The confusions of anti-politics

Tuesday, 15 July 2014    

Political sophisticate meets naïve political rube, from the US.

Political sophisticate meets naïve political rube, from the US.

I’m determined to get on with governing

T Abbott 11 July 2014

I’m determined to get on with the job of governing,

J Gillard 31 January 2013

The Labor Party was formed to represent the workers, the Liberals to represent business, the Nationals to represent people in rural and regional Australia. But Palmer United was formed simply out of hatred for Campbell Newman.

Senior Coalition member talking to Laurie Oakes

We have got situation normal.

T Abbott

If this is situation normal, why doesn’t it feel like it?

As commentators have said, dealing with tricky players in the Palmer United Party isn’t new. Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon weren’t exactly a barrel of laughs for the Rudd government either. Even the Australian Democrats on their high horse could give Howard headaches.

The difference is not so much Palmer, but the weak position of the government that is negotiating with him. The histrionics of the government dealing with a group that was always going to repeal the carbon tax has made a mountain out of a negotiating molehill, not helped ironically by an equally histrionic pro government press attempting to put pressure on Palmer but only making a catastrophe out of something that wasn’t.

But the weakness of a new government with what should be a healthy mandate is uncomfortable and so the attention is on the renegade Palmer and his use of that classic Queensland trick, anti-politics.

This blog started seven years ago from frustration at commentary that was over-estimating Howard’s political hold that was heavily reliant on the War on Terror effect that was then fading. However, within a few months it became clear that there was another side to Rudd’s ascendancy, his use of dissatisfaction with the two party system and “the old politics” that this blogger referred to as “anti-politics”.

At the time, the term anti-politics wasn’t widely used. Now it’s everywhere. It’s not only applied to Palmer, but has even gone international with commentators talking about the sprouting of anti-politics movements in the recent European elections with the rise of the far right in France, the faux Conservative UKIP in Britain, and the far left in Spain and Greece, while Italy went for laughs with the decidedly unfunny comedian Beppe Grillo.

Yet the fact that the same term can be applied to the far right and the far left in Europe and that in Australia, even an ideological party hack like Cory Bernadi can try speaking the language, suggests that the meaning of anti-politics is not clear cut. It is perhaps worthwhile going back to its most effective proponent, Rudd, who unlike any of the other examples, brought anti-politics into the centre of the political system, with such explosive results.

The first thing that needs clearing up is that anti-politics isn’t necessarily a direct result of rising voter discontent with the political system. In the UK, for example, UKIP’s spectacular success in the European elections coincided with polling suggesting the majority of UK voters in favour of staying in the EU was the highest for several years.

Similarly when Rudd took the Labor leadership at the end of 2006, voter satisfaction with the democratic process was the highest it’s been for decades, and voters were also fairly satisfied with the leaders at the time. Howard and Beazley’s approval ratings weren’t spectacular, but better than previous years and enough to make them look like rock stars against what we’ve seen in the last few years.

Rudd didn’t become leader by being carried on the shoulders of the masses into Caucus but due to the exhaustion of a process within the political system, especially Labor, itself. His win represented the culmination of 15 years of Labor party wrangling over its future after its historical project was wound up by Hawke and Keating and the dilemma of what it should stand for since. That dilemma resulted in a constant to-ing and fro-ing between leaders that represented the old power bases, and leaders who attempted to forge something new, usually around personal values.

To that extent, Rudd’s focus on his personal values was a continuation of Latham’s tactics but more successfully. Partly this was because Rudd no longer had to worry about national security as undid Latham in 2004 and Beazley in 2001. But also because Rudd was prepared to take his break from the past further and pose his opposition to the old politics, even his own party, into a political virtue – setting up a dynamic that led to not only his ousting in 2010, but his return against the wishes of the unions and many power brokers in 2013.

That Rudd’s anti-politics had accurately put his finger on the bankruptcy of the two party system was not only shown by his own popularity, but the unpopularity of Gillard and Abbott who followed, reasserting the old politics. It also applies to the current Labor leader, whose striking unpopularity has gendered little comment, let alone explanation.

The source of that bankruptcy is the erosion of the social bases of the major parties that had happened over a decade before with the decline of the unions and the lessening need to oppose them. But it should be noted that such social shifts are nothing new. Groupings in society are constantly in flux and realigning and it’s not surprising that politics should realign in turn.

At the beginning of Federation the main alignment in politics was between the Protectionist and Free Traders roughly reflecting the differing business interests between Victoria and NSW, but which later merged as organised labour began making its political influence felt with the rise of the Labour party. The business parties subsequently realigned and absorbed splits in Labour/Labor and the union movement, and then later in the 1920s the Country Party was formed by rural interests to oppose the protectionism of both sides.

But this time something odd is happening. Social groups are realigning, the unions have lost their social significance, but with no new social interests making its presence felt, nothing is really happening in politics to reflect it. It’s as though the political system is suspended in thin air unable to realign to anything new to reflect what is happening in society.

The only noteworthy new political movement in recent years has been environmentalism, initially brought in to the political mainstream by Labor to shore up support in the dying days of the Hawke government as its unionised base fell away. But far from representing any sectional interests in society, the whole point of environmentalism is to claim sectional interests are secondary to environment concerns. It was why the imperative of climate change was such an important issue for Rudd against the traditional union backers of his own party.

It is into this stalemate of politics in suspended animation that anti-political leaders like Palmer are emerging. The Palmer phenomenon has led to speculation about who he “represents”, just as there have been reams written in the UK working out who UKIP represents. But in a sense there’s little point. As the Coalition member quoted above noted, unlike past political formations, Palmer basically represents nothing but a feud within the Queensland LNP – and of course his own business interests.

That’s what gives Palmer flexibility: other than what’s good for his business, everything else is up for grabs. Having got rid of the carbon tax for his own business interests, he can now be as pro action on climate change as he likes, certainly enough to dupe climate change warrior Gore. Who Palmer’s shifting agenda happens to appeal to at any given time is, in a sense, neither here nor there.

Palmer comes from the vicissitudes of the Queensland LNP just as Rudd came from within Labor’s, i.e. both come from the weakness of the political system rather than social interests. But both are/were willing to use those weaknesses of the political system and the public’s detachment from it for their own ends. In that sense, Palmer’s supporters are as much a stage army for pursuing his political interests as the crowds in Fairfield shopping centre who mobbed Rudd in 2013 were used by him to regain the leadership.

Many commentators are right. Palmer is a sideshow. With the political system no longer realigning with new political formations as it has in the past (at least for now), the existing parties are transforming in a way that changes the nature of representative democracy that will be looked at in a later post. But for now, those like Palmer without a social base can cause havoc for the major parties that must accommodate to not having one either, and effectively act as a catalyst for that change, just as Rudd did. This suggests the central confusion of anti-politics: while posing to be against politics, they are actually politics in its purest form.


What a technocracy looks like

Friday, 30 May 2014    

The entire gamut of Australian politics. From A to B.

The entire gamut of Australian politics. From A to B.

The South Australian Labor Party is so clearly out of talent it has to reach into the ranks of the Liberal Party to fill its Ministry.

Liberal MP Jamie Biggs’s response to Hamilton-Smith’s defection. Perhaps not quite thought through.

If Queensland continues to show with its latest product that it remains the home of anti-politics, on Tuesday South Australia showed, in fairly spectacular fashion, that it remains the home of its flipside, the political class’s response of technocracy.

Hamilton-Smith’s defection is, of course, not the first seen in Australian politics, nor is it the first time this state Labor government has had political opponents in the cabinet, with ex-Liberals like Rory McEwan and National MP Karlene Maywald in the Rann Labor Cabinet. Yet there are some features of not only the defection, but the response to it, that make it illustrative of the curious state of politics today. Read more …


Budget panto goes wrong

Monday, 19 May 2014    

If there is one thing that sums up the contradiction in the government’s position that is behind what is turning into a political disaster, is that a few weeks before the Budget came out, the Commission of Audit proposed one of the most radical overhauls of the Australian economy in fifty years – to one of the weakest governments capable of implementing it. Read more …


The ties that bind

Tuesday, 22 April 2014    

Cutting funding to ICAC would be a coward’s response to the most important accountability mechanism in the state.

John Kaye, Greens Upper House NSW MP

It’s perhaps understandable that an Upper House MP may be unaware, relying as they do on the benefice of party machines, that the “most important accountability mechanism” in NSW remains the electorate, which in the last election did a pretty good job of making a tawdry and corrupt Labor government accountable by removing not only the Premier, but the entire Ministry and over half of the government MPs from their jobs. Beat that ICAC! Read more …


A hollow debate

Monday, 7 April 2014    

There are some important issues arising from the government’s move to repeal 18C in the Racial Discrimination Act. Unfortunately they are obscured by posturing anti-racism on the left and posturing libertarianism on the right when in reality it is about neither. Read more …



Monday, 24 February 2014    

David Rowe, AFR

David Rowe, AFR

This is a breach of our sovereignty and the Indonesians need to understand that, instead of a lot of pious rhetoric about the Australian Government breaching their sovereignty

Lord Downer, just a few months ago

We will decide.

From happier times.

The panic about asylum seekers is primarily a panic of the political class, that politicos on the left and right continually project onto the public, but for whom polls show it remains no more than a middling concern. It is a panic out of all proportion to its real impact because asylum seekers capture two concerns that the political class has no solution for: a declining social base (Labor) and authority and “sovereignty” (the Coalition).

During the Rudd-Gillard period we saw asylum seekers become a political football between Rudd and Gillard centred on Labor’s insecurities about its lack of social base. Under the Coalition, asylum seekers are now becoming a political football over an even more sensitive issue, sovereignty. Read more …


Politics of the void

Monday, 20 January 2014    

Don’t worry. He’s not looking at you.

I firmly believe the battle of ideas is an important one for politicians to engage in.

Senator Cory Bernardi

#dearcory why is it that you just hate people so much? Did the other kids make you eat slugs when you were at school?

Senator Hanson-Young

Cory is deluded. He is one of the least effective or important members of the parliamentary team. Cory is a person without any intellect, without any base, and he should really never have risen above the position of branch president. His right-wing macho-man act is just his way of looking as though he stands for something.

Liberal “colleague” quoted in The Monthly

Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics because it shows that there is a fundamental unity,

New Prime Minister Tony Abbott

You have to be tough to get to the top. Read more …


The year Australian politics imploded

Sunday, 29 December 2013    

Who were these two again? Oh yes.

Who were these two again? Oh yes.

It’s not right for Australians to not face this year with certainty and stability.

J Gillard with rather too many negatives, 30 January 2013

The year began as it meant to go on. Gillard’s early announcement of the election date to bring about certainty and stability promptly kicked off one of the most uncertain and unstable periods in Australian politics. If Gillard’s attempt to stabilise those behind her by declaring it produced the opposite result, she was not alone. Rudd returned to power just in time to shield those who brought him down from the consequences of that disastrous decision by saving their seats. Probably not quite what he had been plotting three years to do. Truly, 2013 was an exemplar of that unwritten rule of politics, the tragedy of the political will. Read more …



Tuesday, 24 December 2013    

It’s only the first two weeks of sitting in the house with years to come but the Abbott government has made a strong start.

Dennis Shanahan 22 November 2013

The Prime Minister is now faced with the reality of growing disillusion from the electorate that goes well beyond the carbon tax.

Dennis Shanahan three weeks later

Of course, the importance of the last Newspoll was not the poll itself, it merely confirmed the downward drift in government support a little later than others. The importance of the poll was that The Australian, and especially its political editor, had to explain it. Only three weeks after claiming that the Coalition frontbench was using every crisis to grow in confidence – which given that the Coalition had a large part in causing them, suggested a quite unique winning formula – Shanahan now claimed that the poll slip showed the public becoming increasingly disillusioned.

It’s hard to see why. Read more …


The New Regionalism – an update

Wednesday, 4 December 2013    

David Rowe AFR

David Rowe AFR

It’s not goodies versus baddies, it’s baddies versus baddies.

TA on Australia’s foreign policy dilemma

Apology demanded from Australia by a bloke who looks like a 1970′s Pilipino [sic] porn star and has ethics to match.

Liberal media strategist

It’s getting hard to keep up. Government disarray, a non-existent honeymoon, and the most hostile media faced by any Liberal government in living memory have all meant the issues are now stacking up. On the international stage (let alone the domestic one) the Indonesia row has been overtaken by the Chinese row and now even East Timor feels up for having a go. Good grief.

This is all a shame. Read more …


Earlier posts →

Switch to our mobile site