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Oct 11 2013

Australian election reveals anti-politics attitude

Last month’s Australian federal election results (summarized here) displayed a disturbing trend toward widespread disengagement from politics.

Both major parties were disappointed: Labor received its lowest vote since the Great Depression, and despite winning the election the Liberal/National Coalition saw its lowest Senate vote since World War 2. Clearly an increasing number of voters are dissatisfied with the political establishment (rightly so considering their failure to take meaningful action on climate change). This would be a positive development if, as seems logical to me, it drove the electorate toward the green left. Yet voters overwhelmingly rejected the Greens and other parties advocating climate action, instead flocking to coal mining billionaire Clive Palmer who wants to expand the fossil fuel industry leading us toward climate catastrophe. Or they didn’t vote at all: informal votes and unenrolled voters both reached a record high.

Why did the Greens lose votes?

It’s not clear exactly where the missing Greens voters went – maybe they swung back to Labor, maybe they took their protest vote to Palmer United, or maybe they voted informally. So why did about a quarter of the Greens’ voters desert them?

There are a number of hypotheses. I’m sure the Murdoch media’s relentless attacks on the Greens have played a role in their decline.

Maybe some Greens voters do not understand Australia’s preferential voting system and wrongly believed they must vote 1 Labor to prevent the Liberals winning government.

A popular explanation is that the Greens’ recent leadership change from Bob Brown to Christine Milne hurt them. I’m not really convinced. Personally I prefer Milne to Brown, and I think she did a good job of outlining an alternative narrative to that of the major parties which I thought might resonate with many Australians. Notably, there was actually a swing toward the Greens in regional areas of Queensland and NSW, where they have campaigned against coal seam gas.

Perhaps Milne’s message simply didn’t get through to the electorate amid the well-funded campaigns of Liberal, Labor, and Palmer. Brown’s flowery, ambitious speeches were widely mocked by the Murdoch media, but I suppose at least they were covered. Milne’s more down-to-Earth speeches have been simply ignored.

But I suspect the main reason for the Greens’ poor result is that through making a deal with Labor, the Greens have in the minds of voters become associated with the political elite who they so effectively opposed in the 2010 election. As the Guardian noted, the Greens have gone from being a protest party to being protested against.

Why did Palmer win votes?

If you’d told me a few months ago that Clive Palmer would win a House of Representatives seat and four Senate seats, I’d have laughed at you. Now I find myself trying to understand why 5.5% of Australians chose to vote for him.

The history of why Palmer founded a political party is weird to begin with. He was until recently the Liberal National Party’s biggest donor, but fell out with them last year, apparently because the LNP were allowing lobbyists to be political party members. Palmer’s stated policy platform consisted of strange thought-bubbles which sometimes appeared contradictory (eg. cut taxes and increase spending). In the election campaign, Palmer constantly made claims that were fact-checked as false, accused his opponents of bizarre conspiracies, and refused to answer questions he didn’t like. Even Barnaby Joyce describes Palmer as crazy.

One can’t help wondering if Palmer’s real agenda is to entrench his own wealth and power by securing government support for his coal mines. Indeed, since the election he has already called for the new federal government to approve his company Waratah Coal’s proposed Galilee Basin coal mine, rail, and port project by the end of September (a decision has not yet been made).

Who exactly voted for Palmer United? According to the Guardian, Palmer voters tend to be in electorates that have low levels of tertiary education, are suburban, have low socioeconomic status, and are in economic decline. As implausible as it seems to me, Bob Brown says Palmer leached votes from the Greens because of his humane stance on refugees. Even more inexplicably, the Greens did a preference deal with him. Perhaps most astonishing of all, Palmer achieved all this in the face of a negative campaign from The Australian.

A number of explanations have been put forward for Palmer’s surprise success. Firstly, Palmer spent millions of dollars on advertising, and during the media blackout continued to advertise on TV for the Palmer Coolum Resort. Secondly, Palmer’s bizarre comments all helped to increase publicity. Thirdly, maybe people like Palmer’s personality for reasons I don’t understand. Fourthly, perhaps some voters intentionally elected a comical candidate, again for reasons known only to themselves.

But the most interesting explanation is that Palmer United has benefited from the popular anti-politics sentiment by selling itself (paradoxically) as a sort of anti-political party. This might explain how he attracted those who voted for the Greens last election. Perhaps there is a section of the electorate who just vote for whoever they happen to perceive as the new kid in town. In Queensland, some conservative voters see the LNP as representing city interests over rural ones and they may have been attracted to Palmer. And maybe the negative media coverage helped Palmer portray himself as separate from the political establishment. If this is true, it is extremely ironic because in reality, as a coal mining billionaire Palmer is the establishment.

But why was it Palmer who picked up the “anti-politics” vote, instead of say, Katter’s Australian Party, the Wikileaks Party, the Pirate Party, or the Sex Party, all of whom have much more identifiable and coherent ideologies and policies? I was particularly surprised that Katter’s party bombed at 1% of the vote and was even thrashed in leader Bob Katter’s electorate of Kennedy. I don’t agree with the party on many issues, but it does represent a section of the electorate who have arguably been unfairly disadvantaged by the dominant neoliberal ideology (and I agree with Katter’s opposition to coal seam gas). I’m struggling to see any similar qualities in Palmer. Perhaps it’s just that Palmer has the money and media skills to be more visible? Or maybe his lack of coherence actually broadens his appeal to apathetic voters?

Understanding the anti-politics sentiment

My central conclusion from the above is the election result is best understood in the context of a substantial “anti-politics” vote.

Anecdotal evidence and survey results reveal an even deeper political crisis. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard somebody say they can’t stand any politician. According to the Lowy Institute Poll 2013, only 59% of Australians and only 48% of those aged 18-29 agree “Democracy is preferable to any other kind of government” (the other options were “For someone like me, it doesn’t matter what kind of government we have” and “In some circumstances, a non-democratic government can be preferable”).

There’s long been a stereotype that Australians are apathetic, but it seems to be truer than ever. Most disturbing of all is that disengagement is highest among young voters like myself, the very group who should be most politically engaged, because we have most to lose from the policies of Liberal, Labor, and Palmer and most to gain from Greens policies. At least past generations had some sense of civic duty. Some older Australians are appalled that many young people seem to take our democratic rights for granted – rights that people continue to fight and die for in many countries.

So what’s going on?

1. Right-wing manipulation

Firstly, I suspect the right wing has been deliberately trying to trash the reputation of politics to win support for reducing the size of government. This strategy has been pioneered by the Republican Party in the US, as revealed by former Republican insider Mike Lofgren:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

There are unmistakeable similarities with the behaviour of the Liberals in Australia. Abetted by their allies in the Murdoch media, they have created an atmosphere of chaos in Canberra and contributed to an anti-politics attitude among the public. They succeeded in bringing down the former Labor government (though the anti-politics attitude unexpectedly benefited Palmer more on primary votes). Naturally, now the Liberals are in power they will want voters to support their government, but an anti-politics attitude advantages the economic right regardless by providing a convenient justification for minimal government: politicians are so obviously unsuitable for leadership that important decisions should be taken out of their hands.

Politics is plenty corrupt, but in my view the source of the problem is not the politicians per se; it is corporate control of those politicians. Reducing the size of government will not significantly empower ordinary individuals, it will only further entrench the power of business and make our problems even worse. Corporate leaders are unelected, employed to ruthlessly pursue their company’s self-interest, and not accountable to the broader public in the same way politicians are. However corrupt political parties may be, at least in theory we could vote them out and replace them with parties that would actually represent our interests.

It’s also worth noting that many of the other factors which I will discuss can arguably be traced back to right-wing economic ideology and policies.

2. Horse race journalism

Secondly, political reporters are increasingly neglecting their responsibility to inform the voting public. They cover politics like a horse race, slotting every event into a narrative about rising or falling popularity. It’s a “bad week” for someone; there’s a “good poll” for another; a leader appeared “weak” in their latest speech. The headline events are not policies but parliamentary stunts, leadership plots, and scandals about individual MPs. Because conflict sells newspapers we read endlessly about power plays in Parliament, yet there’s little scrutiny of the arguably greater power wielded by corporate lobbyists. And although it’s become a cliché to say it, the 24-hour media cycle and shrinking attention span means there is little time for in-depth analysis, so voters tend to hear only simplistic soundbytes about complex issues, which in turn favors politicians aggressive on process and vague on policy.

Horse race journalism has subtly devalued the political process by encouraging voters (particularly young voters who are new to politics) to see political parties as rival marketing teams whose sole purpose is to convince voters to elect them, and leaders’ personalities as central to the party brand. (Admittedly, this is a depressingly accurate analysis of the modern Labor Party, but that doesn’t mean political parties have to be this way.) Shows such as The Gruen Nation invite us to cynically laugh at the attempts of politicians to win us over and shake our heads at their antics, then change the channel to sport or entertainment news.

When journalists focus on aspects of politics that are irrelevant, unimportant, and (while often superficially attention-grabbing) unable to hold long-term interest, it’s unsurprising that voters switch off. It all leaves the viewer with an impression that politics is trivial. The reality is very different: the decisions made today will determine the future of humanity and life on Earth; currently business leaders are making the wrong decisions and have politicians in their pocket; the necessary society-wide decisions can only be made and enforced by governments which we must choose to elect; political parties are organizations seeking to reshape the world according to their particular ideology; and party leaders are mere figureheads for those organizations.

When the Lowy Institute first uncovered antipathy to democracy last year, Amanda Lohrey wrote in The Monthly:

Three years ago I was invited to speak to a group of high school students about writing. The students asked me what I was working on at the time and I told them I was researching a piece on civil celebrants. They were amazed to discover that celebrants had first been appointed in 1973; they thought we had always had them. It further emerged that they thought we had always had no-fault divorce, equal opportunity and anti-discrimination legislation, Medicare and a raft of other relatively recent reforms. It’s not surprising that a group of 17 year olds would feel that anything legislated before their birth was ancient. What is of concern here is that their sense of the way in which politicians can shape and advance a culture was almost entirely absent. Politicians did bad things, they thought, or failed to do good things. Politicians were dubious characters who fought and argued and were only out for what they could get.

Politics isn’t about whether this week’s events make one political party or another look good or bad. Real politics is about alternative visions of the future and ways to get there (even if the vision is to keep the status quo or to reduce the role of government, it’s still a vision of sorts).

3. Complacency and entitlement

Thirdly, our economic fortunes may have made us complacent – too comfortable to care much about politics – yet (paradoxically) concerned about imagined hardships because we fail to appreciate our privileged situation. Some commentators argue years of unsustainable economic growth, middle-class welfare, and rising household debt have led Australians to develop an “entitled” spoiled-rich-kid attitude whereby we consider ourselves hard done by if we can’t afford to buy a new plasma TV this year; and that government is being blamed for this gap between expectation and reality. This might explain why there is so much fuss about the cost-of-living despite little evidence that it is a real issue.

I have included the “entitlement” argument here because I think it has some merit; however, I hasten to add some important caveats that are typically glossed over by its adherents (which initially led me to resist it). There are very real reasons for Australians to be dissatisfied with our political establishment and entire political system, and I believe we have every right to expect and demand better.

Whatever the short-term economic statistics might be, there remains plenty to whinge about. Australia, like other countries, is experiencing increasing economic inequality, which damages an entire society’s mental health and wellbeing, and causes even the rich to feel less financially secure. Some Australians are genuinely in poverty. Women and minorities still face significant social inequalities. And just because Australians are generally privileged now doesn’t mean we don’t need to worry about our future, which is threatened by climate change driven by the carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel burning. While I don’t expect governments to ensure I can get a plasma TV, I certainly want them to address these issues. I don’t think demanding the government protect our future makes me a spoiled whinger.

Then there is the undemocratic corporate control of our political system, which is a primary cause of climate change and many other problems. As Tim Dunlop has pointed out, we who are unable to meaningfully participate in our political system are justified in being angry:

One thing missing from these analyses [criticizing Australians for feeling entitled] is a consideration of power. The complaints of mining magnates and other wealthy rent-seekers are run together with the complaints of ordinary citizens, and both sets of grievances are diagnosed as a nationwide bout of anger and wailing.

They also overlook another fact: just because we are relatively well-off economically, it doesn’t mean we are thriving democratically. It doesn’t mean we, as individual citizens, are having meaningful input into the direction the country is taking. […]

It doesn’t seem to occur to these elite commentators that not everyone has access to the cocked ear of the powerful. Not everyone gets to have dinner with ambassadors and have a civilised discussion about how angry the rest of us are.

I am concerned some who accuse Australians of an “entitled” attitude may be just using it as another way to discredit members of the public who disagree with the neoliberal (minimal-government) consensus of the political establishment; to intimidate dissidents into shutting up and staying out of the political debate; and possibly even to soften up the electorate for fiscal austerity measures of dubious merit.

The issue of entitlement is a complex one, but the key point for this blog post is that disengaging from politics and neglecting to vote is not a solution to any real or imagined problems.

4. Hands-off, disempowered governance

Fourthly – and this is intricately related to the above point – economic deregulation and increasing corporate power has made it increasingly difficult for the government to do anything, even on issues where high expectations are reasonable. When governments are able to act, neoliberal ideology often prevents them from doing much in the public interest. The lack of government control over our problems has in turn resulted in an increasingly uncertain future and increasing resentment of said uncertainty, further fuelling discontent. It also further contributes to the belief that politics is only concerned with trivialities and changing our votes can make no difference.

5. Anti-negativity

Fifthly, positive thinking gurus have led people to believe that “negativity” is bad and, therefore, it would be so much better if politicians would all get along with each other. This is reflected in the pronouncements of relatively popular politicians like Kevin Rudd (much as I hate to bring him up after his welcome disappearance from the political stage) criticizing “the old politics of negativity”.

This is naïve. Our political system is designed to be adversarial and for good reason: society inevitably consists of competing interests and points of view. Where there exist opposing views, it is almost inevitable that there is going to be some conflict, and it’s preferable for that conflict to occur in a parliament than on a battlefield.  I’m not saying one must oppose everything proposed by others for the sake of it, but nor should one concede ground for the sake of it, because that only makes one’s opponent look more reasonable.

I don’t think we would really want to live in a world in which politicians all get along with each other, because that would mean only one ideological group is heard. Indeed, in my view one of the biggest problems with Australian politics is that the two major parties agree on almost everything important (essentially both parties are neoliberal and represent the interests of big business). If both parties in a two-party-dominated system agree on most important matters, it effectively operates like a one-party system. As for the idea that partisanship means instability, we shouldn’t want the two-party oligarchy to remain stable, because the two-party system is failing.

6. Cynicism

Sixthly (though I cannot say whether this is a recent trend or if this has always been the case), there seems to be a culture of dishonesty and cynical acceptance of this trait in politicians (perhaps this is another possible explanation for the election of a certain person). For example, take these lyrics from a country song by Adam Brand:

They say they’ll never raise your taxes, we know that ain’t true,

So we rearrange the numbers ’till the 5 becomes a 2.

You can hide the devil’s money in your pocket or your purse,

But keep your secrets hidden from the cradle to the hearse.

Lie, lie, lie – everybody else is doing it…

I’m not saying we should uncritically trust politicians. Quite the reverse: it is clear many politicians habitually treat the public like mushrooms. The point is we should not accept political dishonesty as an immutable reality: if politicians insult our intelligence, we shouldn’t vote for them. Nor should we refuse to vote at all. We should vote for those politicians who we judge to be most honest and most likely to represent our interests.

7. Out-of-touch politicians

A final reason why young voters are switching off is that the politicians are mostly middle-aged men trapped in old ways of thinking. Since the Hawke Labor government in the 1980s, the two major parties have converged on a neoliberal consensus. The labour movement on which the Labor Party was founded collapsed, and Labor became a neoliberal party all-but-identical to the Liberals. Having once spearheaded a movement with a mission, ideology, and support base, Labor is now detached from the public and devoid of any remaining overarching purpose. Thus the main political debate is between two parties that are essentially the same. No wonder Australian politics, and reporting thereof, has degenerated into a popularity contest. Again, however, disengaging from the political process isn’t helping.

Anecdotally I’ve noticed a pervasive anti-politics sentiment building for a while, but I’ve been unwilling to stoke the fire because I was concerned it would be used to justify right-wing ideology and I didn’t want the Greens to lose the balance of power in Parliament. Then recently I read this article pointing out this could also be an opportunity for the left.

In Part 2, I will consider: how should the green left respond to the anti-politics sentiment?

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