Reformist Parties


Robert F Kennedy Jr (the son of Bobby Kennedy, who was assassinated in Los Angeles in1968) recently argued that George W Bush won the presidential election largely because the right wing controls the American media. Kennedy argued that ‘a majority of Bush voters were misinformed about White House policies, the environment, Iraq and terrorism. Instead of news, they got propaganda, disseminated by the right wing machine, corporate broadcasters and journalists who think balance is reporting one side.’ He was thinking of such broadcasters as Rush Limbaugh, Oliver North and G Gordon Liddy (of Watergate fame); and news organisations like the Fox network.

Thanks to Scratch

Thanks to Scratch

I am not altogether sure about this – I think it tells only half the story. In the May issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Frank argues that how the progressives (in particular, John Kerry) were perceived by the average American voter contributed to the liberal downfall. They were East Coast, haughty, smart-arses; or wishy-washy, moaning bleeding-hearts. And they were unpatriotic. This, I think, is nearer the mark; and could well apply in Australia, too.

The average punter could be forgiven if he regarded the contributors to New Matilda and its readers as a bunch of moaning intellectuals. Oftentimes, they are seen to be up themselves, and there is a grain of truth in the café latte caricature. (I include myself in all this.)

Criticism of the status quo is a problem for all progressive groups. Indeed, it is their raison d’être. For them, it seems nothing is ever right. And swimming against the mainstream is hazardous and unforgiving – you either drown, or get washed up on the wrong side of the shore.

I’ve always thought there are links – both formal and informal – between the media and ‘conservative’ forces. It is the nature of the beast – the media, that is. The average newspaper (with some exceptions) is good for reading only two things: the weather forecast and the sports results. And nothing much can be expected from the TV. We are deluged with disinformation. On this, I agree with Robert F Kennedy Jr.

But it is all too easy to blame the media for the failure of the reformists – to blame Alan Jones, Rush Limbaugh and Rupert Murdoch.

The signals put out (to use that clich̩) by the reformist left are generally those of gloom and despair. And, in an age of increasing evangelical faith Рgodlessness. It is faith marketed, but faith nevertheless.

I think this is the biggest problem reformist groups now have to face. God and the Christian religion are fast becoming the exclusive property of the conservative parties. In America, during the last presidential campaign, it was put about that Kerry and the Democrats were God and Christian-haters. It was even suggested that the Democrats planned to abolish Christmas. Ho, ho, ho.

In Australia, things have not yet come to this pass. But there is no doubt that the progressives face what might be called the ‘Celtic hegemony’ – the conservative combination of the Catholic and non-conformist religions. It is not without significance that John Anderson, Philip Ruddock, Tony Abbott, Peter Costello and Janette Howard are all convinced, church-going Christians. The Liberal Party is fast becoming the party of God; whereas the Labor Party (if it can be described as ‘reformist’) has all but lost its traditional Catholic, working-class base. ‘Australian’ values – whatever they are – of the ‘fair go’, courage, patriotism and decency, based on the Christian ideal, are becoming more and more the domain of the Liberal Party under Howard’s leadership. Every time our soldiers and sailors return to be united with their loved-ones, John Howard (in his Akubra hat) can pose as the comforting and reliable father of a Christian nation. Try as they might, Kim Beazley and Jenny Macklin do not have the same authority.

The other problem reformist parties face is unity. It is much easier to support the status quo than to argue for change. How far does reform go? When the average person (who’s got a sizeable mortgage, two kids, a household budget, a car or two, who watches Channel 7, goes to the football once a fortnight and who’s got a vague interest in politics) sees the reformists arguing, he/she is not impressed.

I belong to what might be seen as the ‘extreme’ end of the reformist spectrum. I believe in abortion and euthanasia on demand, fully nationalised medicine, unrestricted immigration (subject only to health checks), unrestricted drugs policy, gay marriage, equal pay for men and women and free education to graduate level. This would make me totally unelectable if I ever stood for parliament, and more importantly, earn the dismay of some of my progressive colleagues. We could not agree on a program of reform. The conservatives have no such problem.

If Robert F Kennedy Jr is correct that the right wing controls the media, we have to ask the question – why? Is it because the right wing is craftier and more powerful than the left? There’s probably some truth in this – the left does tend to self-destruct.

But the big truth is that most people don’t think about, say, the ownership of the media, our foreign policy, the condition of the Aborigines or detention camps. Tears aren’t far away when they see the returning soldier reunited with his young wife and children. And there’s the front lawn to mow and the bills to be paid. Most people don’t mind if Rupert Murdoch controls two-thirds of the world media – or whatever it is.

Most people get their news from the Sun Herald, watch Ray Martin and are moderately happy with things the way they are. It’s only when the bottom drops out of society that people start asking questions.

There’s an apocryphal story about a German woman who lived in Hamburg in the last war. The city was flattened by allied bombers and hers was the only house in the suburb left standing. In the morning after one raid, she was seen cleaning windows.

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