The Times Will Suit Them: Postmodern Conservatism in Australia, by youngish Deakin academics Matthew Sharpe and Geoff Boucher, joins my pile of disappointing books about the Australian Right.
Its central fault is the usual one: an at best impressionistic understanding of its subject. It’s not quite Puseyesque in writing about a political movement seemingly without bothering to read anything its members had to say. But there isn’t very much direct quotation from Australian conservatives, and most of what is there is from John Howard. He’s certainly the most important conservative figure of the last 20 years, but hardly the only one. A few of the ‘Right’s culture warriors’ such as Andrew Bolt, Piers Ackerman and Janet Albrechtsen are mentioned in the introduction, but rarely appear again, and are never studied in any detail.
Writing about conservative movements is difficult. As I argued earlier in the year, conservatism is more whatever the people called conservatives happen to believe at a given time than a set list of key principles or ideas. Unlike American and British conservatives, Australian conservatives rarely help out with reflective pieces on their core beliefs (this excellent article by Owen Harries is a rare exception).
There is no substitute for a lot of reading and sorting, trying to work out the key themes and arguments, what is common enough to be classed as a core belief of Australian conservatives, and what is just the idiosyncrasy of one or a small number of people (this book does not discuss federalism, but I would put the Howard government’s centralism in the idiosyncrasy category, with negligible support among conservatives generally). It’s this research and analytical work that Boucher and Sharpe don’t seem to have done.
I can’t claim to have done a careful study either, though I’m sure I have read a lot more from conservative writers than Boucher and Sharpe, and I know a lot of conservatives personally. Some of Boucher and Sharpe’s assertions about what Australian conservatives believe don’t match my reading or conversations, which is why I would insist on a lengthy lists of citations before I would even grant them the starting points in their argument.
There is, for a example, a whole chapter called ‘culture wars and the new religiosity’. Certainly, many (though not all) conservatives are personally religious, and especially when they are Catholics this affects their views on issues like abortion, euthanasia, gay marriage, and some forms of medical research. But is this right?:
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