End of an Era?, by Scott Ludlam, Raewyn Connell, Judith Brett and Amy McQuire

A Savage Legacy, by Scott Ludlam

At least they can’t say we didn’t give it a try. There’s been a six-year experiment in cultivating the electorate’s worst instincts and undercurrents to cover for the government’s utter capitulation to economic power.

Every government has to find a point of balance between the demands of the electorate and the demands of the establishment, and the ways in which this tension is resolved often defines a government’s character. The kindest assessment of the performance we’ve been subjected to since the 2013 election is that it is a shallower, weirdly incompetent attempt to rerun the Howard–Costello partnership. Without the surge of mining revenue that allowed the technocrats of that rose-tinted age to lard up targeted demographics, we’ve been stuck with this carnival of incompetence, malice and self-interest. Howard wore a mask of inclusivity until Tampa; Abbott and Morrison never bothered to put it on. The Turnbull interregnum gave us a trial run of how this formula could be rebooted with leather jackets and earnest twitter posts, but it was a nope from the coal and pig-rooting faction of the Queensland Liberal National Party (LNP), and so here we are.

Writing a eulogy for this degraded vaudeville show while it’s still in play is risky, but here goes. This period of Murdoch-amplified government should be remembered for three things. First, that it was unapologetic in its weaponisation of difference: ‘Muslim refugees are causing traffic jams’, ‘Safe Schools freaks are gaywashing your children’, ‘Aboriginal people want a parliamentary veto’, ‘educated elites hate your culture’, ‘greenies hate your job’. Its most savage legacy has been inflicted on those least able to defend themselves: the hundreds of people who fled war and terror only to be imprisoned behind dead-eyed ‘sovereign borders’ talking points.

While the navy prowls our northern approaches under a media blackout, tens of thousands of airborne asylum seekers have been quietly assimilated into Australia’s low-wage precariat, picking fruit, cleaning toilets and filling out the undocumented ranks of the grey economy. Which brings us to the second achievement for which the government should be remembered: graft. This is what seamless continuity between the executive and the ambitions of private capital looks like. Banks, the mining sector, Murdoch’s media assets, big irrigators, the real-estate industry—no rent-seeker is too small or diffuse to matter. Clenched-teeth rejection of a national anti-corruption body dovetails with this seedy and transactional style of government.

The third thing, hardest to pin down because it’s still a work in progress, is the most important: how this seething disgrace lost its conservative moorings and got wrong-footed by reality.

In the twenty-first century, the climate is a political actor—the biggest one there is. Get on the wrong side of a million rotting fish, savage wildfires and the death of the reef, and sooner or later the debts of that positioning will fall due. Getting climate change wrong has already felled several prime ministers and cost Labor seats that have gone to the Greens. Now it is flipping by-elections in heartland Liberal seats and is about to be tested again in a general election. Drought without end seems to have bleached the energy out of bullshit campaigns on power prices; finally, people are scared. As even the hard Right begins to edge away from the smell of death surrounding the coal industry, the tension between the demands of the electorate and the demands of industry benefactors is tearing the LNP apart.

Then the horrific massacre in Christchurch wrecked the government’s carefully tuned position on race and identity. While the world was reeling, the Liberal Party quietly pulled its Facebook ads blaming failing infrastructure on immigrants. Suddenly everyone was for unity. Morrison’s awkward attempts to ape New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s gravity and grace looked out of balance: we were seeing a racist caught in the headlights.

And so, we gave it a try. A uniquely Australian low-rent bogan oligarchy narrowcasting climate denial and white pride on Sky after dark and looking forward to a job with the Minerals Council after the hammer comes down.

At the time of writing it looks like time’s nearly up for this appalling goat rodeo, but who in this volatile age would make confident predictions about anything? One last observation, then, in service to making the most of this undertow of climate reality and basic humanity. The single most important enabler of this dismal period of chaos and compromise has been the absence of a principled opposition party with the numbers to keep the government in check. Labor is cowed on asylum seekers, hopelessly two-faced on Adani, and silent in the face of the serial assaults on privacy, digital rights and the rule of law handed down by the Home Affairs juggernaut. I wish him and his team well, I really do, but for the life of me I still have no idea why Bill Shorten wants to be prime minister.

The hope, the real hope, here isn’t just that there will be a change of government to give a bunch of fresh Labor folks a go alongside colleagues who’ve already been around this block a few times. It’s that this new national zeitgeist of backing independents and minor parties will fill the crossbenches in both houses with a rainbow assemblage of people with some different ideas. In 2010, a strong Green and Independent crossbench pushed Labor to get the Clean Energy Act passed and begin winding back some of the abuses of Howard-era asylum-seeker policy. A Labor–Green–Independent coalition in Aotearoa/New Zealand seems to be making a pretty good go of it. Is it too much to hope that we’re not just working for a change of government but a change of heart as well?

We gave six years of mean-spirited and divisive commercial patronage a try. It’s been fucking awful. Can we try something different now?

A New Colonial Economy, by Raewyn Connell

The Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison leadership of the right-wing parties in Australia may now go into the dustbin of history. We in New South Wales are not confident about that, facing as we are the return of the dismal Berejiklian government. Despite spectacular bungling and institutional corruption, the state Liberals saw most of their electoral support hold. Let us pray to the goddess of elections that Morrison does go—bearing in mind that the Coalition leadership that follows might be worse.

To understand the character of the A-T-M leadership we have to go back about thirty-five years. During the 1980s the Australian state and ruling class brought a distinctive nation-building era to a close, and created a different relationship with the wider world.

Through the middle of the twentieth century, the former British colonies on this continent had built an increasingly self-sustaining industrial economy. From the 1930s this was coordinated by the state, and the process reshaped the local ruling class around manufacturing capital. Postwar migration was designed to expand this economy while maintaining the White Australia settler regime. As an industrial working class grew, significant parts of its leadership thought it would build a new society, which they called socialism. My Labor Party membership ticket in the 1960s had printed on it the Socialist Objective, which greatly impressed my American radical friends.

A change of corporate and state strategy swept through this terrain, picking up speed in the 1980s. It was influenced by US and UK models, of course, but it was not the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan. Australia, part of the postcolonial periphery, was closer to the path pioneered in Chile and taken by much of the Global South. Here, the neoliberal agenda centred on a shift of development strategy: from import-replacement industrialisation to a search for comparative advantage in global markets.

Australia did not have cheap labour or high technology to offer. What we did have was the colonised land, providing iron ore and coal, sheep and cattle to feed into global trade. In effect, our state and ruling class created a new colonial economy in Australia. Under the banner of modernisation, globalisation and growth (remember Keating’s ‘banana republic’ moment?), state supports for secondary industry were dismantled, finance capital was deregulated, and the industrial working class was dispersed. The collapse of union density since the early 1980s is a stark indicator of the change, and more than an indicator. As well as their economic functions, unions were the main source of political education outside the corporate media.

The situation created by this turn is still the framework of Australian politics. Immense wealth has accumulated in the big corporate sector, especially mining. Much of it is siphoned offshore into the transnational corporate world. Some is held by those local capitalists who managed to capture a choke-point in the new economy: hence our spectacularly irresponsible mining magnates. Some has gone to service-economy entrepreneurs and corporate professionals—the milieu that Turnbull came from. This was accompanied by higher levels of economic inequality; structural unemployment in the cities of the south-east, especially for youth; and spreading casualisation and other forms of insecurity. The new colonial economy produced a new colonial racism, with the new insecurity fostering defensiveness about borders, otherness (both domestic and international), competition, and imagined invasions. The culture wars, the development strategy and the privatisation agenda are connected.

The Left floundered. The federal ALP Right had actually driven the new development agenda in the Hawke-Keating years. At state level, the ALP pursued a modernisation agenda modelled on corporate managerialism. Equal opportunity, multiculturalism, promotion by merit, management by objectives, and the creation of managerial elites in the public sector were modernisation themes that appealed to an increasingly educated white-collar workforce. The Socialist Objective was discarded as obsolete; no positive vision for the society took its place. The legacy of the 1960s and 1970s social movements enlivened and humanised settler-colonial culture but provided no alternative economic agenda. Nor did it offer a basis for resistance to the other side of the development agenda, which became increasingly dominant in the 1980s and ’90s: the front-and-back-door privatisation of public resources and state agencies.

Discussions about the A-T-M leadership usually start with the Howard government. It’s worth remembering how weak that government was. It came in when the ALP Right’s agenda of dependent development led by mining was well established. Howard had little new policy to offer, except more privatisation. His regime had to be propped up by grossly biased print media, reactivation of the external-threat schema to a level not seen since Menzies, cautious but steady cultivation of white racism, further suppression of unions, and a militarisation of public language that was later taken to new heights by Abbott.

This weakness, it seems to me, also characterises the A-T-M leadership. The Australian state now counts for very little in the transnational corporate economy. All development initiative in this part of the world is in the hands of the corporate leadership. That leadership in Australia is basically a local branch of the contemporary global, notably US-centric, social formation of elite managers/owners in the transnational economy, who have MBAs, keys to mansions in gated communities, and no souls. They fund the Coalition (and to a lesser extent the ALP) as a precaution, and don’t care how the Coalition wins its elections.

The Coalition has not been consistent about tactics, because its own leadership is divided. Political pundits usually analyse this as right-wing (Abbott) versus centrist (Turnbull), but that’s superficial. All factions are committed to the market agenda, corporate dominance and comparative-advantage development (hence the coal-in-parliament stunt). The major division, it seems to me, is between a modernising professionalism (Costello, Turnbull), more closely aligned with transnational capital and elite professions, and an anti-modernism (Joyce, Abbott, Morrison), more aligned with churches, appealing to rural and older voters. It’s from the second tendency that the homophobic campaigns against Safe Schools and marriage equality came, with the aid of, ironically, the transnational corporate Murdoch media.

It’s not surprising that the momentary revival of the ALP modernisation agenda by Rudd and Gillard aroused little response from the Coalition except resistance and abuse. Turnbull in his first stint as party leader agreed with much of what Rudd was up to, and so made himself vulnerable to Abbott’s coup. The policy vacuum under Morrison has little to do with Morrison personally. He simply embodies the structural condition of conservative politics in Australia.

Yet: a Coalition with little agenda beyond privatising what it could, dealing out bonuses to its loyal supporters and its funders, and preserving the current era of anxiety has managed to dominate Australian politics for nearly a quarter of a century. That is a feat worth pondering. The weakening of the union movement and the growth of insecurity are certainly among its conditions.

But one must also consider the political alternative. Federal Labor has stayed within the market-agenda framework established under Hawke and Keating. Within this framework it has enabled Coalition hegemony by caving in repeatedly to racist wedges. Certainly it would have been risky in the short term to confront the tactic, and might have cost one election. But once the ALP refused to try, and went Me-Too on ‘border protection’, it was locked into the policy racism established by the Coalition. Hence the slow disasters of the NT Intervention, the concentration camps on Manus and Nauru, and the demonisation of Muslims.

It’s quite likely that Labor will win the coming election; and on its current trajectory, it could easily be a one-term government. After the demise of the A-T-M leadership, a revived Coalition, under younger and more energetic management, could be an odds-on competitor three years down the track. It’s unlikely that Labor will break the impasse until the party and the union movement have a development strategy that combines sustainability and social justice in a powerful new way.

Leadership, by Judith Brett

One of the first pieces I wrote for Arena was a review essay on Graham Little’s theory of political leadership. Little was a political psychologist and I have been thinking about his work as we have watched Scott Morrison trying to transform his leadership style in the wake of the massacre in Christchurch from the hard-nosed strongman who protects our borders and keeps us safe into a huggy bear of a man lovingly embracing us all. It has been an extraordinarily unconvincing performance and Little’s work helps us to understand why by revealing the psychological structures informing styles of leadership.

On the basis of his deep knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, Little develops a typology of three types of leadership based on the different ways in which we human beings manage relations between our sense of ourselves as individuals and our need and responsibility for other people. This self–other dilemma, Little argues, can be resolved in three ways: by prioritising the self over the group, by prioritising the group over the self, or by trying to hold them both together. These three resolutions underpin Little’s three leadership styles: Strong, Group and Inspirational. This last is fleeting and unstable, similar to Weber’s charismatic leadership, which lifts followers out of themselves into new and transformative ways of being. We don’t need to worry about it here. What we have been seeing over the past few weeks is Morrison’s wobbly attempt to pivot from Strong to Group leadership and how impossible this is to do at all convincingly.

Little’s typology is an application to politics of Wilfred Bion’s classic 1961 work Experiences in Groups, in which he describes the emotional foundation of three types of groups and the leadership styles they throw up. Strong leaders are the answer to the Fight–Flight Group’s fear of external threats. They promise to keep the group safe but in return demand loyalty, using their strength not just to combat the external enemy but also to stare down internal opposition and so keep the group united for battle. Self-reliance, hard work, and respect for the rules and structures that regulate the inevitable conflict among individuals are the Fight–Flight Group’s characteristic virtues.

Group leaders are the answer to the Dependency Group’s need to be looked after. People are seen as belonging together in shared need and experience, and the emphasis is on the emotions that bind: on trust, empathy and belonging, on what we share as individuals, not on what sets us apart from and against each other. The Dependency Group prizes equality and people’s capacity to care for people more needy than themselves.

The strength of Little’s model is its dynamic quality. Both solutions to the self–other dilemma are partial and inherently unstable. Emphasising certain human needs and emotions and downplaying others, each group has its own characteristic inner tensions and ways of failing; and each has a dark side, a shadow of vices created by the emotions and needs it relegates to the edges of its vision of human nature. The Fight–Flight Group, organised for combat and the marshalling of aggression against outsiders, risks tipping into paranoia and hatred. The Dependency Group, organised around an enforced equality, risks tipping into a debilitating envy. News Ltd journalists Janet Albrechtsen and Jennifer Oriel specialise in these arguments. And they don’t believe in their rivals’ professed compassion, describing it as ‘virtue signalling’.

Just as these solutions emphasise different human needs and capacities, so they have different perspectives on each other, which we can see in the argument over how Australia should respond to refugees arriving by boat. This is a conflict over the limits of compassion for people outside the primary group, in this case the nation. The Fight–Flight Group is alert to the impact of the plea for help on the group’s long-term survival. It calls the new arrivals illegal immigrants, and fears being swamped, rules collapsing into chaos and the limitless demands of the needy threatening its own survival. The Dependency Group is repelled by this callousness, and imagines the refugees’ pain and suffering and themselves in the same situation. Fight–Flight stresses that rules are needed to stop imposters, terrorists and criminals breaching our borders; the Dependency Group regards this sceptical wariness as an excuse for cold-heartedness.

Little’s groups and their leaders are ideal types, but they help us to see how difficult it is for Morrison and the Coalition to convince us that the government has a compassionate heart. Since the 2001 Tampa election the Coalition government has used border protection and the detention of asylum seekers to bolster support. It has heightened the public’s fear of an unregulated, unstoppable flow of needy people into the country, and positioned the Labor Party and the Left generally as weak, indecisive and naive, vulnerable to heart-wringing pathos and so to being tricked by terrorists and wily people-smugglers. It has claimed that the ‘medevac bill’, which will amend the Migration Act to enable the medical evacuation of asylum seekers from offshore detention to Australia, will allow murderers, rapists and paedophiles into the nation.

Peter Dutton is the hard, authoritarian face of the current Coalition government, and the failure of his plunge at the leadership in August last year shows that even before Christchurch the Liberal Party was aware that compassion was rising. With the boats no longer coming, public attention was shifting to the terrible plight of people facing apparently unending detention and the government’s lack of any credible exit strategy.

Then came a murdering white supremacist, gunning down innocent people at prayer in a Christchurch mosque, killing fifty and injuring as many more. New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, until then a low-key Labour leader, has become the international face of effective, compassionate leadership. Immediately she called out the divisive racism and Islamophobia that fuel white-supremacist fantasies and she committed to tightening the country’s gun laws. In Hagley Park opposite the Al Noor mosque on the Friday following the massacre, wearing a hijab, her face clenched in pain and sorrow, she quoted Muhammad: ‘When any part of the body suffers, the whole body feels pain’, she said. ‘New Zealand mourns with you. We are one.’ She told Waleed Aly in her interview for The Project that, as leaders ‘our job is to share love and support’.

The Coalition is well and truly snookered. This is its Tampa moment, but in reverse. In 2001 Howard effectively made it impossible for Kim Beazley to do other than follow the Coalition’s lead. Now Morrison is floundering, telling us that he is a nice man who has many Muslim friends, that he wants us all to hug each other, and that he didn’t ever raise with shadow cabinet the possibility of using fear of Muslims to rally support. (It should be noted that the report stating that he did raise this possibility has stood unchallenged on the public record since 2011, which is presumably one reason that Morrison’s threat to sue Waleed Aly for defamation after Aly alluded to it evaporated so quickly.)

But Morrison’s body language is defensive, his jaw and mouth set to repel blows. And for all his protestations of love for his Muslim brothers and sisters, he only hugs those inside the nation. The mainly Muslim men on Manus Island are beyond his and his government’s compassion.

No Accountability, by Amy McQuire

Over the last six years Australia has had three prime ministers: Tony Abbott (the self-styled ‘Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs’ and champion of new paternalism), Malcolm Turnbull (who rejected the Uluru Statement) and Scott Morrison (who has been largely silent on Indigenous policy altogether). But during this time Indigenous Australia has had only one minister, Northern Territory senator Nigel Scullion. When he retires at the next federal election, Scullion’s record in the portfolio will remain largely unscrutinised. And yet his departure should have come much sooner.

In 2016, after ABC’s Four Corners aired shocking footage of guards torturing Aboriginal children in the Don Dale detention centre, Scullion was finally lined up for the type of hard questions he had largely avoided. In an interview, he claimed: ‘I wish I knew what I know today yesterday afternoon or some time ago, but the facts of the matter were I didn’t know, I have never seen the vision, it hadn’t come to my attention, hadn’t piqued my interest, well sufficiently’.

Not only was it unbelievable that Scullion did not know about the conditions at Don Dale (it had been the subject of media reports as well as a report by the NT Children’s Commissioner), but FOI documents later confirmed that he had lied. Crikey reported that Scullion was given five briefings and held one meeting on the matter the year before the program aired.  

For a couple of days afterwards, there was heated criticism from Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people over Scullion’s response to the program, and Opposition leader Bill Shorten quickly called for his resignation. But the blowtorch should have been applied much sooner. Scullion’s sheer audacity in telling such an obvious lie could have stemmed from the common knowledge that Indigenous Affairs ministers are rarely held accountable for their failures. Just look at Jenny Macklin, who retired this year to platitudes from the mainstream media, even though she was the Labor minister who oversaw the continuation of the NT Intervention.

One of the first shake-ups in Indigenous Affairs under the Coalition occurred shortly after Abbott won the 2013 election, with Indigenous Affairs moving into the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Scullion oversaw the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS), which streamlined 150 programs into five broad streams. The IAS process was a disaster, and the National Audit Office and a Senate inquiry later found that it was poorly implemented and did not provide room for Indigenous consultation. Aboriginal organisations were given short time frames to work with the new requirements, and the IAS caused distress and concern across Aboriginal Australia. Anecdotally, I heard it described as ‘traumatic’ many times, with Indigenous organisations worried about losing much-needed funding. The Healing Foundation said in a report that the IAS process could worsen the trauma of Stolen Generations survivors because it redirected funding towards non-Indigenous NGOs. In its first year, the majority of grants—$4.9 billion in black funding—were awarded to non-Indigenous organisations, with many small Aboriginal organisations missing out.

But while Aboriginal organisations were stripped of funding, and more heavily scrutinised, Scullion’s own programs were not.

Just one example is Scullion’s rebranding of remote work-for-the-dole program the Remote Jobs and Community Programs (RJCP), which he named the Community Development Program (CDP). The change was cynical, in that the new name sounded like the Aboriginal-devised and -run CDEP, which was scrapped under the Howard government and further dismantled during the Rudd and Gillard era. Criticism of the CDP was largely limited to the ANU’s Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Indigenous media and Indigenous unionists, despite the devastating impact it was having on the most vulnerable in remote communities. That damage included harsh financial penalties for ‘non-attendance’, which meant that the poorest people in Australia were being penalised for their inability to comply with the rigid requirements of the program. While the rest of the country claims that we should listen to the ‘white working class’, and that is the reasoning behind votes for racist, dog-whistling parties like One Nation, there is no consideration for Aboriginal people in remote communities, who are forced to work just to receive the most meagre of welfare payments, and then are penalised if they are unable to comply.

In a parliamentary inquiry into the CDP, Scullion claimed that 90 per cent of these penalties were waived. But that was a lie; it was not supported by evidence on the ground. The Central Land Council also told the inquiry that the scheme was universally seen as ‘extreme’ by members of remote communities. The Ngaanyatjarra Council said that between ‘15 and 20 percent of [600 jobseekers] don’t receive any money’, while Palm Island reported that one third of participants were subject to a no-payment penalty in September 2017.

Despite the concerns raised, the mainstream media have largely remained silent on this program, and Scullion continues to promote it. The ACTU earlier this year called on Scullion to scrap it, stating that there had only been ‘superficial changes to the deeply flawed and racially discriminatory Community Development Program’. Meanwhile, after six years of Coalition government, the Indigenous unemployment gap has not closed.

Late last year it emerged that Scullion had given his mates in fishing and cattlemen’s groups in the Northern Territory almost half a million dollars under the IAS to oppose land-rights claims. NT Labor senator and Aboriginal woman Malarndirri McCarthy accused Scullion of using the IAS as his own ‘slush fund’. While the story ran in the Guardian and on the ABC, it failed to create outrage outside Aboriginal Australia. One wonders if this reception would have met any other minister, in any other portfolio.

When reflecting on the last six years under the Coalition, in which Scullion remains the constant, I am shocked again by the lack of forensic analysis of Indigenous policy. The failings of Scullion and the Coalition, whether it be under Abbott, Turnbull or Morrison, have real, material impacts on Aboriginal people across the country. And yet Scullion will walk away with a generous parliamentary pension, while the people he purported to help will get nothing—not even the one thing that might make a difference: accountability.

About the authors

Amy McQuire

No biography available.

More articles by Amy McQuire

Guy Rundle

Guy Rundle was founding co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series). He is a well-known essayist and is writer-at-large for Crikey. His most recent book Practice: Journalism, Essays and Criticism was published by Black Inc. in 2019.

More articles by Guy Rundle

Judith Brett

No biography available.

More articles by Judith Brett

Raewyn Connell

No biography available.

More articles by Raewyn Connell

Richard King

Richard King is a writer based in Fremantle. His new book, Here Be Monsters: Is Technology Reducing Our Humanity?(Monash University Publishing), was published in 2023.

More articles by Richard King

Scott Ludlam

Scott Ludlam is a writer, activist and former Australian Greens Senator. He served in Parliament from 2008 - 2017, and as Co-Deputy Leader of his party from 2015 - 2017. Currently working as a freelance researcher and troublemaker, while writing occasional pieces for Meanjin, the Monthly, Junkee and the Guardian.

More articles by Scott Ludlam

Support Arena

Independent publications and critical thought are more important than ever. Arena has never relied on or received government funding. It has sustained its activities largely through the voluntary work and funding provided by editors and supporters. If Arena is to continue and to expand its readership, we need your support to do it.