Saturday, March 22

Young Libs roll out the tumbrels

“The Senate Committee on Un-Australian Activities is now in session.” A few people shuffle their chairs, then the hearing room falls silent. The Senator fixes her gimlet eyes on the fellow standing before her.

Typical of his type, she thinks. A bit weedy. Tweed jacket with worn leather patches. Longish hair, thinning on top. A glance at the dossier shows he's never achieved tenure. A quiet word with the vice-chancellor about funding and he'll be out on the street.

The Senator sighed. Why can't they all be this easy. Not like that so-called expert she had to shout down at the committee hearing she conducted last year.

Some fellow called Dr. Alex Wodak who had the impertinence to think he knew more about drugs than she did. Thought she'd be impressed because he was president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Association and was also a senior staffer in the drug and alcohol treatment unit at St Vincent's Hospital in Sydney.

Well, she'd showed him. She'd written the committee report, and made sure it pushed her zero tolerance approach to drugs. These so-called experts need putting in their place.

The same place, she thought, as these dangerously biased academics. She focused again on the hapless fellow in front of her.

Her first question is blunt. “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Greens?” The man nods, and almost inaudibly says, “Yes.” “And are you prepared to name the other members of your cell?” This time the man speaks up. “No!”

The Senator nods to the attendants, who lead him out. There's no time to be wasted – the Young Liberals are hauling another tumbrel to the door.

Perhaps I'd better move on before I mix any more metaphors, or add to the hyperbole. But whatever can the Young Liberals be seeking with their current campaign urging members to record biased university lectures and report them to the federal office?

Young Libs federal president Noel McCoy told The Australian's Higher Education section: “Lecturers and tutors are brazenly forcing students to agree with their political or ideological views and we want to catch them doing it.

“I think the public would be very concerned if they knew what was going on, so we're trying to raise awareness and get our politicians to take action.”

And yes, Mr McCoy called for a Senate inquiry.

In case you think the Young Libs were able to dream this up for themselves, their campaign copies a similar movement in the US led by conservative commentator David Horowitz.

It's reassuring to know the future of the Liberal Party is in good hands. Right now there's a danger it may fall under the control of moderates who say lack of compassion explains the party's loss of government in every Australian parliament (the biggest legislative body in which it has power appears to be the Brisbane City Council).

Just this month Gerard Henderson's Sydney Institute provided a forum for two Liberal wets, MHR Christopher Pyne and Senator Marise Payne. Pyne called for a replenishment of the party membership, “bringing new ideas, destroying rotten boroughs, creating a phalanx of new campaign workers, fund-raisers and political candidates”.

Senator Payne noted that the Liberal Party sought to be a broad church, the custodian of both liberalism and conservatism, but she also said that as a member of that church, “I have on occasion felt that only one side of the congregation was welcome at the service”.

Senator Payne also brought up the “C” word. When she'd asked traditional Liberal voters why they had switched, “the answer was, often, that we lacked compassion.”

“For example, older women, who had been giving to the collection plate at their church for decades to support the dispossessed and disadvantaged, did not accept or understand our approach to refugees – in particular the detention of children.”

portrait of Nick Greiner
Even more confronting for the hard-line conservatives was a speech this month by Nick Greiner (left). Some 700 guests turned up at the function to mark the 20th anniversary of the election of the Greiner state government in New South Wales.

Greiner is something of an eminence grise for NSW Liberal Party supporters, although he has never been able to topple the party's dominant “Uglies” faction.

He may have been the state's best post-World War II premier. Already a highly qualified and respected corporate manager, he reformed the state's public administration and financial structures after winning office in 1988.

Pragmatic rather than ideological, he worked constructively with the economic reform program of Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Treasurer Paul Keating.

But Greiner's premiership lasted only four years because of the tawdry Metherell affair. Dr Terry Metherell was Greiner's Education Minister but became a liability with his arrogant ideology – such as refusing to allow a new university to be named Chifley, instead making it the University of Western Sydney (a pejorative term at the time) – as well as some claims about tax avoidance. After Greiner dumped him, Metherell resigned from the party to sit as an independent.

Greiner then offered Metherell a highly paid public service job, Metherell quit the parliament, and the Libs won back the blue ribbon seat of Davidson.

Greiner found his actions assessed by the Independent Commission Against Corruption – a Greiner creation – which ruled it was corrupt conduct. Greiner appealed to the courts and won a ruling that ICAC had erred. But it was too late. Greiner was out.

At that time one could feel sympathy, but with many of us it went up in smoke when he became chairman of a major Australian company which kills people as part of the ordinary course of its business – British American Tobacco.

That's all old history, of course. Greiner has moved on to other boardrooms and other challenges. What is interesting is that the other day 700 people listened attentively as he told them the Liberal Party needed compassion.

In an interview with Andrew Clark of the Australian Financial Review, he explained: “The truth is the electorate is changing. It's becoming slightly more feminine, left brain, whatever part of the brain it is.”

As the community changed, any political party needed to understand the changing nature of its markets.

"The truth is the environment and compassion are now part of the middle ground . . . There's nothing in Liberalism that suggests you have to allow these issues to be the exclusive preserve of your opponents."

Try telling that to the Young Libs.


Read The Australian's report on the Young Libs' campaign and why one Young Lib changed classes, plus comments here and here . To be even-handed, Grumpy Old Journo tried to offer a link to the Young Libs' website, but got this message instead:

"There is a problem with this website's security certificate. The security certificate presented by this website has expired or is not yet valid. The security certificate presented by this website was issued for a different website's address. Security certificate problems may indicate an attempt to fool you or intercept any data you send to the server. We recommend that you close this webpage and do not continue to this website. "

You must be an Australian Financial Review subscriber (or take a 14-day free trial) to read Andrew Clark's article online, but you could read the SMH report highlighting invitations to developers to kick in $1000 a head to attend the dinner.

Summaries of Christopher Pyne's and Senator Marise Payne's speeches are here.

Taking the mickey out of the Young Libs is not one of life's more challenging tasks, but Lisa Pryor of the Sydney Morning Herald did it better than most. She wrote that she would not be at all surprised if the average teacher turned out to be more left-wing than the average citizen.

"This should be self-evident. Teachers are unlikely to be diehard capitalists or economic rationalists: by definition they have chosen a path which is economically irrational.

"Teachers waste perfectly good tertiary educations on doing a job with pathetic pay, with little opportunity to exercise entrepreneurial skill, bargain individually or get promoted to a fancy sounding position. It is almost as if they have a warped value system which regards community service as more important than personal advancement. "

She's not surprised the Young Libs have heard stories about teachers being biased against policies such as Work Choices – "a marginal and extreme view shared only by the Labor Party, the Greens, the churches, the majority of the voting public and most of the Liberal politicians still left in Federal Parliament."

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