The rise of the Radical Right

By | | comments |

In the first of a three part series, Dr Geoff Davies considers the worldwide shift to the political Right since the 1980s, and how traditional conservatives have now become radicals.



There has been a world-wide shift to the political Right, beginning about 1980 and since then becoming progressively more extreme. This Rightward drift may have been interrupted in the recent elections in the United States, but it may well accelerate in Australia if the Coalition wins in September. Already there has been serious damage to our social fabric, our democratic institutions and our legal and human rights, with rather less economic benefit than is usually claimed. The prospect of a conflicted, authoritarian, and regressive Australia therefore threatens.

The radical Right’s policies have clearly failed, politically and economically. It remains powerful, but only through its entrenched cultural position and its alliances with the media, the wealthy and fearful reactionaries.

Mainstream political commentary seems either to be approving of or oblivious to the major changes of the past six decades, and continues to use the same old Left-Right labels even though their meanings have changed dramatically. Today those labels are more about tribal identification, and their use is more of an epithet than a description. Such one-dimensional labelling is also constricting: there are at least three disparate attitudes within the Right, and there are far better options for Australia than the old and false dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism.

Independent Australia will be publishing this essay in three parts. Part One (below) gives a brief survey of the Australian political spectrum since World War II. Part Two looks at the causes of the shift, and its flimsy basis in a vacuous theory and marginal evidence. Part Three surveys the current political scene, including the disarray of the Labor Party, from this longer perspective.


[Read Part Two: Causes of the shift to the right]

[Read Part Three: Consequences and prospects]

The modern Right comprises three rather disparate strands. The older conservative or liberal attitudes of Menzies’ time are now a minority. Free-market fundamentalism combined with an extreme individualism have dominated in recent decades; this strand is commonly called neoliberalism. A third and rising strand comprises those reacting to change and insecurity with xenophobia and racism.

As part of espousing market fundamentalism, neoliberalism overlooks or dismisses the importance of social relationships and even denies the existence of society. Both neoliberals and the reactionaries denigrate knowledge and rational consistency — neoliberals because they already know the truth and reactionaries because they tend to be anti-intellectual. As a result, there seems to be no standard of factual basis, sense or consistency required for their claims, so any opinion, however uninformed or misinformed, apparently is to be accorded as much validity in the public domain as any other.

Also as a result, anything that is socially liberal, anything involving compassion, indeed anything that reflects actual knowledge of the subject at hand, is attacked and denigrated, and the favoured pejorative is “Leftist”. Labor and much of the nominally Left, progressive or liberal commentariat have been intimidated by sustained attack from this extreme Right and have abandoned much of their ground.

For most of the twentieth century, Left referred to ideas that involved some form of socialism. The Left ranged from the communist hard left to mild social democracy that was more about socially liberal reform than socialist economic policies.  Socialism involves government ownership of significant parts of the economy, especially those parts involving natural monopolies such as the distribution of water and electricity and key infrastructure such as transportation.  Communism involves government ownership of the whole economy.

In Australia, the Labor Party was for many years the party of ordinary people, and the widely perceived remedy for capitalist excesses was socialism in one form or another.  Labor was never more than moderately socialist, even though some communists tried to deflect it, and it became less socialist with time. The last attempt to institute a seriously socialist policy was probably when Ben Chifley proposed to nationalise the banks in 1949. He provoked a hysterical campaign by the media and the rich and lost the election of that year to Robert Menzies.

The last time Labor was led by someone you could reasonably call a socialist was in 1967, when Arthur Calwell lost (again) to Robert Menzies.

Gough Whitlam subsequently became the Labor leader. Despite the hysteria accompanying Whitlam’s three years in power, 1972-1975, his government was much more about socially liberal reforms than socialist economic policy.

To be clear, my own views are neither socialist nor traditional capitalist in its various guises. I have concluded, for reasons I will mention later, that markets are powerful but the incentives under which they operate must be carefully managed if they are to yield desirable results. We can, in this view, transcend the false dichotomy of socialism versus capitalism through managed-market economies.

It is also necessary to counter some of the myths about Whitlam’s government. It is charged with being economically incompetent, but this claim minimises the oil shock imposed by the OPEC oil cartel, a shock that dramatically affected all Western economies.  There was also a much-overlooked credit bubble, documented by economist Steve Keen. Together these factors triggered high inflation and “stagflation” world-wide.

The high inflation of the Whitlam years was thus due to global factors as much or more than to grasping unions or the presence of a moderately socialist Treasurer, Jim Cairns, who actually did a fair job in difficult circumstances (and much better, for example, than governments in the US and Europe have done in recent years). Various other scandals, notably the Khemlani loans affair, were not atypical for many governments of both sides, and pale beside the undermining of core democratic institutions and procedures by governments since 1996.

Labor spent eight years out of power after Whitlam, and was about to regain power under Bill Hayden when a last-minute internal coup by the Labor Right installed Bob Hawke as leader and Paul Keating as shadow treasurer. Bill Hayden might well have pursued moderate social and economic reforms ‒ though more cautiously than the flamboyant Whitlam ‒ but we will never know.

As it turned out, Hawke and Keating soon won power and set about implementing the program of Labor’s right-wing opponents. The double irony was that, on the one hand, Hawke’s predecessor, the Liberal Party’s Malcolm Fraser, was lambasted by the Right for being too timid in introducing right-wing policies and, on the other hand, Hawke became known as Australia’s best conservative Prime Minister.

Quite why Labor turned so sharply to the Right will have to be sorted out by historians. By all appearances, Hawke and Keating believed in what they were doing, and were not simply making concessions to the vociferous Right that dominated then, and still dominates, Australia’s media. They came to power during a concerted global campaign by neoliberal ideologists to promote free-market fundamentalism and libertarian social policy — which is to say, as little social policy as possible. The neoliberals took advantage of the problems generated by the oil shocks and financial bubbles of the 1970s to claim Keynesian economic policies were discredited and had to be replaced. There never was a serious basis for this claim and subsequent economic events have shown how hollow it was, as I will get to.

One can only assume that the Australian Labor Party as a whole was intimidated by the orchestrated right-wing hysteria of the Whitlam years and by the neoliberal campaign that culminated in accessions to power in Britain in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher and the US in 1980 by Ronald Reagan. Otherwise, why would the Party abandon its reason for existing, which was to look out for the interests of ordinary people? Labor apologists claim there was no alternative, as Margaret Thatcher famously proclaimed, but that just shows how uncritically they swallowed the neoliberal propaganda. Of course, there are always those in politics whose addiction to power overcomes any ideal or principle they might once have espoused.

Eventually, this spectacle of a Labor Party implementing laissez-faire, big-business-friendly policies was papered over by the British New Labour movement of Tony Blair, under the guise of the so-called Third Way. The Third Way was supposed to be a middle path between neoliberal excesses and Labor’s founding concern for ordinary people, but of course that simply describes the social democracy that had prevailed in the Western world since World War II. The Third Way, rather, conceded the fundamental power in society to neoliberalism, and confined itself to applying band aids to some of the wounds neoliberalism systematically inflicted in the social fabric.

Hawke and Keating between them ruled from 1983 to 1996. They implemented much of the neoliberal agenda by privatising many publicly-owned, and profitable, enterprises, deregulating business and finance, imposing a “competition policy” by decree, and diminishing the rights and power of employees. They were succeeded by the Liberal Party’s John Howard, an un-apologetic neoliberal who continued the same agenda.

Howard was not, however simply a neoliberal. He was a cunning and adroit politician who did not hesitate to do anything that would continue his hold on power. He was in fact a big-taxing, big-spending Liberal, because he implemented the regressive Goods and Services Tax (GST), passed most of the proceeds to the states and spent the rest of his tax take to electoral advantage.

The GST was highly unpopular and Howard would almost certainly have lost the 2001 election were it not for two fortuitous circumstances that he took unprincipled advantage of. The first was a small flow by boat of asylum-seeking refugees who were being vilified by a vocal minority of reactionary xenophobes. In August 2001, Howard suddenly decided to block their access to Australian territory, implemented by his unsuccessful attempt to prevent the Norwegian vessel Tampa from delivering rescued refugees to Christmas Island.

Howard then joined and increased the vilification of legal asylum seekers. This culminated, just before the November election, in his government alleging that refugees had thrown their children overboard to force the Australian navy to rescue them. This was a whopping lie built on an early misunderstanding. The misunderstanding was quickly corrected by navy personnel, but the Government did not want to know. The election was held in the midst of the ensuing hysteria.

It became clear after the election that there had been a large conspiracy among some senior military, public service and government people to preserve the appearance that Howard did not learn the truth before the election. None of those involved in this “truth overboard” was ever brought to account.

The second fortuitous event was the September attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Having embarked on his race to the bottom with his “stop the boats” policy, Howard enthusiastically fanned what genuine concern there was about terrorist attacks into more unreasoning Australian hysteria. He left unchallenged the claim by xenophobes that refugee boats carried terrorists, as if terrorists would choose such an arduous and risky means of entry when they could fly in (along with many other asylum seekers, about whom, strangely, there is no xenophobic hysteria at all).  Howard became adept at the “dog whistle” ‒ the use of code phrases that were known to trigger the reactionary Right ‒ to stir the attack dogs while appearing to stand above the fray.

Labor under the leadership of Kim Beazley had, meanwhile, made a fateful choice to support Howard’s anti-boats refugee policy. This infuriated and disillusioned a significant part of Labor’s support base, already very uneasy over Labor’s implementation of right-wing policy over the previous two decades. A steady decline in party membership accelerated, along with a drift of votes to the supposedly left-wing Greens. A decade later, Labor is in dire electoral peril. It is widely perceived as standing for nothing, and it is plausible that Labor is in terminal decline unless it can find some ground of its own to champion. It shows little sign of doing so.

Howard won the 2001 election, but only narrowly. Subsequently, Howard implemented a draconian regime of “anti-terror” laws, with only minor quibbles from Labor.  Fundamental legal protections dating back hundreds of years were rapidly jettisoned.  Courts that dissented were vilified by the Government. Laws that were inconvenient were changed, finessed or ignored. International treaty obligations were serially violated and associated international organisations vilified. Dissenters were vilified and accused of supporting terrorism. Electoral procedures were manipulated to the Government’s advantage. Australia’s borders became comically elastic, moved every time a refugee boat reached a new destination, all to deny refugees fundamental legal process and human rights. Refugees were interned in remote and inhospitable “detention centres” that are more accurately described as concentration camps, typically for many years, while their cases allegedly were being processed, very slowly.

In other words the rule of law, Australians’ legal and human rights, and Australia’s democratic institutions were attacked and diminished. Both the Liberal-National Coalition and Labor were complicit. As is typical in such authoritarian excess, it was all done in the name of defending “freedom” and protecting us from terrorism. However, our own representatives have done far more damage to Australian democracy and society than any terrorist was ever likely to do.

Australia’s relatively open and tolerant society, our democracy and our legal system have been subverted. The perpetrators were not shadowy cells of alien terrorists but our own Parliamentary representatives, abetted by a compliant media and a large contingent of right-wing shock-jocks and media agitators. It is fair to call these perpetrators subversives.

Australia has thus shifted strongly to the Right in its mainstream politics, in public discussion and in the media. It might be depicted something like this:

The change in the political spectrum relative to the old centre.

This might give some perspective to the insistent calls from the Right for “balance” in public discussion, and in particular to its claim that the ABC is a hotbed of leftists.

Actually, this extended spectrum is still too simplistic, because the so-called Right now comprises several streams in addition to traditional conservatives: free-market fundamentalist economics, hyper-individualist (libertarian) views on society and personal values, and reactionary xenophobia and racism. It would be more sensible not to try to force these differences (and others) into a one-dimensional spectrum, but that would be asking too much when even the diagram above is evidently too subtle for most of the commentariat.

The reality and severity of the shift in the Right is attested by conservatives themselves.  Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser resigned from the Liberal Party in 2010. The occasion was the ousting of Malcolm Turnbull as leader in favour of Tony Abbott, but this was only the last straw. Fraser was disgusted by Howard’s failure to condemn the xenophobic views of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s and by Howard’s co-opting of Hanson’s ideas in the blocking of the Tampa and subsequent treatment of asylum seekers. Over a longer period, he had been disturbed by the Party’s shift towards market fundamentalism and libertarianism.

Fraser sees himself as liberal (in the classic sense, not in the American sense of leftist). For him, the Liberal Party had been an anti-communist bulwark that was also socially progressive. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the passing of the communist threat he perceived threats from other directions. One was an unreasoning faith in free markets as an organising principle in human affairs. Another was Pauline Hanson’s xenophobia, whose ideas, he wrote, posed an

‘…extraordinary danger to the unity and cohesion of a fair-minded, democratic Australia.’

Robert Menzies, founder of the Liberal Party and longest-serving Prime Minister, would surely also have resigned, were he still around, and if he didn’t he would be thrown out as a pinko lefty. After all, he spent a lot of government money on such things as the Snowy Mountains Scheme and universities, he presided over considerable “intervention” in the economy, he tolerated strong unions prone to frequent strike action, and he allowed the continuation of many public enterprises, including a major bank, two airlines and significant infrastructure. He was, from the current perspective, as much a moderate social democrat as a conservative — although he was always a close friend of big business.

The shift to the Right in Australia parallels that in other countries. As is often true, the trend is more extreme in the US. US economist Brett Bartlett said of the domination of the Republican Party by Tea Party extremists:


‘They have descended from the realm of reasonableness that was the mark of conservatism. They dream of anarchy, of ending government.’

David Frum, the George W. Bush speechwriter who gave us the term ''axis of evil'' writes that allegedly smart, sophisticated people ‒ including canny investors and erudite writers ‒ believe U.S. President Barack Obama is driving the US to socialism, and that:

''No counter-evidence will dissuade them from this belief: not record-high corporate profits, not almost 500,000 job losses in the public sector, not the lowest tax rates since the Truman administration.”


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License


Recent articles by Dr Geoff Davies
AUKUS nothing more than a re-election stunt

The AUKUS security pact is crippling our nation's sovereignty and perpetuating our ...  
'It’s time' — for another Labor split

A split of the Labor Party would be for the benefit of workers and progressives ...  
Eden-Monaro By-Election a chance to reject Coalition Government

The political class acts as if the Government should be taken seriously, but ...  
Join the conversation
comments powered by Disqus

Support Fearless Journalism

If you got something from this article, please consider making a one-off donation to support fearless journalism.

Single Donation


Support IAIndependent Australia

Subscribe to IA and investigate Australia today.

Close Subscribe Donate