Friday, 13 September 2013

Liberal Party needs Socialist shibboleths to justify itself

News that some minor Liberal pollie in the NSW Parliament praised Augusto Pinochet, the savage dictator of Chile's dark days, comes as no real surprise. Peter Phelps told Parliament that Pinochet's regime, during whose tenure tens of thousands of innocent people were tortured and killed, was "legitimate" because the man he overthrew in 1973, Salvador Allende, would have done "terrible things". Sometimes it's necessary to trot out the hard men in jackboots to restore the rightful order of things, right Peter?

There are about 33,000 Chilean Australians who now enjoy peaceful transitions of power in the absence of the hard men in jackboots. It would be interesting to know what these people think of Phelps' kooky ideas about the legitimacy of authority, respecting ballots, and the role of the US in the Cold War.

Founded in 1945, the Liberal Party emerged from the ashes of an upper- and middle-class business-friendly party, the United Australia Party, which had been born during the Depression. At the end of WWII the world had specific political contours that functioned to determine how politics played out in democracies globally, but the most important international determinant of local conduct was the relationship between the Western democracies and the Soviet Union. By 1950 this relationship had broken down and the Korean War had begun, launching the two sides into 40 years of proxy wars - including the Pinochet coup - until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed in exhaustion.

Within this context the name "Liberal Party" made some sense because it underscored an ideological claim that hinged on the gap between democratic freedom and authoritarian tyranny; we can have no doubt of the Soviet Union's criminal conduct with respect of its own citizens. But after 1989 conservative political parties like the Liberal Party of Australia were forced to work hard to justify their retrograde policies.

For the Liberals the job is even harder than in other Western democracies because of the logical burden embedded in the name "Liberal", an historical artefact that puzzles foreigners unused to Australian politics and its posturings, and one which can easily elicit humour. How can an obviously conservative political party call itself "liberal"? A word born in the crucible of the Napoleonic Wars among progressive Spaniards who dreamed of a better life for all, not just the few.

Hence the ridiculous speech by Phelps. Liberals occasionally "come out" publicly in this manner although usually such discussions are relegated to the invisibility of essays in the magazine Quadrant, which has been published on cheap paper for over 50 years. When Liberals actually reveal the kinds of twisted logic they internalise on a daily basis in their attempts to legitimise their actions, the result is the kind of looney-toons verbalising Peter Phelps performed yesterday in the NSW Parliament.

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