The culture war and moral politics

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 5 of "Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War" (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005).

In early 2004, the Prime Minister, John Howard, sparked a brief but intense national debate about the values taught in public and private schools. Parents were increasingly sending their children to private schools because, he said, 'they feel that government schools have become too politically correct and too values-neutral'. The acting Education Minister, Peter McGauran joined in, adding that too many government schools were 'hostile or apathetic to Australian heritage and values'. Treasurer Peter Costello backed his leader. Parents turned to private schools, he said, because they delivered hard work, achievement by effort, respect for other people and strong academic standards.

At first glance these comments seem oddly misplaced. The public-private divide in education was perceived as a weak point for John Howard's coalition. In 2004 his government had given $4.7 billion to private schools, including some of the nation's most elite, doubling the $1.9 billion it gave when first elected in 1996. Moreover, school education is largely a responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

Why then was he intervening? His remarks made sense on two levels and they give an insight into how a new dimension has entered Australian politics. In the short term, the values-in-education issue was good politics. Said one commentator: '[Howard] wanted Labor to respond by engaging him on that issue because by doing so he would turn the debate on education (on which he is weak) into a debate about political correctness (on which he is strong). The unions and others bit hard-.[Mark Latham] refused to engage the debate on Howard's terms. He knows that most people in his electorate agree with Howard.'

In the longer term, the values issue was part of a broader strategy. A perceptive editorial in The Age commented that it was difficult to discern any real difference between and state and private schools. It added, 'This is all about Mr Howard's view that there is an ongoing culture war. It is not that schools are values neutral but rather that he does not like the values taught in schools - public and private.'

In the short term, the culture war is about shaping and mobilising certain values in the community in order to win elections. In particular it is about dividing your opponents on the basis of issues about values. A revealing indication of this came after Labor's defeat at the 2001 election, Paul Kelly of The Australian had predicted that Howard 'is going to focus on social policy this term and set out to smash the post-Whitlam political alliance between the working class and the tertiary educated Left that defines modern Labor - [Howard] senses that the 30 year alliance of the Australian Left is collapsing because of its fundamental contradictions'. Kelly rejected the idea that this strategy was merely about 'wedge politics' to win elections. Instead it was about carving out a new policy direction on social issues which had been the preserve of the Left for many years. No doubt both statements are true.

But the culture war is also about giving the Liberal government a moral legitimacy. Just a couple of days after Howard's comments about values and education one of the most ideological members in the government, Tony Abbott, attacked the 'chattering classes' and the 'politically correct establishment' at a conference of Young Liberals. To most of its critics 'the Howard Government is not just mistaken but morally illegitimate,' he said. This taint of moral illegitimacy worried Abbott, particularly in an election year. He responded that 'moral courage is doing what's right when people who should know better declare you're wrong'. The Howard government had demonstrated such courage on tax reform, East Timor, work for the dole and stopping refugee boats and joining the war on Iraq. On Iraq he noted that the government 'sent Australian forces into action in the teeth of public opinion' because it was the right thing to do. Abbott conclude his moral defence of the Howard Government by arguing that 'it's the Government's participation in the 'culture wars' which has most put out its habitual critics. Especially in an election year, the moral case for the Howard Government ought to be made - because the best government since Bob Menzies deserves a fair trial.'

It's true that government sometimes get public respect when they are perceived to be doing what's right, rather than what's advantageous. There is a new hunger what is called 'conviction politics'. But this situation marks a change in the way governments and oppositions conduct political discourse. It's rare for politicians to openly debate their success in terms of morality. Most politicians conceive of government in terms of the material benefits, resources and policies it produces, rather than the shaping of culture and values.

In the 2004 federal election, 'culture war' and values issues were present but not as sharply posed as in the 2001 election where security and border protection were vital after the September 11 attack and the 'Tampa crisis' over the arrival of asylum seekers. But values issues were present in the choice by the Howard Government to campaign on 'trust'. The strength of this powerful word was that it was capable of meaning both trust in the economic management of the Howard Government (and lack of trust with the untested Labor leader, Mark Latham) but also capturing a less focussed pubic desire for this quality in daily life.

The culture war continued after the election. In January 2005 Tony Abbott talked about the fourth term of the government. He signalled that the Howard government would increasingly set an agenda on issues that were once the home territory of the Left. It would do this by changing the 'pessimistic and narrow minded aspects of Australian conservatism.'

Fear of Asia, mistrust of difference, obsessive concern with whether people are getting more than their share are much less part of our national make-up than they were. Modern Australian conservatives seek allies among indigenous people and take pride in their achievements. They are no less committed to a sustainable environment than the green movement, just more practical and realistic about achieving it. They no longer feel threatened by diversity.

Critics often described the Right's campaign on values as a 'return the 1950s', as a desire to return of women to traditional roles and to roll back the acceptance of cultural diversity and the gains of multiculturalism. While the Right does capitalise on such sentimental desires to return to a supposedly uncomplicated past, this 'return-to-the-past' analysis seriously underestimates what is going on.

Abbott's statements reflect a flexible and confident conservatism which looks to the future as it adapts and reframes issues which were once solely part of the Left's agenda. This can be seen especially in areas such as indigenous policy and social welfare. Genuine return-to-the-past issues such as abolishing abortion rights, are not likely to get anywhere given wide pro-choice sentiment in Australia and the Liberal Party itself.

Such an analysis is anotehr example of the way that the Left has consistently underestimated the Right's intelligence and flexibility. Rather than mindlessly wanting to drag Australia back to the 1950s, the thinkers of the Right are addressing a series of very real and topical problems felt by many ordinary Australians which the Left either cannot see or in some cases refuses to recognise.

To explain. Over the last 30 years two upheavals occurred in Australia. One was that caused by liberal economics, the other was a libertarian cultural revolution. In the former, the working lives of people changed, respected institutions, both public and private were transformed and economic efficiency became the new measure of value. In the libertarian cultural revolution the role of men and women changed, the family loosened and a more culturally diverse national identity emerged.

These changes made Australia a more tolerant, diverse society and spurred economic dynamism so that Australians became richer. But with these changes came losses as well as gains. Family life changed and marriage became less secure. Stable identities and expectations of father, mother, husband, wife, and children changed. Assumptions based on an Anglo-Celtic population with shared values could no longer be made. The history of British colonisation in Australia was reassessed and a simple kind of pride in the past became less possible.

To many people Australia is a less secure place. Sociologist Michael Pusey who studied 'middle Australia' in the late 1990s found widespread 'moral anxiety'. Security is unfamiliar territory to the Left. The Left of politics conceives of security as economic security. It means having a job or decent income. It means reliable government services in health, education and elsewhere. This captures one aspect of security but misses another dimension altogether. People worry about their job security but also about quite different, less tangible things. One is cultural identity. In the case of the 'old Australians', fears about loss of identity rate very highly and can be mobilised for political gain. In the 2001 election the Howard Government did precisely this by placing 'border protection' as a central issue on the political agenda. The desire for security also drives 'law and order' campaigns for tougher jail sentences. The Left regards these as phony issues and sees only a desire to punish rather than a desire for security. Yet in its time the Left has connected with and reconfigured a public desire for security and for law and order. One of the main victories of the women's movement was to massively transform the operation of the criminal law on domestic violence, violence against children and sexual assault. This was possible because the women's movement had won a 'culture war' and had changed social attitudes and values on these question. (This model of long term grass roots activism combined with legal and policy reform should be applied to other culture war issues.)

But too often issues of security are left to the Right and are automatically discounted by the Left. Grappling with them means entering a territory in which both legitimate and fanciful fears lie in wait. But skirting this territory is no longer an option in a world where globalisation is disrupting established patterns at home, at work and in the national culture. Globalisation has been seen as primarily an economic event, but its cultural impact is arguably more dramatic.

In the face of cultural insecurity Labor and the Left has not found a way of articulating their values into a coherent and convincing popular stance. This is not a problem of 'packaging' but a much deeper problem, It is a problem of whether to recognise cultural fears as legitimate and as facts. It is also a philosophical confusion and incoherence about which values and which ideas constitute a progressive standpoint in Australia today. To win a culture war, a political force must exercise intellectual and moral leadership, but this is impossible without clarity on underlying issues.

The culture war - declared by the Right on the Left - is a central feature of modern politics in the US and Australia. While the clash between labour and capital was largely about material things - wages, jobs, and a positive role of the state, the culture war is about post-material concerns of values and identity. In fact both are about similar things (such as education and public schools) but expressed in different ways. And 'post-material' issues have actually have been part of human existence since the beginning of time: each clan had an identity and values as well as being engaged in a struggle for material survival. What is occurring now are the political consequences of the gradual dissolution of working class identity based around male breadwinners often doing hard physical labour and organised in trade unions.

Above all the culture war is about mobilising political support through articulating issues which strike a chord with many people. In a sense that is what all political rhetoric is crafted to do. But the Right's method of fighting the culture war is about framing the issues of politics as moral politics and setting this agenda in such as way that you isolate and divide your opponents. Hence the companion phrase to 'culture war' is 'wedge politics'. The immediate purpose of cultural politics is to drive a wedge which splits the supporters of your opponent and draws one section nearer to you.

But the culture war is more than a way of achieving short term advantage. It's about deeply held but slippery concepts such as social cohesion in a multicultural society; it is about 'family values'; it is about the national identity of Australia and who counts as 'Australian'; it is about relations between the indigenous people of Australia and the non-indigenous settlers and it is about Western values. Above all, the culture war is about ideas of right and wrong, both in society at large and on the personal level.

In contrast to politics seen in rationalist terms, the culture war is about emotion and how people feel. And in case such matters are regarded as vague and insubstantial remember that 'how people feel' covers a range of emotions and includes both passionate love (eg. for children) and intense hatred (eg. against other ethnic groups). To this extent playing politics as a culture war means playing with some of the most powerful ingredients in human nature.

To a significant degree the culture war is the backlash of the Right to the rise of feminism, multiculturalism and libertarian social attitudes of the 1960s and 1970s. When these ideas emerged they recast the political and cultural landscape and helped create a better society. But everything has unintended consequences. Some ideas that still form the basis for a progressive outlook have turned out to be wrong or silly. For example, that moral wrongdoing should be discussed in terms of underlying social problems and not in terms of holding people morally responsible for their actions. But as time went on the inherent weaknesses of such a one-sided idea have emerged. The Left's flat-footed refusal to recognise them has laid the ground for the Right's largely successful roll-back on the cultural and values front. (I discuss what this means later in this chapter and in the next two.)