The party’s over

Since 9 October we have had the usual stream of election post-mortems. Several weeks after the event, journalists, academics and pundits of various kinds are still trying to make sense of the unexpected scale of Labor’s defeat, the implications of the Coalition’s control of the Senate, and the inability of the Greens to stamp their authority as a new emerging force in Australian politics.

While there is much to explain, most of the analysis to date has focused on appearances and symptoms. Endless words have been written and spoken about the ailment which afflicts this or that leader, this or that party, or this or that election strategy. However, there has been remarkably little said about the ailment which may afflict the entire body politique.

Numerous explanations have been offered for the ALP’s poor showing: Latham’s youthfulness or ‘inexperience’, the ill-judged last minute release of new policies, especially on Tasmania’s forests, the effectiveness of the government’s advertising scare campaign, Labor’s failure to return to its social roots, the reasonably good shape of the Australian economy.

No doubt all this sheds some light on the result, but little on the mood of the nation, and even less on the health of our political processes and institutions. A deeper analysis would begin not with political parties, their leaders, strategies and tactics, but with the electorate itself.

One does not have to go far in today’s Australia to observe a profound unease about the future. This is not to say that all Australians experience the same insecurities, or that they deal with them in exactly the same way. Age, income, social status, gender, and ethnic and religious background no doubt help to shape the way we experience anxiety and the conscious and unconscious responses we bring to that experience. At first sight, deeply felt anxieties do not seem to impinge much on politics generally or on election campaigns in particular. Obscured though it may seem, the connection is nevertheless real.

The insecurities of the nation cannot but percolate through to issues of identity, multiculturalism, relations with the outside world, and most importantly to notions of the ‘good life’ that economy and politics are supposedly meant to deliver.

Australian insecurity is not a new phenomenon. Australians of European origin have long experienced in their relations with ‘people-of-colour’ a mixture of anxiety and discomfort. This experience continues to shape our relations with Aboriginal Australia as much as it does with Asia. We are still a long way from developing the knowledge, confidence and sensitivity needed to nurture relations based on reciprocal trust and sustained dialogue.

More recently, economic insecurity seems to have grown, even in the midst of affluence. Australia’s rapid integration into increasingly deregulated regional and global markets has produced both winners and losers. Hence, the sharp inequalities that separate the 20 per cent at the bottom of the wealth and income ladder (Howard’s ‘battlers’) from the 20 per cent at the top. And for the remaining 60 per cent (where we find the so-called aspirational class), endless anxiety about how to move higher or at least how to avoid sinking lower. For many, employment does not mean job security, let alone job satisfaction. The ladder of aspiration often turns out to be more the treadmill of desperation.

For some, other questions are equally troubling: How will we cope with the continuing influx of Asian migrants (who take jobs and may weaken our ‘Australianness’), with possible new waves of boat people (a reminder of the large pools of human misery within reach of our shores), and terrorists who can strike at any time, in any place (Bali may have left a deeper scar on the Australian psyche than is generally acknowledged)?

And difficult questions too for those with responsibilities for the raising of children: Can our schools deliver them pathways to comfort and security? And, what of the pitfalls of drug addiction, depression and other psychological disorders?

It is reasonable to argue that it has been Howard’s great skill to read this psychological undercurrent and to harness it for political ends. Was it not he who—prior to his first election victory—promised to deliver a society where Australians could feel relaxed and comfortable? His message ever since has been essentially the same. The alliance with the United States, the treatment of asylum seekers, the children-overboard affair, the very notion of ‘border protection’, and the threat to take anti-terrorist pre-emptive action in the region are all meant to reassure, to convey the same promise of safety.

By identifying so closely with the great and powerful, Howard offers many Australians the comfort zone they so desperately seek. Dependence on and support for the United States—in Iraq, the ‘war on terror’, the UN, on issues of global warming, the free trade agreement, relations with south-east Asia and the Islamic world—are all presented as a sometimes costly, but indispensable, insurance policy.

Though they featured less prominently than in the 2001 election, these themes had been so clearly and forcefully articulated in the preceding months (and years) that the electorate was left in no doubt as to the Howard Government’s cultural and psychological message. To this was added another potent symbol—the stability of interest rates. What was at issue here was not the government’s technical capacity to prevent a future rise in interest rates, but the impression that it was sympathetically disposed to the fears of Australia’s mortgage belt. The commitment to border protection (i.e. erecting a solid fence around the nation) was now complemented by the tantalising promise of another kind of protection (i.e. a safe financial fence around one’s own home).

If one turns to the parties of change—the ALP, Greens and Democrats—the message was much less clear. Not much can be said about the Democrats as they were scarcely visible, not just in the election campaign but for the best part of three years. What can we say of Labor’s response to Australia’s profound insecurities? Medicare Gold, a slightly fairer system of funding for Australian schools, a promise to bring Australian troops back from Iraq, and a last minute pledge to do something about Tasmania’s forests. What did all this add up to? Not a lot. How effective an antidote to the pervasive experience of anxiety? Not terribly.

As for the Greens, they signalled that when it came to issues of environment, peace and justice, they were generally on the side of the angels. But did they have alternative policies as distinct from an alternative wish list? More importantly, did they have a convincing story to tell about our future relations with the United States, Indonesia, or the Islamic world? And, what of future economic directions? Most importantly, what was the intended message for the ‘anxious nation’? How were Australia’s fears and insecurities to be handled?

To say all this is not to denigrate those who campaigned for the preservation of forests, an end to military involvement in Iraq or a more civilised approach to the stranger, be it the Asian immigrant or Middle Eastern asylum seeker. It remains to be asked, however, how well equipped the parties in question are to address the underlying malaise that afflicts much of contemporary Australia.

To ask these questions is to invite several others. If serious soul-searching is called for, whose views and experiences should we take into account? In any case, the issue is not simply what happens inside Australia, but how Australia situates itself in the world. Whether we look at trade, investment, interest rates, oil prices, refugees, environment, global warming, terrorism, or security, we are dealing with regional and global trends. No serious diagnosis can afford to ignore these connections.

For political parties the problem is structural. Personalities aside, they lack the intellectual equipment and institutional infrastructure needed to diagnose, let alone to prescribe remedies. Not surprisingly, the content of what they have to communicate is at best flimsy. So is the medium of communication, especially during election campaigns, where the accent is on cosmetic presentation of leadership styles, tedious point-scoring, the 30-second media grab, and costly and mindless advertising.

It is arguable that many citizens, including a good number who voted for the Coalition parties, are disconcerted by the growing gap between repetitive, second-rate politics and the reality of their lives. Many might be more disposed to thinking about social and political options, if they were offered forums able to engage their concerns and fears about the future.

The key question can be simply put: can we envisage in the Australia of the next ten to 20 years a new kind of public discourse, and new ways of conversing? In such a conversation there would be few rewards for shortcuts and glib answers. The focus would be not just on policies, but on ways of thinking and doing things, on conventions and institutions. Our educational, media, legal and political institutions in particular would be subjected to thorough scrutiny. Political parties—even of the more progressive variety—in part because they have become professionally and ideologically attuned to the imperatives of media-packaged electioneering, seem ill-equipped for the task. What is in question is the party system itself. This is perhaps the most important lesson of this year’s federal election—a lesson which, we may be pleasantly surprised to find, many intuitively understand, even when they cannot articulate it or are at first psychologically discomfited by it.

Joseph Camilleri is Professor of International Relations at La Trobe University. He has written and lectured extensively on international relations, governance and globalisation, human rights, North–South relations, international organisations, the United Nations, and the Asia-Pacific region.



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