Sitting in a dusty corner of my bookshelf is Xavier Herbert’s classic work Poor Fellow My Country.
The book, purportedly the longest Australian novel ever written, is set in Queensland in the 1930s and 40s. It has a rather wonderful dust-jacket blurb. "This book is the decisive story of how in those vital years, Australia threw away her chance of becoming a true commonwealth," the publishers intone. "The dream of Australia Felix, The Happy South Land."
Observing federal politics right now, that’s about how I feel.
How is that in Australia in 2012, a time and place that by any measure must rank as one of the most prosperous and comfortable in history, our democracy seems so devoid of civility or trust? How is it that in the midst of one of the greatest periods of material wealth ever enjoyed in this country, our political leaders seem so inept?
Only four years ago, a popular Labor government was led by one of the most popular prime minsters in Australian history. It was a government confidently enacting the policies it had taken to voters, including historic achievements such as the signing of the Kyoto protocol on climate change and a formal parliamentary apology to the Australia’s Indigenous peoples.
Four years later, all that has turned to ashes. The government Julia Gillard leads now has a fair claim to being one of the most unpopular in modern Australian history.
Today’s Newspoll has Labor on a primary vote of 27 per cent, which translates in two-party preferred terms to 41-59 in favour of the Coalition. To put it in perspective, Labor is currently polling a full 11 points below its August 2010 election result. Labor’s vote is so low that it is starting to make long-ridiculed predecessors look like paragons of electability. You’d have to go back to the Scullin government that struggled with the Great Depression, or the hapless administration of Billy McMahon, to find an executive so widely loathed by large sections of the voting public.
There are plenty of reasons for the meteoric descent of Labor’s primary vote in recent months. We’ve canvassed them all here before. Gillard herself is unloved. The carbon tax is manifestly unpopular. Much of the media is deeply antipathetical. Tony Abbott and the Coalition have been a ruthless and effective opposition. And the government just keeps finding new ways to stumble into scandal and disrepute.
Underlying all of Labor’s misfortunes, however, has been a kind of bedrock of self-loathing that seems almost pathological. Time and again, when the press of events have closed in on Labor’s senior leadership, they have lost their nerve. The examples are getting too numerous to relate, whether it be the "real Julia" or "the greatest moral challenge of our time".
The rot actually began in earnest as far back as 2008, when Kevin Rudd dithered on the details of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, thereby squandering much of the political capital the ALP had built up on climate policy in the latter years of the Howard government. At the time, Labor saw climate policy as a useful wedge with which to exploit internal divisions with the Coalition. But, characteristically, the effort ended up rebounding against Labor, unifying the Liberals behind Tony Abbott on a platform of open aggression.
The time for Labor to screw its courage to the sticking point was early 2010. As soon as Malcolm Turnbull had been rolled and replaced by Abbott, after the climate rebellion from the Liberal climate sceptics, Rudd should have moved to execute a double-dissolution as a referendum on climate change action. A double-dissolution election fought in early 2010 under Rudd would almost certainly have seen Labor fare better than it did in August under Gillard. The government would now have a mandate for its climate policies, which it clearly now lacks.
But Labor simply couldn’t hold its nerve. Perhaps it just doesn’t believe it deserves to be in government. When the party required the courage of its convictions, the parliamentary ALP instead turned inwards, plotting against the very leader that had led the party to victory. And by tearing down a sitting prime minister in a shadowy process that occurred literally overnight, the party ensured that its new leader would always lack legitimacy in the eyes of many constituents.
As leader, Julia Gillard has certainly enjoyed some bright periods. She is at her best when ensconced in tough negotiations, such as the tense days that followed the 2010 election, in which she had to rapidly stitch together a deal with the Greens and country independents to form government. Few can doubt her strength of character in the face of almost constant destabilisation and media criticism.
And, to a greater degree than Kevin Rudd’s, Gillard’s administration has been marked by substantial legislative achievements of significant and welcome policy substance. Measures such as the carbon tax, paid parental leave, and yesterday’s announcement about the National Disability Insurance Scheme demonstrate that away from the television cameras, this has been a government that has delivered on much of its policy agenda.
But government in a modern society is about far more than the nuts and bolts of committee processes and legislative machinery. Whether we like it or not, voters judge governments using the partial and filtered information that comes to them via the mass media, as well as all the other stuff. The quick chat at the office water cooler, the funny comment on Facebook, the earnest chat from a family friend are all part of the way voters form decisions. And in the day to day mechanics of communicating policy and explaining the point of the government’s position, this Labor government has been consistently woeful.
If you need an example, look no further than the way Julia Gillard has failed to contain the damage from the Craig Thomson and Peter Slipper scandals. It’s not just that each scandal, handled early and decisively, might never have become a major issue in the first place. It’s not just that, by allowing the Thomson affair in particular to run on and on, the government essentially guaranteed it would one day spiral into a situation beyond its ability to control. And it’s not just that, in the case of Peter Slipper, the reason he is even in a position to hurt the government is entirely because of a tactical power-play executed in order to walk away from an electorally popular policy regarding poker machine reform.
The real problem for Labor is what the sum of all these little tactical side-steps and back-flips add up to, and what they signify about the modern Labor party. The modern Australian Labor Party is fundamentally broken as a political institution. It no longer enjoys the support of a broad coalition of progressive voters. Indeed, it is constantly losing supporters to the more intellectually coherent and ideologically pure minor party on its left, the Greens.
Craig Thomson is a good example of the ALP’s malaise. Parachuted into a winnable seat by the party machinery, Thomson owes his position in the Australian parliament to the factional support built up by the powerful union he used to hold office in, the Health Services Union.
As we now now, the HSU is a shell of a trade union that has been captured by its bosses for personal gain. The HSU is riven by internal power-plays and has apparently functioned without any normal financial controls or audit procedures, as the Temby report leaked yesterday so graphically shows. Like so many unions, the HSU became a kind of feudal territory from which its baronial overlords could build influence and power within the Labor Party. So great was that power that one HSU boss, Michael Williamson, became the President of the Labor Party itself.
If you’ve never heard of Michael Williamson, that’s because that’s the way he wanted it. He wasn’t an elected representative of any parliament, of course. Instead, Williamson operated as a quintessential faceless man, wielding significant influence within the internal machinery of the party, but rarely surfacing in the popular media.
It goes without saying that the ceaseless factional warfare inside the ALP and the associated trade union movement is fundamentally inimical to the best interests of the party itself, and the working people it claims to represent. This is indeed an almost trivial point, one that has been highlighted many times in many internal Labor reviews, including the recent one carried out by John Faulker, Steve Bracks and Bob Carr.
Unfortunately for its supporters — and indeed for Australia’s democratic system — the problems besetting Labor are bigger than simply factional warfare or the corruption of trade unions by unaccountable bosses. They stem from the broader alienation of ordinary citizens from the political process itself — a problem which afflicts the Liberal and National Parties in similar ways (although not as severely).
Once upon a time, membership of a the Liberal or Labor parties was a genuine commitment by hundreds of thousands of Australian voters. But that mass membership base has withered away almost entirely. For most Australians, the idea of joining a political party now seems quaint, even bizarre. When we do engage in politics, we tend to do so in looser, more issues-based ways, perhaps by joining an online ginger group like GetUp!, or through tightly connected networks of issues-based blogs, like those maintained by the climate sceptic community.
To make matters worse, the increasingly febrile and corrosive effect of modern conservative politics has had the effect of delegitimising not just the Gillard government, but politics in general. As a result, as John Faulkner noted in his perceptive H.V. Evatt speech this week, trust in our political system has started to ebb away.
And why indeed should we trust our elected representatives? If we are to believe what they themselves say, at least half of them are unfit for office. Further, as a side-effect of the professionalisation of modern politics, few of them are recognisably ordinary people like us any more. Instead, they owe their political position to long years as loyal foot-soldiers in the ranks of the political machine. When Labor finance ministers leave politics to become merchant bankers, and when mining magnates not only bankroll state branches of the LNP but seek pre-selection for political office themselves, cynicism becomes all too understandable.
We who report on the democratic process must also take the blame. Cynicism is the default position of many journalists, and long proximity to power has so confused many journalists that they believe they are players themselves. How else to explain the extraordinary column written this week by respected Canberra press gallery figure Michelle Grattan, in which she openly called for the Prime Minister’s resignation?
Grattan’s reason for calling on the democratically elected leader of the Australian government to stand down was not because of any high crime or misdemeanour. No, it was "because she can no longer present an even slightly credible face at the election". Note that Grattan’s article contained not a single reference to any policy. It was solely about whether Gillard was still effective as a political operator. It’s the sports commentary approach to political journalism at its purest: if the star player is no longer performing, better find a new captain before the grand final is played.
In the closed circle of press gallery logic, Grattan’s political reasoning is impeccable. But step outside the bubble for a minute, and you can see that is one of the things wrong with the whole system. Politics is ultimately about the future direction of our country, and the distribution of power and wealth within our society. The media’s fascination with who is ahead in the polls and who can win the next election is understandable, but it is corrosive of our democracy too.
Add all these factors together — the feckless politicians, the professional party machine operators, the journalists who think they are really participants, the role of money in buying influence, the capture of the major parties by big business and organised labour — and you have the first draft of an explanation for why voters are so cheesed off with our current politics.
Poor fellow, my country.
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