Monday, July 13, 2015

Fissures and divides in politics - Europe and Australia: a comparison

There are some funny political fault lines around at the moment, making for strange bedfellows and inconsistent decisions.

As I write, Eurozone finance ministers have been meeting on the Greek bail-out issue.

On Greece, we have a very strange mix in both commentary and official positions strongly dominated by ideology. Those on the left taking the Greek side attack the previous bail-outs as unfair and seem to be welcoming the possibility of a Grexit. Those on the right - if we can use that term for a group that combines an uneasy mix of libertarian, populist, euroskeptic, nationalist, statist, anti-immigration and fiscal rectitude viewsem to be moving towards the same position if for very different reasons.

As an example, Finland initially indicated outright opposition to any further support for Greece under the apparent influence of the nationalist and euroskeptic Finns Party. In Germany, there has been a clear split within the Government between Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Schauble may be a fervent EU integrationist, but he is also apparently a devout believer in fiscal rectitude and is clearly prepared to let Greece go. So he and the Finns are in the same camp, if for different reasons. As BBC correspondent Chris Morris tweeted: "So Angela Merkel is either going to fall out with her finance minister or she's going to fall out with France. Is that a fair assessment?"

Meantime, pity the poor Italians. Italy has the third greatest exposure to Greece in absolute dollar terms, the fourth biggest expressed as a percentage of GDP.They also have a relatively weaker economic base. So Italy wants Greece to stay in, partly for sentiment, more because the costs of a Grexit are so high from an Italian perspective.

This has been very much a modern crisis played out in an unrelenting media glare with regular tweeting from participants in the discussion. In turn, this has involved a broader audience in the discussions. It's great theatre so long as one can forget that, finally, we are talking about people's lives as well as the future of key institutions. It's far from clear to me that really sensible decisions can be made in such a pressure cooker.  

Somewhat similar fault lines and inconsistencies to those seen in Europe exist in Australia.

Consider Mr Abbott's war on windfarms. On the surface, this makes no sense. In opposing one form of energy generation compared to others, Mr Abbott is intervening in the market place, something that should be anathema given his Government's ideological position. The policy grounds for intervention are unclear. The political grounds are somewhat clearer, for wind farms have become a somewhat unlikely conjunction point for very disparate interests.

At the broadest level, Greens are in favour of wind farms, welcoming the recent announcement that Demark's wind farms can now generate at peak more electricity than the country needs, with the surplus going to export. Again at the broadest level, many of those opposing wind power appear to belong to the climate change skeptic group, to those wanting to limit Government intervention and to the more radical right fringe. Here radio broadcaster Alan Jones has played a significant role in promoting opposition and, apparently, convincing the Prime Minister to his viewpoint.  

At local level where the strongest opposition occurs, the position is rather different. There you find an unlikely combination of those with Green views with climate skeptics and uncommitted locals who simply do not want a wind farm in their backyard.

To take a second example, consider foreign investment in Australian real estate, including agricultural land. This is another issue that combines left and right, including the far right. Again, you have the Federal Government responding with more controls, with market interventions that appear in conflict with the Government's position on some other matters. In saying this I am not making a value judgement on rights or wrongs, simply commenting on combinations and trends.

The protests over coal seam gas and coal mining on the Liverpool Plains provides a third example.Again we have the combination of left and right with local activists concerned with the impact on their immediate environment.

I have written a fair bit on New England's environmental wars because this is my home turf. They had national impact during the Gillard Government when she depended on the New England independents to stay in power and are still having impact. Barnaby Joyce, the member for New England and Deputy Leader of the Federal National Party, is under considerable pressure following the decision by Environment Minister Hunt to approve the Shenhau Watermark Coal Mine. By the way, Laura, this mine is not in the Hunter Valley. Now he faces the prospect of a new political challenge by former member Tony Windsor. It's not clear to me that Tony actually intends to run. He may simply be defending his previous position while enjoying the discomfort now created.

Attitudes to immigration is another flash-point issue. Those on both the left and right seem to have a common view that immigration should be restricted, but then part company to some degree. Within immigration, attitudes to refugees is a dividing line.Both Labor and Opposition are committed to stopping the boats, a position that seems presently to be reflected in the broader community. The left argues that we should have a softer refugee policy, but also limit population growth. The right, especially the further right, just want the boats stopped.

Another issue linked to immigration is attitudes to the Muslim faith. The secularists and especially the rampant atheist and Libertarian groups deny the validity of faith based approaches, attack the Christian right and point to what they see an inherent contradictions within the Muslim faith that make it difficult for that faith to co-exist with a modern pluralist society. The right and especially the populist right assert the value of Christianity, of traditional values and wish to restrict Muslim immigration because it poses a threat to Australia and to Australian identity.         .  

All this makes for some strange bed-fellows. But it is also feeding the creation of new political organisations and pressure groups, many of which operate somewhat below the media horizon, using the internet as an organising tool.

This image has achieved almost iconographic  status. It comes from a 2011 protest outside Parliament House in Canberra. The people there were predominantly country people. The banners at the protest attacked the carbon tax, emissions trading and foreign aid. There were opposition banners as well, including a classic save our sharks.

The protest did not just emerge, but can be traced back to at least the Keating years and the republican push. This was a bridge to far for many country people. Later came a persistent below the horizon push on climate change that combined with concerns that many country people had about increasing controls over land use. Note the apparent contradiction between some of these views and newer environmental groups such as "Lock the Gates".

Recently, there has been the emergence of new movements drawing from some of the tropes developed over time and linked to the anti-immigration and Muslim feelings, again travelling some what below the radar. These include Reclaim Australia, 28,000 likes on Facebook, Australians Against Islam,  10,000 likes on Facebook, and Hallal Choices, 17,000  choices on Facebook. The last has been a persistent thread, leading to the Cory Bernardi  sponsored Parliamentary inquiry.on food labeling..All this led to a rather classic headline on an Andrew Street piece: View from the Street: Halal windfarms are coming to terrorist you!

On the other side of the spectrum, there has been an apparent proliferation of prospective new small parties seeking to find niches to promote progressive causes.

It is easy to be cynical about or to satirize some of these trends. It is equally easy to fall into stereotyping. The view Australians get from their media is not one-sided, it's just limited. There is very little recognition of the complexities playing out in Australian society, of the way in which overlapping but conflicting views affect politics. That should not be surprising, nor is it limited to Australia. We are all creatures of our backgrounds and the structures within which we work.

In my next post, I will look at some of the political implications of current trends, at the reasons why Australia's political parties are struggling to cope. Meantime, the Greek discussions have broken and will resume at 2am GMT. I hope the adrenaline is sufficient to keep people awake!


Winton Bates said...

Hi Jim
It is difficult to know how to describe these trends. At first I thought it might be about interests dominating ideology. But it is not that simple. Some of the groups are characterised more by prejudice (discredited ideologies?) than by interests. We also see ideologists seeking to join forces with disaffected interest groups, which is nothing new.
The shifting coalitions seem to be made possible by modern communications.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Winton and at a slight apparent tangent When I was writing my PhD thesis, one of the things I looked at were some of the psychoanalytical models applied to politics. One very useful model broke politicians and especially the creators of new movements into three groups: the agitator who captured the mood, articulated it and effectively created the movement; the theoretician who codified and structured the evolving beliefs and attitudes into a somewhat coherent whole; and the administrator who then provided the organisational underpinnings that allowed the movement to continue.

In the particular case I was looking at, Page was the agitator par excellence; Drummond was the theoretician but also an administrator; and Bruxner was an administrator.

In related work, Aitkin looked at the way the Country Party evolved. He showed how various different trends coalesced to form the Party. In doing so, he looked at communications and at the way the telephone speeded things up. If you look at group theory, you often have what is called a storming period in the formation of a new group followed by consolidation and codification.

New movements may have links to the past but also represent a fracture point. That usually involves a mix of often conflicting ideologies and interests. The new political movements in Europe involve to some degree a rejection of existing dominant ideologies by those who perceive their interests to be neglected. Something similar happened in New England in the period I was most concerned with. These movements often take a populist radical cause based form because since this is the only way to reduce the grip of the established order. In some cases, too, they can take a very conservative form, an attempt to re-assert a threatened order.

Modern communications and especially email and the internet has indeed speeded the process up because it helps shorten both the storming and initial organisation creation phases.

Existing structures and dominant interest groups including the existing media have to respond to the challenge of the new as best they can to protect their position. In both Europe and Australia we have been in the new storming stage for a while.

Winton Bates said...

Thanks Jim. It does seem that the lower cost of maintaining contact with like-minded people and expressing views is changing politics profoundly.

Jim Belshaw said...

I think that's right, but it's not all bad, of course. Following the Greek crisis on the BBC live blog has given me a crash update course in European politics, the issues involved and the different views. That's a shortening process that is very valuable.