The buffoonery, and worse, of the past few weeks is obviously an indication of an increasingly desperate PM, and government, trying anything and everything to stay alive. It does, however, have deeper roots in the growing void between politicians and the societies they govern.
Australia is often maligned, including by some Australian pundits, as a political backwater, faithfully copying a few years later political trends set in its bigger Anglosphere cousins, the United States and Britain. This characterisation is unfair and historically ignorant. If anything, the flow has often been in the other direction.
Australia, for instance, had the world’s first “third way” government, when the ALP, led by Bob Hawke, came to power in 1983. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then bright-eyed newcomers, came to Australia on a study trip in 1990 to learn about the ALP’s policies, and later copied its brand of neoliberal centrism in the UK.
Middle-class people who live off taxes took over the Labor Party:
A key difference between the two countries is that in the UK, the union movement was defeated in open conflict by the Thatcher government in the Eighties. Australia’s historically powerful union movement was defanged by its own political representatives, via the ‘Accord’, after which unions agreed to restrict wage demands. As a result, union membership plummeted from 51% of the Australian workforce in 1976 to only 14% in 2016.
The ALP was thus untethered from its foundations in the union movement. Already in the Sixties, under the leadership of the urbane Gough Whitlam, it began to attract middle-class voters, especially among university graduates, by focusing on a wider range of social issues, such as indigenous rights. From the Eighties, because union membership was getting smaller, Labor became increasingly reliant on progressive middle-class votes to win elections, turning further away from its working-class roots.
The now despised “deplorables” decamp to the non-left party:
On the other side of politics, things were changing too, and again Australia was at the forefront of developments later felt elsewhere. While Britons were astounded when Boris Johnson smashed Labour’s “Red Wall” in the 2019 elections, in Australia the conservative Liberal Party was already taking hitherto safe, working-class, ALP seats in the Nineties — a phenomenon known as “Howard’s battlers”, named after then Prime Minister John Howard. These seats, usually at the fringes of Australia’s major cities became hotly contested swing electorates, the main battleground on which most elections are fought.
In short, as society became disorganised during the shift from the industrial to the post-industrial age, political parties lost their organic connection to society. Unsurprisingly, political party membership in Australia fell from 4% of the population in the Sixties to 0.5% today. Of course, people continue to be involved in political campaigns in other ways, for example by volunteering to help independent candidates. Yet Australia’s parties and politicians have had to learn to appeal to an amorphous mass of atomised voters.
There’s a federal election coming in May:
Two consequences of this underlying shift are immediately apparent in the political buffoonery dominant today. First, the personal branding of leaders has become a lot more important than before. No one exemplifies this better than Scott Morrison … A few years ago, Morrison completely altered his persona to appeal to his party’s growing working-class constituency. He began to call himself ScoMo, parade a love for his local National Rugby League club, the Cronulla Sharks, and talk often about how much he loved to have a beer with his mates.
The authenticity of Morrison’s new persona was always on shaky grounds, but for a time it did work. He led the Coalition to a surprising win in 2019 because working-class voters often preferred him over his opponent Bill Shorten, a former union leader. But now Morrison is no longer the underdog. Facing a genuine political challenge, he appears to be floundering, so unsure what to do he has been dialling his made-up persona up to 11.
A second consequence is the growing appeal of the politics of fear as politicians desperately search for ways of finding legitimacy.
Politics in Australia over the past few decades seems to have become an endless parade of scare campaigns — drugs, terrorism, climate change, Covid-19, China. The point is not that these issues do not merit our attention. It is that approaching them through the lens of fear is often no more than a mask for political ineptitude and for encroaching authoritarianism.
The government’s recent attempt to smear the ALP with the “reds under the beds” tag would have been amusing if it were not for the introduction of undemocratic laws under the guise of managing foreign powers’ interference in Australia — legislation that the ALP supported.
hat-tip Stephen Neil