They’re all bad guys now. They’re all in it for themselves to the point they don’t even know — or simply can’t remember — when they’re breaching our trust. Clearly that’s not true at an individual level, but it doesn’t have to be if it becomes received wisdom. In short, we’re witnessing the slow motion desecration of the whole idea of politics.
—Waleed Aly, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 April
The spectacular termination of Barry O’Farrell’s premiership over a “forgotten” gift from a Liberal Party associated lobbyist and fundraiser being investigated by ICAC, Nick Di Girolamo, has led to much astonishment and confusion within the Right of the political class and its media hangers on. For the second time since it was set up by the conservatives, the Commission’s investigations have led to the resignation of a Liberal premier. To add insult to the Right’s injuries, on the first occasion Nick Greiner ended up being essentially cleared and on this occasion — at least so far, because more may come to light — the infraction seems relatively minor in terms of the elite lifestyles politicians enjoy: a $3000 bottle of wine
This has led to claims by the Right that ICAC can too easily destroy politicians’ good names and careers without much cause, thereby turning them into political collateral damage. You can view responses along these lines from Greiner and a bizarrely distressed Gerard Henderson if you want. Tony Abbott’s attack on a News Ltd reporter was yet another sign he doesn’t get how voters view the issue of the privileges garnered by politicians. And not only did incoming Premier Mike Baird help shepherd Di Girolamo into a plum government authority job, but if his performance on ABC’s 7.30 is anything to go by he can’t quite understand why this might be a problem for him.
Put this partisan whining from the Right aside, the more important question starting to be raised is how such infractions can be so politically destructive. After all, O’Farrell wasn’t even the direct subject of investigations and is widely known to have been a career party operator with a strong reputation for personal integrity. And even if he was consciously lying through his teeth, why should a falsehood like this bring down a premier when politics is widely recognised as inevitably packed with lying and hypocrisy (even by some of its defenders)?
It is here that both Right and Left politicos and commentators have problems getting to the bottom of what’s going on. At one level they are becoming increasingly aware of the political class’ weak authority. After a period of the ALP running into ever-deeper problems at the state and federal level, the ascension of the Abbott government has exposed how little basis there was for believing that voters would be satisfied to simply get rid of the Labor mess federally. As Left Flank has argued for some time, the Right is bedevilled by its own variant of the same crisis of politics that the Left has suffered in recent years. It is now commonly acknowledged that Abbott’s is the least popular new federal government since opinion polls started to record such things.
The case of O’Farrell is more unsettling because of the staggering size of his landslide win in 2011. If you can’t maintain authority from that kind of position, what hope is there for any government? And, indeed, the first real warning signs came with the Miranda by-election disaster for the Liberals late last year. The next warning, less obvious to many than the first, was the way the conservatives found themselves at the mercy of the SMH-initiated moral panic over drunken violence. You might recall that O’Farrell initially responded with calls for calm acknowledgement of the declining rate of such violence in recent years, yet by the time he got back from holiday he was implementing a draconian set of mandatory sentencing and licensing laws all out of proportion to the problem allegedly being addressed. But if he thought this would solve his problems, he got a shock from a Nielsen poll carried out in late February showing a sharp drop in support for what had seemed to be an impregnable government running against an ineffectual opposition.
Yet most of the political-media complex misunderstands the nature of its declining authority. It is not that the problem comes from corruption per se. There is no evidence that political corruption is somehow worse now than it was in previous times. When I was growing up in Queensland the stench of impropriety around the Bjelke-Petersen regime was both obvious and excused because in general things seemed to be holding up well and the government was seen to be doing a good job by all but a rowdy left-wing minority. Similarly it is not that politicians used to have less access to privileges and connections with greedy private interests, and now travel in more elite circles with more opportunities for seedy connections to be established. Vere Gordon Childe wrote a book in the 1920s — How Labour Governs — about the privileged, high-flying world that Labor politicians were rapidly sucked into once elected to Parliament; a world that detached them from the interests and lifestyles of those they were meant to represent. The reality is that the very job of politics in capitalist society separates politicians from their supporters in civil society and focuses them on securing the conditions for the reproduction of capitalist social relations. That inevitably means being lobbied by wealthy private interests.
Waleed Aly has correctly noted that the growing popular hatred of politicians (see quote at top) — the view that they are in it for themselves and don’t represent the interests of ordinary voters — has come at the same time that politics has increasingly been professionalised so that the tendencies that Childe described now manifest themselves in the crystallisation of an inwardly-focused, utterly self-interested professional political class.
But Aly gets causation somewhat confused. In fact the development of such a professional class is the result of the hollowing out of the social bases of the parties, not the other way around. This has happened most spectacularly for the ALP, because Labourism — the organised intervention of the trade unions (more accurately their bureaucracy) into politics — has been the pivot around which all Australian politics has operated since the beginning of last century. With Labourism’s decline the raison d’être of Right politics as a counterweight to a conservative but institutionally powerful labour movement has helped empty out the social roots the Liberal and National parties had put down last century. Both sides of politics may still “represent” rump constituencies beyond their immediate organised circles, but they are disconnected from broader social interests in civil society they once articulated in relation to the state. This process has also led to the parties increasingly having to deal with narrow, sectional, internal pressures that pull against the needs of coherent state administration. Finally, it has left the political class increasingly exposed to electoral volatility and the sudden loss of large numbers of votes to anti-establishment challengers.
One of the benefits of O’Farrell’s leadership was that he could cut across various internal party factional and ideological pressures by holding firm to a small target strategy and then a relatively moderate governmental program (much of it simply an extension of the ALP’s trajectory pre-2011, right down to implementing Labor’s public service pay cap). Baird, who is from a more socially conservative, economically dry segment of the party, is unlikely to have as much luck holding the factions together unless he shifts into a similarly cautious modus operandi, and even then will lack the authority O’Farrell gained from the 2011 landslide.
Simon Longstaff grasps part of the issue for the political class when he writes:
When [political operators] are within the party only, they are looking to secure patronage and access and they are securing private interests. Once they reach the point of governing they move into a different mode, where they must act in the public interest only. But all that private-party machinery is still whirring away in the background.
Longstaff’s error is to imply that government has ever been about some kind of general social interest, and that simply by acting more in “the public interest” politicians will be able to overcome this problem. As Elizabeth Humphrys and I argued last year, this loss of a stable social base has led to ordinary citizens experiencing the political class as utterly detached from and hostile to their own interests. This is the basis for the growth of a dominant anti-political mood in society, one that often crosses political lines previously defined by class representation where parties had organic connections to civil society interests. Importantly, it is not that politicians under capitalism ever really represent their bases — as Marx pointed out as long ago as 1843 in his criticisms of Hegel’s theory of the state and politics. Representatives of civil society groups always end up representing the interests of the state (and more specifically their own interests as the political wing of the state) once in power. This reality has become more apparent as the old social basis of politics has unravelled.
At one level the decline of the parties has meant that private interests have had little choice but to try to gain influence on political decision-making through whatever channels the parties rely on to maintain themselves. If you no longer have a mass base, lavish dinner dates seated next to the party leader can come to be the main way that influence can be peddled. If the Obeid saga reflects anything it is how the withering of Labor’s union roots have led it to see donations and personal financial reward as far more important ways to keep itself financially and organisationally healthy. Analogous processes have clearly been occurring on the Right. How else can a small, socially detached professional political elite subsidise its continued existence otherwise?
Herein lies a real trap for the one party that seems to have a real claim that it is different: The Greens. Because the party sees the surface problem of money being used to gain political influence but not the deeper issues that have caused the political system to hollow out and lose authority, it is prone to simply trying to find technical fixes that will “clean up politics”. This approach got the Greens NSW in a real mess over donations reform, because it led them to both treat the influence of the state uncritically and to support anti-democratic laws which made it easier for governments to restrict working class representation in politics (as if the decline of the unions hadn’t already done this). Now they are moving towards changing federal laws on lobbying and even getting their own party office bearers to make declarations of potential conflicts of interest.
While this might well help the Greens’ popularity in the short term, the task of “cleaning up politics” misses the fact that the problem is the nature of politics itself. At best such moves will prop up the existing political class through hopes of reform, just as its social base continues to erode. The Greens do this at the same time as their leader is hoping to push through party reforms to further centralise the organisation in relation to its federal parliamentarians (although this is being resisted), part of a longer-run process of the Greens developing their own professional political class, increasingly less reliant on an independent “grassroots” membership. The Greens are in no way immune from the pressures caused by the hollowing out of politics, and the price of electoral success will be ever-growing demands to adapt to the system in order to save it from itself. For now the memory of the pain caused by their alliances with Labor federally and in Tasmania may shield them from taking on such a task, but it is implicit in their strategy to fight political corruption.
Meanwhile the mass of ordinary voters is likely to look upon the increasingly desperate manoeuvres of the political class with growing contempt.