The globalization of the right

Mark Davis


Amid all the talk about free trade agreements, the cultural imperialism of Hollywood or the wonders of the Internet, the untold story of globalization has been the globalization of conservatism. Since the mid-1970s, conservatives around the globe have become keen students of U.S.-style attack politics - and none more so than Australian conservatives.

There are, of course, fundamental differences between the politics of the two countries. Religion plays a negligible part in Australian politics and running for offices costs little. America's fiery evangelical politics and its big-money electoral campaigns, bank-rolled by large corporations, are unseen in Australia.

Australians are also deeply attached to the remaining vestiges of the welfare state, as was shown by the intense debate in the Australian Parliament this month before the free trade agreement with the United States was finally approved. The sticking point was whether the agreement would "Americanize" the health system by giving too much patent protection to large U.S. drug companies.

But the recurrent waves of revolution that have swept through global politics since the mid-1970s have been equally felt in both continents - and a year after both countries went to war together as part of the "coalition of the willing," their domestic political agendas are closer than ever.

Australian political debate, from talk radio to the neoconservative populism of Prime minister John Howard's governing Liberal Party, now plays from the American conservative songbook, with its strident tunes about the perils of multiculturalism, single mothers on welfare, and the supposed hijacking of large sections of the news media by "politically correct" liberals.

"Battlers," Australia's equivalent of America's "heartlanders," are central to government political strategies, the irony being that in both countries these disenfranchised white working-class people - the main audience for conservative patriotic populism - have been among the biggest losers of the past two decades of economic reform.

Political debate in Australia is accompanied by a choir of think-tanks with Orwellian names such as the Institute for Public Affairs and the Center for Independent Studies, which slavishly mimic U.S. groups like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation.

As in the United States, the judiciary - especially courts perceived to have been "activist" in their pursuit of justice for blacks - has been stacked with conservative judges and the military has been politicized, forced to play a role in defending the government's policies on asylum-seekers and Iraq.

Australia's once impartial public service has been infiltrated by partisan "advisers" and the thumbscrews applied to the popular national broadcaster, the Australian Broadcasting Commission, in an attempt to emasculate its traditions of critique - a strategy that emulates the neutering of PBS in the United States, and is similarly backed by leading conservatives.

The policy agenda, too, follows the U.S. conservative script. Gay marriage is out. So is the Kyoto Protocol on global warming. So is respect for human rights. Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion after the Sept. 11 attacks that "We can no longer operate under 20th- century standards" in fighting a global war that "may never end, at least not in our lifetime," might have reached its logical conclusion at Abu Ghraib, but had already been echoed in the Howard government's quiet dismantling of its commitment to human rights and the excesses of its detention system for asylum seekers, where even children are held for years without trial in desert camps.

No issue is more pivotal to this agenda than race.

Since the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon's "southern strategy," with its coded attacks on non-whites, has been refined and has gone global, becoming a staple of a conservative political arsenal on both sides of the Atlantic, and now both sides of the Pacific.

When George W. Bush, campaigning in North Carolina, describes Senator John Kerry to voters as "the senator form Massachusetts" who "doesn't share their values," everyone can scan the code - issues like school prayer, states' rights, and Democrat support for civil rights are written in the margins. Similarly, Howard has become so adept at speaking in code about race to low-income white voters that he has been dubbed the "dog whistler" of Australian politics, able to evoke the specter of grasping Aboriginal land rights claimants of leeching illegal immigrants with a few well-chosen, innocuous-seeming words.

The extraordinary secrecy of the Bush administration, too, has been replicated by the Howard government. Controlling and limiting the flow of information to the public is the key to modern conservative electoral strategy, in which dissembling and intimidation are a political way of life. Like Bush, Howard has successfully bullied the new media, favoring compliant journalists and excluding those who don't toe the government line with a system of rewards and punishments based on access and first bite at leaks and scoops.

A public groundswell of reaction to Howard's policies and tactics has started to gather, however, and alternative sources of information have sprung up that reflect Australians' increasing wariness of sycophantic news media coverage. After a Web site called opened in July, its founders claimed the site had received more than two million hits in its first month. Tellingly, the first instinct of the mainstream media wasn't to investigate the information presented on the site, but to attempt to link it to the opposition Labor Party, a line of investigation that was supported by government ministers.

If half the anti-Bush books published lately have a case, then Bush is more dangerous than Reagan, more morally bankrupt than Nixon. The Howard government, too, is giving conservatism a bad name. Both are currently in race against time. Will their voting publics get wise to the fundamentally antidemocratic ruthlessness of their radical conservative politics before election day?

Mark Davis, an Australian author and commentator, and is writing a book titled "Dark Harvest: Globalization and the New Racism."