So now we know what Malcolm Fraser had been up to in the last years of his life. As Crikey reported on Thursday, he had been working “for more than four years” on the formation of a new political party, provisionally titled “Renew Australia”. You can read its draft manifesto here.
This news raises as many questions as it answers, among them why it took so long to produce a ten-page program: a dilatoriness somewhat at odds with the claim that “alongside his books, the party was [Fraser’s] greatest passion in recent years.”
But the most interesting question is why would anyone who subscribed to this program not just join the Greens, an already well-established party with apparently very similar aims.
For many refugees from the Liberal Party, that question has an intelligible answer: while rejecting tribal conservatism, they remain economic liberals and therefore are uncomfortable with the hostility to the free market found among many Greens. But that is manifestly an answer not available to the Fraserites, whom the document reveals to be – as one might expect from Fraser’s history – every bit as sceptical of the market as the Greens are.
A side issue for many ex-Liberals would be wariness about the Greens’ tendency to utopianism in international affairs, which slides easily into a reflexive anti-Americanism. But not surprisingly, the Fraser manifesto follows them down the same path.
Read it yourself, and compare the Greens platform here. I won’t claim there are no differences in detail or emphasis, but I challenge anyone to find a disagreement that would be central enough to present a real problem.
So the question remains, why would the Fraser group go to the enormous effort of trying to set up a new party when the Greens are already occupying their ground? Fraser’s close co-operation with some Greens in recent years (notably Sarah Hanson-Young* on refugees) makes the question more salient, and the strong Greens showing in yesterday’s New South Wales election demonstrates their continuing relevance.
One also wonders about the way in which the Greens question is absent in so much of the commentary on the Fraser plan – almost as if we know the answer but are unwilling to talk about it.
As with much of Australian politics, it seems to me that the answer basically comes down to class. The barrier between the Fraser group and the Greens is not ideological or programmatic at all, but rather class-based.
It’s true that the Greens’ support base is largely middle class. But it’s a different sort of middle class from the Fraser group. The latter are better described as upper middle class (or even “upper class”, a thing we don’t usually admit to having in Australia); they are a leisure class, driven by something we might call noblesse oblige. The Greens are based much more in the petit bourgeoisie; their supporters may not exactly be driven by their economic interests, but at least they play some sort of role in the economy.
The Fraser group would feel that to muck in and make common cause with the Greens would be to get their hands dirty. The Greens are organised; they have community structures supporting them and a global movement to align with. Fraser’s people would see that sort of thing as beneath them. But the reality is that politics is a dirty business; to avert your eyes from that is to confess your impotence.
Perhaps “class” is too fancy a word here for what are really differences in temperament. But I can’t help seeing a parallel with the Australian Democrats, who failed where the Greens were later to succeed precisely because they were unable to establish a class basis (my colleague Guy Rundle has written about this at some length in the past).
The elite worriers that Fraser surrounded himself with are not enough to sustain a party on their own; they need followers. They may perhaps find them in a sudden wave of popular support, as for a time the Democrats did (and, for that matter, Clive Palmer). But to keep it a going concern over time, they need to find a class of their own, and the obvious place to look has already been cornered by the Greens.
I realise this is not a popular message; we like to think that we all vote according to our convictions rather than our economic interests. But the reality is that that’s just not how the Australian political system works. If it did, the Fraserites would feel no need for a party of their own.
* I said the other day that Fraser was someone whose style grated on me even when I agreed with him; it’s only fair to point out that Hanson-Young falls into the same category.