Myths about quiet and shouty Australians

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The notion of the virtues of quiet Australians has grown from being an explanation by Scott Morrison of his surprise victory at the recent federal election into a general commentary by leading government ministers on Australian social and political life.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison in July 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)As a celebratory remark about his government's return to office when the public opinion polls predicted otherwise it is unremarkable, with its echoes of the conservative silent majority or so-called moral majority and perhaps even of Robert Menzies' ode to the forgotten people.

But when a picture is painted of virtuous quiet Australians being drowned out by the 'din of loud Australians', in the words of Nationals Senator Matt Canavan, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, it becomes a wider view of Australian politics which is a superficial analysis of whose voices really prevail in Australian politics today.

This wider view has a political purpose and may well appeal to many people who believe they are stranded on the periphery of politics, unheeded by the elites in Canberra and the state capitals. But it is a misrepresentation.

Canavan, based in Rockhampton, was contrasting the allegedly quiet voices of regional and rural Australians with the Stop Adani caravan led by activists like former Greens leader Bob Brown. He described loud Australians as busybodies interfering in the business of others. Yet that is to confuse the admittedly loud carnival-like atmosphere of mass politics with the quieter capture and execution of real economic and political power.

Regional and rural Australians possess many powerful voices, although they may dispute this. As well as having a political party of their own, the Nationals, which has been the junior partner in federal government since 2013, they are represented by many powerful lobby groups.

For instance, the Minerals Council of Australia represents companies which generate most of the country's mining output, and most of those mines are in rural and regional areas. The National Farmers Federation represents farmers and agriculture across Australia and by definition most of this activity is outside urban areas.

 

"Public activism may be louder, but is often a sign of lack of influence in inner circles."

 

These lobby groups are enormously well-connected and influential, making sure through insider lobbying that their interests are central to government policy. By contrast public activism — such as that displayed in citizens rallies on issues like climate change and refugees — may be louder, but is often a sign of lack of influence in inner circles.

Prime Minister Morrison had been contrasting quiet and loud Australians since well before the election, often with reference to the anger sometimes shown during social media interaction. He has characterised quiet Australians as those who want to get on with everyday life and who value jobs, sport, education, services, family and low taxes. He used the terminology of quiet Australians in his recent address in the Great Hall of Parliament House to his senior public service, urging them to connect with those outside of what he is fond of calling the Canberra bubble.

He also made particular reference to those quiet Australians who are unsupported by lobbyists and special interests. But there is a contradiction in this. Those lobbyists mostly have connections as ex-staffers and politicians with the Coalition government or previous Labor governments, and their contacts are primarily with ministers and MPs rather than public servants.

The Catholic tradition, as expressed in church social teaching (CST), celebrates active and engaged citizenship rather than quiet, disengaged individual subjects uninvolved in community and public life. Catholics of all political stripes, conservative and progressive, live up to those CST precepts throughout their lives.

Few would doubt that subjects like the divide between urban and rural Australians, the harm caused to our public discourse by the extremes of social media and the advantages which accrue to those represented by lobbyists and insider politics demand attention. The test comes in how government ministers act and who they meet with rather than how they talk.

Despite some mixed messages from Morrison, Canavan and other ministers, there can be no doubt that the language which seeks to privilege quiet over loud citizens has the effect of advantaging the strong over the weak and insiders over outsiders in our political life.

 

 

John Warhurst John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison in July 2019. (Photo by Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Scott Morrison, election 2019, Adani, Bob Brown, Nationals, rural Australians

 

 

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Existing comments

In Britain, when opinion polls underestimated the conservative vote, it was blamed on a “Shy Tory” factor. In 2016 a “Shy Trump” factor was blamed for the pollsters getting it so wrong. The “Quiet Australian” voter is apparently responsible for Scott Morrison winning an unwinnable election. And in the EU some are wondering if a “Shy conservative” factor is at work because of the rise of populist movements. But Trump’s victory was not just a rejection of globalism, stagnant wages, political correctness, identity politics and climate extremism, it was also a rejection of the whole Republican establishment that had largely gone along with these policies. Brexit too was a rejection of the whole flawed EU project. And in the EU, people are rejecting policies that have produced moribund economies and uncontrolled immigration which they see as destroying their countries. Voters seem to think that those who have made the most sound over recent decades have turned out to be empty vessels.
Ross Howard | 27 August 2019


The loud Australians are in the the ABC News and Current Affairs Department, the Fairfax miscellany, The Project, The Teacher Unions who manipulate state and private education, the Universities whose wilfully limited vision of our basic freedoms is as scandalous as it is often effective. As a conglomerate this bunch wish to ban anything or anyone who does not agree with their superficial, Post Modernism. It is this self-indulgent coterie whose uncontrollable grief was expressed in the last Federal election night's The Drum comprising of a panel all of whom represented one view of politics which the majority of their country had just rejected by the only practical means they had- the ballot box.
Grebo | 27 August 2019


In contrasting "shouty" and "quiet" I was intrigued by the first associations that came into my mind. I thought of the song "Shout". Mr Google tells me that it is a song recorded by many artists (including Johnny O'Keefe's great version). It does get the blood pumping. For "quiet" I thought of the movie "The Quiet American". Obviously not talking about the current POTUS. It's interesting about word associations, isn't it.
Pam | 28 August 2019


quiet as in 'don't speak with your mouth full; if you tell anyone, we'll come after you'
Christopher Kelen | 28 August 2019


Couldn't agree more Grebo. The activist voice has no trouble getting amplified in mainstream media and often gets the attention of Government without the need for lobbyists. Four Corners ran a story on live cattle exports to Indonesia from the NT and the sun was barely up the next day before the then PM banned the trade, ruining many businesses before common sense prevailed and it was finally re opened. No due process, just an emotive response to a very biased opinion piece. Territorians felt gutted and disempowered by this decision while animal rights activists on the East coast rejoiced at how easy it was to manipulate public sentiment and a PM. That's why rural Australia needs powerful lobbyists.
Matthew Davis | 28 August 2019


How much do these 'shouty' people impinge on the worlds of the 'quiet Australians'? Are they not busy with sport, TV shows about competitive cooking, home 'renovating', bachelors on islands etc.? To me most people seem much more alert to the next discount on airline fares to Bali, than to the opinions of a critic on anything whatsoever. I suppose these 'shouty' people do strike a discordant note in the media world as theirs are about the only voices that aren't being used to make money.
Russell | 28 August 2019


Swifts quote: "Power is no blessing in itself, except when it is used to protect the innocent." Should be applied to The LNP. One wonders has Scomo ever really thought about the innocent on Manus and Nauru? Scomo, Birmingham and Dutton don't want anyone to rock the boat as that would hinder the LNP agenda of business as usual and let's get on with selling the country down the drain to China. Let's not offend Tokyo by complaining about Japanese whaling in the Southern seas. Let's pull our head in about pro democracy demonstrations in HK. Let's not rock the boat about building an overflow channel from the Ross, Burdekin rivers to solve the Murray Darling basin problem. Let's not drive our navy boats through the South China Sea as that may aggravate our future masters. Let's not spread any alarmist nonsense about China's new territorial ambitions in Australia's Antarctic territory. Let's not complain about them buying our ports, farms mines and infrastructure. I recently read that Australia was described as a Chinese mine off the coast of New Zealand. Yes Scomo, we will rock the boat and the pricks in the Canberra bubble should be pricked till it bursts.
Francis Armstrong | 28 August 2019


Thank you John for this article. Quiet and loud Australians is false dichotomy set up to support political rhetoric. It is anti- thetical to protest movements and the politically marginalised. who have to gain attention for violations of human rights. Ironically the coalition and PM are very shouty. Waving coal around commanding "Don't be afraid" "Its only coal"The so called quiet Australians are presumably meant to be compliant and not question policy.
Lyn Bender | 28 August 2019


I think Matt Canavan is not as representative of the genuine, as against bogus, 'quiet Australian' as someone like the late, respected, widely loved and lamented Tim Fischer, who I had the privilege of spending part of my secondary education with, was or John Anderson, who, although not a Catholic, is a genuinely believing Anglican and a man of real ethics, is. Likewise in public discourse, commentators such as Peter van Onselen or Nikki Savva often seem to make less impact than the Andrew Bolts or Alan Joneses, who are far more overtly partisan IMHO. Social media is a wee bit like the lawless Old West: it needs to be cleaned up. It needs the sort of sifting mechanism Eureka Street has. ES would be a good model for social media. As far as Bob Brown and his caravan to Queensland goes it was analogous to someone shooting themselves in the foot. Brown et al failed to see the protest politics of Tasmania or metropolitan Sydney or Melbourne would go up like the proverbial lead balloon in Queensland, particularly rural Queensland. What incredible naivete! Then they turned round and rubbished Queenslanders! We, Left, Right and Middle, need to grow up politically.
Edward Fido | 28 August 2019


By writing about quiet and noisy Australians the analysis has based itself on the premise of the Prime Minister's description of the citizens of this country as being in one or the other group. It is typical of the PM as a politician, and not one who will give a 'running commentary' [which he does all of the time]that he simplifies his own analysis of the situation into something that will make a memorable image in those who listen, and will make it comfortably into a sound grab. Noisy - Silent! There have been many writers since the election who have discerned where the real votes were, and they were not simply city and country nor loud and quiet. It has been argued that the distribution of votes was not the same as the call given to the numbers by self-aggrandising politicians. Loud and silent needs to be cast aside and commentators need to share with their readers the forceful groups, the ignored groups, the dispossessed groups, the jaundiced groups, the alienated groups, the disenfranchised groups, and to explore what real opportunities they had to really express their views on issues that mattered to them. Parties offered platforms, many voters wanted something else, and in the end voted for the 'least worst offering' rather than informally. I am 75, I have never been able to vote in a winning member, have lived in rural, remote and city environments. I am usually offered, as my mother used to call it 'Hobson's Choice'. The reality is that large numbers vote for policies that have been offered to them, which do not reflect what they really want the election to be about. Then the winning party beats its chest, when in reality the people have not necessarily had their votes respected. Why is there so much foment on social media because people are happy. Maybe the silent ones are really the seething ones. We live in a world of over-simplification and gratuitousness. Let's stop bullying in schools yet we cast a blind eye to bullies in the pulpit. More careful analysis please, more serious questioning. JUGGLING FIENDS Days of circus acts be-suited clowns juggle baubles to please child-minded audiences to look in awe and amazement at shiny images in the air wonderment at hands moving faster than eyes can see but who cares if illusion is brighter than real life. Black coal glows in bright light of day a clown holds it up for all to see shiny facets deep dark energy slow burn slow motion sucking clean air crowd happy to choke on magic moments more fun than darkness nights aglow with red warmth comfort. Jugglers raise the stakes more balls in the air tension as the balls float through the air can the juggler hold nerve maintain mastery maintain facial stability unblinking crowds breathless still alive still as in dead willing and wanting until the act ends and crowds turn their backs looking for a new juggler at the next tent all bright and striped bright lights offering more tricks heart stoppers. Where do dead clowns go where do their costumes large shoes go shoes too big for them the larger than life smiles the red noses the illusions quickly forgotten what stories do we tell our children what dreams what realities like keeping the myth of Father Christmas alive a fat man with children seated on his knee.
Tony London | 28 August 2019


Both sides of politics have value-laden phrases that are almost impossible to quantify. The LNP boasts of the sensible silence of "quiet Australians" as opposed to the dumb defiance of "noisy dissidents" who oppose anything and everthing. Then there are "hard working Australians" as opposed to those coasting through life on New Start. The ALP is pretty hopeless at this political slurring as for example referring indiscriminately to "the Big End of Town" or "Harbour-side mansion dwellers". There are several myths in Australian politics. One is the importance of Opinion Polls in gauging the intentions of the electorate. The Main Stream Media instead of analysing the OP methodologies concentrate on where the parties are in the race as if it were a Henley regatta. How pointless is the fortnightly question: Who is your preferred Prime Minister? Pointless because one candidate is usually the incumbent PM and the other an aspirant PM who usually has never been tested in the job. OPs are used by MSM as a substitute for diligent ongoing examination of the socio-economic policies being advanced. They are no help at promoting intellignent political discourse, among even the quiet Australians or the noisy other lot.
Uncle Pat | 28 August 2019


"there can be no doubt that the language which seeks to privilege" is money pure and simple. If you have the 'quiet' cash to get what you want from ministers why make a noise? As the ICAC hearings are currently showing both sides are on the game. But as an aside;what ever happened to the ICAC inquiry into the Endeavour Foundation and the Conservative taking the hat around for a silent collection? And an even more silent distribution of funds?
Michael D. Breen | 28 August 2019


the irony of Nationals is they no longer represent ordinary country Australians as the NSW election showed when they lost power in Western part of state to Hunters Party who were prepared to do hard yards to visit the little people when Nationals were not. McEwen through to Fischer were quite clear they stood up for ordinary people not big agricultural and mining business. Queenslanders were berated for their vote but they don't want Adani because they want subsidies directed to re-building Highway 1 so they can get their produce to market , a reliable water supply west of the Dividing Range with Dams and they don't water further ruined by mining that fracking has already done but only Littleproud and Sussan Lee [ a country Liberal] are pushing their interests. Perhaps the little people need to re form a genuine Country Party as we mourn the passing of Tim Fischer who understood that so well.
WAYNE McGOUGH | 29 August 2019


Crisply crafted, John, as well as insightfully theorised. I resided in rural Queensland long enough to read the parodic behaviour of its inhabitants. The forgotten people are usually the poor, including most Indigenous Australians who are twice as oppressed by their non-Indigenous neighbours than anything their urban siblings have to contend with. One reason for this is the rejection of much that modernity has to offer, including a more highly activated version of communal sharing in areas as relevant as public transport, care for the environment and a greater sense of stewardship about harvesting finite resources. I encountered precious little of this in rural Queensland which, like rurality anywhere else in Australia, consistently contrasted itself in terms that rejected modernity and looked backwards to an imagined and highly 'constructed' utopian past that conveniently whited-out the facts of Aboriginal dispossession. This hubristic inclination occasionally found its way into course selection at the university in which I taught, which was constantly pressurised by local conservative politicians to privilege disciplines that fundamentally lacked an accredited evidential base, such as the pleasures of living in the country, which was part of a degree course in Business & Marketing colonised by unqualified public relations 'experts'.
Michael Furtado | 29 August 2019


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