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. You have to be prepared to step over people who may have been useful on the way up, but are then surplus to requirements.

When Tony Abbott was hustling his way to the leadership as a brand merchant at a time when the party was fretting about it in 2008-09, Cory was a useful guy to have around. Because Cory’s a revolutionary, and constantly mouthing off, it meant Abbott didn’t have to, and so could just be associated with the right of the party without being tagged with too many embarrassing comments himself.

It was only when Cory started getting a bit icky with animals that it became necessary to dump him in late 2012. But by then Labor had well and truly rehabilitated the Liberals’ brand and made Abbott look electable. So Cory had to go, it was time to look normal and the branding pressure was off. For a while.

One thing that hasn’t been commented on with this new government is a key similarity that it has with that of Rudd and Gillard but less so with Howard in 1996. The most important promise of this government is just to be good at governing, to run things smoothly and get politics off the front pages. In this regard there is a similarity to the technocrat apolitical government promised by Rudd, and Gillard and her legislation churning minority Parliament.

Electorally, such low aspirations are sensible. Labor’s convulsions, and the lack of political meaning that emerged from them, made such a modest ambition from the Liberals possible. That the public doesn’t especially like the Liberals’ program makes it necessary.

No doubt there will be some in the Liberal party, even possibly Abbott himself, who will be telling themselves that this “neutral” type of governing is a bit of ruse and there is an agenda up the sleeve. But politicians first understand an unpleasant reality as a tactical necessity and, however they might flail about, a technocrat government is here to stay. As was shown by the opposition from Liberal state premiers to plans to reform Gonski, in its very bright dawn, and even within its own party, this new government carries little political weight.

Yet while technocrat government may be inevitable, a smoothly running one may not. As Rudd and Gillard found, there are important destabilisers to the technocrat model of government, no matter how inevitable and necessary it has become.

The first is the survival instinct of the political parties themselves, which quite rightly sees the technocrat model as side-lining them. For Labor this meant the party reasserting itself institutionally in June 2010. For the Liberals, Australia’s last political party, it comes through ideologically.

There is no doubt that despite attempts by some in the press to portray Bernardi’s re-emergence on the political stage with the launch of his book, The Conservative Revolution, as some part of Abbott’s brilliant grander plan, his intervention is unhelpful. It has raised issues, such as abortion, that are not only electorally unpopular but have little chance of moving anything in society. So what’s it about?

Certainly not for the ideas. There is nothing new in the book that is not a rehash of views that pop up everywhere from time to time. If the stuff in Cory’s book constitute “ideas” then the local pub must be a university, with degrees handed out willy nilly as closing time approaches and the booze flows.

Nor is it a revolution. At least not in society. We know it’s not because when he was told to shut up during that awkward period of an election campaign, when the public gets a look in, he did, for the sake of the party. It is only now, when electoral considerations are at their least pressing that he decides to launch it, which gives a clue what this is really about.

The “Revolution” is not in the ideas or their social impact but to try and get these ideas adopted, or at least acknowledged, in the political sphere. This is the “tyranny of political correctness” that Bernardi and the rest of the right bang on about. Not so much that most people would know what he is talking about, Australian public talk is as, er, robust and offensive as ever. Bernardi’s target is the political sphere, and the political sphere only

In many ways Bernardi apes a tradition that would normally be associated with the Labor left. The turgid books, the posturing of a “battle of ideas”, the ordinariness of those ideas, the lack of any real base in the party, let alone in society at large, and the delusions that ideas run society, rather than the other way round, that makes media and political arenas appear so important, were all traditionally the prerogative of the left.

That the right are now adopting the mode of operation of the left is sign that they are approaching its social irrelevance. The Liberals, like Labor in the past, have historically been a deeply pragmatic, anti-ideas party, yet with their social rationale on which they were formed having gone, sections of it are thrashing around much as Labor’s did in such a damaging way in June 2010.

As to what can happen on the right, they are staring straight at it with the inspiration they appear to draw from the Tea Party in the US, which has not revitalised the Republican party, but threatened its destruction. The Liberals came very close to a taste of what this meant in 2009 when its least popular political leader was elected on the basis of what was then (and is still now) a highly unpopular political outlook, climate change scepticism. That mistake was concealed by Labor’s inept manoeuvres that followed, but as anyone looking at Labor’s performance over the last six years will conclude, do not underestimate the self-destructive tendencies of political parties fighting for survival.

Some Liberals are clearly well aware of it and Abbott’s distancing from Bernardi is a sure sign of which way the party’s wind is blowing for that weathervane. It is seen with denigrating comments about Bernardi coming not only from unnamed sources but from named ones as well. For the right wing ideologues in the media, the raising by some Liberals of the electoral reality of Bernardi’s remarks is uncomfortable, summed up by Paul Sheehan trumping his piece as about the social media’s attacks on Bernardi when it was a really a bitch about a fellow Liberal MP, Warren Entsch.

Yet despite the electoral dangers of this faux politics from the right, it may continue as a response to the other two reasons making a smooth technocrat government difficult.

The first is the increasing intrusion of outside forces that the government cannot control. The most obvious example is the intervention of Indonesia into the government’s asylum seeker policy. This is the first time in Australian history, at least as this blog is aware, that a neighbour has intervened directly into Australian politics. This is the real reason why the government is so secretive about the handling of its asylum policy. not because of operational reasons, which are little different to those of the previous government, nor that it faces great challenge at home, but because the conflict it sets with Indonesia means that it is out of this government’s control.

It is especially sensitive given that the Liberals have ensured this asylum seeker policy is seen as precisely about the most important area that our political must be seen to be in control of, sovereignty. If pressure from Indonesia continues, it is inevitable that some in the right of the party will break ranks and react, much as Downer did with his unhelpful outrage before the election. To spell it out again, this blog believes the significance of the Indonesian intervention is still being under-estimated by Australian commentary.

The final reason for the difficulty in running a smooth technocrat government is perhaps the most sensitive one, how government operates. As most people who have ever had to deal with government bureaucracy will know, there is a dead heart at the centre of the state, which understandably is rarely discussed in public life beyond the gripes about public services. This is not a comment on the people who work in it (OK maybe some of them) but on the whole rationale of the state as to compensate for the weaknesses for society, but often with no real solution for them, as demonstrated with the latest posturing on drunken violence in NSW.

In the past this weakness at the heart of government and the state was disguised by the political agendas of both parties. Both sides had an interest in covering this up, especially on the left that would see the state as the vehicle for its own projects. In the 2000s, in response to its traditional agenda being redundant, state Labor governments initially had considerable success making a virtue of it with “apolitical” technocrat governments that just concentrated on providing good services. It probably reached its zenith in South Australia, with the Rann government including not only former Lib independents, but a National in its Cabinet.

But, as state Labor found, and as Federal Labor was later to, the state as a provider of services can be even more inefficient than the chaotic market-place. However exaggerated the Liberals’ stories on pink batts and school halls waste was, it was effective because it corresponded with many people’s experience of what government is like. The shift to technocrat apolitical government only exposes the problems of the state as never before.

The Liberals should be insulated from this to a degree as they pose as the party that rolls government back and that what services there are should be paid for (it is why this blog does not believe the GP charge will necessarily be the vote killer some claim). But as the reaction to Gonski showed, they have by no means won the argument that funding for services should not still be available and that those services should be up to scratch. This again would seem to require the ideologues to justify why the cuts should be made, even if they convince few in doing so.

All this suggests the potential for an uncomfortable ride ahead for the government, and more unhelpful “politics” within its ranks. Yet it would be a mistake to see this as simply making Labor’s return at the next election more likely. This may be a surprising thing to say given that Labor is now in a better polling position for an opposition at this stage of a new government than any in polling history.

It has not yet sunk in what a watershed year 2013 was for Australian politics. Labor has been grappling with the problems above for 20 years and 2013 was the year it ran out of answers. It marked the end of a period when a party formed in the political conditions of the 19th and 20th century could find a solution for the 21st, and Abbott’s residence in the Lodge is a direct result of that.

The Liberals may face the same problems, but they have a lot more institutional flexibility to manage it. Whatever can be said about the power of ideas, they are unlikely to have the impact on the Liberals that disgruntled factional hacks had on Labor in 2010. Seeing the Liberals as the party of default, without looking at the party that defaulted, is not only blindness to what happened to Labor in 2013, but the state of politics generally in 2014. It is what leads to a tendency to see the Abbott government as an aberration just as the Rudd-Gillard period was seen as an aberration as well. It is not. This is it.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 20 January 2014.

Filed under State of the parties

Tags: , ,


21 responses to “Politics of the void”

  1. Riccardo on 20th January 2014 4:56 pm

    Truly excellent post TPS. Cellar this one.

    I particularly liked “Labor has been grappling with the problems above for 20 years and 2013 was the year it ran out of answers. It marked the end of a period when a party formed in the political conditions of the 19th and 20th century could find a solution for the 21st, and Abbott’s residence in the Lodge is a direct result of that.”

    Why do people not see this? People complain about how the labels “Labor” and “Liberal” are no longer accurate or that Malcolm Fraser appears to have moved to the left, when this is because their own perspective, where they stand themselves when they make these comments, has moved.

    There was once a Labor Party, run by paid union hacks broadly aligned with the interests of ‘working people’ namely, a specific class of MEN, employed in large companies eg factories, on fixed pay for fixed work. That class disappeared or rather faded into other less well defined groups, and the same party of union hacks, the Labor Party, no longer had any social class to align to, so they go round trying to manufacture one. Their uni-educated lackies tell them their fictional interest group lives in Rooty Hill, is a white racist and only reads Murdoch, mostly for the sport.

  2. ‘Drunken violence’ as moral panic, pure & simple - Left Flank on 21st January 2014 3:29 pm

    […] The Piping Shrike points out in passing, posturing such as that which we are seeing over drunken violence reflects expectations that the […]

  3. Tom on 21st January 2014 5:38 pm

    Interesting article as usual.

    I think it’s worthwhile to consider Bernardi’s profile in politics separate from the specific issues he emphasises.

    If you look at how a fringe political tendency enters mainstream Australian politics, it comes in via the wedge.

    The wedge manipulates a single issue constituency, and also aggressively consumes the limited bandwidth of public debate, distracting from central macroeconomic questions. It’s an extraordinarily valuable tool for distorting politics.

    Though asylum seeker politics has been an ever present since Howard undercut Hansonism, eventually demographic change will see it fade and a new wedge will emerge.

    Bernardi might not be the specific politician who ends up as a spokesperson for a new hot button issue, but he’s the type of politician who deliberately seeks out and attaches to wedge issues.

    Bernardi’s “conservative revolution” casts a wide, careerist net across the spectrum of social concerns for the purpose of exploitation. He is a connected, careerist politician capable of setting his stall up on the reactionary side of any social transformation.

    There are others like him out there, most probably, that are yet to be widely recognised. It’s hard to predict what the next issue to get traction will be.

    From the perspective of the government, the last time around the Coalition made a mistake of sorts with the Hansonist tendency, and had to go the long way round on xenophobia after they’d excluded her from their party.

    Perhaps the long term game now is to keep the demagogues in house until the hour of their usefulness arrives, if they can afford to do so, even if it’s not for a few more turns of the wheel.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 21st January 2014 9:05 pm

    I don’t think it’s the ideas that necessarily make Bernardi “fringe”. I think they’re held by sections of the Liberal/Nationals parties and in society at large.

    I think what makes him “fringe” is to try and bring these views into the political arena, whereas usually they are not publicly discussed. This is overwhelmingly a political project, not really targeted at society in general, where more practical considerations on social issues tend to prevail.

  5. Sydney’s Lockout And The Moral Panic We Need To Disengage From | Junkee on 22nd January 2014 3:15 pm

    […] The Piping Shrike points out in passing, this kind of posturing reflects expectations that the state will solve a social malady, when in […]

  6. Dianne on 23rd January 2014 5:53 am

    Shrike I agree that political parties can no longer rely on a secure, loyal base. So much is demonstrated in concrete terms by falling party membership.

    In my opinion both parties have played a major role in fragmenting this society. Simply, nothing is certain anymore.

    Sometimes when I am skipping along the pavement in the direction of the shops, a relaxed, comfortable, aspirational consumer, I will stop by a small concrete lift-up slab emblazoned PMG.

    And I sigh.

    For old times.

    When the Postmaster General ran a public spirited utility, when the sight of a Qantas kangaroo made your heart quicken, when Myer delivery trucks rolled down your street instead of FedEx with parcels from the beyond, when milk bars made you malted milks in frosted metal containers. Who gets any pleasure or service in one of those anonymous American convenience chainstores?

    I think this country has been stripped bare and now is very unsettled and wary. With good reason.

    Political parties have dealt themselves out of business.

    What on earth do they really control?

    I think this is why they parade the borders yelling and screaming: ‘We will decide ….”. It is all a pantomime power play with real suffering victims.

    Does all that have the effect of giving some people a dog to kick to distract them from the stress of coping with mortgages, short-term contract work, part-time work, three jobs ….

    Never mind it will be Australia Day soon. Time to unfurl the flags and celebrate life in The Void.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 23rd January 2014 6:33 pm

    I think Australia is a far better place now than it was in the past. I wouldn’t read what is happening in the political parties to the rest of society, no matter how essential they like to think they are.

  8. Dianne on 24th January 2014 5:55 am

    I do not believe you can separate the flailings of political parties from what is happening in society.

    The past is always golden I agree. I disagree, however, that the present is far better.

    Housing affordability is out of reach for young couples.

    I read somewhere the other day that we have locked up 1000 children whose parents have sought asylum here. What has happened to us that we do not find that abhorrent? It is hardly mentioned.

    We have a government who announces important matters through News Corp and vilifies the national broadcaster. Is the very future of the ABC in doubt?

    The gap between rich and poor is widening.

    Job security belongs to the past.

    There is a push on to cut wages while the cost of privatized essential services will continue to rise.

    Clearly the Liberals have been more successful in appealing to the unease of voters who are burdened with mortgages and precarious working conditions and an extraordinarily high cost of living.

  9. F on 24th January 2014 7:54 am

    We live a far more open, inclusive, accepting, peaceful, and wealthy society Dianne.

    More people than ever are able to attain the goals they have set for themselves.

    This past you talk of was a shit-heap. It was bad for gays, non-whites, women, and anyone who looked a little different.

    And we were poorer!

    Its stupid to look to the political parties for our moral compass. Time and time again polling has showed that the Australian people are far ahead of our politicians on issues such as abortion, gay rights, euthanasia, women’s rights, the environment, the list could go on.

    We don’t get the politicians we deserve….we aren’t THAT stupid.

  10. Dianne on 24th January 2014 11:26 am

    Why do we live in the society you describe F?

    Because of what was put in place by past generations.

    A fine state school system, public transport, universal health care, a public broadcaster, public utilities etc etc.

    Are we building on the past or dismantling the present?

    I know what I think.

    And yes I want the government of this country to lead by example: to tell the truth, to admit mistakes. Just for starters.

  11. F on 24th January 2014 1:00 pm

    “…..Because of what was put in place by past generations.

    A fine state school system, public transport, universal health care, a public broadcaster, public utilities etc etc.”

    I’m guessing you are a white middle class women, so disconnected are you from the realities of the above past “positives” for minority Australians.

  12. Dianne on 24th January 2014 2:57 pm

    That’s right F I know nothing.

  13. atomou on 25th January 2014 7:11 am

    No, both of you Dianne and F, know a lot but both of you are making the silly mistake of generalising.
    Not all things were great in the past and not all things are great now; and some good things of the past are being dismantled as we breathe while other things that were crap in the past are being improved upon as we breathe also, though, I must admit, the improvements come at a much slower rate than the dismantling! And the same it is with people, both, those who strut the halls of power and those who tread the offices of Centrelink and of various charities, of the lanes and alleyways where they beg during the day and sleep during night.

    Some people have made mountains of financial wealth out of the destitution of others and out of wars, and of looting and pillaging of the wealth of others, while others have, either through good luck or good counsel, managed not only to get a good education but also a worthwhile job afterwards.

    Comparisons, either with the past or with other nations are fraught with such selective and subjective collection of facts, incomplete facts, facts that are taken out of their full context and thus if the comparative exercise must be done, it will need a thorough examination of every fact in its full context, something that, unless we write huge tomes, we won’t achieve and what we do achieve will be of little value and almost totally irrelevant if our purpose is to answer the question, “how are we doing now?’

    The answer will again be in most parts subjective since, even with the most sympathetic eyes, we cannot see nor feel the full extent of joy or misery of others. We can surmise.
    And Reinhart will surmise far differently to how I will. Abbott, Morrison, Robb, Turnbull, Pyne, Abetz, Hockey, Bishop, Brandis, Cormann, Dutton, Concetta and Michaela Andrews, Rudd, Gillard, Arbib, et al, et al, et al, will surmise far differently also. I thought the previous Labor Party in Govn’t would have surmised a little more closely to how I did but, alas, it was nowhere near!
    So will other political and business, church, judicial leaders in this country and in other countries will surmise differently.

    I often find it astonishing that we can all come to any agreement about anything at all, even as trivial as 2+2 and I come to the conclusion that we need a new Bernie Russell to give us a mathematical formula to prove that 2+2=4 and why it is that no two people can agree on something as obvious as humans are made to walk forward!
    I often feel quite distressed about that!

  14. Dianne on 25th January 2014 6:32 pm

    Thanks for your generous response Atomou.

    Let me assure you that I don’t believe everything which has gone before was better. What I was trying to say, in a few paras, is that our society is now more fragmented and that is causing difficulties for political parties which cannot rely on a reliable support base.

    And PS – I have just noticed your twitter conversation with Mr Denmore on the subject of moral leadership.

    I cannot understand your position.

    I do not look to any political party for moral guidance.

    Who does? But that is not the point.

    I expect any government to treat voters with respect by providing the kind of open, transparent administration they promised. I do not believe this government does that and it is assisted by a complicit or supine media, with notable exceptions.

    I am very offended too by this government’s faux morality in subsidizing marriage guidance classes for newly weds.

    Surely that is not the role of government?

    It makes me laugh too as it is common practice for the newly married to have co-habited before marriage, sometimes for years. Surely they would have worked out how to sustain their relationship without Kevin Andrews’ assistance.

    Surely more family friendly policies would be of greater assistance that group.

    I noticed in his Davos speech, TA mentioned that the government was looking at child care changes as part of a push towards an open-all-hours Australia.

    I’ll bet you anything that means that some children are going to find themselves sleeping at child minding centres while mum or dad or both toil through the night.

    I would not like that one bit.

  15. atomou on 27th January 2014 11:01 am

    Dianne, that would have been about the last tweet I send off. I stopped because not long after I started I was suspended for committing some technical sins, which I simply could not understand. Every time I asked for an explanation of what I had done, I got a different answer and one which made no sense at all to me. Technical jargon. There was no human being at the other end. Only a computer! So I just couldn’t be bothered.
    My position on what Abbott did with his daughters and his wife was that he acted like a pimp, parading them in a red light district.
    Had they opened their mouths and say something, anything, even remotely political, I’d forgive the parades during campaign time. But he and Maggie looked like nothing more than procurers.

    With all your other comments I agree wholeheartedly. With watching TA, however, no matter where he is, you’d more likely to get me to stand and watch a dog puking! Couldn’t watch Howard without dry retching and can’t watch Abbott without similar reactions.

  16. Dianne on 27th January 2014 12:53 pm

    Atomou – how funny that was not a PS about your tweet but a comment directed at P Shrike about his twitter debate with Mr Denmore.

  17. atomou on 27th January 2014 3:29 pm


  18. Riccardo on 7th February 2014 7:19 am

    Time for a post on Paul Howes pretending there is a need for an Accord when there is not, and how the media got sucked in on SPC when the real issue is why Abbott thinks the election is still on and he is trailing.

  19. The Piping Shrike on 11th February 2014 10:51 pm

    You’re reading my mind Riccy.

  20. David Rohde on 23rd February 2014 11:27 am

    A post on Howes/SPC etc would be interesting…. but I am also hopefully you will give us an update on “Whatever happened to the asylum seeker debate”.

    Frankly, I am confused about the issue and you offered a fresh perspective, that made me think. You said the conditions that allowed Howard to “stop the boats: no longer exist. As it looks like the current government might indeed “stop the boats”, it looks like a qualification might be needed. Say “the conditions without damaging diplomatic relations with Indonesia”, or perhaps not…

  21. The Piping Shrike on 24th February 2014 8:12 am

    Done. Still want to do the one on Howes, but things keep moving on. This government’s inability to keep politics off the front page has been a disappointment to us all.

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