Beware political extremes — wilderness awaits the far right or left

by Peter Strong
The Liberal Party is a divided one: moderates v right-wing religious zealots. Labor faces its own challenges too.

I once had a polite discussion with a climate change denier from the Coalition, an MP who helped force the repeal of the eminently sensible national energy guarantee by threatening to bring down his own government.

It wasn’t a deep conversation. I suggested that if climate scientists were wrong then we would have wasted time and money. But if climate change sceptics were wrong we would be in big trouble with millions of deaths and a bleak future. His answer was simply: “God will not let the planet die.”

I was astounded and responded: “If your god made the planet, shouldn’t we treat it with respect?” He had no reply and the discussion ceased.

I understand some things about religion, and what he said was either blasphemy or close to it. He was telling his god what he expects of his god. Not OK. 

There is a lesson in this for the Liberal Party, one that comes from a study of Australia’s political history.

From 1949 until 1972, Labor was kept out of office in many ways by an internal schism created by a right-wing religious section of the party. The creation of the (very Catholic) Democratic Labor Party (DLP) helped keep the ALP in opposition for longer than would be typical in a normal political cycle. It arguably divided the party along religious grounds.

The Liberal Party now faces the same situation and needs to react to ensure it doesn’t end up in opposition for a long period. It has divided into two groups: the true Menzies Libs and the right-wing religious groups. This may appear simplistic, but it is what I hear from many people not aligned with any political party.

This “far right” will do all it can to take over institutions such as the Liberals for the benefit of a few over the interests of the many. I note there are those in the party who believe they lost the election because they were not far right enough — which is as bizarre as suggesting that God will save the planet from climate change.

Bob Menzies, the founder of the Liberal Party, in his oft-quoted “The Forgotten People” speech in 1942, condemned fascism, socialism, communism and also laissez-faire economics:

Individual enterprise must drive us forward. That does not mean we are to return to the old and selfish notions of laissez-faire. The functions of the state will be much more than merely keeping the ring within which the competitors will fight. Our social and industrial laws will be increased. There will be more law, not less; more control, not less.

Those Liberals who claim the party should go back to “its conservative roots” need to read that speech because such roots do not grow in the soil of the far right. Far from it.

The far left is a different story. There we have historically seen the extremes of Stalin and Mao Zedong, who between them caused the deaths of tens of millions of their own people. These leaders of communist countries were nothing more than far-left dictators in a budyonovka instead of a black fez.

Is there a similar far left in Australia? There are some crazies out there but the call for violent revolution seems to be almost — currently — non-existent.

Some would argue it could be Extinction Rebellion that confronts the issue of climate action through disruption and civil disobedience, but it is neither violent nor does it want to control society. It is focused on climate action. There are some in it who criticised individual politicians personally and unfairly, which is not OK. Yet for the others, it is the only way they can respond to the blackmail activity undertaken by the Coalition climate deniers in Parliament. Extinction Rebellion is not a manifest danger to society; the greater danger is from those who deny science.

For the left, just as the Liberals struggled with climate deniers, Labor needs to be careful that its climate change policies are not led by extremists who believe that severe economic and social costs of unbridled climate change action are just “collateral damage” that must be tolerated.

Are the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and unions the extreme left? There are things they have said and done over time that I have strongly disagreed with or challenged. Yet I’ve always said there is no real democracy without unions. Indeed, state-run unions in non-democratic countries such as China are next to useless and do nothing to protect the bona fide rights of workers. 

The ACTU was also a major part of the great reforms in the Hawke-Keating period, changes that set our economy up to be one of the best in the world. 

There are other unions who should hang their heads in shame. The retail union, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA), for example, worked with big business to cut Sunday penalty rates and then cried foul when the Fair Work Commission did the same for small business. That is straight out dishonesty, hypocrisy and self-interest — based on maintaining membership. It is similar to the duplicity practised by the big business it supports.

The other reality is also that we have seen some unions over the years that were just a front for criminals and fascists. The Painters and Dockers union of the 1970s and ’80s and the Builders Labourers Federation were noted for their violence, for murders and for a lack of respect for the law. Unions need to be regulated like the rest of us.

The violent part of the far left is in hibernation but can be woken easily and quickly. Having said that, the greater political risk to Australia comes from the very far right, including science deniers, “sovereign citizens”, anti-vaxxers and the right-libertarians. This includes hate groups that have links to far-right terrorism.

The main political parties, love them or hate them, are basically good. However, they must confront extreme issues within their parties every now and then. And that is something the Libs have not done well recently.

All of us, the major parties in particular, should beware of extremists. Long-term opposition belongs to those who let them into their ranks.