In a considered piece at ABC’s The Drum on Thursday, Jonathan Green highlighted a phenomenon that seems to overwhelm Australian politics — the inability of simple facts about the Gillard Government’s performance to overcome the stench of crisis hanging over it.
He is correct to point out “that in assuming that the mere facts of its record should be enough to carry the political argument, this Government fundamentally misunderstands the question.”
Green argues that elections are decided more by impressions than objective performance:
Cases for re-election are based on the creation of political impression, and the impression of this Government, successfully created and willingly propagated by its opponents, is that Australia is economically underperforming as a result of federal mismanagement, and that we are suffering through a long and debilitating period of rolling political crisis.
What works politically is in fact a compelling, ahem, narrative — whether it be manufactured from fact or fiction is not really to the point.
Which is what the left and Labor doesn’t get. Fact checks, the record-correcting fleets of the blogosphere … these things have right on their side but they are not making the winning argument.
The problem with this approach is that it explains the crisis of the Gillard Government almost entirely at the level of ideas, as if the mass of people (including many former Labor voters) is gullible enough to simply vote for the better crafted tale, no matter how divorced it is from reality.
This is also the frustration expressed in an article Green quotes, by the ALP’s court philosopher, Tim Soutphommasane, in which the latter essentially accuses Australians of experiencing a mass delusion that serves the fortunes of the Right:
Economic debate is distorted by a hysterical, nonsensical concern about the cost of living. … The popular sense of economic wellbeing is no longer anchored in anything objective; it has become something increasingly subjective and impervious to the facts.
The same theme has dominated Leftish blogs and tweets in recent months, often tied to anger at a mainstream media willing to brainwash the public with right-wing fantasies about Labor’s incompetence. At times the tone has been positively unhinged, with accusations that anyone critical of Gillard from the Left is effectively lining up with Abbott.
There are three key problems with this idealist approach.
The first is that it misses the material basis of Labor’s predicament, a crisis that has seen it slump to primaries as low as those suffered during the Great Depression — results that are hard to explain purely on the basis of difficulties in constructing a “narrative”.
The use of mechanical economic arguments to make the case for Labor therefore misses the point. Such arguments fail to explain the long-run attrition of Labor’s political authority in seemingly good times. As I have written elsewhere, the dimensions of Labor’s crisis include the erosion and splintering of its “rusted on” vote, the decay of its party organisation, the dramatic decline in the organised social weight of its base in the unions, the ossification of its factional structures with an emptying out of the social interests they reflected, and the gradual evaporation of the party’s raison d’être — the representation of a class interest within the political system.
Next month is the 30th anniversary of the election of the Hawke government, which presided over a systematic shift of wealth upwards from labour to capital, and initiated the economic reforms now referred to as “neoliberalism”. It broke the back of union resistance to the effects of the economic downturn of the 1970s via a mixture of incorporation and (when needed) confrontation with its own social base. In the process Labor became incapable of articulating a clear “narrative” not because it lacked good storytellers, but because its agenda no longer reflected or cohered a clear set of social interests. While such an agenda survived when resolving the impasse of the Fraser years, it was eventually exhausted and if anything marks Howard’s rule it is that in practice he was no more neoliberal than Hawke and Keating.
Gillard’s current problems are not reducible to this history, but her government has exacerbated Labor’s crisis of authority, in no small measure because in order to win the party back for the factional chiefs she had to trash not just Rudd’s mistakes but his successes. It is hard to claim credit for saving the country from the GFC when you apparently saved it while your Government was at its most dysfunctional, living in terror under a psychopathic leader.
All this cannot be fixed either by whipping out a few vaguely progressive policies with an “old Labor” feel about them (which, like the NDIS, have a market economics sting in the tail) or engaging in overheated yet hollow class rhetoric (like that used against the same mining billionaires to whom Labor made massive tax concessions). Labor voters’ detachment from the party has thus taken either the form of a drift to the Greens on the Left or a willingness to humiliate Labor at the ballot box even if the result is a similarly unsatisfactory Coalition regime.
Simply put, it’s not that voters are blinded from seeing Labor’s successes; it’s that they see through the claims of the political class to be representing their interests.
The second problem with the idealist approach is that it overplays the coherence and social power of the political Right. The conundrum the Left faces is not of how much voters want to follow Abbott but how incredible it is that a party led by Abbott could be so far ahead in the polls. There is no evidence that the Coalition under Abbott’s leadership is “popular” in any normal sense of the word, and his already pathetic personal ratings suggest that scare campaigns are not likely to gain much more traction.
But the Right’s troubles run deeper. The Coalition parties’ organisations have long been saddled with structural weaknesses and internal feuding. Further, there is little evidence that public attitudes have moved Right in recent times. As Scott Steel (Possum) made clear last June, on most socio-economic questions ordinary people are to the Left of the Coalition and Labor. Regardless of that, it would be hard to credit Abbott and Hockey’s manic-depressive lurches between big spending promises and balanced-Budget austerity rhetoric as constituting a narrative, let alone a compelling one. They are likely to use a big election win to claim a mandate to pull out nastiness of the type that Campbell Newman has deployed, but it is also likely to be as clumsy and destabilising as the LNP’s efforts in Queensland.
This comes to the third problem, which bridges the first two. The idealist approach serves to disarm any attempt to build a better Left — one that can have widening popular influence and be able to resist the kinds of policies seen as inevitable if the Coalition wins. This approach sees the electorate as essentially passive, successfully manipulated by Abbott and his boosters in the Murdoch press. The task then is for the Left to become better manipulators storytellers. Or to sink into passive despair and wait for Abbott to unravel in power. Or, worst of all, to adopt more of Abbott’s right-wing agenda to “neutralise” it, in the hope that voters will prefer the imitation to the original.
It also encourages the poisonous narcissism of small differences that is officially known as “partisanship”. One of the clearest outcomes of the economic experiment of the last 30 years has been to shrink the substantive policy differences between the major parties to almost nil, further cementing the belief that there are no politicians left looking out for ordinary folk. Yet you wouldn’t know it from the overblown shenanigans inside the Canberra bubble.
So is there an alternative to this sorry state of affairs? For a time the Greens seemed to represent such a possibility to the Left of Labor, a party that took politics seriously but refused to simply acquiesce to the decay of the existing political establishment. Yet, as I wrote last September, the Greens’ entry into a series of alliances with Labor has cost them support. Their independence has been constrained in favour of “constructive” governmental participation, but with little benefit in terms of public recognition for their limited legislative wins. By joining the “bastards” of the political class they claimed they wanted to replace, they have limited the development of a Left that could have reached out to the masses of voters disgusted by the major parties. For many of those voters, in the absence of a credible alternative that can articulate their interests and aspirations, punishing Gillard is the only “fact” worth pursuing this year.