As opuses documenting the spectacular hypocrisies, vagueries and stupidities of modern day politics go, this piece by Dr Lissa Johnson is quite something. Indeed, it’s possibly the most heavily linked and referenced demolition of modern politics ever published on New Matilda. Sit down before you start reading it. And keep a bucket handy.
With the votes finally counted for the October 20th Wentworth by-election, independent candidate Dr Kerryn Phelps has maintained her lead over Liberal candidate Dave Sharma, riding the crest of the 19 percent swing against the Liberal Party all the way to Federal Parliament.
Phelps will be sworn in this month, taking ousted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s seat, forcing the Coalition into minority government. It is the first time since the Liberal Party’s inception that Wentworth has parted ways with the Liberals at an election.
Although the Coalition’s new powerbrokers are putting on a brave face, it’s got to hurt being thrust into minority status by a formerly loyal electorate. Having staged an internal coup against Turnbull in order to run their own show, it can’t be easy coming to terms with his replacement, Phelps, whose first order of business is getting children off Nauru and tackling climate change.
As the post-Turnbull guard shifts into power-sharing mode, what has their response to the Wentworth by-election revealed about them so far? How will they fare making nice with crossbenchers? Has the Wentworth result taught them anything?
On election night, Prime Minister Morrison assured voters that he was all ears. “Tonight is a night where we listen”, he said, “where we learn.”
And so, with his listening ears on, and the magnitude of the swing against him sinking in, at his concession speech Morrison spoke in rallying terms about “what we believe” as Liberals. He dished up a slightly re-heated serve of the Abbott Government’s victim-blaming ‘lifters and leaners’ of 2014, stale and cold around the edges.
Morrison invoked a pro-austerity, anti-tax world populated by undeserving ne’er-do-wells and “hard working” Australians who “get up early in the morning” and “have a go”.
What it had to do with Wentworth wasn’t clear. Wentworth is among the least welfare reliant seats in the country. Its residents, on average, are among the most likely to benefit from Coalition tax policies.
Perhaps the unfolding reality was too much for Morrison to absorb: the strata of society he sought to prop up had turned against him.
So Morrison went instead to a happy Liberal place, pledging to fight for the early risers of Australia (formerly known as ‘lifters’) “til the bell rings. And the bell hasn’t rung Liberals, the bell hasn’t rung. We’ll take this all the way to the next election.”
The following day Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg doubled down on their existing climate change and asylum seeker policies, despite both issues being central to the winning Phelps campaign.
“Keep doing what you’re doing” appears to be the message that Morrison and Frydenberg heard.
Other senior figures in the Coalition seemed equally mis-attuned to voters’ sentiments. The day after the by-election, former Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce opined that Malcolm Turnbull had neglected his “responsibility” to “campaign to save his own seat… And I truly believe… that if he had… we would still have a majority in parliament.”
‘It’s all Malcolm’s fault’ is what the by-election said to Joyce.
Being a professional listener, I can’t help but observe that the Coalition’s listening skills need some work. Others seem to have noticed too.
An editorial in the Canberra Times, for instance, concluded that the Coalition would only succeed as a minority government “if they discover an ability to listen to voices other than their own. The Coalition’s current problems are the direct result of their refusal to do that.”
In fairness to the Coalition, perhaps ‘listening 101’ is not a step on politicians’ career ladders these days. Perhaps our leaders could use some tips. So, to help them out, here is a little listening 101.
As any good listener will know, real listening involves hearing not what you want to hear, as our leaders seem prone to do, nor simply the words that are being spoken, but the underlying meanings, themes, feelings and implications. This, in turn, requires putting oneself in the other person’s shoes, which listeners call perspective-taking.
The next level of listening entails reflecting back the themes and underlying meanings that you have gleaned, in order to enhance attunement and check your understanding. We call this reflective listening.
Given the level of mis-attunement to Wentworth voters, to help the Coalition with their perspective-taking skills, here are some messages they might have deciphered from within the Wentworth results. And to help them with their reflective listening, here are some honest reflections* they might have offered in response.
We thought this was a democracy
Although the Financial Review blamed social media and GetUp!, according to exit polling the biggest issue driving voters from the Liberal Party to Kerryn Phelps was that their elected candidate and Prime Minister, Turnbull, had been rolled. Were the Coalition listening attentively and reflectively to these voters, their responses might have included some or all of the below:
“We understand your anger at being forced to get out and vote right now. You’d rather be off enjoying your weekend. Who wouldn’t? You’re only here because the candidate you elected to represent you – and govern the country – has been ousted. By us.
You are probably extra peeved because no good reason was ever really offered for the leadership spill, other than the fact that we didn’t like Turnbull’s style and wanted his job. Plus there was Abbott’s revenge. Which are thin excuses for a coup, granted.
You probably also feel like the whole thing was all about us. Which it was. Maybe you thought governance should be about you.
In fact, you must be fed up with elected Prime Ministers getting rolled by ambitious rivals. Not that Turnbull is innocent, as you know. He did the same thing to Tony Abbott in 2015. Just like Julia Gillard did to Kevin Rudd in 2010 and then Rudd did back to Gillard in 2013. It’s practically the Australian way by now, with no elected Prime Minister serving a full term since 2007.
You may even remember the ABC telling you in 2015 not to get too het up about it all. It’s ‘just the Westminster system in action’ apparently.
But you do seem fed up. Fair enough. Australia has a good reputation as a democracy. We get great scores on those Democracy Indices. Nine out of 10 even.
And – it can’t be denied – elections are a cornerstone of democracy. You’d be forgiven for thinking that you had the right to choose who leads your country. Even if you’re mistaken, technically.
But Westminster system or not, we recognise that we were probably a little naïve to think that you’d be cool with us changing your electoral minds for you like that. Hell, even America, whose democracy is in tatters, takes the issue of ousting an elected President seriously. It’s only polite when you think about it, even if just to maintain the appearance of democracy. Otherwise the plutocratic nature of the whole project becomes a little too obvious, and that makes everyone uncomfortable.
Some of you might have noticed that in the US they need years of special investigations, indictments galore, endless primetime and print propaganda, intelligence reports, no matter how dubious or amateurish, and reasons – real and imagined – to try to roll a President. Even then there’s no guarantee. In Australia we treat it like it’s no big deal.
You could be excused for thinking ‘what the fudge?’ America takes democracy more seriously that we do? Sure, American elites bang on endlessly about democracy. But it’s obvious to any non-elite that this is what psychologists call ‘overcompensation’.
Let’s face it, democracy in America is so degraded that black and brown votes are suppressed in their millions, voters are illegally purged from voter rolls in their hundreds of thousands if not millions, election ‘debates’ are run by a private corporation that prohibits third parties from participating (and handcuffs them to chairs if they try), voting machines are owned by private corporations using proprietary software that can’t be inspected even by election officials, 11 year-olds can hack voting machines within 10 minutes, important contested ballots are illegally destroyed before courts can get their hands on them, primaries are rigged, and falsehood upon distortion upon confected scandal covers it all up.
In America they’re barely even trying at democracy. Here we consider ourselves the real deal. And yet we’re the ones whose Prime Ministers get ousted when elites-in-waiting just can’t keep it in their parliamentary portfolio anymore.
You’d be forgiven if you were thinking all of that. Even if you weren’t – even if you’re just mad that we took your candidate away – we get it. You’d prefer to elect your leaders democratically.”
We could have been a lot angrier
Although you did vote against us in Wentworth, you chose an establishment candidate with a history of supporting corporate tax cuts and opposing the right to publicly protest. One who preferenced us right-wingers, just in case, climate nihilism, asylum seeker abuse and all.
Of course, Kerryn Phelps has a more progressive stance than us on climate change and asylum seekers, which is another reason many of you voted for her, but she’s not about to fundamentally rock the climate-catastrophe, human-rights abusing predatory-capitalist boat.
So, as ruling elites – which matters much more than which ruling elite party we represent – we’re grateful.
We’re also, believe it or not, grateful that you don’t read the World Socialist Website. Not that you’d be interested in mobilising the working class, probably, but on the subject of democracy, you might be interested in reports that pressure from Donald Trump’s administration may have played a role in Turnbull’s ouster.
At the time of the leadership spill, the World Socialist Website (WSW) reported that:
‘Among those leading the charge against Turnbull have been figures closely associated with the US-linked military and intelligence forces…. Over the past two years, a succession of key figures in the US ruling elite, including former National Intelligence Director James Clapper, ex-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and US Vice President Mike Pence, have visited Australia to insist that Canberra remain totally committed to Washington’s geostrategic confrontation with China.’
China. Bet you didn’t think you were giving up your Saturday to vote because of China.
The whole thing reads like a case study in plutocracy. How many powerful vested interests does it take to bring down an Australian Prime Minister?
Not that we recommend you read the WSW article or anything, but if you did you’d find out that a few weeks before Turnbull was heaved overboard he ‘gave a speech that would not have pleased the US ruling elite. He vowed his determination to maintain a ‘very deep’ and growing relationship with China.’
Over at the WSW they reckon that that’s when we made our move against Turnbull – when the US was good and mad at him. ‘The move against Turnbull was certainly not opposed in Washington, if not tacitly endorsed,’ they said.
You must admit, timing is everything.
Then, a few weeks later in another article about the ‘survival of prime ministers… being determined by intrigues between billionaires’ the WSW added that ‘Turnbull was regarded as unreliable in Washington because of his reluctance to join provocative US military operations in the South China Sea and his attempts to protect the profit interests of those sections of Australian capitalism most reliant on China.’
Typical Turnbull. Thinking he knows best right to the end.
But luckily you don’t read that kind of stuff. If you did, you might have taken umbrage at the possibility of a foreign government deciding you’d voted the wrong way, and helping to correct your mistake for you.
True, the US does that all the time directly and indirectly in places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, Iran, Honduras, Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador or Haiti, to name a few. But this is Australia. We’re an arm of the US Empire. Or a bicep at least, surely. Not a client state. Are we?
But, look, don’t worry. As long as you don’t read the World Socialist Website you won’t have to think about any of that. You won’t be forced to grapple with Australian politics in imperial context. It’s a downer. (No pun intended).
You won’t have to wonder whether ‘Make America Great Again’ ‘Mexicans are Rapists’ ‘Build a Wall’ Trump had anything to do with the Wentworth by-election. There was enough white supremacist madness in Canberra as it was.
So just don’t read the World Socialist Website. It’s easier that way. In fact, forget we mentioned it.”
“To be honest, before the by-election we didn’t think very much about the whole democracy angle.
It hadn’t occurred to us that you’d be all that bothered whether it was Morrison or Dutton on Turnbull in power, seeing as how their policies are more or less the same anyway. You must admit, judging by actions rather than words, they’re difficult to distinguish, other than the blatant, obvious racism and far-right excess some of us add to the mix.
Take these two impressive lists on climate change and refugees for example. Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison makes for a seamlessly integrated three-headed climate-catastrophe human-rights-abusing beast. A beautiful beast, we might add. But we’re biased.
Plus Turnbull took us further down the path to a police state than even Abbott could manage. Here’s a satirical little video on the subject. (Police states are better digested laughing than crying, we find).
I mean show me a police state that’s not racist. Turnbull just put a ‘market friendly face’ on it. Like Morrison puts on us. Market friendliness is essential these days. And Turnbull presided over the ‘Foreign Interference Legislation’, which criminalises dissent and political organising, with up to 20 years jail for journalism the government deems unacceptable. (No prizes for guessing what kind of journalism police states deem unacceptable. Police states are notoriously sensitive to criticism).
The laws are so repressive they go ‘well beyond measures in force in other so-called democracies.’
Granted, the US did have to lean on Turnbull slightly to get him to rush the legislation through parliament. It was priceless, though. The US interfering in Australian politics to push swift passage of foreign interference legislation. You wouldn’t read about it.
After the legislation was passed, Steve Bannon came to Australia and sang its praises. The laws are all bound up with that whole clash between China and the West that Bannon is itching for. Australia belongs on the ‘front line’ of that clash he reckons.
Anyway, truth be told, we were starting to get a little jealous of Turnbull. He was touted as the ‘moderate’ ‘centrist’ one, and here he was presiding over all the hard-right stuff we had our eyes on. It wasn’t fair. We wanted a piece of that action. We didn’t really think you’d mind all that much.
But we neglected the importance of politeness, clearly. You probably didn’t appreciate us championing a white nationalist slogan, beloved by a former KKK grand wizard, the alt-right and neo-Nazi groups, just before the by-election. We got a little carried away.
We understand now that most people like their politics seemly and respectful on the surface. Then they can turn a blind eye to the ugliness underneath.
People are busy. They don’t have time to dig deep and inspect the rot at the roots of their society.
We should have realised that you’d find that white pride stuff shameful and repugnant. We should have remembered, for instance, that ruling elites on both sides of the aisle despise Donald Trump for much the same reason.
They happily rubber stamp, abet, enable, support, ignore and assist his most reactionary policies, but they hate that he fails to hide the contemptuous prejudice, racism, cruelty and oppression that those policies represent.
Turnbull, on the other hand, understood the importance of the anodyne façade. As did Barack Obama.
Obama the environmentalist presided over an unprecedented boom in US oil production, for example, 72% higher than George W. Bush. Obama also spent $34 billion promoting fossil fuel projects overseas, three times as much Bush, opened the Arctic to drilling based on fossil fuel industry research, laid ‘enough oil and gas pipelines to encircle the earth and then some’, embraced fracking, rejected keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and led the global rise in methane emissions.
He also deported more people than any other US president before him, let insurance industry reps write his pro-corporate healthcare policy, bombed twice as many countries as Bush, expanded presidential war powers, broke Bush’s record on military spending, dropped over 100,000 bombs compared to Bush’s 70,000, increased drone strikes tenfold, repealed habeas corpus or the right to a fair trial, committed over $1 trillion to a nuclear weapons upgrade, prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous US presidents combined, presided over an unprecedented transfer of wealth to the top 1 percent, placed Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, championed the predatory TPP and propped up the financial institutions that disproportionately exploited Black Americans, exacerbating Black poverty.
That’s for starters, forgetting ongoing support for the prison-industrial complex, militarisation of police and plenty of other stuff.
For those and other reasons, public intellectual Cornel West, Professor of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and Professor Emeritus at Princeton, called Obama a ‘black mascot of Wall Street‘. Then he called him a ‘Rockerfeller Republican in blackface‘. Obama just called himself a Republican.
The point is, Obama wrapped everything up in such lofty, expansive progressive language that most people didn’t look beyond his pretty words until it was too late. Which made Obama, according to the Executive Editor of Black Agenda Report, Glen Ford, not the lesser evil but the more effective evil.
What we’re trying to say is that we get confused when we see progressive types being so cool with such over the top violence, authoritarianism, climate sabotage and oppression. We forget about the power of empty progressive words.
Your preferred candidate, Turnbull, while no Obama in the rhetoric department, was at least adept at another kind of anodyne façade – playing the lame duck leader.
It was quite a clever trick really, appearing to be a thwarted progressive Liberal (they don’t exist, believe me), doing nothing, getting nowhere, stymied by the hard right, while advancing a hard right agenda all the time.
I mean apart from the stuff we’ve already mentioned about police states, criminalising dissent, climate change and refugees, look what else we achieved under Turnbull. We ramped up arms sales to despots and dictators, earmarked $200bn for arms manufacturers (we prefer to say ‘the military’), whipped up fear of African gangs to vilify the Sudanese community, tried our best to cut student loan schemes and the pension, cut weekend penalty rates and welfare and disability (again), punished welfare recipients with the cruel robo-debt fiasco, passed regressive tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, presided over ongoing neglect of Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Australians, ignoring the urgent Redfern Statement calling for an overhaul of Aboriginal affairs, and promised ‘special attention‘ to visas for white South African applicants, while torturing and rejecting black and brown refugees. We could go on.
Same agenda different face. We just rub people’s noses in their oppression harder. We didn’t think you’d mind.
We care about climate change.
“Politeness aside, we understand that although you’re mostly cool with the status quo, you do genuinely care about climate change.
We can’t ignore the polls. (We pretend to, but we don’t). Exit polls tell us that apart from rolling Turnbull, the biggest issue for you Wentworth voters was climate change, and replacing coal with renewable energy.
Which is a bummer for us. It’s not easy propping up coal and sabotaging renewable energy when voters care about their climate.
In the past we tried to hide the fact that 97 percent of scientists agree on climate change being real and human-induced. Our predecessors even stacked the ABC board with climate deniers, to create fake ‘balance’ and confuse the issue, but the truth seems to have gotten out now.
So it must be difficult for you to put global warming out of your minds, especially as the opportunity to avert climate Armageddon is rapidly narrowing.
You’ve probably heard highlights from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which, let’s face it, makes it look as though we’re actively trying to eliminate life on Earth.
What are the odds? Just as you snatch power, poised to squeeze every last dollar out of fossil fuels while you still can, the scariest and most strongly worded climate report ever comes out.
I mean that effing document tells us that civilization is at stake if we don’t act now. And ‘act’ means getting coal down to 0 percent of the global electricity mix by 2050. You should have heard the expletives at the Minerals Council.
They reckon that we only have until 2030 to cut carbon emissions almost in half. Otherwise we’ll hit catastrophic climate tipping points and feedback loops. Which, even we admit, isn’t long. Twelve years.
That’s only four more election cycles. Makes sense you’d be thinking about it at the polls.
If you’ve been following coverage of the IPCC report you’ve probably heard that these tipping points are expected to kick in when we pass 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming on pre-industrial levels. Not two degrees like everyone’s been saying.
So, look, we understand that it’s probably a little alarming, seeing as how the world has already warmed by one degree, which only leaves half a degree to go.
On top of which other eminent scientists have gone and said that the IPCC report is conservative, and understates the enormity of the crisis.
If only those F-ers were Australian citizens and our new police state was in full swing. Then we could whip out that Foreign Interference Legislation and slam them with a charge of reputational damage or something. Lawyers reckon the Foreign Interference laws are good to go for that sort of thing.
Anyway, as it is, no wonder you’re worried. It’s amazing you’re not freaking out actually. Especially as the world is on track for over 3 degrees of warming at the moment, even under the Paris accord. BP and Shell are banking on it.
And, according to this report outlining the risks associated with different degrees of warming, at 3-5 degrees the global population is likely to decline by 80-90 percent.
Eighty to ninety percent! That’s practically all of humanity.
But imagine being among the surviving 10 percent. You’d feel so chosen. Except for having to step over the corpses of the 80-90 percent that didn’t make it.
Plus things could get a bit apocalyptic. The report says that at this temperature rise there is a ‘high likelihood of human civilisation coming to an end.’
Like we said, extremely fortunate for us that you’re not reaching for the pitch forks at this point (metaphorically speaking), given that this is where we’re taking you under our policies.
If Australia makes good on its coal export ambitions, for instance, including the Adani coal mine in Queensland, Australia alone will produce 30 percent of the carbon needed to tip the world over the two degree threshold.
See – we Liberals are lifters. We get up early in the morning to do more than our fair share of global warming.
Given all of that, we’re hoping most of you don’t delve too far into the kinds of things that scientists are saying these days. Like this guy, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who says, ‘climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.’
‘Unprecedented action’… ‘end game’. What would he know? He’s just a professor of physics specialising in complex systems and nonlinearity, founding director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (1992-2018), former chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change and senior climate advisor to the European Union, the German Chancellor and Pope Francis.
‘No precedent’. Again, an amateur. Just a journalist. Quoting the IPCC consensus reached by hundreds of scientific experts from universities all over the world. Amateurs, all of them.
See what we’re up against? It’s not easy campaigning during civilisational end-times, selling apocalypse and omnicide. In the scheme of things we did remarkably well in Wentworth. We got 49 percent of the vote, omnicide and all.
Which is especially impressive considering that renewables are rapidly becoming cheaper than coal. Snake oil salesmen had it easy. This is tough.
So we get that many of you wanted to give our pro-coal ‘business as usual’ agenda a hiding at the by-election.
Even school kids are fed up. Children are going on strike from their schools across the country on November 30th to protest our (non) response to the IPCC report. ‘Make coal history’ they say. Little smart alecks.
Do not, we repeat DO NOT encourage your children, or any children, to take part in this climate action.
To do so would be colluding with psychologists’ advice about how to help children cope with climate change. ‘Active citizenship’ they call it. Which we do not recommend. We want as few active citizens coming to grips with climate change as possible.
Once we figure out how to legally expel gay kids from schools we’ll get to work on pro-environmental children.
The worst of it is that you folks in Wentworth and those blasted kids aren’t alone in your attachment to a life-sustaining biosphere. Most Australians would like to preserve life on Earth. (How soft can you get?)\
According to polling, the majority of Australians are worried about climate change and would like to see us phase out coal and replace it with renewables.
We do understand. You want climate action. The trouble is, that makes governing on behalf of fossil fuel giants very difficult.
We were hoping that you wealthy Wentworth voters might at least be too comfortable to care about climate change. But the majority of you are obviously smart enough to realise that your wealth won’t protect you from hurricanes, storms, heatwaves, mass migration, societal breakdown and the global unrest that the Pentagon sees coming.
Nor will money protect your children or your children’s children. Unless you’re banking on space colonisation, which is a gamble.
Once you start imagining your coastlines wracked by storm surges, floods and erosion – Bondi, Clovelly, Nielsen Park, Redleaf, Double Bay, those gentle oases from the city bustle, where anyone, no matter their income, can bask in some gentle sunshine – you start to realise that the waterfront properties are the least of it.
You probably start feeling a little sad about the imminent loss of such natural beauty: the morning and evening walks along the shore, children playing in the sand, soft breezes, sailboats bobbing in the distance, birds… sunrises… sunsets.
Imagining those tranquil havens as scenes of destruction might rouse a sense of grief in you, or guilt even, for future generations. ‘What are we doing to them?’ you might ask yourself. ‘What kind of world are we leaving behind?’ ‘How can we stop this?’
‘Think of Our Future‘ pleads the placard of one young girl participating in the school climate strike.
No matter how much money you have, or don’t have, you are human. You care about life on Earth, your children, their children and other people’s children. You don’t want to leave a hell hole behind for them.
We get it. You’d like us to do the right thing and address the climate emergency. You saw a chance to register your feelings on the subject and you took it.
So here’s what we’ve decided. To hell with you.
There are profits to be made. Now. Not after some transition process to clean energy, which will require us to turn our brains on, engage with science, and do some genuine problem-solving.
We’ll be out of office by the time the benefits start flowing anyway. What’s in it for us? Climate change might be here and now, but so is coal.
How long do you think we’ve waited to get our hands on this kind of power? Do you think we’re relinquishing it now? Do you think we’re about to leave all that money in the ground? Just because of some stupid by-election? A few votes? The wishes of the majority of the Australian population?
You and your democracy. Didn’t you read that Princeton study? Governments don’t govern on behalf of the people any more. They govern on behalf of corporations, and the wealthy elites that own them. Everyone knows that.
Like Adani. That’s who we represent. Our job isn’t to stand up to Adani on behalf of you, it’s to stand up to you on behalf of Adani.
We’re happy that you’ve had your little moment of democracy. We hope you feel better now. It’s time to go back to your ordinary lives, and we’ll go back to our powerful ones, looking after our powerful mates.
You might prefer politeness, but there’s nothing polite about ending human civilisation.
In fact, sugar-coating it will only seal humanity’s fate, like hiding cyanide in a chocolate drop. So here’s the impolite reality of our response to you and your ‘historic’ swing.
Screw the future. Screw your children and their children’s children. Screw our children and their children’s children.
We heard what you’re trying to say. We’re not listening.”
* Disclaimer: The above dialogue is fictional. It is a work of fancy and does not claim to represent the actual intentions or motives of any individuals. It is, however, loosely informed by evidence-based literatures on the psychology of anti-environmental and inhumane climate and immigration policies.
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