“Now that I’m no longer an MP, I don’t have to solve problems anymore,” Tony Abbott declared midway through his interview with former Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson at the inaugural Australian Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Friday. “It’s enough just to point at them.”
Abbott, like many of the other speakers at the conference, spent his time on stage meandering aimlessly through a vague and nostalgic ode to conservatism. John Howard quotes took centre stage as the retired Member for Warringah extolled the virtues of pragmatism, traditionalism, and the family unit.
In his allotted half an hour, however, that was about all Abbott said. In fact, with a few exceptions, that was about all anybody said at CPAC. The ‘A’ in Conservative Political Action Conference was noticeably redundant throughout.
Like most components of Australian conservative culture, CPAC was imported from the US. Familiar and foreign faces alike from Sky and Fox News adorned its speaking list; book signings and photo opportunities were conveniently included in the conference’s pricey ticket packages (named, apparently unironically, the ‘Reagan VIP Pass’ and the ‘Iron Lady Pass’). But a cursory glance at the history of CPAC, which was founded in 1973 by the American Conservative Union (ACU), suggests that the institution that graced Australia’s shores for the first time this year has only recently undergone a radical reimagination of identity.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the ACU, spent a considerable amount of time interviewing Republican Congressman Matt Meadows (with whom Schlapp shared a number of similarities extending far beyond name) about the virtues and popularity of Donald Trump. Meadows, relying on North Carolinian folksy charm alone to pad out his numerous speaking slots, delivered an extended sermon of anecdotes about his interaction with the President and painted him as a model conservative leader.
It was only a few years ago, however, that the well-entrenched American CPAC welcomed a patronage that was far more fond of Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. An internal poll of attendees in 2016 reflected precisely this result. Fast forward to Sydney in 2019, and both are the butts of numerous jokes. Alongside Jeb Bush, the pair are dismissed as failed emissaries of the establishment, trampled and cast into irrelevance by the same populist fervour that ushered 400 attendees from around the country into the room on a weekday.
Organisers were keen to bill the event as a catalyst for grassroots conservative action. From Mark Latham to Nigel Farage, the speakers were avowed subscribers of Trumpian populism (with the exception, perhaps, of speakers such as Senator Amanda Stoker, whose half an hour speech on industrial relations law reform failed to rile the crowd up as much as the thinly veiled dogwhistling of Ross Cameron). A resounding theme of anti-establishmentarianism percolated the 14 or so hours of oratory, and attendees were convinced that action against the establishment is urgently needed if the country is to stand a chance.
Janet Albrechtsen dedicated her time in the spotlight to evangelising about free speech, inventing the conveniently reductive equation “anger plus disgust equals contempt” to explain the mindset of the broad left, which she argued is inherently unwilling to engage in a dialogue. Raheem Kassam, former advisor to Nigel Farage, spent most of his time mocking Kristina Keneally and the ALP for their attempts to convince the Home Affairs Minister to bar him from entering the country due to his suggestion that Scottish politician Nicola Sturgeon have her legs “taped shut […] so she can’t reproduce.”
The arrival of a small band of student protesters only served to vindicate the hive of conservatives at Rydges World Square. They seemed not to appreciate the glowing irony underlying their encouragement of direct anti-establishment action coupled with a simultaneous condemnation of the efforts of those protesting two former leaders of the largest parliamentary parties in the country. This irony also slipped by apparently unnoticed on Friday when, speaking directly to the media junket at the back of the room, Meadows lamented that journalists were no longer unbiased, shortly before introducing Fox News host Jeanine Pirro to the stage. It was the same again when disgraced columnist and serial plagiarist Tanveer Ahmed boasted of his ability to bring a “different angle” to popular issues during a speech which, if actually written by Ahmed, offered evidence as to why he felt the need to obscure his intellectual efforts with the work of others in the first place.
To a large extent, it was this lack of self-awareness coupled with Abbott’s confession of retirement-induced apathy that defined the conference. Attendees were convinced wholesale of the evils of several different supposed bogey-men — the government, according to entrepreneur and free marketeer Steve Baxter; global free markets, according to nationalist Farage — without stopping to consider the inherent contradictions in the messages delivered to them. It was enough for everyone to simply point to a problem, without stopping to think too much about whether it really was the fault of elites or migrants, Boris Johnson or Teresea May, Malcolm Turnbull or the supposed rabble chanting outside. The only speaker to actually propose any kind of pragmatic solution to anything, Senator Amanda Stoker, was met with sterile indifference and impatience. The reality was that everyone in the room was just as much guilty of the indolent contempt Albrechtsen had so thoroughly accused the left of.
It would be cynical to call CPAC a simple money grab, though it certainly was. It would also be disingenuous to suggest that ‘action’ played any major role in the conference’s purpose. What became clear after two days at CPAC was that it’s very difficult to stir anybody into anti-establishment ‘action’ when, in fact, you are the establishment. Many of the speakers spent a good deal of time recounting a highlights reel of 2016, and with good reason: what else is there to discuss now? It became clear after fielding a question about Boris Johnson’s prime ministership that Farage would prefer to avoid the topic because it involves admitting that there isn’t really anyone left to rail against. Similarly, Latham seems to have had the wind taken out of his sails to some extent following his election to NSW Parliament, unable to countenance his ‘outsider’ identity with the inside of a chamber offering parliamentary privilege amongst a raft of other benefits.
CPAC was a study in inertia. A group of people who never quite thought they were going to win, whether it was June and November 2016 or March and May 2019, are now struggling to shift gears; scrambling to imagine a world in which they have become the very thing they railed against. We can only hope they don’t notice the ‘A’ in CPAC anytime soon.