31 Jan 2014

Worst. Culture. War. Ever.

By Guy Rundle

It's only a culture war if your enemy is copping most of the damage - this is an incompetent mess. The left needs to stop panicking over Abbott and start strategising, writes Guy Rundle

Good God. I’ve been writing about Australian politics for close to 20 years now, and US politics for close to a decade, and I have to say, I’ve seen some crap culture wars in my time, but this one is really a new low.

Since taking power, the Abbott government has shown an unprecedented lack of focus. All new governments wobble a bit, but this one has wobbles in its wobbles. As Abbott arsed around in the first weeks, his loyal retainers in the Murdoch press kept repeating, with diminishing degrees of conviction, "government by adults, government by adults" — even as most of the trouble seemed to come from Christopher Pyne, the one member of parliament who appears to be forever nine years old. His hamfisted dealing with the Gonski question ensured that for a while, the official opposition was the NSW Government.

As our relationship with Indonesia collapsed to its lowest point since the nation’s founding, and we prated on about sovereignty while crossing back and forth on their territorial waters, to the point where they have now dispatched ships to actively enforce it, the yet more feeble cry was heard, "government by adults". George Brandis attempted to get something going in free speech and the repeal of the "insult" provisions. The Liberal state governments introduced a range of legislation so draconian in so many different ways, that it made a mockery of the Right’s commitment to "freedomwatch" — so much so that incoming rights bureaucrat, former classical liberal, Tim Wilson, was moved to make a few plaintive croaks.

Then the oldskool culture/political war began, banging the drum for a new curriculum, to be reviewed by the most obviously right wing fixers that could be drummed up, to revise a process that took five years to complete. But that was interrupted by Abbott’s announcement that he would seek a specific mention of indigenous people in the preamble to the constitution, something that has been anathema to the rightwing chorus for years.

Then just as everyone was working out what they thought about that, there was the attack on the ABC, and the intimation that it should be "on Australia’s side" —  ie on the government’s side — and then Malcolm Turnbull’s frank rebuttal to that, and then inner Sydney chipmunk Craig Laundy’s statement that reporting on Edward Snowden was "un-Australian", and then Bolt’s statement that he was indigenous, and on we went.

Come on, this isn’t a culture war! It’s not a culture war when most of the damage is inflicted on your own side by friendly fire. But the only people trying to take it more seriously than the ragged right, are elements of the left, who jump at each chaotic announcement as if it were a 3am knock at the door. Can we stipulate for the record that the Abbott government is doing a terrible job, governmentally and politically, that their immediate post-election drop in the polls reflect this, and then start to strategise from there?

Two obvious points come out of the recent months. The first is that the Abbott government has no real game plan, apart from killing the carbon tax, and stopping the boats, and then a footling series of culture war maneouvres. The real stuff — going up against the union movement, etc is going to be hard, and they’re not in shape for that yet. Truth is, they can’t even manage a culture war, tripping over themselves as different and contradictory initiatives fly every which way.

Why are these political moves proving so chaotic, compared to the last culture war, in the Howard years? The answer is that Howard's gestures were part of a larger movement, the neoconservative wave rushing through the West after 9/11. The idea that decadent leftists had left the place to wrack and ruin, and that "Western Civ" would now be restored was quite powerful. Now? Meh. Western societies have returned to inward self-preoccupation. In the meantime, they have simply become more left-liberal, more comfortable and relaxed about being post-Christian, post-conservative cultures.

Ten years ago people were still talking about "multiculturalism" as a scourge, as if assimilation could replace it as a strategy. Now the obvious question is, assimilation to what? We have become a more globalised, placeless culture than we ever were. Same-sex marriage may not have been achieved, but it is no longer some exotic bloom. Cory Bernardi’s book did not function as a call to arms, but as a silly season moment of severe oddness, as or more embarrassing to the Coalition as it was to anyone.

That’s one reason why the Howard government was able to run a more efficient culture war. They had things they wanted to get done, and a sufficient external sense of grievance to match and support it. So it was a steady march through the ABC, the museum, the curriculum etc. Even then, it met with little success. Now its major achievement is to draw focus away from its popular policies towards boat arrivals etc.

For people on the left to keep reacting to these scattered and fragmented moves would seem merely to give them a greater efficacy than they have. Everything the Coalition has done — from its pre-election commitment to a range of Labor policies, to the absence of a programme now — is evidence of weakness, not strength. That’s something that a number of us — Tad Tietze on Left Flank, the Piping Shrike blog — have been saying for a while, and it’s something to recognise in a political practice.

What is required is to respond to these various haphazard attacks on public institutions, voluntary groupings (ie unions etc), with a reunification of them, and go on the attack. This would usually be the provenance of the ALP, but since they have abandoned any notion of defending even the most minimal social democratic idea of state and society, and relapsed to some free-market footnote to the government, whining about jobs, it has to be done elsewhere. The Greens don’t have the speaking position yet.

My suggestion is, that with people already starting spontaneous protests about the ABC, the Victorian government’s assembly laws, the Queensland bikie laws, with a renewed focus on refugees and unions, a simple overarching campaign called ‘Public Good’ might be the go. Public Good — emphasising both the idea that distanced public institutions such as the ABC are A Good Thing, but also that, with refugees, there is a strong public desire to do good, to be simply decent, rather than the current metered out sadism.

Public Good — I don’t propose it as any sort of group, meeting in church halls blah blah. I suggest it’s a logo, a symbol, a meme, an evolving set of simple principles which people campaigning on one or other of these issues would attach to what they’re doing. Eventually, if it has some sort of life, it may in turn draw some physical manifestations in its own name. The important thing seems to be to unify these separate issues, set chaotically by the Coalition, and give them a single form, that then starts to set the agenda.

If anyone feels thus inspired and wants to get some sort of logo, words going, circulating, just, well, do it. It lives or dies on simply entering circulation. It’s not the sort of thing that can be readily appropriated. It would look so obviously ridiculous if fluoridationists or creationists were using it. Public Good, as I may have mentioned.

Meanwhile, the Abbott thing shudders on. If it were a musical, it would have closed in the Geelong tryouts.

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This user is a New Matilda supporter. RossC
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 11:20


I'm absolutely loving Abbott's inept 'culture war'. Every day another hilarity.


Dharff Buggha
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 11:48

You may not have heard of March in March 2014. Grassroots protest movement involving protests in locations nationwide. Finf on Facebook. Slogan is " Not in My Name". Its going to be big!

Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 14:16

Tim Wilson.

It sounds even more ridiculous when you say it out loud.

Tim Wilson.

Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 14:18

Common Action = Public Good

Edward Eastwood
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 15:12

Good article Guy and you're absolutely correct about it needing a grass roots movement to get the ball rolling. From now on all my blogs will carry the slogan 'Public Good'

Mr Denmore
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 15:50

Great idea bout forming a united front outside the defunct two-party system. I assumed that was what Get-Up was about, though that seems more about Getting Down on the Sofa and clicking furiously on 'like' tabs.

'Public Good', though, strikes me as likely to be read by the psychotic right as 'Public Service', which will give them an excuse to rally around the mythical constituency of self-employed tradies and contractors whom they have adopted as their own.

A better idea might be to riff off their broken promise to be an "adult" government, as you say in your intro. So start a movement called 'The Grown Ups'. That way you're making a stand against juvenile theatrics and bully boy tactics rather than ideology.





Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 15:55

Good on you Iain, you stay true to Abbott no matter how useless he is.

Ute Man
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 16:06

I don't suppose, rather than a bunch of easily ignored public protests, it might be better to re-occupy the Labor movement and wrench it back from the vested interests that control it?

A big job maybe, but our political system is automatically biased against new entrants.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. RossC
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 17:26

MJoanneS - Don't hassle Iain. For once, he got something spot-on.

Abbott is the 'B' team, at best.

Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 18:03

"I don't suppose, rather than a bunch of easily ignored public protests, it might be better to re-occupy the Labor movement and wrench it back from the vested interests that control it?"

I don't know why more people don't consider this an option. Surely, in great enough numbers an outside movement could stack branches enough to gain influence? While the LNP are weak now so is the ALP. If there has ever been a time to do damage to the factions that have adopted neo-liberalism with a smile it is now.

It'll never happen while membership numbers are so low

kitekat lee
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 18:04

For those that do not know, a grassroots movement is already underway, this movement is called March in March Australia 2014.

You can find us on Facebook, marches will be happening in EVERY CAPITAL CITY Australia wide, and also in several regional centres.

Find us and join us! Get your voice heard and show this government that WE THE PEOPLE OF AUSTRALIA SAY ENOUGH IS ENOUGH..... NOT IN MY NAME!!!!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. davidstephens
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 18:38

Plucking a couple of things out of this. Honesthistory.net.au has kept track (with increasing aghastness) of the Pyne efforts on curriculum ( http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/minister-pyne-and-the-curriculum-again/ ) and has found itself caught up in the ABC bashing (as a fellow bashee)  (http://honesthistory.net.au/wp/should-we-softpedal-on-gallipoli/ ) . Check them out. While we can't run on a broad front like March in March and Guy's proposed Public Good we are certainly fellow travellers, having the mottoes 'Neither rosy glow nor black armband … just honest' and 'Not only Anzac but also [lots of other strands of Australian history]'. We don't see ourselves as antagonists in a culture war just advocates of diversity. Plenty of background on the website.


Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 19:03

Brilliant, Damn fine piece. Guy Rundle

Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 19:17

Thanks to Darff Bugha,  

Not in My Name March 2014   definitely a good idea,

ditto to the author of this article, the governments obvious incompetence should make for a movement against it on broad terms

cardinal fang
Posted Friday, January 31, 2014 - 21:51

Poor Andrew Bolt, rhymes with Dolt, growing up in Tailem Bend, attending Murray Bridge High. How did he get on with the significant Aboriginal population ? Would have that influenced his critical interest in all things Aboriginal?

Posted Saturday, February 1, 2014 - 14:14

Hey iain, if politics took a hoilday, someone didn't tell the Coalition, just look at the stuff ups they have made during that period.

Posted Sunday, February 2, 2014 - 20:58

DracoH - That would be a good idea but the ALP in the 80s devoted most of its energy, surfing on the power of electoral success, deliberately and with malice aforethought, disregarding, humiliating and destroying local branches, once the very basis, if not raison d'etre of the Party's strength and social contact.

I agree that a new focus is required and suggest  a name such as "COMMON WEAL" - unusual enough not to have been sullied, esoteric enough to allow people time to consider and utterly blatant about it aims.

John Armour
Posted Sunday, February 2, 2014 - 21:49

Public Good.

A nice bit of double entendre. I hope it catches on.

No point waiting for the Labor Party, currently too busy running to catch the bus to oblivion.

The expression by the way often appears in the literature of Modern Monetary Theory:

"MMT considers financial stability to be a public good".

So its application might have a wider currency than the author imagined.


Sally McInerney
Posted Monday, February 3, 2014 - 09:17

How about "Put out the Spot Fires"? - because the Abbott govt. is destroying things on many different fronts, simultaneously...Terrific article, thank you, Guy Rundle.



Kate Fraser
Posted Monday, February 3, 2014 - 11:55

Guy - nice piece.

You might find the Cognitive Policy Works' Practitioner's Guide to Political Frames useful.

The left needs to recover its cohesion at all levels.

There has been a global conservative push over the last 30 years which has essentially succeeded in associating social democrats with communism. The resulting defensiveness and confusion is pervasive; meanwhile, conservatives have poured vast resources into refining their management of public opinion and controlling academic influence.

When was the last time you saw a serious public debate over social ethics? Howard? Keating? Hawke? It's not as if the relevant principles are difficult to understand; yet for some reason, writers with the capacity to evoke the connections between fundamental ethical principles and the world of politics are staying silent.



This user is a New Matilda supporter. aussiegreg
Posted Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 06:47

Hey Fackler

You don't work for the ABC, do you?


Posted Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 13:42

The culture wars are just distractions from a chaotic Government which is losing control of our economy. Government debt is rising, unemployment is rising, small businesses are struggling, Australian industries are disappearing, pensioners are being targeted, we are losing our assets to foreign interests, and Aussie standards of living are falling.

Mr Abbott's frenzied attacks will get more and more vicious as the economy deteriorates.

And the economy will deteriorate further.

I fear that with Mr Abbott's misanagement,  Australia is about to hit the GFC and a severe economic recession.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Barney
Posted Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 13:53

The Abbott Government is just proving that they are not capable of thinking past three-word slogans, especially Mr arr Abbott, arr himself. If it wasn't for Labor's leadership turmoil and Julia's inept communication non-skill, we wouldn't be putting up with Abbott now. Even the Liberal Party must have noticed what a dill he is.

colin mallett
Posted Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 13:57

Interesting take on the current state of affairs in the Nation. If only it were as simple as unifying under some great left banner...It aint. To give an example of that how many Bikies have you seen over the years at rallies to fight the right? Unity and solidarity are always good to aim for, definition is the hard part.

Peter Burnett
Posted Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 15:12

There is a certain method in the Coalition's madness, in spite of Guy's belief that they're all over the place. For example, they haven't just cut the overseas aid budget by $650 million, they abolished AusAID as an independent statutory body and transfered its functions to Foreign Affairs. I expect we're going to see some significant damage to institutions that contribute to the Public good, rather than just budget cuts and ideological bleating. 

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tokujiro
Posted Tuesday, February 4, 2014 - 16:09

Guy - excellent and measured interpretation of the daily dose of nonsense from the Abbott Gang.


Public Good - Private Bad!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Venise Alstergren
Posted Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 16:28

GUY RUNDLE: Excellent article, thank you.


I love hating the Abbott government and they deserve every sledge they get. However, super honesty makes me believe that any government is only as bad as the opposition allow it to be.


Bill Shorten should put out his finger!

This user is a New Matilda supporter. Tim Macknay
Posted Wednesday, February 5, 2014 - 19:41

I'm with Ute Man.

Posted Saturday, February 8, 2014 - 00:11

Public Good works for me, though how we get it, who knows?

Watching the monstrous behaviour of the Coalition with the refugees - bring out the cavalry, float orange rafts fully covering starving refugees (I had to see it twice to believe it was real!!! It looked like a blimp about to capsize), Morrison going to the Straits of Malacca to get them durn Injuns - pu-lease, Michael Bachelard's  investigation on Fairfax Media making the burnt hands incident likely to be true - what more disgraceful behaviour can they conjure up?

Great article, Guy