Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Eclipse of Liberalism - Australia 2019


America already has Trump. Australia has Scott the evangelist Morrison, and Britain has just chosen Boris Johnson as their PM. Scott Morrison belongs to a church that believes that personal wealth is a sign that God is shining on you for God’s sake!!!! The fact that such characters have risen to be heads of nations bothers me for many reasons, and I grapple with the idea that the contemporary world has made such choices.
I wrote elsewhere about how I felt about the Trump triumph, and that feeling of being on the sidelines grows stronger. My brother suggested I read up on ‘the eclipse of liberalism’ to try and put these feelings into some kind of context and I’ve begun that process.
It’s strange for someone like me to accept that my views and values are liberal. So called small ‘l’ liberal. In Australia the Liberal Party is of the right, and when someone is referred to as ‘a Liberal’ it is usually to denote someone that has conservative views and more likely leans towards the political right, and vote for the Liberal Party.
I have learned that there is an optimistic tradition within Western democracies which holds that the world is on an inevitable trajectory towards a more moral and ethical future; that we as a species would continue to evolve and come to see a kind of collective enlightenment where people are cared for, and mutual understanding of human differences would flourish. That certainly sums up how I had seen my world until recently, and that’s why Trump’s victory came as such a shock. It has been surprising to learn that me and my kind (small ‘l’ liberals in a democratic nation) are merely a type peculiar to a certain set of circumstances and that many in the world don’t see existence as an inevitable path to a collective moral and ethical betterment.  Trump voters are clearly in this camp.
To flesh this out a little more I want to list some of the issues that might illustrate what I’m talking about:
Mental health care: funding for treatment and care of those with mental health needs has been progressively cut over the last decade. The result: a health system bogged down by people with mental health needs seeking treatment and taking up hospital beds because there is nowhere else for them to go. Ditto for the prison system. It is estimated that upwards of 40% of prisoners have mental health issues and would be better treated in more appropriate facilities and not jailed. (For the record Holland has closed more than 20 prisons since 2013.)
Detention of refugees: Australia has imprisoned several hundred refugees on offshore islands for 6 years now. In the 70s and 80s Australia had a bipartisan approach that used a system of offshore refugee camps to methodically process applications for asylum and refugee status. There was an orderly and continuous flow of migrants from war zones that was humane and of practical advantage to an Australian economy that always depends on a level of migration to help it grow. The present charismatic governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le, and comedian/painter Anh Do are two who found our shores via this enlightened bipartisan approach. Now we just round boat people up, dump them on an offshore island under insufferable and (secret) conditions and leave them there.   
Levels of welfare: Australia has not increased the Newstart allowance, the primary source of income for unemployed people for 25 years!!!
Privatisation: bit by bit, little by little, our governments of all political persuasions surrender provision of basic services to the private sector. Here in South Australia we have been hit particularly hard by extreme increases in the price of gas, water, and electricity – all since privatisation. And soon our trains will go the same way. And health services. Bit by bit basic services are sold to the private sector who of course run them as businesses to make a profit and gouge the consumer accordingly.
Climate change; when over 90% of the world’s scientific community believe that, based on all the available evidence, climate change is a fact and that it is at least in part man made, the refusal of conservative governments to accept and confront these facts with proactive solutions is just monumental stupidity. The world’s leading naturalist, David Attenborough, is surprised and dismayed that Australia is governed by those who continue to deny the science behind climate change.
The Planet: nothing else matters. And yet we continue to plunder – coal. Dump plastic in the oceans. Sell our water to wealthy agriculturalists and shrug as tens of thousands of fish die in our national river system. Do nothing as foreign seals devour native species in the Coorong. Australia has the highest rate of animal extinctions on the planet by a golden mile. And we would rather open another coal mine and further endanger one of the world’s greatest natural resources, our Great Barrier Reef. And don’t believe the nay-sayers - Australia can run on sun and wind and hydro energy. Germany has committed to closing all coal plants by 2030, and nuclear power plants by 2022.
Freedom of the press: recently ABC journalists had their computers and files confiscated by Federal police because they dared investigate a story about alleged appalling behaviour of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan. And now they want to finger-print these same journalists. There is an organisation called the Institution of Public Affairs (IPA) that is closely aligned with conservative forces and whose avowed agenda is to ‘privatise’ (read shut down) the ABC. These attempts to curtail a free press are the tip of an iceberg. They are coupled with a series of incremental incursions on the rights to privacy of average Australians – all in response to an undue obsession with terrorism – and are part of a slippery slope to an authoritarian state.
There are many other issues I could add but this will do for a start. I have probably conflated a number of issues here but according to my liberal values levels of public spending on education, health, and welfare should never be cut. They should be indexed against the cost of living and never become the focus of political wrangling. A humane and decent society has at its core a desire and willingness to assist and reach out to those in need. Australia’s foreign aid budget is the least generous it has ever been. We refuse to pay the unemployed a decent minimum dole, we lock up people who need proper mental health care, and we maroon people seeking asylum in offshore hell holes for years on end. Australia was not like this once. When did we get so mean? Where is our heart?
I feel as if the wheel has turned quite honestly. I feel like these small ‘l’ liberal values are no longer what drives us. I don’t see a society that cares about its weakest and most vulnerable citizens anymore. I don’t see any sense of an ethical or social responsibility that might guide how we treat the underdog and show compassion as a society. Of course there are individuals doing good deeds out there every day, but as a nation I believe Australia has lost its soul. Liberalism has indeed been eclipsed.
There are pockets of hope, and they seem to be mostly in Europe. I have already mentioned Holland and Germany; Finland is achieving remarkable things in education and is enjoying all time low recidivism rates by making prison cells more like hotel rooms – the focus is on rehabilitation not punishment. But we here in Australia have just voted for a government that eschews such liberalism and panders to some ‘quiet Australians’ who just want to ‘get on’ – whatever that means. I think it’s code for ‘bugger you Jack. I’m OK’; a government that seems stuck in past paradigms without any of the kindnesses of previous eras. And now we can sit back and watch the incompetent wrecking ball that is Boris Johnson, cheered on by his mate Donald, before he wines and dines Scomo.
It simply beggars belief, but a significant part of the English speaking world has lurched to the right.