Australian politics 2014: Decline & decomposition

by · December 29, 2014

{Graphic by @deptofaustralia}

{Graphic by @deptofaustralia}

Abbott has to perform well as prime minister next year, not just to preserve his leadership and give the Coalition a chance of re-election but also to restore public faith in the political class and Australia’s system of parliamentary democracy. The year 2015 has to see a restoration of political stability in the national interest.

—Dennis Shanahan, The Weekend Australian, 27 December 2014

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The end of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era in September last year was to draw a line over the unprecedented period of political crisis after the evaporation of John Howard’s allegedly unassailable grip on the nation in 2006. The disastrous ALP (and ALP-Greens) interregnum was purported to be about the problems of the Left — its disunity, its social irrelevance, its lack of fitness to govern. The Right, united around the “supremely effective” Tony Abbott, was poised to deliver stable, “grown up” government.

Yet we have a situation where the government trails badly in the polls after already failing to experience a traditional honeymoon period. Where its economic agenda, as outlined in May’s Budget, lies in tatters. Where its authority to drive through tough policies is a bad joke, especially when compared with frenzied claims that an Abbott win would deliver a neoliberal-austerity apocalypse and thus destroy the social fabric. Where crossbenchers of the “calibre” of Jacqui Lambie and Ricky Muir can seem to dictate whether key legislation is passed. Where participation in overseas wars, national security crackdowns, and whipping up fear of domestic terrorism are no longer automatic vote winners. And where a flaccid, near-invisible Opposition Leader can find himself within striking distance of the prime ministership.

As has become increasingly clear to all but the most partisan politicos (though there are still many of them about, especially in the op-ed pages and the social mediasphere) the overriding problem in Australian politics is neither the Left or the Right, neither this or that party, not the lack of a narrative or a bad set of policies, neither broken promises or fractured trust, but politics itself.

2014, then, has been a year of continuing and generalised political decline and decomposition.

Yet no one knows what to do about the problem, because that would mean facing up to its origins — the political class’s long-run loss of its social base and the way this has brought the antagonism between society and politics into view. While an attitude of anti-politics has always been present in Australian society to some extent, now it has become the prevailing mood, impossible to ignore any longer. The Piping Shrike has been right to say it was Rudd Mark I who — by successfully positioning himself against the “old politics” — managed to bring this mood to the centre of national attention. With Rudd’s potential squandered, Clive Palmer’s PUP was able to play a similar role. Just after the election I wrote, “It is telling that a party whose sole reason for existence seemed to be to troll the political system has won 5.6 per cent of the vote at its first attempt, including more than 11 per cent in Queensland,” that most anti-political of Australian states. Palmer went on to further upset the cosy assumption that last year’s result had signified a major swing to the Right with his mixture of populist grandstanding and chaos-producing manoeuvres in Canberra. Yet as soon as he got what he really wanted — the attention and love of his former Coalition comrades — he slipped into backroom deal-making of the sort that led not only to a collapse in PUP’s polling but an internal revolt by Senators who grasped at some level that such friendliness with the government was electoral poison (a subject I will explore further in the next Quarterly Essay, in response to Guy Rundle’s “Clivosaurus”). If PUP’s anti-politics politicians playing pure politics have been deeply wounded, the sentiment of anger at the political class that put them in Canberra shows no signs of abating.

For the government the problems run much deeper than simply bad numbers in the Senate, unpredictable crossbenchers or broken promises. If the Budget represented an own goal in terms of marketing, it was due in large part to how the Coalition no longer has a reliable social base it can mobilise to go along with a serious reform agenda of the sort usually preferred by the Right. Hence rather than a generalized “neoliberal” austerity program, it picked a series of disadvantaged and already-struggling social groups to kick brutally for the benefit of the ideological right-wing gallery, while at the same time increasing government spending compared with its Labor predecessors. The result was incoherent and almost immediately trashed. Dennis Shanahan’s aspiration at the top of this post is therefore not just a massive, near-impossible ask in general; it is even less credible when expected of a PM who grumbled to world leaders at the G20 that he couldn’t even ram through a measly $7 GP co-payment. As Abbott’s lack of authority has become more obvious, internal ructions in the government have been aired publicly more often. Abbott and chief of staff Peta Credlin are being painted much as Rudd was — as brutal and unresponsive micromanagers. The recent ministerial reshuffle has been sold as Abbott listening to criticisms, but it has just as much been about promoting allies and neutralizing potential rivals.

The Right has also been unable to use traditional reliance on powerful US allies, instead coming across — when compared with a US president managing imperial decline — as almost dangerously gung-ho with talk of “shirt-fronting” and Islamic “death cults”, at the same time as hopelessly retrograde on climate. This has undercut much of Abbott’s ability to rebuild authority on the basis of the international situation on the model of Howard after 9/11. Worse, the rise of ISIS-inspired “homegrown” terrorism has blown apart glib narratives of malicious foreign threats around which the nation can be united behind a determined leader. In the days after Man Haron Monis’s terrorist siege in Sydney, Abbott was reduced to talking about state-based law and order issues like bail conditions and insufficient police surveillance of known suspects, as well as joining calls for social harmony in the face of marginal attempts by right-wingers to whip up their usual anti-Islamic themes.

Racialised politics and policies are, of course, never far from the surface in Australia. It is hard to imagine a more sickening sight than Abbott and Shorten being united in supporting Constitutional “recognition” for Indigenous people at the same time as they back the horrors of the NT Intervention. Or to see the panic of the political class at its loss of social base translated into the full force of the state being deployed against asylum seekers, this year once again with deadly results.

If the Right has suffered from playing too much to the obsessions of its most zealous ideologues (although clearly the likes of Bolt and Akerman have failed to heed Einstein’s definition of insanity by proposing Abbott needs to go harder to please his closest friends), the Left has utterly failed to arrest its own lack of social weight. Under Bill Shorten the old factional power structures of the ALP have been preserved under the gloss of Rudd’s leadership rules. Nobody feels emboldened to shake the party up for fear of a repeat of the destructive brawling that dominated 2010-2013, and so a pall of polite unity is only partial distraction from the further decline of Labor’s old base in the unions. Those unions seemed intent on publicly declaring their social irrelevance in 2014, not only by watching their reach fall to just 17 percent of employees (the lowest since the early years of last century) but by having no answer to a series of prominent car company closures and mass sackings. The way that union leaders started and ended their campaign to save Qantas workers’ jobs with impotent calls for Tony Abbott to do something exposes just how unfit for purpose the unions are for defending workers’ social interests today. This is now underlined in how a slowing economy is producing declining real wage growth almost automatically, whereas once unions may have been expected to hold the line for their members.

Australia - wages growth & unemployment 2000-2014

For the Greens there is a real sense of being stuck in neutral, with Christine Milne wanting to both distance herself from the damaging alliance with Gillard at the same time as defending her role in that legacy. Apart from Scott Ludlam taking advantage of Labor’s moribund union heavy led WA Senate by-election campaign, the Greens have been unable to recover the heights reached in 2010, and were roundly punished in their Tasmanian heartland in March. Winning extra seats in Victoria on the basis of a minimal increase in votes speaks more to clever use of resources than the clear cut political breakthrough some are painting it as. And the fact that Milne sees the need to rail against the “plutocrats” for stealing a mythical past era of democracy smells more of trying to justify her party’s setbacks with hyperbole than any rational analysis of what is happening — after all, where have all these evil billionaires gone now that Abbott so desperately needs their help?

Perhaps the Left’s dilemma is best summed up in the experience of March In March. Stridently proclaimed as a new kind of activism that could rebuild the Left and lay the basis for defeating Abbott, its headline politics (of getting rid of Abbott and therefore effectively acting as a shill for Labor with or without the Greens) meant that it could not turn the growing majority opposed to the political class into a real social movement. Indeed, as the government stumbled from crisis to crisis, the sheer inconsequence of March In March became more apparent and it was allowed to fade away quietly, almost as if it had never existed in the first place.

The decline and decomposition of politics has been shadowed by real shifts in society, if one cares to look for them. The detachment of the political class and its increasingly hostile attitude to the citizens it rules over (perhaps best epitomised in Sydney’s “lockout” laws being rammed through as a punitive non-solution to real social problems) is matched by hostile anti-political feeling in society, to the point that commentators across the spectrum worry that politics is not up to managing the instability, contradictions and crises that modern society produces. It is the kind of popular mood that leads state premiers — while miles ahead in the polls — to fall on their swords over bottles of wine, because of worry about the political consequences of not doing so. The Spanish 15-M (Indignados) movement and the disruptive capacity of the Podemos party that has taken advantage of that country’s political crisis show what happens if social crisis and social resistance on scales we have not experienced here collide with an anti-political conjuncture. Even in Australia similar underlying tensions are gnawing away, making the possibility of further chaos and breakdown a question of when, not if.

Onwards to 2015.


Left Flank in 2014

To date we have posted 38 times, thanks to nine writers — Tad, Elizabeth, Thanasis, Kevin, Marc, Luke, Simon, Kevin, and Troy.

The major themes we have covered include:

  • Europe: Left strategy, the far Right, Ukraine, Podemos and the Indignados
  • Political Economy: Neoliberalism, the May Budget, public debt, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine
  • Anti-Politics: the Left, Clive Palmer, Spain, Marxism and anti-politics
  • Australia: Lockouts/moral panic, ALP, labour movement/unions, Abbott and the Left, Palmer, the Sydney siege, the WA election, the fall of O’Farrell, ICAC, Aussie Jihadists, the Biennale boycott, asylum seekers and voters, Qantas
  • Middle East: Aussie Jihadists, Palestine, ISIS
  • Other: Privilege theory, Occupy Hong Kong, psychiatry

The ten most-read posts this year were:

We’d like to thank all our readers, who made this our biggest year yet, and wish you all a Happy New Year.

And, before the year finishes, Luke Stobart will be back with the concluding part of his series on “Understanding Podemos”.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Gongite says:

    Thanks for all the interesting articles and discussion during 2014. I’m looking forward to more next year!

  2. […] is not anti-politics, as some on the left like to portray it. It is a hankering for a social democracy that no longer […]

  3. […] Tad Tietze: Australian politics 2014: Decline & decomposition […]