An alternative to the crude barometer of public opinion

Judith Brett and Anthony Moran, Ordinary People's Politics, Pluto Press, Melbourne, 2006. RRP $32.95, ISBN 1 86403 257 X, website.Ordinary People's Politics

History is written from two perspectives: that of big people or that of little people. Political history in particular is mainly told about big people and large-scale events, broad sweeps, diplomatic chess playing and ideology on an epic scale.

This work is an anthropology or phenomenology of modern Australian political thought, and in this it would seem to be quite unusual. Phenomenologies abound in other areas of enquiry, but not so in politics (well not outside the academy anyway). It is history because the interviews on which the book is based started in 1986, with 20 subjects interviewed in all.

These were selected out of a total of 75, conducted by a group of political researchers from Melbourne University for a project called "Images of Australia" headed by Alan Davies and Graham Little, two prominent public intellectuals of that era. The interviews are mainly conducted in two phases: 1986-90 and 2002-4, with two additional portraits from interviews by Davies in the '50s.

As with all qualitative work, the authors acknowledge the pitfalls of generalising from such small numbers of stories, in this case also because all the subjects are Victorian. Davies used the term "political outlook" to describe the domain of his original enquiry, perhaps akin to the German term weltanschauung, ("world-view"), a broad and holistic conception of an individual's opinions and beliefs.

Most political studies are psephological, and poll driven. Crude barometer readings of public opinion have never been easier to get, and it seems that parties and governments commission them constantly and modify course accordingly. Qualitative data are far less likely to be available. Consequently there is relatively little known about the individual political experience, the personal political imagination. The most we tend to hear is of cynicism and disengagement.

In fact the authors comment that there are different ways of not being interested in politics. Many people will say that they are apolitical, and regard politics as a bad business that ordinary hard-working people should avoid. This book goes a long way to countering this, by showing how the personal is indeed political, as it is based on long interviews that involve a good deal of looking in depth at peoples' lives as a general backdrop to the explicitly political nature of the project.

This is a difficult time for political parties, with all-time low levels of membership and accusations of branch stacking, and other dirty dealings that result in the exclusion of the rest of us. One ALP senator has jokingly pointed out that the Adelaide Crows have more members than his party does nationally!

This level of community disengagement is of course a dangerous thing if it allows political parties to be dominated by small cabals of professional activists (usually career "staffers" who replace their bosses in preselection), with the rest of us on the outer. One interviewee refers to parties as the "embodiment of fundamental social conflicts", somewhat realistically if a little negatively, and there is little evidence of ideological common purpose. On balance, these interviews confirm that even past apparently class-driven allegiances are waning. Some would say that the single issue NGO has captured public activism and imagination; "we cannot agree on much, let's really pull together on a narrow front". There is no great evidence for this in the book, which might date it a bit.

Judith BrettThe interviews do pull out some major themes. The first is a strong sense of Australian identity, of the kind of values that John Howard believes and has radiated back to the country, with some degree of success, over the last decade. A number of respondents spoke of their pride in being Australian, and of fairness, freedom, and equality of opportunity being the hallmarks of this.

Secondly, self-reliance is almost universally agreed on as a major underpinning characteristic and value. Whilst Australians will differ as to the size and height of the safety net, it does seem that the baseline assumption is that overall expectations of the state are quite limited, and the state should be mainly for those in real need.

The book radiates a gentle optimism about diversity and freedom, tinged with a pang of the sorrow of loneliness. When so much in politics is superficial and power-driven, this profundity and reflection is welcome.



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