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.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 15 July 2014.

Filed under State of the parties

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19 responses to “The confusions of anti-politics”

  1. Gordon on 15th July 2014 9:27 am

    I think you’re overstating Bill Shorten’s unpopularity in the electorate. Most of the response to him is neither positive or negative. He’s profoundly neutral.

    As for the rest, when the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see everything as a nail. There is certainly a degree of anti-politics out there, but it’s not as influential to what is driving things as the community response to this government’s decisions in the budget, combined with deeply entrenched beliefs about Abbott that have been established over a very long period of time.

  2. The confusions of anti-politics :The Piping Shrike | patrites on 15th July 2014 12:16 pm

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  3. Charles on 15th July 2014 12:43 pm

    Interesting commentary. There is more here from a European perspective on the same issue:

  4. The Piping Shrike on 15th July 2014 1:41 pm

    Interesting piece.

    Gordon, I think one thing that annoyed people about the Budget is that it was ideological. I think one thing that has long annoyed people about Abbott is that he is too.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 15th July 2014 2:26 pm

    But that’s not really the point of the post. Dissatisfaction with the Budget may be a thing, but any response comes more from within the political system and insiders like Palmer than anything in society at large – no matter how big the demos and some might want to talk them up.

  6. Dr_Tad on 15th July 2014 6:23 pm

    Typically great piece, TPS.

    I’ve read the Mair book that Charles linked to the review of. It’s very interesting. I think one mistake Mair makes is to be relatively uncritical of the appearance of “representation” of social groups within the state that operated in the EU before the last 30 years shifted things. Just because the form of representation has fallen away more recently, it doesn’t mean that there weren’t severe limits on its social content in the past.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 15th July 2014 7:55 pm

    Yes, I certainly wouldn’t present it as the golden days now lost. In a way things are (should be) clearer.

  8. Jay Buoy on 15th July 2014 9:47 pm

    I think your underestimating Abbotts six year inquisition that death spiralled through the Australian polity and trashed the brand of all organised political parties.. his ambition to be PM coupled with whatever has driven Murdoch
    to blatantly support him has sullied our democracy and poisoned our institutions.. Hearing Murdoch opine that we should get rid of windmills and move our mansions inland makes we think we’re a Dodderocracy..

  9. Dianne on 16th July 2014 2:00 am

    I agree with you Gordon.

    I wish Shorten would present a compelling alternative. From all I have observed he is certainly capable of that.

    As we know the polls show that he is more popular than Abbott despite being largely invisible.

    Like you I believe the public is less ‘anti-political’ than openly antagonistic to an ideological Budget which contains measures which will change our society. I believe many of us are disturbed by the notion that the fabled ‘fair go’ is to be discarded. It is after all part of who we are in this world or who we think we are. And what’s more the person trying to drag us into a future which more closely resembles the US than Australia is a person in whom many of us have no trust.

    No doubt people are wary of politicians and their empty promises. I also think there would be strong support for the ALP if Shorten presented himself as a convincing alternative and lived up to it.

    Abbott was, after all the man who came to power promising to change nothing. In my opinion he has betrayed that trust, failed to make the case for change and has dismayed many by repeated clunky utterances.

    People do not need to like a leader but they need to respect him or her. None of us like to be misled.

    Perhaps a component of ‘anti-politics’ which is not given enough attention is today’s presidential style focus on the leader. Seen up close Abbott’s shortcomings are marked. Even some of closest supporters have expressed misgivings.

    I don’t think voters will return a party led by Abbott unless some turmoil engulfs the Opposition.

  10. guy on 17th July 2014 7:51 am

    The old regime is dying, the new is yet to be born.

    The political poles are flipping, the Libs are becoming the radical ideological party attacking the established social order, the ALP are becoming defenders of the status quo. If the Libs didn’t have so much of the political establishment thinking they were born to rule this would be more apparent.

    The budget has done a lot to show the majority of Australians that their way of life is under attack from the Libs.

    Shorten doesn’t have to promise to do anything much other than keep things the same, which probably even extends to keeping the carbon and mining taxes, the known devils. That is the beauty of being the more conservative party, in the sense of protecting the social order.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 17th July 2014 3:59 pm

    It remains to be seen how far this ideological turn can go because electorally it’s a stinker.

  12. F on 18th July 2014 9:51 am

    Pretty clear they don’t/can’t/wont care about what the voters want, Shrike. It’s their backers in the Murdoch media and the export orientated business sector that are the who’s who of who they are listening to.

    Their cheerleaders are telling them that it is just the ‘selling’ aspects that are at fault, not the substance. Even now, after months of approbation over the budget they are still discussing how they will get it passed, when clearly that ship has sailed.

    This senate fight over…well everything almost at this stage….has completely sapped the Coalition of any authority it may have had. Its ‘mandate’ is dead in the water. And most members of the government look as if someone they know and care about has recently died.

    They should be triumphant. Its a “win” in the parlance of the press gallery. Yet, on last nights 730 Abbott looked exhausted and crestfallen.

    What now? What do they talk about now? Every other policy area is unfinished business. Hockey just announced the potential for more cuts. They have opened up fronts everywhere. I’m amazed that more isn’t being made of the complete legislative turmoil they are in, but then again it looks as if the media can hardly believe it either. It must be a terrible shock to journalists that even ‘the born to rule’ crowd can’t govern.

    It all looks pretty dire, even poisonous.

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  14. Azrael the Cat on 24th July 2014 1:54 pm

    Dianne – Shorten has never been strong on communicating a central ideology. Having said that, it’s probably over-cynical to describe his ascent as SOLELY the ALP right taking what they view as theirs. The ALP factions had come out of a strange 7 year period – one in which the left faction (and the actual left-leaning powerbrokers in that faction – Albenese,Cameron, and at the last minute Wong) backed a leader who was nominally from the right (Rudd), while the ALP right were thoroughly and consistently behind a leader who was nominally from the left (Gillard).

    Albo is a senior statesman of the party, and has as much pull within the ALP right as most factional contenders from the right itself (similarly, Shorten has plenty of friends on the left). If there was ever an ALP leadership spill in which the factions were both sufficiently worried about the future, and sufficiently confident that both candidates were ‘one of them’, to select on perceived merit, it was the Albo-Shorten spill.

    Shorten has a good head for policy, though he doesn’t seem to be using it right now (at least publicly). And he’s the better strategist in conventional terms. I’d posit that his invisibility is deliberate, in that he’s decided (with excellent reason) to pursue a small target strategy in the belief that the electorate’s dislike of Abbott will be enough to throw him out, so long as he doesn’t give the voters a reason not to (c/f Howard’s small target strategy v Keating).

    Factor in that News Ltd is likely to use any policy proposals by Shorten as a stick to beat him with. Popular policies will be misconstrued or ignored, while the hard decisions that make them possible will be used to push Abbott’s follies off the front page. From that perspective, a small target strategy makes sense – it’s a proven way of defeating a deeply unpopular PM, that also happens to minimise the impact of a hostile media.

    Having said all that, I (like most ALP members) would have preferred Albenese, and not just on policy grounds (policy differences would be minimal, as both men require the support of the party establishment). Despite the short-term sense in a small target strategy, in the mid-term there’s power to be had if a party can articulate its reason for existence without having to appeal to either anti-politics or its rusted on base. Albo is one of the few potential ALP leaders who is both unquestionably part of the party’s ‘establishment’, yet is also able to articulate a political ideology from WITHIN that establishment position.

    He also has the benefit of being able to appeal to the ALP’s traditional support-base (who have spent the past 20 years parked at the Liberal party, as ‘Howard’s battlers’). This is rather rare. Virtually all of the left’s ideological spokespersons come from the urban professional set – the kind who would have voted for Hewson at the Keating-Hewson election, but were turned off by the same boganisation of the Liberal party that attracted Howard’s working class vote. A centre-left politician who can speak to the ‘battlers’ in terms that aren’t reducible to throwing money at swinging voters, would be far better placed to navigate the changing ideological divisions.

  15. Dianne on 24th July 2014 6:15 pm

    A the cat – Thankyou for your most excellent response to my comment.

    I certainly agree with your comment about Shorten’s deliberate invisibility and the reasons for it.

    I may be naive but I think the public would be very receptive to hearing a compelling alternative convincingly presented and forcefully argued.

    Today we have read about the findings of a study which show that objections to the budget are based on notions of fairness. That does not surprise me as we have always seen ourselves, rightly or wrongly, as an equalitarian society and are proud of that.

    If the ALP could articulate those fears for our way of life in a meaningful way as well as present an alternative vision which embraces that deeply held view of ourselves then I think it would find receptive ears.

    I am amused at your comment about the ‘boganisation’ of the Liberal party.

  16. Riccardo on 26th July 2014 10:42 am

    TPS is right as usual, though too long between posts.

    It was good to see some reference to parties histories as I think this is crucial (and goes even further, such as why we even have a federation).

    Shorten is just a placeholder. I don’t think Albo being from the left was a much the issue as that the union rightwing bloc were opposed to the member plebiscite anyway and knew Albo would win on that basis, so swung heavily to Bill just to oppose Rudd’s plebiscite.

    Combat saying in Fairfax today that Rudd was quite open in his hostility to unions and that Comber needed a junior post to deunionise him.

    Those of us on the left who also hate unions would find this idea unremarkable, but you can imagine ALP operatives who have grown up in the union movement this would sound unimaginable. Swan is also supposed to have said to a Rudd backer, of his own loyalties to the party and unions “He (Rudd) hates us, he hates the party).

    This is the supreme irony that no commentator besides TPS has picked up. Rudd was genuinely hoping, like the Wiley Coyote hoping that by cutting off the ledge he was standing on, that his part would remain suspended mid air and everyone else would fall. Rudd would stand mid-air while the party system, the preselections and campaigning and the union power base might fall away.

    Palmer, though obviously less powerful with only his one HoR seat and a share of BoP in the senate, is probably in a better position for the rest of the political system to fall away and for him to choreograph his responses. Even Murdoch’s personal intervention in the debate shows his rags are becoming less effective.

  17. Riccardo on 26th July 2014 10:52 am

    Why has no one commented that Abbotts interregnum of government appears to be a parody of Whitlam’s, and maybe as short lived, even down to the talk of DDs?

    The steady stream of ideologues, from Donnelly to Cosgrove to Pearson and tiny little ideological wars being picked on every front, geez Dr Cairns would have had trouble keeping up with them between his Bungendore retreats and mistresses.

    Maybe Abbott did imbibe too much of politics as a blood sport from his formative days in the 70s.

    The little ideological battles also seem to have that feeling of ‘better do it now while we can’ which many have said characterised the overall Whitlam approach, as if normal service will be shortly resumed and the opposition party will return for a long stint in power.

  18. Riccardo on 29th July 2014 7:06 am

    Abbott hoping to have an invasion of Eastern Ukraine, the population not on side with this. They are trying to copy outdated Howard logic

  19. Christine Collier-Harris on 31st July 2014 5:02 pm

    I have just found your blog, and I want to thank everyone concerned for the thoughtful, rational, contextual, and non-inflammatory discussion. What a blessed relief to read intelligent argument without the abuse that usually goes with public posts.

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