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.