Friday, March 25, 2011

Fault lines in Australian politics

I have had several goes at writing this post.

Australian politics is not pretty just at present. For whatever reason, both the Government and opposition are playing to the fault lines in the Australian community.

For the benefit of international readers, the proximate cause of current troubles was disputes over climate change and, more specifically, a rally held outside Parliament House. However, climate change itself has become a symbolic issue for deeper divides, code for a variety of other things.

I do not pretend to fully understand just what is happening. Still, if you go back through my posts  you will see that I have been writing on the changes taking place in Australian society for several years. This includes warnings about the nature of the divisions being created in Australian society.  

The post begins with quotes from the last few days. I then discuss the changes that have taken place in Australia. The post finishes with a few reflections on left vs right from my perspective as an outsider, someone who does not belong to either school.

The discussion is not meant to be negative. I remain of the view that the Australian people have a way of working their way through issues.  


As I started writing this post a day or so back, the Australian media was carrying coverage of the anti-climate change rally outside Parliament House in Canberra. I quote from the coverage:      

Former One Nation leader and NSW election candidate Pauline Hanson was in the crowd, while the One Nation party and the anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights were represented.

Members of the Coalition of Law Abiding Sporting Shooters, an anti-gun law group, were also among the protesters, along with representatives of the Lavoisier Group, which disputes mainstream climate science.

Climate Change Minister Greg Combet later told parliament that Mr Abbott should be ashamed to associate himself with the sentiments on display.

As I wrote, I received the following campaign email from GetUp! GetUp began as an organisation intended to galvanise support grassroots support as expressed by the grass roots. That is, as a democratic mechanism. It has become a cause vehicle for certain types of causes. 

 I'm sitting outside the front of Parliament House typing this on my laptop.

Just across the street, I can see the tents of conservative talkback stations from across the country (2GB, MTR and 2CC), who are all broadcasting their afternoon shows live from the anti-climate-action rally they've helped organise here on the lawns of Parliament House.

There's a crowd of about 1,500 here. Some of the banners here say things about Julia Gillard and Bob Brown that are too rude to email you -- other signs say "Get Up: p**s off!" And if you tune into these talkback stations you can hear why: shock-jocks have singled us out as the most effective voice around for putting a price on pollution.

That's why in the last few days, thousands of GetUp members have come together to chip in donations for our climate fighting fund - a huge campaign to last until we have a price on pollution this year. Please click here to join thousands of GetUp members who are chipping in:

tax-protest-729-420x0 On his blog yesterday morning Neil wrote in Uglier far than Julia Gillard’s “lie” on the carbon tax… , a response this placard and the anti-climate change in Canberra: 





Yesterday, too, John Quiggin posed this question:

Until a month or so ago, I was under the impression that the One Nation party had shuffled off into history. So, I was surprised, attending a lunch at which Joe Hockey spoke, to hear repeated questions from reporters about the role of One Nation in attacks on Hockey’s standard against the appeals to racism allegedly advocated by (Lib Immigration shadow) Scott Morrison. Then, on a recent visit to Sydney I heard David Oldfield spruiking the One Nation line on 2UE. And now Pauline herself appears at an anti-carbon tax rally, along with a bizarre cast of characters including Angry Anderson and the League of Rights. Does anyone have any insight into what’s going on here? Is this just some bandwagon-jumping or is there a real resurgence of One Nation and similar groups?

In response, HC wrote:

Totally disgusting rally in Canberra. The next Federal election will develop as a referendum on right-wing, shock jock boganism. I would like to be optimistic about the outcome.

I wonder how middle Australia reacted to the placard describing Julia Gillard as “Brown’s bitch”. Hopefully they will react with a bit more discrimination than Tony Abbott and Bronwyn Bishop did.

On Catallaxy Files, Sinclair Davidson pokes fun at some of the reactions to the dispute. Catallaxy Files supported the rallies. Steve Kates attended the Melbourne Rally. In What Fools We Are!, he bewails the failure of Australians to get really upset:

We are so used to incompetence in government, I think, and are so used to governments wasting our potential that there is a kind of so what about it all. Even though this is the big one, with a potential to hammerlock the Australian economy into a low growth trajectory for decades on end, there really wasn’t the outrage that it deserves.

In Larvatus Prodeo on Wednesday, Kim wrote in Newspoll and rallies of crazies: trouble for Tony Abbott?:

In Parliament yesterday, Christopher Pyne borrowed some tactics from blogosphere trolls, and started rabbiting on about the alleged implications of the phrase “climate change denier”, moving the debate back to precisely where the Liberal party doesn’t want it, something not helped by Abbott’s continued willingness to say “the science isn’t settled” when it suits him. This, by the way, is surely not the “gaffe” or “indiscipline” the press gallery believes it to be, but a continued attempt to keep the so-called skeptics in his tent.

We’ve seen, then, the bizarro world consequences of negativism about everything: the Liberal party, which used to trumpet the virtues of tax cuts under Howard and Costello, muttering darkly about “socialist redistribution” when Ross Garnaut suggested compensation for the carbon price be delivered through the tax and welfare systems. Tony Abbott’s “Great New Tax” line now translates into a Great New Opposition to Tax Cuts. Go figure.

And, today, we have the equally bizarre spectacle of the talk back audience and the permanently indignant blog commenters, masquerading as usual as “public opinion”, actually out in the streets. And having difficulty staying on message. Click the links – the pictures really do tell the tale.

What we have here is inside the media/political bubble and talk back/angry columnist feedback loop meeting reality. And that electoral reality won’t necessarily be to Tony Abbott’s liking. Abbott is playing to the right wing ‘base’ not to the electorate as a whole. And today’s shenanigans may well come back to bite him.

In this morning's Sydney Morning Herald, Phillip Coorey reports:

TONY ABBOTT says Julia Gillard is a multi-faceted liar who lacks integrity and is being precious about ''a few nasty placards''.

The Prime Minister believes Mr Abbott to be a disgusting and revolting individual who has displayed flawed judgment by associating himself with extremism and gross sexism.

''For going out to a rally and associating himself with One Nation, with the League of Rights, with anti-Semitic groups and with grossly sexist signs,'' she said.

With a hung parliament, a government holding power by the barest of margins, and both leaders locked in a fight for their political lives over the carbon tax, tensions are as high as they have been for years and the attacks are becoming increasingly personal.

And so it goes on.

All this must be very confusing to anybody outside Australia. It is bad enough for some of us who live here!

I do not want to comment on either the selection of examples, nor on the general arguments expressed. Instead, I now want to make some broader points.

A World of Change 

The scale of economic and social change in Australia over the last thirty to forty years has been enormous. We know this, yet we forget that there are now large numbers of Australians who have been in some way disadvantaged by change, a larger number who feel insecure. The current fault lines in Australia directly link to the change process.

Just at present I am writing a paper on social change in Australia's New England in the period 1950-2000. There I said in part: 

In 2003, noted Australian academic Professor Don Aitkin returned to Armidale for the 50th anniversary of his Leaving Certificate class, the Armidale High School class of 1953. The outcome of the visit was a very successful book, What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia, looking at social change in Australia through the eyes of the class of 1953.

To Don’s mind, the lives of the class of 1953 broke into two halves. The first half began with a conservative, regulated, socially constricted society. Yet this was also a world of low unemployment (2 per cent was considered a Government breaker), of economic security and opportunity. The second half was a world of change, of deregulation, of downsizing, the end of permanent jobs. It was also a world of greater social freedoms, of advancements in a whole range of fields, of substantial increases in wealth. The class of 53 would generally not go back to the old world, but it is clear that by the end of the period under study a sense of unease had developed, along with a deep weariness at the pace of change.

Don is right when he says that there was a deep weariness at the pace of change. A remarkable number of his 1953 class mates took early retirement, especially in fields like teaching. They had good super, remember that?, and took advantage of it. These early retirements were one of the hidden costs of Australia's economic restructuring.

The changes that happened were in part economic. Here I have spoken (among other things) on my work as an out-placement consultant, of my personal reaction to the number of people thrown on the industrial scrap-heap. As Don said in part of his book, those who lost their jobs through change were not the same as those who got the new jobs created. I have also written of the emergence of an Australian underclass, of socially disadvantaged groups whose disadvantage carried down through generations. We have not seen that before in this country.

One telling indicator of the scale of change is the way in which contract, casual workers and part time workers now outnumber the full time permanents that once dominated the workforce. A significant proportion of the Australian workforce carries a constant nagging worry at the back of their minds: will my job be there tomorrow? 

The changes that happened were also social, changes in things like gender relations, shifting of the balance of power, changes in values, changes in attitudes towards religion, sexuality and marriage.  It doesn't matter whether those changes were right or wrong, they happened and affected all Australians for better and worse.  

Then there were fundamental changes in the composition of Australian society, the ending of White Australia, new migration and the emergence of a multi-cultural Australia.  

Finally, there were symbolic changes, changes in formally expressed values, attacks on previously accepted symbols by those who asserted that those symbols were wrong and had the influence to make their positions policy.

In the first part of the 1990s, the Australian community polarised in a way that I had not seen since the Whitlam years. I found myself so angry that I actually felt like leaving the country. Please do not argue for or against me. I am simply expressing an opinion, how I felt. And that's factual, regardless of whether or not my view was sensible.

To my mind then, I felt that the views of the left expressed through all the gatekeepers had gained power to the point that alternative views were suppressed, ridiculed. Fissures had appeared along a whole series of social tectonic faults linked to the change process. 

The fault lines revealed then appeared to diminish with time. The relative prosperity of much of the 2000s allowed  They have reappeared, but now are (or so I feel) a little different. The world has changed, and the fault lines have changed with them.

Scoping the fault lines

The usual approach to discussing the fault lines in Australia is to look at in left vs right terms, or sometimes "progressive" vs others in social or value terms. To my mind, a better way of doing it is by a simple list of areas of some of the areas of difference and/or worry in the Australian community, focusing especially on those who feel affected by change in one way or another.

The point about such a list is that it shows, I think, both the breadth of concerns, but also the way that concerns overlap in different ways not directly related to conventional dichotomies. The fault lines follow areas where concerns overlap that carry high value for particular individuals or groups.    

The following list is not exhaustive, just indicative, and includes some things already mentioned. There is no particular order to the list.

  • Financial and job insecurity. The majority and especially those outside permanent employment. The global financial crisis re-emphasised this worry. Retirees were affected by financial collapses, those with super approaching retirement saw its value decline, many baby boomers approaching retirement don't have adequate savings. Personal debt levels add to problems.
  • Housing insecurity. This one is little seen, but very real. With home ownership declining and with a tight rental marketplace, will I have a place to live tomorrow?
  • Health insecurity, especially among lower income people and those distant from increasingly centralised health facilities.
  • Gender roles. Women activists are trying to storm boardrooms, men feel increasingly marginalised. Male depression and suicide, especially among young men, have been real issues for some time.
  • Relationship changes and divorce. The new Family Law Act unleashed a wave of divorces whose effects are still working their way through the system.  Many young who have experienced the impact of marriage break-up say not me, I won't do that to my kids.  The form of relationships has changed. The once conventional marriage now forms a minority of family types. Bitterness associated with break-ups, of the roles and responsibilities of both parents, spawns an aggressive and sometimes violent response from men. A Family Court judge is assassinated. 
  • Religious vs secular. The Christian Churches have seen their position change from central to marginal. Atheists and secularists deny the very validity of their roles. Churches split over moral issues such as gay rights. The number of nominal believers shrinks, but those who remain become more devout, more conservative. New faiths emerge. Church school systems expand. The religious right arrives in Australia. The role of churches in achieving real social change declines.
  • Monarchy vs republic. Monarchists feel threatened, republicans feel frustrated at the unwillingness of the Australian public to accept their position.
  • Gay rights. The move towards gay rights stalls over the issue of gay marriage. In the 2011 NSW election, the Christian Democratic Party drives a large truck around Sydney. The key issues are:   
  • Teenage Binge Drinking
    Bike Lanes killing Business
    Out of Control Prostitution
    Mardi-Gras Anarchy. (This one refers to the Gay and Lesbian Mardi-Gras.)

  • Hunting, shooting and fishing. As a response to the Port Arthur Massacre, John Howard introduces new gun control laws. Predominantly city based environmentalists successfully push for limits on hunting, shooting and fishing. A new political movement is spawned in response, pushing back some of the limits.
  • Farm discontent. Environmentalists push successfully for new controls on water and the use of land. A farm protest movement is born. Barnaby Joyce is elected to Parliament, Peter Spencer conducts a hunger strike, mass rallies are held. Plans for the Murray-Darling Basin stall as a result of farm protest.
  • States rights. The push for central control, for uniform national approaches, meets WA resistance. The WA National Party stages an unexpected resurgence on the slogan of Resources for the Regions. The new WA Liberal-National Party Government derails Canberra's plans for (among other things) a new national health system. New State movements re-emerge in the NT, North Queensland and New England.
  • Big vs little Australia, immigration, multiculturalism and all that. This is a complicated area because it crosses so many divides. In general, supporters of a big Australia - a larger population - are on the right. Those opposing it tend to be on the left, and focus on environmental issues. However, those who support a multicultural Australia (a necessary outcome from migration) tend to be on the left, while those worried about issues such as cultural homogeneity tend to be on the right. This creates a bit of a conflict in views. 

This is not a complete list of issues, just an indication of the complexity of modern Australian society. Further. I hope that it illustrates why there is discontent, but also why so many issues cross conventional divides.


In concluding this post, I simply want to reflect on some of the issues I have raised.

I think that we need to recognise that Australia's current fault lines, the tensions in our society, are directly related to the changes that have taken place. Its not one change or possible change, but the cumulative changes that have taken place over time.  

The deep weariness at the pace of change that Don refers too, the feelings of insecurity that I have tried to describe, are deeply held and manifest themselves in a variety of ways.

The first is something of a yearning for stability, for security, for consistency. None of us can survive in a world of total uncertainty. 

  We can see this in two major issues in public debate over the last ten years that both concern perceived threats. 

The first is law and order, the protection of society. This is an old issue, but it keeps recurring. Regardless of the factual evidence, we feel less safe. We therefore demand more police and tougher sentences.

The second is boat people. Rationally, the numbers are small. Yet this has become a central political issue simply because we feel insecure.

We can also see the yearning for stability, for protection, in the overwhelming focus on protection and risk avoidance in all areas of politics and public policy. This holds even when we know that the result is likely to be both ineffective and expensive.

I also think that we need to recognise that the views that people hold, while they do tend to cluster, are variable. For example, evangelical Christians are likely to hold conservative views on certain moral issues. However, that may, but need not, mean that they are anti-climate change, that they are opposed to fair treatment for refugees, that they have any particular view on the role of the state.

Views cluster because of values. However, they can also cluster because issues are in some way linked independent of values. For example, a farmer angry about controls over what he can do on his property may be a very strong environmentalist, yet inclined to oppose anything the Greens suggest if he blames them for the property controls. This is where the nature of the current debate in Australia creates very real problems, for it tends to isolate some, lock others into positions.

Now turning to John Quiggin's question:

 Does anyone have any insight into what’s going on here? Is this just some bandwagon-jumping or is there a real resurgence of One Nation and similar groups?

There were very particular circumstances at the time One Nation burst upon the stage. There was a high measure of concern among some in the electorate that was not captured by the major parties. One National was also one of a number of movements that emerged around the same time. There was a pattern of activity that effectively built links and laid the basis for One Nation's initial success.

The polarisation in the Australian community does remind me of the period leading up to the formation of One Nation. Further, we are dealing with threads in agitation that have been largely ignored and have been running for some time just like the pre-One Nation period.

We are also dealing with what I called linked issues: the constant and often very silly linkage made by Governments, the Greens and many environmentalists between specific actions or policies that affected people and climate change made it very very easy for people to transfer their dislike of those actions or policies to the concept of climate change.

Long before it reached the mainstream media as an issue, I noted the anti-climate change campaigns running in the bush. It was pretty easy for me to see because I try to read the on-line versions of most of New England newspapers.

Yet despite all this, I think it unlikely that anything like the One Nation phenomenon will emerge again. Not only is the anti-climate change group remarkably disparate, but both political sides are responding in ways that cut the ground from under a new One Nation. Note I say both sides. When it comes to many issues like refugees, they are in fact like Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

A much bigger problem to my mind lies in the way that both Labor and Coalition though their actions and rhetoric are actually reinforcing Australia's political fault lines.

None of this means that Pauline Hanson won't be elected to the NSW Legislative Council. I would be now be amazed if she were not. She has been given an absolute free kick by the media and I just don't mean David Oldfield and the other Sydney radio shock jocks.

Ms Hanson doesn't need media support, she just needs coverage. I would be astonished if there is anyone in NSW who doesn't know that she is running.              


Anonymous said...


Thank you for a thoughtful post. I find myself mainly in agreement with your views – which by the way is not why I continue to read your work – but would like to add a couple of comments:

1) It seems to me sometimes that I’ve been listening to the same old, same old rhetoric from both sides of politics for maybe thirty years. The issues sometimes change, sometimes re-emerge, but the noisy players just keep making the same noise. I think my boomer generation is fearful – yes – and also just plain tired of it. No government ever seems to follow through on anything of major significance (exceptions maybe GST and super guarantee), and they keep changing the goalposts almost at a whim, rendering any consistent planning for retirement quite meaningless.

2) The noisemakers of the press and politics are the same people, growing older with the same audience. All generalisations are inherently false, but there seems to be an ever widening gap between the issues that concern my generation, and the issues (whatever the hell they are) of younger generations. With luck, my generation will fade from the political scene over the next ten years or so, but I don’t yet see a vibrant new generation (in politics) coming through.

3) Although my personal leanings are decidedly conservative, I’m bound to say that the only excitement on government change that I ever felt were the elections of Whitlam, Hawke, and Rudd. The conservative parties in Australia seem to have all the soul and flare of a mediocre small minded penny pinching businessman; and have been thus forever, it seems. It worries me that I should think that way, when I’ve also said that stability and specific achievement are desirable things.

4) If I had to define my generation I think I’d reach for three concepts – not in any special order: fear of change, cynicism, and the desire to be left unmarked by government interference.

5) A personal anecdote: my lovely aunt died a few years ago in her early 90s. In my early adulthood she inspired me with her business flair, and her overseas travel unaccompanied throughout the 60s and 70s as a head fashion buyer for Brisbane’s then largest department store, all while playing in the real estate market – five to ten titles at a time. Yet for the last 20 years of her life she lived as a virtual recluse, in a fashionable part of Brisbane, in a house with every window barred, every door double locked. I saw the same attitude in my own parents kick in at about the same age, and have noted it in many older friends. It worries me that I’m maybe less than 10 years off the point at which that fear threshold is crossed.

Have a lovely weekend, and don’t spend too much time trying to make consistent sense of the above; life remains a puzzle with missing pieces whose primary colour is grey.


Jim Belshaw said...

Mmm, David. You are mixing different things together. I need to thonk anout a response, but I would make one general comment. One of the reasons why I am perhaps less cynical than you about politics is that I grew up in a political household. Perhaps I should explore that.

Anonymous said...

Jim it does not surprise me that with your economics/history background you might regard the political process as a fascinating living laboratory. Having been self employed since mid 20's I admit that I regard it as a necessary hindrance populated mostly by second rate escapees from the real world.

I'd be more than happy with a high class permanent public service running the whole place - keeping a few pollies for the occasional ceremonial occasion such as the Boxing Day Test and Melbourne Cup


Rummuser said...

Jim, thank you for that very educative post for an outsider. As someone with Australian friends and relatives, I am interested and have also been following what has been going on. I hesitate to comment but like to read your unbiased posts.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Ramana. Much appreciated.

KVD, being self-employed does change perspectives. Certainly I found that. Stability & consistency become more important.

I do regard the political process as a fascinating living laboratory created for my personal enjoyment! Helps keep me sane.

I support a high class permanent public service. But this does not, to my mind, remove the need for a political process to set the broad framework within which that service operates.

Legal Eagle said...

It is very depressing. Like you, Jim, I see the political parties are trying to deepen certain social fault lines, and to draw a line in the sand "They believe X, we believe Y, and we are morally superior." X and Y are presumed not just to include views about climate change policy but a whole raft of other issues.

As you know, my own views on this issue do not conform with the left/right stereotype and I have always found such stereotypes deeply unhelpful. People's views are complicated, they can't be reduced to two poles.

My views do not square with the views of any political party I know of. I feel pretty depressed by politicians at the moment and I wouldn't trust any of them an inch to make a sensible decision.

Anonymous said...

Well Jim, I went into the village to vote this morning, and despite some well intentioned indies, my local choice is between the incumbent Labor member - reportedly demoted from ministry after some drunken lap dancing - and a reasonably well liked nonentity standing for the Liberals. To be charitable, if ever the LNP has the need to elevate him to the ministry, then they will be in deep, deep trouble.

Polite realism, not cynicism.


Anonymous said...

Jim, the votes will soon be in, for the upper house in NSW, though they may take longer to count.

That means that the time for speculation will still be over.

Pauline's tried for the upper house and failed before, hasn't she? I'd really be surprised if she got in this time, though not so surprised as if Stuart Baanstra did.

Anonymous said...

still = soon

Jim Belshaw said...

If Stuart got in, would that be a case of the naked truth, marcellous?

Ms Hanson's biggest problem lies in the absence of how to vote cards. People have to find her on the ballot paper. My wife was actually asked on the booth this morning where her how to vote card was.

LE, it's easy to be depressed. KVD was. Our politicians reflect and play to us. That may seem to be a further reason for depression, but it's also the reason why I actually remain positive. I think that, over time, the Australian people have displayed considerable ability to sort out the crap.

Anonymous said...

Jim, for historical accuracy, that should read "kvd is depressed" not "was" - tense is just as important as sense!

Anyway, it will be good to finally see the Drover's dog win an election. Not confident he can bat or bowl - but maybe he can fetch.


Jim Belshaw said...

I do love the idea of the drover's dog, KVD. I must look up where it came from!