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Who do they think they’re talking to?

by Dr Robert Kenny

Alfred Deakin Research Institute Visiting Fellow and author of Gardens of Fire

I am probably not the only one who sees that Australian political culture has descended into a moral and visionless morass. Most political commentary and reportage seems to presume that nothing of any real consequence will come from differing policies and that the job of the media is to essentially commentate on a sporting event (one reason they get annoyed at “minority” parties and independents — they are like streakers who distract the crowd from the real play).  While the major political parties give the impression that their primary concern is to make sure nobody knows what their ideologies are. We watch them trying to second guess the “Australian electorate” desires, and give to this electorate what they think this electorate wants, or at least not propose what this electorate does not want.

There has always been an element of this in contemporary politics but it has sunk to hopefully its nadir since 2010, when we watched two leaders tip toe around their “real selves” and try to present personas of what they believed they should be for this “Australian electorate”.  Rudd in 2007 did give a convincing portrayal of somebody with vision, whatever his subsequent failures as an administrator. In 2010, Abbott looked like a man who was determined to make sure nobody knew he had a vision. And Gillard, who probably did have a series of visions on certain issues, was just as scared that her real self (ideology?) might be revealed — the shame here is that it might have been something that would have appealed to very many.  Now in 2013, Rudd appears to believe he can ride on his visionary status of 2007 while acting like somebody without a vision in his head other than himself; while Tony Abbott, after three hard years’ practice, has made performance his vision: he will do, just like he cycles, or swims. His vision, and morality, is Nike’s: he is asking the Australian electorate to Just do it.

This is particularly attractive because of the impression built up that the last three years of “minority” government has been a period of stagnation.  It has not at all.  But this impression has been conveyed not just by Abbott’s attacks, but by a media commentary that is amongst the most unsophisticated in the world.  Most political journalists and commentators in this country have very little knowledge of how other democracies work, or indeed of the Australian political system, and certainly very little knowledge of Australian political history, beyond the headlines of living memory. They certainly have very little knowledge of Australia’s relationship with its immediate neighbours, as the discussion over the “use” of PNG has shown. Or with the fact that settler/migrant Australia’s “interventions” on the part of indigenous Australians have always been ambiguous in their motives and most often counterproductive in their outcomes. It is little wonder that the political commentary rarely rises above the level of an inner-city dinner party conversation. This ignorance is the reason they latch so keenly onto seeing it all as a sporting competition (the one thing they do know something about).

This lack of depth, and diversity, is one reason media commentators like to talk of the “Australian electorate”, that apparent entity that the leaders are trying to second-guess, as something homogeneous.  Thus in 2010, this entity elected a “hung” parliament, and the subtext in much commentary was that the electorate was pretty stupid to do so.  No entity elects a parliament, the parliament consists of members who have won the majority of preferred votes in their electorates. This is understood in most places of the world, and the negotiations that have taken place for legislation in the last three years would be seen in those places as normal political practice, and normal because parliament should reflect the span of the electorate, which in places like Australia is becoming increasing heterodox. Barak Obama, far from moving to the “right”  in the last US Presidential election to meet his increasingly right wing opponents, came out with at least the rhetoric of social democracy.  He won. Contrary to the impression given in the Australian media, this was not a surprise, nor a close call.  I remember reading several pieces in papers such as the New York Review up to a year before the election that outlined in depth why Obama could not lose. The Republican party had not only taken too much on from the extremist Tea Party, it had accepted that there was an American heartland, which was homogenous and, of course, white, which would vote against Obama at all costs. In this it got a rude shock, as did many commentators, particularly those associated with Fox.  This heartland might exist, and it might vote en masse  against Obama, but it is now very much a minority in the US.  The majority of Americans belong to what has been called Obama’s coalition of minorities: Obama appealed to, but more importantly recognized, the heterodoxy that the US has become, and he particularly targeted those various groups in various ways.

Australia too is becoming increasingly heterodox. That should be reflected in the make-up of parliament (and in the attention of the political parties), which is not easily going to be achieved by only two sides which like to keep an iron grip on how their members vote (one with a constitution to enforce it that is almost Leninist). Whatever happens tomorrow — and it would seem clear that Abbott will be able to just do it come Monday,  the real interest will be in the minority parties and the independents. They will be, with one exception, probably all in the Senate. A substantial number of Australians have always seen the value of the streaker, and have voted for minority parties in the Senate while voting for the main parties in the lower house (this was particularly the case with the Democrats). And more should. I look back on these last three years as the only time in my life I have seen the House of Representatives act like a democratic institution.  I hope against hope that the Australian political media can find some participants who might bring to their discussion some knowledge of political systems and history that is not entirely from osmosis.

Permanent link to this article: http://aph.org.au/who-do-they-think-theyre-talking-to

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