Revolution in New Hampshire and Australia’s Forgotten People

This article was published by Independent Australia on 14/02/2016. The author retains copyright.

The New Hampshire primaries raised the spectre of a socialist America that “feels the Bern”.

A self-contradicting megaphone of a man trumped the Republican field. That is how deep twenty-first century anxieties have riven the American Dream.

In Australia, our upcoming federal election has been largely spared the existential angst that comes with waning geopolitical supremacy. Quite the opposite: the two major parties are squaring up to for a staid competition along familiar but faded battle lines.

The confluence of electoral cycles makes the visionary lack in our politicians particularly obvious.

As the Australian political season grinds into gear after January’s torpor, it is hard to shake the feeling that we are watching a long-running TV series. One in which the script is no longer written with audience in mind. The program trundles ahead under its own inertia; the actors validate each other with predictable narratives. The audience finally gives up and switches off.

American politicians are good at storytelling. They articulate their worldview simply and persuasively. Our politicians were once equally adept. Deakin was a daring futurist. Billy Hugheswas all plot twists and taut prose. Menzies and Whitlam were maestros of all genres. Keatingturned out an artful black comedy.

As all good writers know, a believable narrative begins and ends with understanding your audience’s needs.

ClintonTrumpSanders et al are trying to show how much they understand their boosters. Their success depends upon it. Here, in the Lucky Country, where the parliamentary system is calcified, we are more likely to be told who we are and what we think via surprise Budgets and tax backflips.

Thanks to the Electoral Act, our major parties have a physically captive audience. But they have long since misplaced us as constituents and individuals belonging to a changing, globalising society.

It’s hard to countenance today but there used to exist in Australia, a passionate and faithful relationship between electors and elected. This tradition goes as far back as the colonial parliaments (although the electorate of yesteryear was conveniently narrowed by intersecting prejudices). Nevertheless, between 1860 and 1891 the majority of legislators were largely, and proudly, unaffiliated. Independence allowed them to negotiate the best deal for their supporters.

The two-horse race of Australian politics commenced in 1909, when Deakin’s Liberals and the Free Traders fused together to oppose the meteoric rise of Labor (then known as Labour). However, this was only the beginning of a competing set of narratives that transcended electoral divisions.

Labor was the party of the sectional interest. Reflecting its origins, it was the expression of the unionised. From the 1970’s onward, it also became the progressive flagship for those that gained a voice during the social rights movements.

The Liberals, since Menzies’ Forgotten People speech, were for the moral middle class, the “backbone of the nation”. They traditionally rejected the economic classism that defined Labor’s constituency. After Labor captured the progressive imagination, the Liberals tempered their narrative with conservatism.

These two competing, complex imaginings of the Australian electorate are the great political continuity of the twentieth century. The Liberal and Labor constituencies overlaid the contours of our population, overlapping without dividing. Labor highlighted social identity; the Liberals gave primacy to valued-based individualism. It was possible to vote with confidence based on aspiration, not single issues vaguely outlined.

There are a lot of reasons why our once-trusty political compass no longer points true north.

Keating introduced a destructive brand of partisanship into the parliament. Howard learnt from and then bested him at this game. The bipartisan deregulation program erased a swathe of policy differences. Class politics receded. The progressive versus conservative fault line became definitive. The first shot in the “history wars” was fired. The Internet arrived, then the Digital Era.

Today, the main differences between the parties are issue based. Labor “owns” education and health. The Liberals have staked out economics and national security. These are fallacious points of difference; policies are less and less comprehensively articulated and campaigned upon.

The result of these changes presents in the political lexicon. These days, we talk of “rusted on” and “swinging” voters. We don’t talk about Labor women or Liberal men, Menzies’ People or Unreconstructed Whitlamites. Our political identities have been washed away.

Perhaps there is no place in the twenty-first century for political identification. Possibly, globalisation only allows flexible policies, a trust deficit, and a political preoccupation with talking to the economy rather than the electorate.

In this context, the American primaries are both a source of entertainment and a cause for contemplation. This is the next leader of the free world we’re talking about, after all. What if we’ve got contemporary politics right, and they’ve got it wrong? The answer to that question is nuanced but a good rule of thumb is that great contrasts generally point to different prospects.

I certainly hope that many more surreal moments unfold before the 45th U.S. President is unveiled. American primaries are cheaper than tickets to the footy and better than the threadbare pantomime of an Australian election.

Say what you will of the cash-injected caucus circus, at least American candidates are trying to imagine a twenty-first century identity for their nation. Maybe its time we did the same.

Author’s commentary

It feels like the U.S. Presidential primaries have been rumbling away forever. To this political ear in far-flung Australia, town hall soundbites and op-eds from the Beltway carry like the never-ending seagull screams echoing off the omnipresent beach that girts this sunburnt land (figuratively: I am many, many kilometres inland). After a while, the screaming becomes part of the millieu.

Primary chatter has been a muffled constant for countless months. It is the filler in the back end of SBS and ABC broadcasts – unless one of the colourful fringe crazies says something particularly, well … crazy. Until recently it seemed that the exorbitantly expensive circus was in full, predictable swing. As with all circuses, it would change nothing whilst forever scarring the hapless performing animals wheeled into the ring. No need to pay too much attention. (Other than to protest animal cruelty.)

U.S. primaries in the age of the super-PAC are light entertainment before the crowning of the Left and Right establishment candidates. After the opening act, we were told, Hillary would win because, ah – G.O.P. But, delightfully, it seems this destiny was just wistful thinking and voters will in fact get a look in.

After the Iowa caucus, and the dramatic near-perfect split of the Democratic vote, there was shock. Surely, an anomaly? A last hurrah, it had to be. Gravity would re-assert itself. Then the Republicans failed to rally behind a ‘credible’ candidate; Chris Christie demolished Marco Rubio in debate, further muddying a fractured field. A glimmer of hope. Hidden reefs of change-making rage were protecting the electoral beaches upon which the SS Clinton and S Boat Bush were meant to come triumphantly ashore. Could a democratic process actually be unfolding?

On Wednesday, New Hampshire results confirmed the hope. The 2016 election is unlikely to resemble the cashed-up Sydney to Hobart. This Presidential nomination now looks more like the inglorious invasion of Panama – if Panama were the Galapagos Islands, home to the Cliffs of Guano and the world’s largest collection of red-footed boobies. Such is the imagery of hope.

Paying attention now, I noted a few other things about the elections, besides hope and hot air. Not least of these is the confluence of election dates between the U.S. (Presidential polls on November 8) and Australia (if history is a guide, the federal election will be around August/September).

Yes, that’s right, Australia is technically at the same point in our national election cycle as the Home of the Brave. Not that you’d notice. Since we welcomed the new year, net political progress has been an unplanned Cabinet reshuffle and a non-conversation about how few tax options are on, off or under the table. At this rate, we will know the government’s economic policy by the time America elects its 60th President.

At present there’s a country mile of political space between America’s revolutionary drums and Australia’s supreme boredom. The closest we have gotten to substantive change of late has been via the naked ambition of our political class. While outsiders challenge America’s perception of itself, Australia’s two-party duopoly shuffles paper and wipes the coup blood from their knives, staring determindly at each other’s navels instead of at the electorate.

This comparison made me wonder afresh: are we, as a nation, on the right track? Are we so happily defined and self-reflexive that we don’t need to talk vision or alternatives or first principles or even the trajectory of the 21st Century? Or – and this is a loaded ‘or’ – is our political dearth a function of a 107-year cartel in Federal politics?

* Feature Image is a public domain image sourced from Flickr.




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