Abbott's Tribe Will Fight Until The Bitter End


Tony Abbott has attracted a fair bit of derision for his attempt to class the participants in the Syrian civil war and other global conflicts as "baddies" or "goodies". However crude and unsophisticated, Abbott’s analysis of global politics is unlikely to have much impact on Australian foreign policy: it’s not as if we were ever going to offer anything more than symbolic support to the perceived "goodies".

The real problem is that the Abbott government’s domestic policies are driven by exactly the same view of a world divided into goodies and baddies. The list of "baddies", which can be read off from the columns of Andrew Bolt or the diatribes of Alan Jones, is a long one: unionists, greenies, gays, feminists, Muslims, teachers (at least those in public schools), the ABC, welfare beneficiaries (except age pensioners and "self-funded" retirees) and many others.

The "goodies" by contrast are defined by default as ordinary right-thinking Australians, now a beleaguered tribe, threatened with extinction in their own country. The natural mental image of such a goodie is that of a middle aged white male, operating a small business, or perhaps an engineer or manager, with a practical knowledge of the world that enables him to see through such nonsense as multiculturalism and the theory of global warming.

On this view of the world, political issues are assessed not in terms of a coherent world view, but in terms of their symbolic significance in the culture war between goodies and baddies. So, for example, science is good, and worthy of public support when it is considered as a source of technological and medical innovation, but a conspiracy against the public when it produces evidence that particular activities damage the environment or human health. Evidence on health risks is nanny-state nonsense when it relates to tobacco smoking or air pollution or, but not when it relates to illegal drugs or to spurious claims about wind turbines.

Virtually everything the Abbott government has done reflects this tribalist approach to politics, from Christopher Pyne’s attempts to rewrite the school history curriculum to Abbott’s own attacks on the ABC. Actions such as the withdrawal of World Heritage listing for Tasmanian forests, a central part of a peace agreement between forest industries and environmentalists, are indicative of the government’s determination to pursue the culture war to the bitter end.

Even economic issues are framed increasingly in culture war terms. The Howard government’s WorkChoices legislation, whatever its flaws in reality, was presented in positive terms as an opportunity for workers and employers to negotiate mutually beneficial agreements. By contrast, having announced that WorkChoices is "dead and buried", the Abbott government is focusing its agenda on corrupt union officials, for example in the building industry (while studiously ignoring the evidence of similar corruption in deals between building site supervisors and subcontractors).

Unsurprisingly, those affected by these attacks have responded in kind, often presenting largely symbolic actions as signs of impending catastrophe. Meanwhile, the ALP and its parliamentary leader Bill Shorten have maintained a studious silence, responding only to the most obvious cases of over-reach by the government.

This in turn has produced something of a counter-reaction on the left. It is increasingly being argued (for example, on the Left Flank and Piping Shrike blogs) that it’s a mistake to respond in these terms. A recent piece by Guy Rundle argues:

"the only people trying to take [the culture war]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 … 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."

Whereas Shorten’s silence presumably reflects a fear that the government’s culture war initiatives are politically popular, Rundle takes the opposite view:

"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."

Rundle argues that what is needed is an overarching view, "to unify these separate issues, set chaotically by the Coalition, and give them a single form, that then starts to set the agenda".

That’s fine as a starting point, but it needs both some qualifications and extensions. First, it’s inevitable that those directly affected by particular attacks are going to respond. It’s easy enough to see Pyne’s curriculum review as a piece of silliness that will do the government more harm than good, but that’s little consolation if you’re a history teacher, seeing a massive curriculum development effort scrapped at the whim of a private schoolboy, suddenly elevated to a position of power.

More importantly, and contrary to the fears of Shorten and others on the centre-right, there’s no reason to think that this reaction is going to be counterproductive in terms of electoral politics. The more groups see themselves as being on the wrong end of culture wars, the more likely it is that voters in general will see themselves as potential targets, rather than as “ordinary right-thinking Australians”. The decline of the US Republican party, operating on more favourable cultural ground, is evidence of this.

More importantly, it’s easy enough to recognise the culture war offensive as evidence that the government has no coherent response to the global economic crisis or to the impending end of the mining boom. To make this critique effective, it’s necessary to offer a plausible and politically appealing alternative.

For the ALP, operating within the market liberal framework that’s been dominant for the past 30 years or so, this problem is, in a sense, soluble. The Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government initiated a string of sensible reforms within the market liberal framework (carbon prices, mineral resource tax, NBN, NDIS, agreements on forest and water issues) which Abbott is steadily trashing. Labor can mount a plausible alternative simply by offering to restart these reforms and undo, as far as possible, the reckless damage inflicted by the current government.

For those on the left who perceive the continuing global crisis as representing the failure of the entire market liberal project, the problem is more difficult. It’s easy to see culture war politics as the death throes of a failed economic and social ideology, much harder to describe what should replace that ideology.

A return to the values and aspirations of 20th century social democracy is an appealing starting point, but no more. We need a new politics that captures the transformation wrought by the Internet, global public good issues like climate change, and the increasing obsolescence of national boundaries. Market liberalism tried to claim this transformation as its own, but has failed to deliver the goods. Culture war politics is driven, instead, by the fear of the future. The left needs to embrace a future vision based on justice, diversity and tolerance.

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