Life Goes On In Liberal Heartland


It's 5.30pm on Election Day.

Manly's Steyne Hotel is the most patriotic hotel in Tony Abbott's electorate of Warringah, and perhaps the entire country. It looks out over the beautiful Manly beach, it serves Tooheys Old, it's owned by John Singleton, it has a first-class TAB, and it has old mates by the dozen. It was once one of the country's most violent drinking spots but, according to the Herald, is now "reformed".

More importantly, it's chock full of punters straight from central casting.

You could replace them with the drinkers from basically any pub with Keno and Queen of the Nile without a worry. This isn't the "real Australia" but it is "Australia"; the drinkers at the Steyne more or less subscribe to an updated version of what Paul Kelly (The Oz editor, not the singer) called, in his book The End of Certainty, the "Australian Settlement" — that there is a set of givens both parties have to reference in order to be permitted to govern the nation.

Kelly's model consisted of things like centralised wage fixing, the white Australia policy, benevolent state paternalism and a positive view of the Empire. Obviously much of that changed after Paul Keating (Kelly's not particularly gripping book is about what those changes were). Nowadays we might be talking about an even simpler set of qualities: "no state assistance for bludgers", "no more tax thanks", "yanks and poms are arseholes", "multiculturalism is OK but don't be too foreign", and "beer and cigs cost too much".

The terms of the settlement are always being rewritten, of course. Over the last decade this has happened more rapidly than ever, especially with the introduction of previously alien policy issues like marriage equality, asylum seekers and climate change. We might not see the new settlement crystallise for some time. That said, not being corrupt, and not annoying people while they're trying to watch the footy, remain core values. As one bloke said to me, hours after he had cast his ballot, "why waste a beautiful day like this talking about politics?"

That's why Overland Editor (and NM contributor) Jeff Sparrow is absolutely right in his assessment of this election. "With Labor unable to provide its base with any compelling reason to vote, Australia goes to the polls today in a mood of generalised cynicism," he wrote in the Guardian today.

But rather than having a lack of any kind of real political alternative to vote for, aren't we cynical about the whole process itself?

Labor has outdone itself this year with its attempt to reform boldly on a shallow tax base (NBN, NDIS, Gonski etc) and simultaneously re-do Rudd's 2007 "more Howard than Howard" trick by being more Tony than Tony. No wonder the ALP hasn't been able to tell a consistent election "narrative" — there's too much to talk about, and none of it matches up.

You can see this everywhere in the language used to talk about Labor: disappointment. Labor carries the heavy moral burden on behalf of the nation; the Libs, even for those who vote for them, conduct their business in a cloud of resignation. As GK Chesterton said, "The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."

This is the stuff we hear all the time, not just on election day, and, to return to Manly, not just at the Steyne. Who bothers to read the news closely day-to-day? Most us vote on whether the parties feel like they fit inside an accepted set of co-ordinates, or dissent from them. When Labor says it wants to be a mainstream party — a line Jules Zanetti, Labor's 25-year-old Warringah candidate was keen on running today — this is what it's talking about: which issues, including "activist" ones are to be permitted into the settlement?

Even the Greens are now playing this game by conceding a "mainstream" approach on a lot of its core issues, against the wishes of its more activist fringe. It can also be seen in the dismissive (or uncaring) view many take towards international assessments of domestic "politics" and the economy.

Brereton-poll (which involved talking to a few old mates and young guns in the front bar, the beer garden and the TAB at the Steyne) delivered a general consensus: "piss off mate". Nonetheless, there were a few who wanted to have a yak about the state of things, and they mainly fit this profile.

One young bartender voted for Abbott, because "that's what my parents have always done. At least I didn't donkey vote like everyone else!" he said, before asking me in the next breath whether I'd seen Clive Palmer out "Kevin Rudd's spy".

"Who — Judy Deng? (Rupert Murdoch's ex-wife)" I replied. "Yeah — it's probably bullshit but who cares, it was hilarious. I don't know anything about politics," he said.

Another bartender said he was voting for the Greens in Warringah because Australians are meant to back the underdog, and they're the underdog. Fair enough.

In the Steyne's front bar a huge stink was being kicked up over Ecuador-Colombia in the soccer, Richmond-Carlton in the Aussie Rules and whoever was playing in the NRL. One old fella with a dirty mo and Crocodile Dundee that told me he'd voted but didn't want to say more about it. I ended up talking with another old mate over a few Tooheys for a bit about the state of things.

"We shouldn't feel too bad when this lot gets shafted," he said. "They lead a pretty good life. But look at how much politics costs the country: the boats keep coming and how much does that cost us? What about the ads? You can't turn on the TV without the same ad being played five times. If they were really worried about the state of the budget you'd only see it once. I voted Liberal but only because there needs to be a change and Julia was an idiot."

Another bloke in the TAB was down from Queensland and had already cast his ballot. He was more worried about whether Native Rhythm or Ambrose was going to win on the track. More power to you, mate — hope you did all right.

The ballots will roll in tonight and Abbott will probably take hold of the levers of government. Like WorkChoices under Howard, perhaps the electorate will punish him for his cuts, and his popularity will dissolve like Campbell Newman's. But, as Eva Cox said in NM earlier this week, the left have to be better advocates — or else. Maybe this means going back into the Steyne and patiently convincing the punters that things like multiculturalism, asylum seekers and climate change are worth making part of a new post-Keating, post-Howard, post-Rudd, post-Abbott settlement.

In an ideal world, when our time rolls around next, we might find ourselves on the same side as the old buggers, defending a new status quo.

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