Abbott Has Got The Culture War He Wanted


So much for a “no surprises government”. The first fortnight of the Abbott Government has been nothing if not full of surprises.

The biggest surprises haven't come from Tony Abbott and his ministers themselves, but rather from how quickly they have reignited the culture wars. Whatever the weary protests of those burnt out from the last round of conflict during the Howard era, the culture wars are unmistakably back.

In part, this is due to the amazingly ideological nature of the new government’s targets: senior public servants, scientists, climate change bodies, public health agencies, academic researchers and the board of the National Broadband Network. The score-settling has been open and unashamed.

Tim Flannery, for instance, has long been a bête noire for conservatives. Few progressives grasp the figure of hate he has become for right-wing bloggers and agitators. The abolition of the Climate Commission was indeed an election promise, but the fact that the Coalition scheduled it right at the top of their first term agenda tells us how influential the climate sceptics in the Liberal Party have become.

How did the right react to the news of the Climate Commission’s destruction? Ecstatically. Prominent climate skeptic Jo Nova crowed that “the science-propaganda agency is gone for good.” Andrew Bolt thundered that Greg Hunt should ask Flannery to pay back his salary. “Hunt should instead have asked Flannery how much of his $180,000 a year salary he'd refund after getting so many predictions wrong,” Bolt wrote.

The war on science is just getting started. Immediately after being sworn in, Abbott sacked three department secretaries, and arranged the retirement of a fourth. Two were key drafters of Labor’s carbon policies: Martin Parkinson and Blair Comley. One was highly respected Immigration Department boss Andrew Metcalfe, whose principled opposition to towing back boats in Senate Estimates marked him for destruction. The Coalition plans to cut $100 million from the Australian Research Council and abolish a string of public health agencies that perform such wasteful functions as publishing health statistics and researching crime. 

Shooting the messenger, or at the very least controlling the message, seems to be a general theme of the new Coalition government.

Over at Operation Sovereign Borders, new Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has overtly stated he will withhold critical information of boat tow-backs and asylum seeker arrivals, ostensibly for “operational” reasons. Apparently, informing Australian citizens about the arrival of seaborne asylum seekers, as Labor did, is merely helping the people smugglers. This didn’t seem to worry Scott Morrison when he was in opposition: as shadow immigration spokesman, he liked to drive a big truck around marginal seats advertising the number of boats that had turned up on Labor’s watch. Now in government, his conversion from valor to discretion is complete.

The dismissal of the NBN board by Malcolm Turnbull is another example of the trend. At first blush, Turnbull’s objection seemed like it was payback for Siobhan McKenna and her temerity in pushing on with the legislated functions of the company she chaired. But Turnbull was really attacking the idea of the NBN as a universal provider of telecommunications services. Turnbull’s underlying issue was with the idea of the NBN as a monopoly infrastructure project. That’s incompatible with the Liberal belief that the private sector will always deliver such services more efficiently – the dismal history of Australian telecommunications companies notwithstanding.

Some on the left have decried the new outbreak of the culture wars, claiming that it distracts from the real issues. Writing in The Guardian, for instance, Jeff Sparrow argued last week that the storm of controversy over Abbott’s blokey cabinet choices played into conservative hands. “If the left doesn’t understand the logic of culture wars,” Sparrow wrote, “we are doomed to be defeated in them.”

A glance at the way the right sees the coming culture wars shows how wrong Sparrow is. Quite apart from the fact that the gender make-up of the key decision-making body of the land is more than a symbolic issue, the very idea that the symbolic content of politics can somehow be divorced from the material aspects seems mistaken, almost quaint.

The right understands that symbols are every bit as important as policy details – much more important, in fact. That’s why the Abbott Government and its right-wing cheerleaders are pursuing the climate scientists with such vigour. The right knows that our disintegrating global environment is the largest challenge to the hegemony of capital since Marx. Climate change questions the very fundamentals of neoliberal ideology, including the centrality of economic growth and the idea – explicit in the tenets of monotheistic religions like Christianity – that the natural environment is a resource that exists for the beneficial exploitation of humans.

Right-wingers know they’ve rejoined battle. They’re itching for a fight they think they can win. A typically grandiloquent article today from Nick Cater, who is leaving The Australian, illustrates the point. “The Left will have to man up if it intends to fight back,” Cater intones, with apparently unconscious paternalism, “for the momentum is running against progressive conformity.” For Cater, “the dismissal of Flannery” signals that Tony Abbott’s government “will not bow to political correctness and has little time for the nanny state.”

Like it or not, the next three years will see bitter battles over culture, the humanities and science. If the left decides not to fight them, they are battles that will be certainly be lost.

As it turns out, I think the left will fight. Indeed, the next three years are likely to see a much wider and more effective mobilisation of progressive sentiment than Tony Abbott and the tacticians at Crosby Textor may have bargained for.

In that respect, this morning’s announcement of the rebirth of the Climate Commission as the crowd-funded and independent Climate Council is a straw in the wind. Only days after its abolition, Flannery and his colleagues at the Commission have reconstituted themselves with the help of a groundswell of community support. As independent analysts, they loom as far more effective critics of Greg Hunt and Tony Abbott’s risible Direct Action policy than they would have been while still formally part of the government.

The rebirth of the Climate Council could not have occurred with anything like this speed and flexibility in the Howard years. It is a sign that the tools for community opposition to Tony Abbott’s agenda are effective and potentially highly disruptive. Like many a general before him, Abbott may soon realise that getting into a culture war is much easier than getting out. 

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.