Small-l liberal-progressives across Australia are entitled to any sense of reassurance they might have gained recently from division within John Howard’s Government over the asylum seeker bill and stem cell research.
In the preceding couple of weeks, any liberal worth his salt would have been crying into his chardonnay as Howard emphatically reminded his ideological opponents of just why they hate him.
For liberals, Howard’s allegiance to US neo-conservative foreign policy and his boat-people stand constitute two of the greatest sins attributable to his brand of conservatism. You could almost hear the gnashing of liberal teeth from the political wilderness when the Howard Government re-established those credentials, sticking doggedly to Bush’s script over the crisis in Lebanon, and then attempting the no-holds barred asylum legislation.
But, as recent events attested, it would be a mistake to overestimate Howard’s moral authority. The Coalition’s stretch in power, undoubtedly an achievement, comes with an important caveat: it doesn’t, in fact, amount to a wholesale endorsement of Howard’s brand of conservative ideology.
Contrary to the perceived wisdom, Australia is not a more conservative country under Howard. Despite the (overstated) rise of the Christian Right, we’re actually quite a progressive nation, poll after poll suggesting the population doesn’t agree with its government on important social and foreign policy issues.
In fact, according to the polls, there is a litany of disconnect between the electorate and the government it elected:
On Lebanon, most of us blamed Israel or America for the escalation of violence, and a clear majority supported an immediate ceasefire, even if the US (and Howard) didn’t. And, unlike our PM, a clear majority of the population thinks Australia should not have a military presence in Iraq.
On asylum seekers, Australians think the current laws are tough enough, and don’t support offshore processing.
We approve of using embryonic stem cells in disease research - a fact that certainly allowed, if not prompted, the campaign to overturn the current ban.
But there’s more: We believe in a woman’s right to choose an abortion, and we favour making the abortion pill available. A majority would support a law to recognise same-sex unions. Most of us regard global warming as something that should be acted on now, before it’s too late. More of us want a republic than don’t. And most don’t support IR reform or privatisation.
Doesn’t sound particularly supportive of the Coalition’s conservative agenda, does it?
The question, then, is why did we elect the party that is seemingly so ideologically foreign to us? The simple answer is: it’s the economy, stupid. And if we trusted Labor to manage the economy as well as the Coalition, it might have a chance to win an election.
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