Flight from the centre

by · July 19, 2010

Call it a “disconnect”. Call it a “cranky electorate”. Or call it “political volatility”. Whatever name you give it, something peculiar has been happening to alienate ordinary people from official politics in a way that most commentators have found difficult to explain.

The rapid destruction of Kevin Rudd is but the latest symptom of a deeper impasse for the politicians who govern Australia. Since John Howard romped to victory in 2004 we have witnessed a collapse in support for the Liberals over WorkChoices, the rapid ascent of a disliked outsider to the ALP leadership, Howard humiliated at the polls, two new Liberal leaders summarily trialled and dumped, a surge in support for the Greens, and then Rudd’s own death-spiral.

Most of this was a surprise to the commentariat, which had painted a picture of Australian prosperity and stability in which the task of government was reduced to running an efficient (and debt-free) business operation, with people’s wellbeing delivered through consumer choice rather than collective provision.

Even now the press reassures us that, despite the lurch to the Right and political dog whistling, the major parties are really “racing for the centre”. Yet the volatile mood inside and outside the bubble of parliamentary politics suggests otherwise. Yet another small example of this emerged in yesterday’s Galaxy Poll, where a majority of voters don’t think that either party deserves to win.

An evaporating social base

So what’s really up? Firstly, there is the growing separation of the political class from its base in the population. Not only have MPs and staffers increasingly been drawn from a layer of career party operatives with little experience in the outside world, their roots in the populace have withered. This is most obvious for the ALP, whose basis as the party of the trade union officialdom has eroded with the decline in union membership and the weakening of party democracy, real decisions being ceded to MPs and apparatchiks. ALP membership has suffered a long-term decline and many local branches feel little connection to the party outside of elections. The Greens have captured an important section of its left-wing voter base.

This has been tied up with an increasing resort to the use of the media to campaign rather than the traditional pattern of activists building relationships in their communities. Lobbied and schmoozed by powerful corporate interests and conservative senior bureaucrats, dependent on donations from business for their overblown campaigns, and seduced by the neoliberal consensus in elite opinion, both parties increasingly operate in a vacuum disconnected from the lived experience of those they claim to represent. Their inability to cultivate a stable base makes them susceptible to unexpected reversals of fortune, often in the dreaded 24-hour spin cycle. Rudd was the apotheosis of this trend, disconnected from union or factional machinery and seemingly able to operate via Rove and televised “listening tours”, before being abandoned by his party when voters stopped listening.

A polarised society

Secondly, however, there is a deeper dynamic at work. In the years of the long, post-WWII boom there was political stability on the basis of full employment, an expanded welfare state and real rises in living standards for the vast majority. But with the end of that “golden age” in the advanced economies we have seen business elites and governments pursue what have come to be known as neoliberal policies: restriction of trade union rights, deregulation of business and markets, large-scale privatisations and a systematic redistribution of wealth upwards. This has led to longer working hours, running down of public health and education, the encroachment of market principles into every area of life, high rates of joblessness and underemployment, and growing inequality.

This social and economic polarisation has driven political instability as governments have acted impotent to directly improve working people’s lives, and that the best we could hope for is the trickle-down effect. The ALP’s commitment to such an approach has led it to abandon any substantive commitment to progressive reform, seeing its role instead as enabling profit making by big business (perhaps most crudely with its links to developers in NSW). 

Displacing insecurity

Unable to promise real improvements in people’s lives, the major parties have turned to nationalism and immigrant-bashing to divert attention from their failures and to find easy scapegoats. The “debate” over asylum seekers and border security is thus about neither. Rather, it is an intervention in domestic politics, displacing economic insecurity into xenophobic insecurity, and thus getting the politicians (temporarily) off the hook.

These pressures have only accelerated with the global economic crisis, which has laid bare both the greed of the business class and the eagerness of governments to bail it out. As society becomes more polarised, so have politicians’ strategies to maintain support become more extreme. It is why we are seeing an election run on blaming migrants (now widened to include “overpopulation”) rather than policies that could actually make a positive difference.

The fact that Gillard, a creature of the ALP Left, has become the most right-wing Labor leader in living memory is testament to the hopes broken by Kevin Rudd. It was Rudd who, if only briefly and in a technocratic fashion, seemed to rise above the quagmire of official politics to offer a vision of progress. His failure was to not deliver on the promise that for “working families” things might actually get better for a change. 

Ms Gillard, invoking the rhetorical shell of progress with her inane “moving forward” slogan, has clearly signaled that things won’t.