The Right Plays Symbolic Politics Too


Beneath the reams of analysis of the federal government’s current position lurks awareness that splits and chaos are not anything new for the ALP.

Many see this as the party’s darkest hour: in characteristically splenetic form, Mark Latham charges that Kevin Rudd’s return is “the final hammer blow in the destruction of Labor’s moral code”.

Nevertheless, the Labor Party’s regular bouts of crisis and soul searching have long provided one of the rhythms of our political life, a fact grudgingly acknowledged by Julia Gillard in her 2011 Whitlam Oration. Gillard stated:

“It is periodically fashionable for there to be outbreaks of existential angst in the Labor Party where the cry goes up ‘we don’t know what we stand for’. Even if Labor isn’t raising the cry, media commentators raise it for us with never ending predictions of our imminent demise…”

The ALP and “the left” are different creatures (albeit with overlapping habitats), yet similarities may be discerned between Labor’s internal disputes and debates about the purpose and direction of left-wing politics more generally.

There has for instance recently been considerable discussion of progressive social movements’ investment in symbolism, raising one of the questions also posed of the ALP: What, in the end, are they trying to achieve?

Critiques of progressives’ fixation on symbols, gestures and identity have been made by Helen Razer of late, but she is not alone; Guy Rundle has also argued that left-wing politics has become “a cultural activity, defining identity for an information-era elite class, rather than a real form of challenge to power”. I’ve previously suggested in New Matilda that the mantra that the personal is political has inherent limitations.

Leaving aside these debates, which have been thoroughly canvassed elsewhere, it is worth noting that the right also practices the politics of symbol.  

With some notable exceptions the “media commentators” to whom Gillard referred have generally been less interested in analysing the direction of the Coalition parties, perhaps because less movement is expected of conservatives. Labor is seen as the party of change, while the Liberal Party has, notwithstanding Menzies’ ambition to the contrary, often taken the role of “the man who says no” and the Nationals are nostalgia made solid, telling stories about a golden rural past.

Nowadays, many political players are often saying little of substance in any event. In his 2010 Quarterly Essay Trivial Pursuit, George Megalogenis invoked an “end of history” argument, positing that deregulation “meant government had less to do” and thus:

"With nothing at stake, the prosperity generation exaggerated the trivial. Latham played the SNAG card by asking Howard why his government didn’t support reading to children. Rudd promised to monitor petrol and grocery prices … Nelson dared Rudd to cut fuel excise by five cents a litre. Turnbull accused Rudd of corruption because he accepted a second-hand ute from a Brisbane car dealer. Gillard and Abbott promised to crack down on young hoodlums carrying knives. The phoney crises blur after a while…"

The proposition that in the modern political scene there is little to do and nothing at stake is highly contestable, and indeed Megalogenis acknowledges the looming threat of climate change: history is not over yet.

His analysis of the rise of trivial faux-politics in Australia, though, rings true. Given a largely bipartisan acceptance of a broadly neoliberal agenda, few truly ideological battles are fought; instead politicians of both stripes will often seek symbolic rather than tangible victories.

The fact of the Coalition’s own attachment to symbolism runs counter to the narrative that the Liberal Party, in particular, likes to perpetuate about itself: that it is concerned with commonsense action rather than rhetorical flights of fancy. Consider the Howard government’s stubborn emphasis on “practical reconciliation” and the then Prime Minister’s implicit claim that an apology to the stolen generations and real engagement with “the rights agenda” would fatally undermine substantive improvement in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander living standards.

In fact, the very refusal to apologise became talismanic for the right. It was at once both a powerful assertion that inconvenient historical facts would not be allowed to prevent Australians feeling comfortable and relaxed about their past and a rhetorical victory over the dread spectre of “political correctness”. (As WA MP Barry Haase’s risible valedictory speech demonstrated, empty denunciations of this bogeyman are not a thing of the past).

The “history wars” were above all a highly symbolic battle. Recall that in 2004 the federal government announced a $31 billion education package, under which schools would receive bonus funds provided they met certain conditions. These included that “every school must have a functioning flagpole, fly the Australian flag and display a ‘values framework’ in a prominent place”. As historian Inga Clendinnen noted drily, the government appeared to be investing a great deal in the value of “a piece of fabric and a poster”.

This focus on the magical powers of national emblems is set to continue – in April, Christopher Pyne suggested that ANZAC Day was being taught with insufficient reverence in our schools and that given the Day’s centrality “to our understanding of our Australian character and our Australian history” it ought to be “a stand-alone part of the history curriculum”.

Pyne also discerned a “seemingly (sic) over-emphasis on Indigenous culture and history” but provided no indication of how much of a focus was warranted. We are not here in the realm of concrete plans.

In addition, we have Tony Abbott’s Freedom Wars, in which a defence of freedom of speech is grandly asserted which in substance amounts merely to opposition to the Finkelstein recommendations remember those? and a plan to amend the vilification provisions of the Racial Discrimination Act, while leaving defamation laws (of which the Opposition Leader has famously availed himself) intact.

Once again, what matters is the need to be seen taking a stand: politics as performance. Section 18C of the Act has come to represent Political Correctness writ large and therefore it must be vanquished.

The Liberal Party’s much-touted Plan, Real Solutions for All Australians, trumpets purportedly practical aims (build more modern infrastructure, reduce carbon emissions, get the budget under control) but also centres around abstractions: The plan will apparently “offer Hope, Reward and Opportunity for all Australians”. Why not throw in Faith, Charity and Apple Pie for good measure?

The Liberals’ policy vacuity may partly be attributed to an inability to campaign on the area of major difference between the red and blue teams in Australia: industrial relations. The legacy of Work Choices remains so potent that the plan is reduced to coy euphemism: a Coalition government would apparently “rebalance workplace relations to reduce union militancy in workplaces and to encourage higher pay for better work”.

Beyond tiring clichés about the Judean People’s Front and the People’s Front of Judea, the left excels at self-criticism and self-analysis. These are important skills, which are also being exercised at present in sifting through the ALP’s entrails in search of hope for progressive politics.

We also need to look at the right, though, as well as listening for gaps and silences in our public discourse to explore what — beneath the trivialities on both sides — remains unsaid.

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