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State of Exception
Dr Norman Abjorensen teaches politics at the Australian National University, and is the author of John Howard and the Conservative Tradition. The following analysis of politics in
State of Exception
As the Howard government acquired unprecedented peacetime powers and the
The year was 2005 and the speaker was Marise Payne, a Liberal senator from New South Wales who was also the chair of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Legislation Committee, which had the job of examining a series of security bills sent up from the lower house. Payne’s remark was a little-acknowledged red light for the government.
In concert with fellow Coalition committee members, the libertarian Brett Mason and the sometime moderate Nigel Scullion, a unanimous view was taken back to the party room, and most of the committee’s recommendations were adopted (apart from “the odd ambit claim,” according to Payne). A determined Liberal prime minister and his attorney-general were forced to retreat by a committee dominated by government senators and led by a member from the prime minister’s home state.
Three years later Marise Payne rejects the idea that a spirit of compromise was at work within the government – compromise being too strong a word, and spirit an exaggeration. It was more about pragmatism. This was, she told me recently, a good indication of how those internal tensions were managed in the Howard government. But she does recall “a very conservative member” of the government coming up to her and saying, to her great surprise, that the party “had done the right thing” in the end, and had struck a balanced position. “Right, I said to myself, I will take that.”
John Howard and Marise Payne have both spent much of their lives within and working for the Liberal Party in
But the sentiment persists. The former prime minister John Howard was a typical Sydneysider (an early Victorian term for those who lived on the
The arrogance and insensitivity of such attitudes are deeply ingrained, and they are not without significance in that ongoing conundrum of our elusive national identity. But it is more salient, perhaps, to express the problem another way:
The economic and political development of
Non-Labor politics in
John Howard’s early biographer, David Barnett, touches tantalisingly on this point, unfortunately without elaborating, when he suggests that had Howard been born in Melbourne – at Glen Iris, say, rather than Earlwood in Sydney – “he might not have joined the more narrowly based Victorian Liberal Party.” But, he writes, “the New South Wales Liberals were different. One did not have to ‘belong’ to join.
But how exactly do the two cultures differ? There have been some interesting exploratory studies in this area, but it still awaits a thorough examination. John Docker’s ground-breaking 1974 study of intellectual traditions, Australian Cultural Elites, highlighted some significant differences in social thought and how this thought is reflected, especially in literary traditions. Docker suggested that Sydney culture reflected a general European romanticism and a philosophical tradition rooted in free thought and libertarian ideology, whereas Melbourne was characterised more by a Romantic and post-Romantic tradition that was less individualistic.
A 1980 conference on the question resulted in The Sydney–Melbourne Book, published in 1986. Among the many contributors was James Jupp, who examined political culture.
This state of affairs has deep-rooted political implications, not least of which is the extensive network of patronage that Labor has always had at its command in
Nowhere was the rise of the Labor Party met with such shrillness than in
Certainly the differences in political culture and ideology that persisted through Reid’s Free Trade Party and into the non-Labor mainstream after the fusion of 1909 were always there to some extent, but it was not until the protracted efforts to resurrect non-Labor fortunes in what became the Liberal Party that they surfaced as real obstacles to political union. At the forefront in negotiations in the 1940s were the Sydney and Melbourne chapters of the
Uppermost in the minds of the
At the time,
Spooner was very much in the
The party nevertheless remained firmly in Victorian hands up to and after the retirement of Robert Menzies in 1966, the succession and death of Holt and the election of John Gorton. In the confusion that surrounded Holt’s death, journalist Alan Reid made it clear that his boss,
As it was, McMahon was later to triumph when Gorton fell on his sword. He became prime minister in 1971 only to lose to Labor the following year. The McMahon experience, inept as it was, led to concerns about what some Liberals regarded as “his reckless closeness” to
Taking this argument a step further, it might also be used to explain the curious and at times lethal dichotomy that exists in NSW Liberal politics: the disparity between the moderate wing, which until recently held sway, and the far-right conservative wing, now very much in the ascendancy. The moderates, who did their ruthless utmost to hold the right at bay, always envisaged the damage, electoral and otherwise, that could be wrought if the far right was allowed to run unchecked; it was an acknowledgement of the rough beast residing within. Just as the conservative’s caution is shaped by a sceptical view of human nature, so the social liberal’s moderation is shaped by conservativism’s potential to polarise a society.
Of all the state political cultures, that of
It is part of the paradox that from within the most conservative-dominated division of the Liberal Party comes one of its most avowedly non-conservative figures. Marise Payne’s eleven year career in the Senate has been, by and large, a swim upstream. She was a fierce internal critic of the mandatory sentencing of children in the
In her inaugural speech in 1997, Marise Payne told the Senate that she was “a product of the Liberal Party of
“The statement meant, in a political sense, that I joined very early in my life. I was still a student. Everything I have done in public life I have done while a member of the Liberal Party. I am a liberal, I am a member of the Liberal Party. I have always called myself a liberal. If I had wanted to be a conservative I would have gone to
We are seated in Payne’s Senate office, interrupted by division bells from time to time and the constant hubbub of the TV monitor tuned to the Senate. Yet she is relaxed, listens closely to questions and thinks carefully about what she says. She is warm and laughs a lot – low-key but very serious in a non-threatening way. Her fundamental beliefs, it becomes clear, are all-important and non-negotiable.
Payne’s mentors read like a who’s who of the Liberal left: Andrew Peacock, Nick Greiner, John Fahey, Ted Pickering, Robert Hill. Indeed, her pre-parliamentary career was spent, in part, as an adviser in the offices of many of these men, as well as having been both a state and federal president of the Young Liberals (before they fell to the conservative onslaught). Her previous associations, and her ideological disposition, make her a perennial target of the Liberal right. Her nomination for a casual vacancy in 1997 was opposed by the right, her preselection is constantly challenged, her position on the Liberal ticket is always under attack. Payne had to fight hard to retain her place in the 2007 election, and so embattled was she that John Howard himself and his chief conservative henchman in New South Wales, Senator Bill Heffernan, intervened to keep the existing team intact as a message of unity to the electorate.
Payne is philosophical, observing only that “my position is always precarious.” Is this because she has made powerful factional enemies within the party? “You would have to speak to others about that, those who thought [opposing me] was a good idea. All I can say is that I have always worked diligently to represent my constituents assiduously, pursuing issues on their behalf, and trying to be as helpful as I can – all those things we’re supposed to do.”
Despite her prominence, her position has become even more precarious as the far right has tightened its grip on the party in NSW. If liberalism is to mean anything, I ask her, then how does she feel about sharing a political bed with someone like David Clarke, the right-wing powerbroker who also considers himself a product of the NSW Liberal Party? “We are diverse, there’s no doubt about that. I’ve watched this process develop over many years now, and I have to say it’s one of the great strengths but also great challenges of the Liberal Party.” Later, when our conversation turns to John Howard’s oft-repeated remark that the Liberal Party is a broad church, she quips that this is certainly so, but for a time only half of the congregation was being invited to sing.
I make the observation to her that NSW is different – a point that many within the party have made over the years, including the former federal director, Lynton Crosby. She thinks for a moment before agreeing that, yes, there are discernible cultural differences. “For example, I was in
Marise Payne is not your average NSW Liberal; and certainly she is not what those on the party’s right, such as her fellow NSW Liberal, Tony Abbott, would ever dare (or want) to describe as an average Liberal (assuming, of course, that there is any such creature). For a start, on the wall of her waiting room in the Senate is a striking African National Congress poster depicting a stylized image of a woman. It speaks of empowerment; it signifies
It was not quite a generation ago – and there are still people serving in the current parliament from that time – when a majority of the Liberal Party supported, either overtly or covertly, the white supremacist regime in
Marise Payne’s abiding concerns, signalled from day one of her arrival in the Senate, are not issues normally associated with the Liberal Party – and certainly not the Liberal Party of John Howard, his “battlers” notwithstanding. She has carved out a constituency far removed from the popular idea of the genteel Liberal heartland, among the marginalised, the powerless, the gay community, HIV sufferers, migrant communities, disenchanted youth. It is no coincidence that she bases herself at
It couldn’t be more different a list of concerns from that of Pauline Hanson and One Nation, who were in the ascendant when Payne gave her inaugural speech:
“Not only for our migrants but for indigenous Australians, political life has been momentous over the last two years. I am not a parent, but I am a daughter, a sister, and a granddaughter. My commitment to and love for my family has guided my life. I watched, read and listened with interest to discussions surrounding the release of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission report into The Stolen Generation.
“I could not but put myself in the position of those whose stories filled the report. As I was growing up in my safe and stable family, in my home and at my school, children my age in Aboriginal Australia were still being taken from their homes, their parents and their siblings. I can never feel their pain, but I can try to understand the devastation I would feel in their situation, and I can apologise for those misguided acts. As a nation we must answer the challenge of reconciliation now for the memory of those for whom it is already too late and for the sake of future generations.
She roundly condemned One Nation and Hansonism – putting an immediate distance between her and Howard – took up the issue of women, and support for
Her definition falls back on a classical formulation, but one that was seldom invoked in practice in the Howard era. To Marise Payne, liberalism is “the freedom of the individual to live their lives as they see fit whilst respecting in every case the rights of others; developing their own individual potential to the fullest; enjoying the right to be judged on their own individual merit; and, importantly, being respected simply as an individual.”
Payne is reluctant to criticise either her party or Howard, but she was one of the first Liberals who publicly articulated the obvious in the wake of the 2007 defeat: that something was very wrong with the Liberal Party. It was, she said in a speech to the ultra-conservative Sydney Institute, in need of rejuvenation. It was a sobering and hard-hitting analysis, but not far beneath the carefully chosen words was the key message: that the Liberal Party had all but ceased to be liberal. It had wandered too far from the path enunciated by Menzies; it had strayed from its once lofty ideals into altogether alien territory.
Payne denied that the party’s foundation ideals were no longer relevant, and she defended the philosophical positioning of Menzies. She also took a well directed swipe at the moral crusaders who now dominate the party’s forums in NSW, strongly suggesting that they had little place in a truly liberal party “The basic precondition for membership should be commitment to Liberalism, not any other premise,” she said.
She worries about the shrinking membership of political parties and a pronounced reluctance among Australians to become party members, a situation she sees as limiting the possibilities of political participation. Political parties themselves need to do more to make membership more attractive and meaningful. Addressing the issue of party capture by extremists, Payne urged a reaching out by the party to embrace more of
Payne also criticised the party’s growing social conservatism under Howard, and pointed to those who felt excluded from the socially constructed rhetoric of the “family” (which was Howard code for disapproving of homosexuality or other alternative lifestyles). This had created a perception that the life of some family members was perceived by the government as insufficiently “mainstream” to merit the respect and basic human rights that the rest of the community took for granted, just because they were gay. “We can talk about the importance of family all we like, but once we are perceived as telling Australians that we disapprove of the lives of members of their family, I believe we are crossing a line, and we also pay a philosophical price for that,” Payne said.
Elaborating on those themes, she told me it was a prime concern to her that the liberal position was articulated and debated across the full range of policy areas, but especially so on human rights because, if liberals were not there, their concerns would be ignored. This, she says, has been one of her self-appointed tasks in a variety of Senate committee roles she has performed.
There is now a sense of thaw after the Howard era, and Payne has been brought in from the cold, named by new leader Malcolm Turnbull as shadow parliamentary secretary for Indigenous affairs and for international development assistance – perhaps the most significant indication yet of a shift under his leadership. But the Liberal Party in NSW remains a fractious beast, still under right-wing control, with those who have opposed Payne in the past still in powerful positions. Her battle for a voice in the broad church, and a seat in the pew, is not over.