The Australian political vehicle is one that is fundamentally broken, and it will take a skilled mechanic to fix it. Here’s six problems that need repair before I can let you drive out of here.
The issue of leadership struggles within the government – that is, between Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – is now irrelevant. Turnbull has won the leadership battle and Abbott has won the policy battle. Turnbull has abandoned the pretence of mild progressivism that used to be his “brand” and is pursuing a Rightwing agenda with the zealousness of the convert. Get used to it.
The Right wing of the Liberal Party, in co-opting Turnbull to their policy prescriptions, has ensured they have put the most politically popular face they have on their agenda (yes, I know, Turnbull’s poll numbers have fallen deeper than Abbott’s, but that doesn’t mean Abbott would fair better than Turnbull if, by chance, he happened to regain the leadership). So expect less internal disruption, not more, despite the odd bit of Abbott grandstanding.
The gig is up: Malcolm is one of them.
This calming of the waters will be aided and abetted by the political media who long for a new “settlement” and the triumph of what they still insist on calling “centrism”. Or “sensible centrism”. Turnbull’s capitulation to the Right and abandonment of everything he once allegedly held dear will be reinterpreted as pragmatism, sold as success, an offered as evidence of his rising stocks. The “sensible centre” will be, as is nearly always the case, Rightwing.
3) The legitimacy of One Nation
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation can no longer in any way be considered maverick, independent, anti-establishment, anti-elitist, or in any other way marginal to the political process and the political class. They are now well and truly an establishment party, legitimised by the Turnbull Government. This will be part of PM Turnbull’s lasting legacy. The resentment and anger that has always driven Hanson’s politics is now being assuaged by this courtship and legitimisation. She has got what she has always wanted: a seat at the table, an invitation to all the best parties, and the ability to entrench her own exceptionalism. She has not only offered support to the government’s anti-union legislation – against the CFA and in favour of the ABCC – but she is also offering them support in their efforts to cut $6b from welfare. Hanson has officially caught up with the Joneses and seems happy to abandon the “ordinary Australians” in whose name she formerly claimed to act.
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4) Labor and the Greens
The Labor Party almost won the last election and is travelling well in the polls at the moment. Nonetheless, all the matters mentioned above are a big threat to any chance they might have at the next election. The advantage they retain is that the solidifying rightwing agenda being put forward by the Coalition is largely unpopular. It is built on the myth of “jobs and growth” and the implicit promise of a return to economic conditions that will never again exist. Unfortunately, much of Labor’s rhetoric is tied up with similarly dated notions and it is unlikely they can shift from this. Nonetheless, they – and the Greens – are going to have to beware the growing consolidation on the Right. It is tempting to play it down because of the basic incompetence of the Turnbull government – and they really are second rate – but Rightwing incompetence in Australia has never been a barrier to success. I don’t think the Greens and Labor necessarily need to kiss and make up – maybe that tension is healthy – but they do need to better recognise where their projects intersect rather than harp on self-righteously about where they don’t.
5) Job and housing crises and the economy
Australia’s 25 consecutive years of economic growth is rightly celebrated but the shine is taken off that when you look at other important metrics. Rising inequality, increasing incarceration rates, increasing mistrust of major institutions, increasing political corruption, rising suicide rates, serious distortions in the labour market – over-, under-, and just plain un-employment, as well as massive gender distortions – an obscene offshore detention regime, and a political system that has all-but given up on climate change are the main concerns. Throw in a housing affordability crisis along with rising homelessness, and a domestic violence problem that is costing at least one life per week, and you end up understanding the general air of worry and hopelessness that pervades. Australia remains, on the whole, one of the better places to live, but we could be so much better. Largely what stands in the way of true progress is a rump of elite privilege, lodged in key areas of influence within the media, business and politics.
6) Where to start?
Our politics is in a stupid place at the moment, obsessed with trivia and score-settling over social and economic debates that are long-past relevant. The tail is wagging the dog. The disconnect highlighted above in Point 5 – between continued economic growth and deteriorating standards of existence – is the circle we are going to have to square. Our economy of “jobs and growth” is coming up against the twin barriers of environmental catastrophe and technological unemployment. This – and the inequality that goes with it – is the legacy of the neoliberalism of the last 40 years and it is a project that is in ruins.
What is needed is not “sensible centrism” but radical and inclusive reinvention to ensure an improving standard of living for those outside the one percent.
The rightwing consolidation (Points 1, 2, 3) is a huge impediment to the reinvention that is needed, steeped as it is in fealty to this now defunct project. Conservatism is currently trying to conserve the worst of the recent past while undermining the best of our long-term history (our democratic institutions and practices). What is needed is not “sensible centrism” but radical and inclusive reinvention around shorter working weeks; government intervention that favours the many rather than the few, including fairer taxation regimes and policies of redistribution; the development of new forms of social organisation that have substance outside of politics itself (a new unionism, if you like); and an embrace of the new technologies of energy, communication and information that at least have the potential to ensure an improving standard of living for those outside the one percent.
Want somewhere to start? Win the fight on clean energy.