Australia’s political right is having another crisis. The Victorian Liberal Party is in the process of expelling one of its parliamentary members, Moira Deeming, over her involvement in an anti-transgender rally that attracted the support of neo-Nazis. The fallout from that event has reached federal parliament, with the attorney-general, Mark Dreyfus, accusing the opposition leader, Peter Dutton, of complicit silence. Dreyfus’s charge was that, unlike his Victorian counterparts, Dutton had failed to condemn the “abhorrent” conduct neo-Nazis displayed on the steps of Parliament House in Melbourne last Saturday.
This crisis is not the worst for conservative parties at state and federal levels. It is, however, emblematic of a trend: the gradual decay of conservative parties as “normal” political parties. A key, but not the only, explanation for this trend is what Noam Chomsky has called the “relationship between media, politics and the public”. In Australia, this especially means the relationship between News Corp and the political right.
With its concentration of ownership, its oversized influence, and its particular lock on the political right, News Corp has transformed the Liberal Party in consequential ways. Elsewhere, News Corp has been characterised as the party’s media wing or as a house organ. While this is true, I think it underestimates the real scope of influence. News Corp has captured the Liberal Party. It is shifting the party away from being a political organisation and remaking it in the image of its ideological and corporate interests. Put differently, News Corp has done to the Liberals what it has done to journalism.
In my view, the nature of the relationship between News Corp and the Liberals has made the Liberals incapable, to a larger extent than other political parties, of acting like a normal political organisation. That is because the Liberals have undue dependence on News Corp. You can assess this by asking two questions. First, could the Liberals win an election if News Corp gave them the sort of coverage it gives to Labor? The second question, and perhaps even more revealing of the degree of dependency, is, could the Liberals win an election without the active bias and support of News Corp? Anything is possible, but it is hard to imagine a Liberal win if News Corp were to remain neutral in its coverage. This suggests that what might once have been a relationship of interdependence has become a relationship of dependence and even dominance. That is toxic. The Liberal Party’s political interests, and the idea of “public good” in advancing polices for a broader public, have been cancelled out by News Corp’s corporate and ideological interests. This constrains the Liberals’ capacity to express their public purpose as would be communicated by the public policies they adopt and advance. In turn, there is a crisis of legitimacy among those who no longer consider the party an organ through which they can express their political beliefs. Because of this, I think News Corp is one of the biggest contributors to the Liberals’ existential crisis – it has undermined the party’s purpose as a political organisation.
These are big claims, so here is the list of my concerns.
At least two former prime ministers have accused News Corp of ousting them from public office. That is concerning for a country that considers itself a democracy. One of those people is Malcolm Turnbull. When his leadership was being threatened, Turnbull called Rupert Murdoch to put his case. Still, he was ousted.
As journalist Richard Cooke has noted, “it can be difficult to tell where Liberal Party talking points begin and News’s coverage ends”. This is particularly clear in the debate on climate change, where News Corp’s reach has subverted what the Liberals have long declared is at the core of their political identity and character. The Liberals pride themselves as the better party on national security and the economy. Yet in their staunch climate-change denialism, they are clearly failing on these two policy areas. One of the greatest, if not the greatest, threat to our ecology, economy and national security is climate change, and yet News Corp’s influence has meant the Liberal Party has never had a credible climate policy.
Australia has great potential to become a clean energy superpower. Australia has a unique opportunity and capacity to not only take up its share of responsibility to save our planet but also to guarantee our economic and national security during the energy transition. Australia’s solar and wind energy resources alone are estimated to be 75 per cent greater than the combined energy produced by coal, gas, oil and uranium. Additionally, Australia has an abundant supply of critical minerals that will be the building blocks of the energy transition. They are vital in the development of renewable technologies that will underpin that transition. As the move to renewables accelerates, global demand for these critical minerals is expected to rise sharply, creating a significant economic opportunity for Australia. Yet this opportunity is going to waste as we are subjected to inadequate policy responses from Labor and almost total nonsense from many on the Liberal side of politics. All the while, China is winning.
China has become the dominant force in clean energy technology. China’s patenting rate now exceeds that of the United States and Europe. It is also the principal investor in renewables capacity over the past decade. China is also the dominant player in the refining and processing of critical minerals. At the midstream and downstream stages of the critical minerals supply chain, it is estimated that China controls up to 90 per cent of all production. China’s dominance along the spectrum of the renewable energy system provides it with an infrastructure for exerting economic and geopolitical influence.
So, why are these economic and security issues not apparent to the party that claims to be most concerned by them? I think it is because the Liberal Party is no longer a “normal” political party capable of shaping its policies in response to the world as it is. Rather ,it is an organ captured by the corporate and ideological interests of a global corporation. Having been so captured, its public purpose is corrupted in the manner described by the American philosopher Michael Sandel. He argues that “to corrupt a good or social practice is to degrade it, to treat it according to a lower mode of valuation that is appropriate to it”. The interests of the broader public are unable to hold their proper value when the institutions responsible for weighing their value have had the scales tip in favour of other narrowly defined interests. That is, the Liberal Party is making policy decisions to satisfy News Corp rather than voters.
In his book Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò defines the concept of “capture” as being “when the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many towards their own narrower interest and aims”. I argue this is what has happened to the Liberal Party, but it is happening to us as well. I suspect the end goal is not merely to make over political parties in the image of narrow corporate and ideological interests of News Corp, but to make over society itself in that image.
I think this is what is meant when News Corp’s impact is described as a “cancer on democracy”. It is causing the very cells of civic life to mutate and metastasise. You only need to look at the US to see how terminal this can be. You only need to reflect on the inaction as the world faces potential ecological collapse to see it is an existential crisis.
This piece was modified on March 25, 2023, to clarify the nature of Malcolm Turnbull’s call to Rupert Murdoch.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
March 25, 2023 as “How News Corp captured the Liberal Party”.
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