The siren call of anti-politics

Tuesday, 17 November 2009 


SARAH FERGUSON: The national farmers federation want you to support the bill, are they not your core constituency?

BARNABY JOYCE: Not when they say that.

4 Corners “Malcolm and the Malcontents”

So who is Joyce’s natural constituency these days?

Even ignoring what they think of the science, there are some very good reasons why it is in the interests of the Coalition to support the climate change agenda. Firstly, it is in line with the global political agenda, which is critical for that part of the Australian political class that has most looked overseas for authority. Secondly, their business backers want the best possible deals and subsidies (politely known as ‘certainty’). Finally, it is electorally very popular.

It is also understandable why they don’t. It increases regulation on economic activity, which the Coalition are supposed to be against (kind of). It undermines the whole basis of putting forward sectional interests, core to the Coalition’s political agenda. Finally, while it is now the US’s agenda, it is not its natural one and does nothing to reinforce US dominance and indeed undermines it. The impact on US interests will always be something the Coalition will be more sensitive to than Labor.

Having said that, however, the pros outweigh the cons. Purely from the view of the Coalition’s political interests, going along with the climate change agenda, without perhaps being its most enthusiastic advocate, makes political sense. This is why this mixed stance has, by and large, been the position of all the Coalition leaders since the issue first came to world attention.

But this is not just about cool political interests. The rather condescending observation of the UK’s new envoy, Baroness Amos, that climate change was still a live issue in Australia because it had not “moved on”, says more about her preparation for her new post than the Australian political scene. Australia being a bit slow on the uptake doesn’t explain why climate change scepticism is increasing in the Coalition over time rather than diminishing.

The row about climate change is not about moving forwards or backwards, but about the form the political crisis is taking in the Australian right. Maybe it would help the Baroness to get what is going on here by putting it in language she might understand, it is something like what the UK Conservatives went through over Europe in the 1990s.

But there is a difference, and why, as we saw on 4 Corners last week, this has the potential to be even more disruptive. One of the features that has been noticed about this debate, especially with frustration by those on the right, is the way that Coalition members can’t seem to keep their views to themselves when talking to the media. The way Nick Minchin, Cory Bernardi, Wilson Tuckey, and even Tony Abbot, in his sly way, fall over themselves to put their sceptical point of view in front of a camera, seems to be against the code of discipline that the Coalition was supposed to be known for. They may have knifed their leaders ruthlessly, but on policy, rows were generally confined to behind closed doors.

Not so on climate change. The reason is straightforward; this is a political organisation trying to find its identity and, as politicians, their constituency, and they are using the media to do it. What normally contains the right from this getting out of control are the institutions and traditions that within which such changes are managed. In Britain and the US, the right still have reasonably strong institutions and means to manage such rows. In Australia, less so. There is no real conservative tradition as such and the institutions of the right are in many ways weaker and less coherent, formalised by the Liberal-National split.

What we have now is that some members in the Coalition are starting to use the climate change agenda to tap into a constituency that is in some ways at odds with the right tradition in this country.

The sign of a politician like Joyce doing the funky chicken dance on stage with ten year-olds is a sure sign of an Australian politician out of his natural base and looking for a new constituency. That constituency may look like a classical conservative audience but in many ways are fundamentally detached from traditional political institutions in Australia, including the Coalition’s. What we are seeing is the most serious attempt to bring into mainstream federal politics that constituency that supported Joh twenty years ago and re-emerged with Hanson’s One Nation a decade ago.

It is traditional at this stage in Australian political commentary to say something unflattering about such an audience. This is not very helpful. Just as it was not very helpful dismissing One Nation supporters as racists, it confuses a right agenda with an audience that has proven its potential to be highly disruptive for right wing parties. Its prevalence in Queensland has more to do with the historical weakness of Labor in the rural regions after the DLP split in the 1950s and the inability of the federal parties to properly fill the gap as happened in, say, Victoria.

One sign of the nature of this constituency is Joyce’s refusal to negotiate on the ETS. Negotiation is for the strong and those in a position to bargain, like the National Farmers Federation. Joyce’s position reflects the stance of those who don’t have much to bargain with and would prefer to voice their detachment from something they have no stake in. Another sign is its incoherence. Joyce’s ramblings may not impress Trioli any more than Pauline, or Joh’s did, but that incoherence comes from the contradiction of an anti-political movement getting a political voice in the mainstream. Up to now, the Coalition parties have been careful to avoid getting too close to this grouping that, at the end of the day, have little time for the political class of any persuasion. Now lets see what happens when an insecure Coalition does.

[Update: it seems the voters have been highly impressed with, er, the government’s adroit handling of the Oceanic Viking with its popularity soaring back up in the latest Newspoll to landslide levels. Although from what base, it is a little hard to tell, since The Australian was talking a couple of days ago of how Rudd should be worried in Queensland where Labor is only a couple of points above the last election against a national improvement of 6%, when of course, the last Newspoll showed no improvement at all. Anyway, the latest Essential poll shows a similar movement to today’s Newspoll – but in the completely opposite direction. So that’s all clear then.]

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 17 November 2009.

Filed under Political figures, State and federal politics, State of the parties

Tags: , , , ,


5 responses to “The siren call of anti-politics”

  1. RalphC on 17th November 2009 9:25 am

    Nice work, PS. You dissect the meta level politics better than any other source I have come across.

    It is interesting watching the coalition wriggle and squirm over climate change. And as you’ve said, it’s hard to see exactly why they feel the need to be so anti-climate change. And the result we’re seeing is that Labor is seeming to be happy to dull the ETS down to meet coalition requests. At the end of the day, the ETS that gets passed (if at all) will be so watered down and ineffective that there is no sense in having it at all.

    I get the feeling that the best outcome at this stage would be for the coalition to vote the ETS down and for Rudd to call a double dissolution election.

  2. RalphC on 17th November 2009 9:31 am

    On a somewhat related point, I personally believe that a double dissolution is likely. The ETS could well be the trigger, but I think the underlying reason will be that the economy is really only running on borrowed stimulus funding. There is no real private sector demand. If Rudd is true to his word and lets the stimulus wind down as scheduled, we should see some weaker economic figures because the government is what is driving spending right now. An economy without stimulus might actually see the recession we should have had.

    With that being the case, I’m sure Rudd and Swan would love to come in with even more stimulus. But they know they can’t do it in the current political climate because the coalition would be all over them like a rash and the public doesn’t really believe more stimulus is necessary anyway. And that is before we consider that a ‘tough’ budget is coming up – something that the current government clearly does not have the stomach for. So I think a double dissolution election before the budget would be a convenient way for the government to avoid a tough budget and gain some sort of mandate for more borrowing and spending to stave off a recession.

    What are your thoughts, PS?

  3. The Piping Shrike on 17th November 2009 9:34 am

    I tend to think, as we saw with Rudd’s reaction to the rogue Newspoll, that they are not secure enough to risk it.

  4. Graham on 17th November 2009 11:53 am

    RE the new British High Commisssioner. I would have thought that someone who has a title like “Baroness” in the 21st century isn’t really in a position to tell other people about “moving on”.

    After the APEC Summit in Singapore, plus the pathetic antics of some people in the Liberal and National Parties, I realise how hopeless our poticial class has become in dealing with really important issues.

    If world leaders can’t come to a decent decision on something that the world is united on, then what, seriously, is their role?

  5. Riccardo on 20th November 2009 3:00 pm

    Minchin is hard to fathom. He has no base for an attack on the leadership and can’t become leader himself from the Senate.

    The media treated him (and still do) as the Tanner of the Libs – solid backroom operator. He’s gone completely nuts. Lost it. Abetz I can imagine, off the the tinfoils most of the time.

    If what I hope comes to pass, Turnbull will be the new Evatt, presiding over a split that will take generations to heal. Who will leave the matriomonial home in a divorce though? The moderates – who stuck to the party line and had some business backing? Or the freaks who caused this problem?

    Minchin says carbon dioxide is not a poison. He is a candidate for having gaffer tape placed over his nose and mouth for ten minutes, to prevent that wonderful carbon dioxide from escaping from his body.

Comments are closed.