Left intelligentsia misses right turn

Gerard Henderson
28 June 2005

Conservatives should not be thought of as evil or ignorant, writes Gerard Henderson.

AUSTRALIAN elections are usually fairly close so it is unwise to prophesise about likely outcomes. Nevertheless, the successful Liberal Party federal council meeting in Canberra last weekend should serve as a reminder that for the moment, political conservatives are in the ascendancy. In any event, they will be in office until at least the end of 2007.

In order to deal effectively with a government, it is important to understand the men and women who comprise it. On the evidence, this is a significant weakness among many who make up what remains of the contemporary left - or what Robert Manne refers to as his fellow members of the "left-liberal intelligentsia". This is demonstrated in Hannie Rayson's play, Two Brothers, commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company and showing in Sydney after a season in Melbourne.

Rayson is a fine playwright who has several works on her résumé including Hotel Sorrento and Life After George. The latter is a witty, sympathetic but insightful send-up of the Melbourne University academic left. Clearly, she understands the left-liberal intelligentsia. In Two Brothers, however, Rayson exhibits no comprehension whatsoever of political conservatives. This is not surprising since she told journalist Matthew Westwood that she does not "really understand" what she terms the "conservative mindset".

In researching her play, Rayson felt the need to visit businessmen in gentlemen's resorts (the Melbourne Club and the Savage Club) and sought to find out the thought processes of what she depicts as private-school educated, Liberal-voting, conservative men. It seems an unnecessary search since her family was in property development and her Who's Who entry reveals an education at a private Protestant girls' school in Melbourne - the same one, in fact, as she satirises in Two Brothers.

The play runs the line that the navy was complicit recently in allowing a boat with asylum seekers to sink, acting on instructions from a conservative government in which James "Eggs" Benedict is a senior minister. He is the bad brother. Then there is Lachlan Benedict, a leftist community lawyer who, of course, is the good sibling. It's as trite and as cliched as that.

The assertion that the navy allowed asylum seekers to drown was emphatically denied by the navy's former maritime commander, Rear-Admiral G.F. Smith. What's more, no one has been able to produce any evidence to substantiate this assertion which traduces Australia's sailors. Obviously Rayson finds conspiracies make more compelling stories than facts. Robin Usher reported (in The Age, April 12) her as saying that she modelled the "bad" brother on Howard ministers Peter Costello and Philip Ruddock and the "good" brother on the left-inclining community activist Tim Costello. Since then Rayson has distanced herself from this. Yet the message is clear in any objective viewing of her play's message.

The portrait of the conservative politician in Two Brothers is so over-stated as to turn what purports to be a drama into a parody. Not only is "Eggs" Benedict (played by Garry McDonald) involved in the deaths at sea of hundreds of women and children, he is also into hand-to-hand murder, stabbing a refugee to death at the start of the play.

The message of Two Brothers is that conservatives are virtually by breeding evil and dishonest. The play is showing, after a group of Liberal MPs (including Judi Moylan, Petro Georgiou, Bruce Baird and Russell Broadbent) successfully led a campaign to release long-term detainees from mandatory detention. This cause was supported by many conservatives including, towards the end, high-profile commentators Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Alan Jones. Such complexities of political life seem beyond Rayson's (leftist) understanding.

She is not alone. Similar messages are hawked in the media by such luvvies as cartoonist Michael Leunig and broadcaster-columnist Phillip Adams. Following a cartoon in The Age, in which Leunig depicted a US marine in Saturn-mode devouring a child, a reader wrote to the editor complaining this reminded him of the "primitive communist anti-America propaganda" which he "was exposed to almost daily" growing up in Stalinist East Germany. Quite so. But Leunig has become The Age's poster boy.

In The Weekend Australian Magazine on March 5, Adams described the US electorate as "wilfully ignorant", so much so that Americans vote against their self-interest. He said Howard should "try a little Mussolini-style goose-stepping" on his morning power walks. Get it?

In her John Pilger-like documentary Truth, Lies and Intelligence, on SBS last Thursday, Carmel Travers presented only one view - that George Bush, Tony Blair and Howard are compulsive liars and immoral. This despite the fact that all three were re-elected recently. It seems that Travers holds the Adams view that Americans, Australians and the British live in "the world's first dumbocracy".

The contemporary left in Australia, Britain and the US still does not realise how far attitudes have changed since the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, and in Bali just over a year later. There is a new intellectual self-confidence among opponents of the left-liberal intelligentsia which is well analysed in Brian C. Anderson's South Park Conservatives.

The author refers to the impact of the "fiercely anti-liberal comedic spirit" which consumes the TV series South Park and the film Team America, which fits into this genre. No wonder, the ABC's in-house TV critic, David Stratton, gave Team America only one star out of five since, alas, it played "into the hands of George W. Bush". Now, what could be worse than that from a leftist perspective?

If the left is to successfully challenge the dominant non-left intellectual ascendancy it must first understand that conservatives are not necessarily evil or ignorant. To defeat a political opponent requires knowledge - not base prejudice. Two Brothers is not only bad theatre. It is also poor politics.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

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