Dethroning The Oligarchs: How We Can Reclaim Our Democracy


OPINION: Yesterday, Liam McLoughlin exposed the oligarchs. Today, he’s trying to get rid of them.

 They will endure poverty, servitude, barbarism – but they will not endure aristocracy.

-French political theorist Alexis De Tocqueville writing about democratic communities.

Australian politics is now a contest between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten over who does the best Malcolm Turnbull impression.

Turnbull is winning.

As it stands, because the Opposition Leader refuses to oppose or lead, Bill Shorten has no hope at the next election. That’s the view of the Labor party anyway. A recent SMH story quoted one Labor MP saying, “No one thinks he can win (the election). The question is how far backward we could go.”

Jason Wilson sums up the depressing state of play in a recent column for the Guardian:

“The Labor party has no Sanders or Corbyn on the horizon. It’s still stuck in the essentially reactive and defensive position it adopted when last in government. It has no transformational social or political agenda, and its current plans seem to be more tinkering around the edges of the neoliberal consensus. At best it seems to want to reinstate elements of the Gillard legacy – like a carbon trading scheme – that even Malcolm Turnbull has previously agreed with. Worse, in its increasingly forlorn obsession with electability, the ALP has actively colluded in the construction of the west’s most heinous refugee policy.”

Anthony Albanese’s attacks on the competition for his seat of Grayndler, Greens candidate Jim Casey, tell us much about just how far Labor has drifted to the ‘extreme centre’. As noted by Alex Jones in Independent Australia, “When a key figure of the left faction of the ostensible “left-wing” party in the nation makes an attack on an opposing candidate for being a “socialist” (shock, horror!), there should be some cause for concern.”

Jones goes on to describe this as odd, “since the fourth objective in the constitution of Albanese’s party still clearly states that ‘The Australian Labor Party is a democratic socialist party and has the objective of the democratic socialisation of industry, production, distribution and exchange, to the extent necessary to eliminate exploitation and other anti-social features in these fields.’”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten.

Meanwhile with Richard Di Natale at the helm, the Greens are also being drawn in by the gravitational pull of centrism. This trend was evident from the moment of the new leader’s ascension, when he said, “I don’t have a dogmatic view about whether we should do one thing or another”. Actually Richard, things in Australian politics are pretty dire and it would be real peachy if you actually had a clear, dogmatic view about the things we should do to fix them.

The trend continued when the suited up leadership team appeared on the front of The Monthly bearing the title “The New Greens: Hitting the Mainstream”, and it’s playing out in more recent developments.

Again, Jason Wilson’s description seems apt:

“Even the Greens, under the emphasis provided by their new leader, seem much less like an insurgent third force connected to a vibrant social movement, and more as group with a focus on parliamentary deal-making…under Di Natale – despite claims he wants them to be a party of government – you could be forgiven for thinking the Greens are treading water, leveraging the current share of the vote for a place at the table in political deals.”

The absence of a thriving challenge to the political status quo is a serious problem, especially when the status quo is best described as an oligarchy.

As argued in my earlier column this week, you can call Australia many things. Call it an oligarchy, government by the few. Call it a plutocracy, government by the wealthy for the wealthy. Call it an aristocracy, government by elites. Just don’t pretend it’s a democracy.

The failure to build a populist campaign challenging this corporate oligarchy is the critical failure of the left in Australia. Such a challenge is at the heart of Bernie Sanders’ success in the US, and pivotal to the future electoral success of both Labor and The Greens.

Democrats presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. (IMAGE: Phil Roeder, Flickr)
Democrats presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders. (IMAGE: Phil Roeder, Flickr)

Bernie Sanders says a campaign which challenges the 1 per cent is not only a ‘damn good platform’ for a presidential candidate, but also what most Americans want.

He’s right.

At the heart of Bernie’s campaign is an attack on politics for the 1 per cent and demands for a more equal society. His messaging is relentless. Among his many statements about the US slide into oligarchy, he’s said:

“We are moving rapidly away from our democratic heritage, into an oligarchic form of society where today we are experiencing a government of the billionaires, by the billionaires and for the billionaires.

“Now is the time to alter our government. Now is the time to stop the movement toward oligarchy. Now is the time to create a government which represents all Americans and not just the 1 per cent…. No more excuses. We must all become involved in the political process.

“The American people must make a fundamental decision. Do we continue the 40 year decline of the middle class, or do we fight for a progressive agenda that creates jobs, raises wages and takes on the economic and political power of the oligarchy?”

It’s a potent message which provides a broader framework for the detail of his policies. His 12 step agenda for America includes breaking the power of Wall Street firms, redistributing wealth to the poor via tax reform, establishing universal health care and free tuition at public colleges and universities, expanding social security, growing trade unions, creating worker co-ops and raising the minimum wage. These views simply echo public opinion. 77 percent of Americans believe “there is too much power in the hands of a few rich people and corporations”, 61 per cent agree the economic system in the US “unfairly favours the wealthy” and 57 per cent think the rich don’t pay their fair share of taxes.

Unlike Albo, Bernie is not afraid of the label “democratic socialist”. In fact, he’s owns it.

It’s an apt moniker for a man who wants to end crony capitalism and build a fairer society. Sanders has said, “Democratic socialism means that we must create an economy that works for all, not just the very wealthy”.

It’s this willingness to confront the oligarchs and to own his democratic socialist message that has Bernie surging in the race to the White House. Six months ago most pundits thought Sanders had no chance at the presidency.

No longer.

After a virtual tie in Iowa, a resounding victory in New Hampshire and climbing national polls, it’s Sanders who has the momentum. In fact, one column gave good reasons to believe “barring unforeseeable events, Bernie Sanders will be the Democratic nominee”.

It’s important here to recognise you can’t chalk up this incredible popularity to charisma. Bernie is no Barack. This is not a case of soaring oratory and smooth charm winning Americans over. This is a campaign based on rational argument and common sense principles of fairness and social justice. It’s a rare treat for modern politics, but it’s not charisma that’s winning the day. It’s the message.

These are vital lessons for the left in Australia if we are to have any hope of reclaiming our democracy.

More than anything, it’s adopting a Sanders-style campaign challenging corporate oligarchy which is paramount. The Australian left needs to stop its permanent state of defence and start playing offence. More than merely reacting to the government’s relentless neoliberal agenda, Labor and the Greens could present a united front and launch a campaign to reclaim our democracy from corporate oligarchy.

There are few panaceas in politics but dealing with plutocratic influence is about as close as you could get. Abolishing corporate political donations and lobbying would have immense flow on effects in any number of policy areas. Opportunities for a policy revolution on climate change, asylum seekers, Indigenous affairs, health, education, transport and taxation would open up before us.

As Christine Milne has said, “We can vote, we can march, we can write letters, we can make calls, we can post tweets, but as long as the rich few can buy the political process, there is very little hope.”

Labor and the Greens must embrace a democratic socialist agenda and they will be rewarded by the Australian people, who are already convinced on much of this agenda.

Most Australians want a much fairer tax system and a reduction in inequality, a stronger social safety net, and greater investment in health, education and transport. Most Australians also want greater equality for Indigenous Australians and would also like to see progress on gender equality and LGBTQI rights, as well as more humane treatment of asylum seekers and action on climate change. It’s time for parties of the left to catch up.

The exact choice for the leaders who should front this campaign is less important, though still worth considering.

Short of an immediate and miraculous transformation, Bill Shorten’s time is up. He stopped being the Opposition Leader two and a half years ago. Labor just needs to make that official. The obvious alternatives are Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek. If Albo is going to waste his time red-baiting while Tanya spends it calling our asylum seeker debate toxic and devoid of ‘rationality, compassion and respect’, it’s clear who would be a more deserving champion of democratic socialism.

Like Bill Shorten, Richard Di Natale has been something of a disappointment. Perhaps he could drop this “I’m mainstream, just like all these other centrist hacks” routine and passionately push the campaign to reclaim our democracy. Or perhaps such a campaign would be better served by the current co-deputies, Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam.

Ludlam’s 2015 speech “welcoming” Tony Abbott to Western Australia suggests as much.

Ludlam argues, “It looks awkward when you take policy advice on penalty rates and the minimum wage from mining billionaires and media oligarchs on the other side of the world. Awkward, and kind of revolting.”

And then there’s the exciting prospect of Australia’s first Indigenous Prime Minister.

Journalist Stan Grant has risen to national prominence in recent months for his outstanding columns for the Guardian Australia and his breathtaking speech on racism and the Australian dream.

A long form interview with Grant from 2013 on Conversations with Richard Fidler fills in a picture of an intelligent, progressive, passionate and articulate Wiradjuri man and an outstanding advocate on Indigenous issues. Speculation about his entry into federal politics was sparked by his appearance on a recent episode of Q and A.

We would need to know much more about Grant’s politics in a wide array of policy areas before getting too excited. Nevertheless, let’s for a moment revel in an alternate reality.

It’s November 2016. Australia has just elected its first Indigenous Prime Minister, Stan Grant. Grant trounces Malcolm Turnbull by leading a Labor-Greens coalition forged around campaign demands to end the corporate oligarchy and overhaul the tax system, to sign a Treaty with the First Australians and become a Republic, to end mandatory detention, to swiftly transition to a renewable economy, to advance gender equality and LGBTQI rights, and to massively invest in public transport, health and education.

Yeah, that’d be sweet.

In wonderful piece for The Atlantic called The Pragmatic Case For Bernie Sanders, Christopher Cook writes:

“… based on an electoral mandate of centrism, there is zero prospect of progressive reform on Wall Street, corporate accountability, wealth inequality, or campaign finance. In politics, if you demand a mile, you get a foot; demand a moderate inch, and at best, you get a centimetre.

“On the other side of the ledger, history shows that political and social change emanate from persistent pressure –organising and arguing for a more just world, not settling for what is deemed “realistic” before getting to the negotiating table. Remember when gay rights and gay marriage were “unrealistic”? Remember when voting rights, desegregation, and other basic justice were far from “pragmatic”. They became real through years of dedicated, principled idealism – by insisting the unrealistic become real.”

To Bill, Tanya, Albo, Richard, Larissa and Scott. Enough already with the timidity. Your country needs you to dream big. If Bernie can do it, so can you.

It’s time to demand a mile.

It’s time to turn the ‘unrealistic’ into reality.

It’s time to take our democracy back.

Liam McLoughlin teaches English, politics, and media, and writes a bit. You can find his stuff at Situation Theatre or on Facebook and Twitter. He still can’t decide which quote is more profound: Karl Marx’s “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” or Stewart Lee’s “David Cameron and Ed Milliband are about as different as two rats fighting over a courgette that has fallen into a urinal. The main difference being that the David Cameron rat is wearing chinos, in an attempt to win over the youth voter”.