with contempt.
On Thursday another left-of-centre commentator came up with a different assessment of the Liberal Party. The front page of The Sydney Morning Herald highlighted an article by Jacqueline Maley under the headline “Affluent, angry and now anti-Abbott”. There was a photo of Anna Josephson, a resident of Beauty Point, standing next to a poster of Zali Steggall. The lawyer and former Olympic skier is running as an independent against one-time Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott for the seat of Warringah.
Readers learn that Josephson lives on “one of Beauty Point’s best streets in a house with expansive views over Quakers Hat Bay”. Maley adds: “In the affluent streets of Manly, Balmoral and Beauty Point, many residents who vote Liberal are turning their support (to Steggall).” Swedish-born Josephson runs a tech start-up and her husband is into private equity. There’s another private-equity type whose wife is campaigning against Abbott. And there’s a surgeon who wants Abbott to lose. It’s a kind of “Millionaires for Steggall” clique, none of whom face the financial problems of a retired carpenter.
Warringah will not be won or lost in the suburbs of Manly, Balmoral and Beauty Point. Many “anyone but Abbott” Liberals would have deserted him in the 2016 election. Abbott will prevail on May 18 if he retains support in the not-so-rich suburbs of Warringah — which are more focused on energy prices than climate change.
Warringah highlights the problems facing the Liberal Party. There was a time when the party enjoyed the support of big business and the professions, along with small business. This is no longer so in all the cases. Some large companies no longer make political donations. Many contribute to the Coalition and Labor. The trade union movement, which essentially finances the ALP, gives no money to the Liberals or the Nationals. This despite the fact some trade union members vote for the Coalition.
In 2017 former High Court judge Dyson Heydon delivered the inaugural PM Glynn Lecture titled Religion, Law and Public Life. On Monday he spoke at the launch of the book Today’s Tyrants, which includes his lecture and responses.
In his brief speech, Heydon criticised a response to his lecture by Shireen Morris who, he said, “seemed to deny that there are progressive elites” while being “highly critical of conservative elites, past and present”. Heydon argued that the “progressive” label could be used with respect to “most of the media, many directors and leading executives of key companies, almost all academics, almost all school teachers, the vast bulk of the judiciary and many in the legal profession”.
Brett, Josephson and Steggall fit readily within this group. The irony is that if Abbott defeats Steggall, he will get across the line because of the less wealthy of the Warringah electorate rather than the more wealthy. Moreover, he would do so with the support of the least progressive of Warringah voters.
Brett’s condemnation of the Liberals on economic policy and race goes hand-in-hand with her implied claim to moral superiority and virtue. But it’s easy to condemn the alleged greed of self-funded retirees who once worked in the private sector if you have lived a secure life as a tenured academic. It’s also easy to pretend to save the planet if you reside in Beauty Point. Some carpenters in, say, Broken Hill have more urgent priorities.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at theaustralian.com.au.