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The Silence of the Barnes

Many on the right believe the rest of us on the right should refrain from criticising the Abbott government. They’re wrong.

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

29 November 2014

9:00 AM

I had the great good fortune to play varsity basketball at university in Canada back in my youth. I was part of a team that practised six days a week for well over half of each year and played 30 plus games against other universities. I had good coaches, one great coach, and some pretty dud coaches. But you know what? I never criticised the coach and nor did anyone else who cared about winning. With a team, dissent has to run through very formalised channels, and usually is better left unspoken.

In The Spectator Australia of 1 November, Terry Barnes ran an argument along the lines that people on the right ought to stop criticising the Abbott government. Barnes was blunt: ‘In joining the mindless Left in constantly flailing Abbott for not living up to their purist philosophical and ideological standards, the thinking Right isn’t thinking.’

In other words, those of us who generally support Mr Abbott’s government, and like 80 odd per cent of what the government is doing, should shut up. This, says Barnes, is better than getting nothing. I confess that when I read Barnes’s piece it struck me that it had been a very long time indeed since I’d read anything with which I so profoundly disagreed. Let me clarify that. In a country of 24 million we all run up against views with which we disagree. And most of us soon realise that the people with whom we disagree are generally as nice as we are, as smart as we are, and as well informed. Differences of opinion on substantive issues are to be expected. Heck, I work in a university so spend my entire working life being bombarded by soft and hard left views, the kinds of opinions that garner big ARC social science grants.

So that’s not what I mean when I say Barnes’s piece struck me as incredibly wrong-headed. He and I aren’t disagreeing about first-order substantive issues, such as the desirability of a carbon tax or of repealing 18C. No, we’re disagreeing about the second-order issue of whether those who are on the right-side of politics ought to keep quiet when they dislike what the Abbott government is doing.

Why Barnes thinks we should ‘shut up and take what the Coalition is giving us’ is because Labor would be worse (which no one that I know of denies) and because he is implicitly comparing those who generally support the Coalition to members of a close-knit sporting team.

But with all due respect, that implicit analogy is bunk; it’s wholly unpersuasive. First off, we’re not all in this together, sharing the fruits of victory and the pain of defeat in roughly equal measures. In countries with majoritarian voting systems, you end up with two big tent or broad church parties of the centre right and the centre left. These broad churches are constantly in flux. On the left, those with union sympathies and green leanings and civil libertarian preferences and so on are constantly jostling for position. On the right, the small government crowd, social conservatives, Hobbesians et al jockey for short-term dominance.

Barnes’s prescription favours the status quo. No, it artificially favours the status quo as of some arbitrary date he more or less picks out of thin air. Even those who are paid up members of the Liberal Party do their party no favours by being quiet when the leadership goes off course. You only have to look at how disastrously stupid Prime Minister David Cameron was in Britain, calling core Tory voters fruitcakes and worse when he was first elected. Indeed, Cameron went on to so alienate many long-time Tory voters that Ukip is polling in the high teens today. Cameron should have been far more harshly criticised at the time, and by his own side. Now it’s probably too late.

The fact is, silence amounts to approval of the approach being taken by one’s generally preferred party. And even paid-up party members would be making a huge long-term error in adopting that short-term tactic. As for those like me who are broadly in the same camp but who are not members of the party, well why should we shut up?

But that’s only a first problem with Barnes’s plea for silence from the right. A second problem is that his whole argument is premised on attitudes overwhelmingly not shared by right of centre people. I generalise, but if you are on the right you tend to be in favour of free speech (for all the reasons JS Mill gave) and in favour of competition (because the battle of ideas and of business enterprises and of anything else tends to deliver the best long-term outcomes). Barnes’s position is much more compatible with the communitarian or social solidarity positions that underpin left of centre views.

Even for them it would be a consequentialist mistake in my view, but at least the ‘shut up and follow the leader’ prescription meshes tolerably well with their core attitudes. Of course it meshes best of all with a really hard-left Soviet type attitude to life.

But whatever you think of the fit with the left, there is no fit at all for people on the right who espouse the consequentialist benefits for everyone of vigorous free speech and the competition of ideas but are, says Herr Barnes, suddenly supposed to shut up and be team players for the Abbott government. Really? You mean ditch our core beliefs for the short-term (and probably ethereal) benefits of the present government? Because if the core presuppositions of those on the right are correct, such a ‘team player’ attitude will have really bad long-term consequences. Mr Abbott and his government won’t get to hear dissenting views. They’ll become over-confident they’re on the right track. There’ll be less pressure to self-correct.

Or does Barnes really think or suppose that we can rely on party insiders to fix things when they go wrong? If so, he’s not just adopting a foundational attitude more at home on the left, he must have been out of the country for the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd fiasco.

When you think a government is going wrong, you say so. And you say so loudly and clearly. And you do so whether you support 80 per cent of what they’re doing (as I do) or whether you support very little indeed. I think that my path is the better one for Australia than Mr Barnes’s. It’s even the better one for the parochial interests of the Coalition.

It’s been said that the path to hell is paved with good intentions. In my view, that isn’t the worst description of Terry Barnes’s plea for a silence of the lambs type attitude to the Coalition’s bungles.

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