When do you begin to pity a Liberal government? When it has to ask the High Court whether it exists at all? Or when its last argument in its own favour is that if Bill Shorten takes over, he will establish a communist dictatorship based on absolute equality enforced with brutal violence?
The correct answer is never: it is never appropriate to pity a Liberal government. Each new self-imposed humiliation is a source of joy in a troubled world. And the latest – finance minister Mathias Cormann’s hysterical warnings that Shorten’s Labor is following “the path of a socialist agenda” – is one of the most enjoyable yet.
Speaking at the Sydney Institute, Cormann denounced Shorten’s world view as “socialist revisionism at its worst”, and one which could triumph, and threaten the prosperity and freedom of all Australians, only if the lessons of the Cold War were forgotten. Cormann’s motivation is clear enough. With the government besieged, unable to make any plank of its program popular, Tory researchers are desperately seeking a super-weapon of smear that can pull off a political miracle and restore their fortunes.
Turnbull’s first attempt was to label Shorten a sleazy pro-business hypocrite. That’s basically accurate, but it fell flat coming from the mouth of one of the most sleazy and hypocritical businessmen in Australia.
Liberal governments often smear Labor oppositions as pawns of foreign powers and promoters of subversive ideologies. There was a moment when Labor was portrayed as the cats paw of the Chinese Communist Party. But the argument that Labor’s national loyalties are suspect became that much harder to carry when it turned out that various government ministers were dual citizens, with even the key portfolio of Agriculture and Water being controlled by an agent of the hated Kiwi horde.
Claiming that Shorten is a Bolshevik is, then, one of the few remaining arguments that definitely won’t rebound on Turnbull.
It is a time-honoured tactic. In 2007, the last campaign of the Howard government revolved around the claim that 70 percent of Kevin Rudd’s frontbench were militant trade unionists, and a Rudd government would bring a chaotic explosion of violent industrial struggle. Sadly, these promises went unfulfilled, but they certainly won a few extra votes for Labor, including mine. If there’s one thing Liberal governments are good for, it’s making right wing white bread Labor oppositions look exciting.
Usage of the s-word, we can surmise, draws some inspiration from the crazed ranting of the US right between 2008 and 2016. In the fevered imagination of the Tea Party and their ilk, “socialism” was everywhere: Obama’s trillion-dollar bailouts to the banks became “socialism”; and his right wing market-based health care policy, drawn up by big insurance companies, became “Marxism”.
It is a measure of how shockingly conservative society has become that brazenly right wing neoliberal figures like Obama and Shorten – each from the right wing of their right wing political parties – can be described as “socialist”. Effectively, any interference with the absolutely unrestrained orgy of free market exploitation has become, in the minds of the right, totalitarian barbarism fundamentally incompatible with capitalism.
And it is a measure of the seething anger felt by millions at the inequality of modern capitalism that these slurs often have a rebound effect. After eight years of the US right wing press denouncing imaginary “socialists” in the Obama administration, millions of young people – many formerly supporters of Obama – are now calling themselves socialists, and tens of thousands are joining socialist organisations. If you’re going to get denounced for it, I suppose you might as well find out what it really means.
Unfortunately for us, though, it means something rather different than Labor’s 100 Positive Policies. We will not be having a socialist transformation once the Liberals are turfed out – it will take rather harder work.
Shorten remains far to the right of popular left leaders internationally. Consequently, he is much less popular. Unlike Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Shorten’s Labor does not support free tertiary education, any major increase in the minimum wage or a substantial expansion of the rights of trade unionists, let alone anything approaching an actual socialist transformation of society.
Shorten is unlikely to inspire a revival of interest in socialism. In fact, he is unlikely to inspire anyone, or anything. But the return of socialism as a favoured Liberal slur may, we can hope, lead some at least to Google it – something Cormann would have been advised to do before he made his speech to the Sydney institute. If people do begin investigating socialism, they will quickly discover it means something rather more radical, exciting and attractive than Shorten’s Labor.