War Without, Rot Within: The Collapse of Australian Party Politics

In the past six months, Australia has seen one of the more startling and significant episodes of rapid political change in its recent history. In short order, the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted first a degree of lassitude and disbelief, and then a rapid mobilisation that saw the development of a new entity—the National Cabinet, combining federal and state leaders. The need to respond to an emergency, and the desire to avoid the mass death and chaos that had gripped the United Kingdom and the United States, briefly concentrated the minds of leaders of both the Coalition and Labor. A degree of intergovernmental collegiality ruled, and disaster was avoided. It’s a measure of how successful this was that the flare-up in Victoria, resulting in a few hundred extra deaths in a population of six million—a drop in the dark ocean for the United Kingdom and United States—has been treated as a tragedy and a disaster. 

But beneath the surface of cooperation a categorical shift in Australian politics and society was taking place, some of it prompted by the economic changes created by COVID. The Morrison government went on the political warpath, using a selective structuring of the grand COVID package to starve the arts and culture industries of money, thus undermining them, while goading Labor to defend ‘the elites’. It also denied any form of JobKeeper or similar to the universities, which were further undermined by the denial of support funds to international students. Melbourne and Sydney’s reputation as a study destination was trashed overnight. The ABC review was delivered and a series of further cuts was made to the broadcaster, whose public-service function has been increasingly under attack from within by its management. With plummeting ad revenues, News Corp Australia took the opportunity to shut down many dozens of local newspapers that it had bought up over the past decade or so to consolidate local news into an output model, delivered from centralised newsrooms. The government did nothing to stop it, even though it was within its power to do so. 

On the other side of the despatch box, Labor was engaged in a war of its own. The fallout from the predictable but, to many in Labor, surprising 2019 election loss was a factional war in which sections of the Labor Right rearranged themselves as a pro–fossil fuel outfit known as the ‘Otis group’, which sought to shift the party away from a focus on renewables to full-throated support for coal mines. In Victoria, startling secret tapes exposed a campaign of branch-stacking by hitherto minor micro-faction leader Adem Somyurek, who had used networks of ethnic communities to create a force equal to that of union factions, and likely to have a socially conservative rather than progressive lean. Meanwhile, new leader Anthony Albanese ditched his larrikin style and ‘I fight Tories’ politics to adopt a set of centre-right policies that went after the Morrison government for wasting money on incorrect JobKeeper payments rather than standing up for the many social groups excluded from JobKeeper altogether. Believing that it needed to rebuild support in the suburbs by distancing itself from the new ‘elites’, Labor made a less than fully enthusiastic defence of the humanities, the universities, and arts and culture. More importantly, it was careful not to bundle these together with pushback against attacks on the poor and excluded. In other words, the broad liberal social-democratic idea that had sustained such parties for more than half a century—that left parties see improving the lot of the powerless as complementary to the advance of social sectors devoted to the pursuit of enlightenment, learning and culture, independent of the market—as concluded. In Australia, although this had its roots in the Curtin-Chifley ‘reconstruction’ ideal, it was a Whitlamite package. 

It was cruelly ironic that the remnants of that were being undone by the Coalition nationally, and policy-wise within Labor, in the weeks when the John Kerr–Palace letters in relation to the 1975 Dismissal finally saw the light of day, thanks to years of struggle by historian Jenny Hocking. The letters revealed the degree to which the sacking of an elected majority government had been a wilful and unnecessary act by a governor-general, influenced by multiple exterior forces, and outside of all protocol. The Coalition, with renewed confidence, was advancing culture-social war to a degree unpractised even in the Howard years. Labor was resetting its politics to a period ‘prior’ to Whitlam et al.’s creation of a grand, progressive coalition of the working class and a new sector of intellectually trained progressives. Daily, it seemed during this period, came more news that something was decisively over. By regulation, the Morrison government quietly suspended the locally produced drama content rules for free-to-air broadcast, something such networks have been pushing for relentlessly. The ABC’s Boyer lectures were given to Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest, evangelical Christian mining magnate and scion of a West Australian colonialist family, who combined morally improving lectures to Aboriginal communities with no-holds-barred lawsuits to limit their claims on mining royalties. And on it went.  

Full-throated resistance in the public sphere was limited by the fact that the former Fairfax papers, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, were now owned by the Nine Network, whose chair was former Coalition-government treasurer Peter Costello, and they were drifting steadily to the right. The line of ‘resistance’ to any of these measures requiring legislation consisted of the inner cross-bench of One Nation, the two-member Centre Alliance, and Jacqui Lambie. One Nation were of the Right, the Centre Alliance was a Nick Xenophon–created party drawing on South Australia’s independent liberal and Catholic ‘family’ tradition, and Lambie is a populist who combines specific causes of the contemporary excluded—psychological trauma and addiction, violence against women—with a right-wing anti-‘elitism’. It further splintered when Senator Rex Patrick, a former Liberal staffer, quit the group to run as an independent. De facto, the inner cross-bench is the right populist-nationalist vote, lacking an overarching party, and its power can be seen as arising from the rightward drift of some Labor voters, whose extra seats they have taken—a further confirmation of the nationalist, rightward drift. 

Thus it could be said that there has been a double collapse of possibility within the political framework. The first has been of the residual progressive politics that was in place in Australia for half a century, held in place—even through the Howard years—by a mix of cultural and social intersections that put limits on the scope of action of right-wing governments. The second collapse has been that of the most basic political propriety in the conduct of both government and internal party management. The government allows a media tycoon such as Kerry Stokes to bypass quarantine while re-entering Australia; it passes money to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports as a direct subsidy-grant for the broadcasting of sport while the ABC has its funds cut; it pays a third of a million dollars to a reality-TV ‘tradie’, ‘Scotty Cam’, to, well, no one really knew, but he didn’t do any of it; it failed to put in place any limits on dividend payouts from JobKeeper-recipient companies, so taxpayers subsidised shareholders. On it went—that is merely a greatest-hits selection—gaining from a jaded public only a deepening of a psychologically protective cynicism. 

There is nothing new about the Australian Right being narrow, philistine, politics led, and driven by mere corporate goals. Nor is it new for Labor and other centre-left institutions to offer less than full-bore resistance to such. But the full force of this onslaught suggested that something fundamental had shifted beneath the surface of conventional politics. Much of the conventional liberal Left, such as it remains, pointed to it as merely more of the same: more culture wars, more Murdochracy—which is no doubt true. The logic of that position was that Morrison was no different from Howard, was no different from Abbott. One could detect, in places where the liberal Left gather, such as Schwartz publications The Monthly and The Saturday Paper, a hatred of Morrison, Abbott and Howard—all seen as essentially the same person—leaching into a disdain for the general public, who continued to, narrowly, vote them into office. The propaganda model, focused on Murdoch, Stokes and the increasingly right-shifted ‘Nine’ papers gets you only so far. Left-wing disdain for the citizenry—the old feeling that the public was failing the public—cannot help but creep in if there is no analysis of the structural shifts in a society that suddenly make something new possible. The Right had changed, and there was a qualitative difference between the Howard era and now, which many on the liberal Left did not want to admit because of their personal dislike of John Howard. But there was also a failure to reflect on the changed socio-cultural circumstances that meant that there was no real resistance to the Right—circumstances that the COVID pandemic had laid bare, for those with eyes to see it. 

Thus, the appearance of the Kerr–Palace letters acted as a time tunnel of sorts to a moment when, win or lose, such moves were contested by mass movements, of an organised working class in a class alliance with progressives. This was what many on the liberal Left harked back to, prompting a brief resurgence of republican feeling, and a focus on the aspect of the Dismissal most expressive of a hidebound British establishment stifling a rising country. By seeing a continuity with that moment carrying through the Howard years, the analysis stayed at the level of the political and did not examine the deeper socio-cultural changes thereunder. This is a persistent characteristic of left-liberal thinking in our time—indeed, it is almost its defining characteristic. There is a double effect. First, it overestimates the power of the Right, which is largely constituted by a projection of an imaginary silent majority—‘quiet Australians’, in the congruent phrase invented, no doubt, by some twenty-something Nixon fan in Scott Morrison’s office—onto the atomised Australian present, and then it constitutes Labor’s failure to respond to such with a synthesised ‘neo-Whitlamite’ program as a series of individual betrayals by key leading figures. 

The alternative account would be that, beneath the visible institutions of the political, the basic constitution of social life that made an older style of politics possible had shifted and dissolved to such a degree that not only was there no ground on which to plant a flag of one’s movement, but also the very sort of act that planting a flag serves as an image for was becoming unimaginable to an ever-wider section of the population. Thus the Whitlam period, a very different time, had seen actual class contestation. But even in the Howard period, socio-cultural battles were fought with caution as regards residual left political forces, and there were limits to the ‘nihilistic imagination’ of the Right as to just how much of consensual civil society could be dissolved, attacked, misrepresented and abolished. Between then and now, multiple forces have come into play, from the further spread of a deeply embedded neoliberalism to the remorseless wearing down of the material conditions of working people (more in the United Kingdom and United States than here, though Australian prosperity is highly selective) to the transformative effects of the virtually simultaneous smartphone and social-media revolutions that began in 2005–06 but exploded into life a decade later, as the generation raised with them reached early adulthood and began to determine the velocity of the culture. Thus current movements that correspond to older movements—such as the Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn waves—have been generated from the top down by charismatic (of a certain type) leaders, and the Black Lives Matter renewal that occurred around the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota flared as a sudden wave that went around the country and across the world. These events are more ‘ungrounded’ than was the Occupy movement of a decade ago, which was, in turn, even more atomised than the global anticapitalist movement of the turn of the millennium. 

In Australia, currently as somnolent as it has ever been, one has to look at machine and process politics to see evidence of the wearing away of a degree of the social ground. Thus, the rise of a figure such as Adem Somyurek in Labor is significant because Somyurek, a trained sociologist and no dummy, had relied on non-Anglo ethnic networks to build the core of a new faction within Labor—in the knowledge that there was no great countervailing power in the form of class or political affiliation that would provide an opposition to him (the Four Corners report echoed this incomprehension by portraying him as a ‘taxi driver’ who put himself through uni—rather than as a graduate of the Monash University Labor political subculture who used his skills to build a power base in Melbourne’s multiethnic south-east). Hitherto, such ethnic groups had been used to buttress existing factions that had a basis in class politics. The novelty of Somyurek’s grouping was that it was based on the distinctive features of the ethnic groups, themselves of particular immigrant and immigrant-descended Australians—Turks, Lebanese, Egyptians, and then further alliances with Indians and Africans—whose social and kinship solidarity was greater than that of Anglos. It was a factional move made from the use of residual connection in an atomised world. 

The mirror to this in the Coalition has been the gradual transformation of the Liberal Party and its attached think tanks from parties and organisations anchored in branches and civic life into client organisations of conglomerations of capital and rich individuals. In the Liberal Party, this has been a sedimentation effect, as an increasing number of large bequests has allowed the party to operate without the mid-level fundraising and branch participation that was built into its architecture at its founding, following the collapse of the parliamentary UAP grouping. The flood of ungrounded money made the branches irrelevant; potential younger recruits (that is, those aged under sixty) were dissuaded, and the vacancies were filled by ideological rightists tending towards Ayn Randism, and conservative Christian and Mormon groupings performing party entrism and takeover. Their think tanks, such as the Institute of Public Affairs, which were once modest outfits relying on broad membership and subscriptions, are now funded through their de facto lobbying work for major corporations, and large donations by right-wing super-rich individuals such as Gina Rinehart. Consequently, they have become a focus for libertarian rather than liberal politics, combined with a heavy national-security slant, sometimes verging on Anglo ethno-nationalism, bitcoin freakery and conspiracy theories. 

Such a shift is one side of the explanation for the politics of pure political-social war that the Coalition is pursuing—the Liberal Party especially is now little more than a set of alliances between different enthusiasts of political extremes, guided by operatives of the ruthless campaign consultancies who were once employed only for elections, and who now provide permanent political staff. The other side is that they operate in an open field, because the features of social life that might once have constituted an inherent resistance to such moves at a national level have now been worn away by multilevelled, global economic, cultural and technological forces. 

Part of the inability of the constituent parts of what was once ‘the Left’ to respond to such has been those groups’ unwillingness to acknowledge the degree to which society has shifted so as to make their previous and longed-for countervailing power—the worker–progressive alliance noted above—a nostalgic aim. The perpetual hope of its revival makes impossible a clear-eyed assessment of the current political terrain. Not only has anything resembling a unified working class been decomposed by wild differentials of reward, conditions and life chances but also the physical frameworks—abiding workplaces, unchanging neighbourhoods—have been dissolved, leaving the very notion of such a class increasingly ungrounded and abstract. At the same time, the values of the intellectually trained, who now form a substantial and self-identifying knowledge class, have developed a set of autonomous values—around questions of race, national history, gender identity, sexuality and the like—that in their intensity and demand for commitment depart, as a whole, from the values of just about everyone else, as a whole (whatever the great political differences of the latter group on economic, political or other grounds). In the old worker–progressive alliance in place in Western societies from the 1960s to the 1990s, the numerical weakness of the progressives meant a subordination of their social and cultural goals to a movement that contained many socially conservative working people (and such progressives were less abstracted out from a broader mainstream in their values and world view). 

Now, as a self-defined knowledge class at the centre of economic and political life, such values have become non-negotiable, and socio-cultural identity concerns have become the prior, if not exclusive, point of political affiliation for many. Since such people also tend to occupy most offices of importance in the union movement and in organising groups such as the Unemployed Workers Union, vast strata of society who once had a role in politics now do not represent themselves in the polity but are represented. 

In the United States, United Kingdom and Europe, this gap has been filled by right-wing populism whose results are now famous and a mark of the era. But it is noticeable that the political operatives of such groupings remain drawn from elite circles. The central political fact of our time—one playing itself out in the series of body blows suffered by Australian progressivism enumerated at the start of this piece—is the total de-representation of whole sectors of the population from the polity, or from any notion of a social whole, on a staggering and unprecedented scale. This is both large sections of the new knowledge class—who see politics and social-moral imperatives as largely confined to questions of self-identity and the morality of textual/image representation and exchange—and the wider group, for whom the polity and society as a graspable whole have disappeared into the middle distance, broken up by the global forces that have put a radical, progressive, unified notion of ‘Australia’ out of reach for the present moment. 

The first step to a politics in this new period is to understand and assimilate the degree to which this radical breach has occurred—no easy task, and one avoided and sublimated by those caught in the melancholy of mourning (such as residual far-left groups) by urgings to redouble efforts, provide better leadership and so forth. The extremes of such a situation may produce, elsewhere and here, sudden radical eruptions—which would not be easily classed as either left or right—but equally, looking for such may be a lingering habit of the old politics. This applies to foreboding concerning an organisational populist right revival as much as anything on the Left. For some time we have been waiting to see if the global wave of right populism would eventually find an expression in Australia that is not the shambolic personality psychopolitics of One Nation—expecting that sooner or later it would find an effective leader and organisational form. But it may be that this has not occurred in time for such an organisation to ride that wave. Right populism itself appears to be faltering across the world. Yet this must be taken as a sign of the faltering of ‘politics’ itself, not of any right version per se. Though sections of the Left were keen to hang the ‘fascist’ tag on movements such as Trump and Brexit, it was clear that, degrees of corruption and institutional shadiness aside, they lacked something even vaguely comparable to the will of a fascist or energetic right populist movement—most particularly as regards the failure to create, or even attempt to create, a revived national economy of non-specialist industrial jobs (‘good jobs’, in the lexicon of Middle America and the Midlands alike) such as could anchor independent and self-respecting communities of working-class and middle-class people outside the finance/knowledge/culture metropolis. One suspects that this failure—more than his racism, anti-democratic tactics or COVID mismanagement—has eaten away at Trump’s support in the rust-belt states (Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania) that narrowly elected him, and that this has gone unnoticed because so little reporting is done on what people there actually say and think. This disillusionment will surely come too for the Boris Johnson voters who defected from Labour’s ‘red wall’ in the United Kingdom, believing that the Right’s idea of independence matched their desire for a lost world of self-reliance and work-centred communities. 

No right populist movement has had the courage, or would have the intent, to starkly put to a national working-middle class ‘the deal’ that would deliver them the society they seek. That would involve a form of economic corporatism in which capital controls, tariff walls and directed private and direct state investment would rebuild a multilevelled economy of self-reliance in industry, construction, food and non-specialist pharmaceuticals. But the price of that would be a shift in disposable incomes and prices so as to limit or remove most cheap goods and service luxuries—nights out, affordable stuff, ‘trinkets’ in an expanded sense—and thus change the texture and character of everyday life. Right populism relies on a fantasy of combining the revival of a national economic core akin to the post–Second World War era with the expanded consumer choices arising from a globalised economy, and historically unprecedented levels of unevenness within a shared industrial sphere. Trump’s trade war with China will already be being felt by the working and precarious poor in the aisles of Walmart: its extraordinarily cheap prices usually allow them a narrow measure of non-penurious life. 

Yet if even this wave of right populism proves also to be a simulacrum of ‘politics’ in a post-political era, if there is no measure of decline in genuine class self-representation, life conditions, social wholeness and promise that does not draw out a sustained organised political response, if the circles of politics on the one hand, and the vast suburban and regional working-middle class on the other are now Venn diagrams that do not overlap, what then? Is it, in a dialectical manner, the prelude to a more total refusal and rejection, at a future moment when this wholly separated system exposes itself as utterly unable to perform the most basic steering functions of government: as an enabler of life? Or will this system reproduce itself with a degree of stability until such a point as nature’s knife—of which COVID can be seen as the very advanced micro-thin leading edge—cuts through all categories via some form of natural or technological catastrophe at a planetary level? Australia could be mistaken for a nation suffering from a bad case of backwardness. But with its hybrid national character—half Sweden, half Alabama of the Pacific—a country where there is not much beneath the surface of a recently imposed modernity, we may be the advance guard, a laboratory for observing what occurs when modernity thoroughly exhausts itself of claims to answering the pressing questions of national and global life. That tentative conclusion suggests as a strategy a willing and careful attentiveness to the appearance of new—what? New occurrences, phenomena that do not fit the pattern of the politics of modernity, and a willingness to challenge one’s own projection of old frames onto current reality, which cannot be overcome by a single act of thought. That may not be much compared to the enumerated depredations of national life that began this essay. But let’s face it: such a strategy suggests itself because there is nothing even remotely resembling a countervailing social force that could make resistance to such any more than its current manifestation: noble protest that registers one’s dissent from the impossibility of the present. 

About the author

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

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