Wednesday, September 14, 2005

POLITICS/COMMENT: On the Dangers of Young Liberal neo-Conservatism

We are often told that conservative politics is about maintaining certain traditional values. Conservatism seeks to maintain in place certain social values which are said to be tried and tested, unbroken and therefore not in need of fixing.

Conservatives are not opposed to change, but they are opposed to revolution. Conservative change is gradual. It takes into account individual and collective human nature which resists sudden and violent change. Conservatives believe in evolutionary change, a kind of political “survival of the fittest”.

Conservatives in the Australian context tend to regard themselves also as medium to big “L” Liberals. John Howard is often quoted as saying that the relatively more conservative Liberal Party of Australia is a broad church encompassing conservative and liberal strands.

But in my opinion, conservatism has been hijacked by emotional and political refugees from the liberal left. The new ultra right-wing of the NSW Liberals consists largely of former members of the left-leaning “Group” faction who have fallen out with the old power-brokers of the Group and have decided to switch to the Right.

When the Group controlled the NSW Liberals, they had a born-to-rule, winner-takes-all attitude. There was no room in their camp for anything resembling conservatism. In those days, there were only two factions in the NSW Liberal Party. There was the Group. And then there was the rest of the world.

That latter faction was for many years led by centre-right people. I was (and still am) proud to be associated with these small “c” conservatives. Notwithstanding my ethno-religious background and fairly “soft” views on certain issues (such as multiculturalism and Aboriginal land rights), the centre-right were happy to have me on board.

Yet when the ex-Group forces started to gain strength in the non-Group forces of the Liberal Party, they realised that they could not find a place without driving the centre-right out. From the end of the 2001 Federal Election campaign until mid-2003, this neo-Conservative element fought tooth-and-nail to remove centrists from the party.

The first domino to fall in this regard took place back in 1997. The President of Parramatta Young Liberals was getting ready to hand leadership of the branch to a talented young bunch she had recruited. Parramatta Young Liberals was one of the largest centre-right Young Liberal branch.

It was the largest branch in the Parramatta Federal Electorate Conference (FEC) of the Liberal Party. The then federal member saw the President as a threat. He and his staffer masterminded a whispering and stacking campaign. The result was the rise of Alex Hawke to the throne. Ironically, Alex was the very person the branch President wanted to take over the branch.

Hawke was rewarded for his efforts with a staffer position with the Federal Member. He then moved onto work with ex-Grouper and former feminist lawyer Senator Helen Coonan before taking up his present position with David Clarke MLC.

Hawke went onto carve out a new faction with the assistance of his employer and a large number of ex-Group Young Liberals. He felt that prior to taking over the Young Liberal Movement, he would have to destroy his internal factional enemies.

So came the 2 years of long knives. One by one, centre-right Young Liberal and Senior Branches were either shut down or stacked out. Among the victims was my own branch of Bankstown Young Liberals.

Bankstown Y/L has an interesting history. It was the first branch which Councillor Shane Mallard (of City of Sydney Council) joined before going onto become the President of the NSW Y/L Movement. It was traditionally a Group branch before being taken over by the centre-right.

Branch patron of Bankstown Y/L was the then-Group MLC Stephen Mutch. When I joined, the president was the only son of Italian parentage who was studying law. The secretary was a Hindu Malaysian-Tamil republican and the treasurer was an Indian Catholic of Goan parentage.

Bankstown Y/L became known for its large functions. First, there was a reception for the visiting member of the Bosnian Presidency, Dr Nijaz Durakovic. Also hosted by the branch have been former Pakistani cricketing legend Imran Khan and the former Mayor of Sarajevo.

On the eve of his ascension to the leadership of the Parliamentary Liberal Party, the branch hosted John Howard in the presence of waiting TV news cameras. Mr Howard was seen chatting with Asian community figures in a Chinese Restaurant across the road from the Keating stronghold of the Bankstown Sports Club.

Those were the days when the Bankstown Y/L’s saw the Labor Party as the real enemy. But when Hawke and his associates sought to re-establish the branch at the Croatian Club in 2004, the real enemy were the left-leaning liberals. And many young Croatian Australians with close links to the HVO (the Bosnian Croat militia that fought during the Bosnian war) and the old Ustashi were recruited.

The branch which had been presided by 2 Muslim Australians was now recruiting new members using anti-Muslim rhetoric. Violence was the hallmark of this episode of ethno-religious wedge-politics. Alex Hawke was seen to be at the heart of this push.

If this wedge politics is translated into mainstream politics, Australia is in for a rough ride. For that reason, it is in the broader national interest that political wedgers be identified and made an example of. That process has already started.