For many commentators, the political right is just a blur. The various labels – conservative, neoliberal, neoconservative, New Right, economic rationalist – are thrown around according to fashion as much as meaning. Six years ago (pdf) I wrote an article on how ‘New Right’ was largely squeezed out by ‘economic rationalism’, which in turn was being challenged by ‘neoliberalism’, now the favourite. Despite the irrelevance of ‘neoconservatism’ to Australian politics, it is frequently used here as if it had some descriptive power. In the blogosphere we debate posts on what classical liberalism and conservatism have in common, but journalists don’t even know that there is a difference.
Remember Katherine Betts’ The Great Divide? Paul Sheehan’s Among the Barbarians? Michael Thompson’s Labor Without Class? Mark Latham’s From the Suburbs? The decades worth of columns in The Australian; the reports churning out from the Institute of Public Affairs and the Centre for Independent Studies?
The narrative was always the same. A chasm separated ordinary, decent Howard-voting Australians from an arrogant tertiary-educated, intellectual elite: a clutch of sneering know-it-alls who wanted to overrun the country with immigrants, make everyone guilty about Aborigines and brainwash the youth with Parisian post-modernist mumbo-jumbo.
Certainly there is a populist conservative strain in right-of-centre Australia. But this is not universal. If you put ‘elite’ and its variants in the CIS search engine very little in support of the populist thesis comes up. Peter Saunders did put some numbers on how the public sector employed tertiary educated group holds views that are distant from those of the majority, but populist conservatism is not the CIS’s thing. One of the CIS’s most recent publications is called In Praise of Elitism, albeit not of the left-wing kind.
Think-tanks tend to be elite-oriented institutions. They don’t run mass campaigns like activist groups do, aimed at mobilising people around simple messages. They publish research reports and write articles for broadsheet newspapers, aimed at policymakers and opinion makers. Often, though not always, the views expressed will be contrary to public opinion.
To be noticed as a distinct part of the right, it is not enough to regularly disagree with other people on the right. You have to agree with the left. The smallest and least significant group on the right are the so-called Liberal ‘moderates’. But because their main cause was one that preoccupied the left, refugees, they are seen as the dissidents of the Howard era and have the clearest distinct identity for outsiders to the right – despite not being coherent enough to maintain a clear position through even one op-ed.