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When victory for the silent is defeat for the silenced



I was invited to a party the night of the 2019 election. The night’s entertainment was invite-only, with long tables of bread and wine, and I stepped back from the sounds of celebration to hear the political coverage on my phone. Standing at the far window, I looked up to see people in the night below, out in the dark, silent. Behind me a party guest shouted over the noise ‘what happened?’ I looked away from those outside and answered: a loss.

The question was being asked outside the party too, where friends watched the ALP’s shock defeat alongside refugees on Temporary Protection Visas. The ALP had promised pathways to permanency and the election result of that night decided whether or not these refugees would remain safe or see their families again. The loss wasn’t just political for them.

Scott Morrison soon appeared to shout over the noise of his party and declared the election to be a ‘great victory’ for the ‘quiet Australians’, a vindication for listening to the apolitical and the aspirational. I asked my friend how it felt to hear that speech alongside refugees with a lived experience of displacement and torture. The room was quiet.

I heard similar stories from advocates, pastors, campaigners, friends. The ALP had invited a policy conversation that sought some progress on refugee justice, inequality, housing affordability, disability support, the climate crisis, and a First Nations voice to Parliament and Treaty. Many saw the 2019 election as a victory or a loss for a political party, but the question ‘what happened?’ depended on who you were asking. What was lost that night depends on who was being heard.

The noise grew louder in the aftermath, with parties and the media rushing to answer the question. Former Prime Minister John Howard claimed that Australians had rejected ‘envy driven politics’. Centre-right newspapers declared it ‘ScoMo’s Miracle’, that the quiet Australians had rejected Bill Shorten’s ‘big government and low growth agenda’, but this narrative reflected manufactured consent more than a majority consensus. Rather than a vindication of a centre-right ideology, Scott Morrison’s campaign had only added one seat to Malcolm Turnbull’s 2016 paper-thin majority of 76. The incumbent’s win was neither a miracle nor a mandate, barely claimed from an electorate expressing a level of disillusionment with democracy not seen since the Whitlam dismissal.


'Regardless of the election result, the story of what is lost can’t just be decided by the politics, but by those on the margins, by hearing them.'


The ALP’s own internal review asked what happened and blamed the loss on a weak strategy and an unpopular leader, where Bill Shorten argued that vested interests and the media had campaigned against the ALP. Clive Palmer had invested $83.6 million dollars of his mining company’s money on his campaign, spending $8 million in the last week, contributing to an ALP defeat. The majority of Murdoch’s print media also backed the LNP, as they have for most elections this century, (in a weakening media landscape that’s lost 5000 journalists over the last decade).

While Shorten didn’t reflect on the ALP’s disorganisation, or that he’d been the most unpopular party leader since 1990, he did point to an unprecedented level of noise in the campaign. Voters were exposed to online disinformation in Clive Palmer’s record-breaking online advertising, unsourced anti-Labor disinformation targeting Chinese Australians, and the Government itself running ‘death tax’ disinformation on MPs Facebook pages.

Was this election of disillusionment, disruption, and disinformation an example of ‘quiet Australians’ taking power, or a demonstration of power raising its voice?

I asked ‘what happened?’ in the weeks that followed to friends and co-workers. One prominent poverty advocate abandoned plans to work with a new government to resolve homelessness. One colleague spoke anxiously about their family who relied on the NDIS. Another had been counselling a refugee who had become suicidal. Some gave up on affording a home. Queer friends braced themselves for Scott Morrison’s promised Religious Discrimination Bill. Each answer was a story of loss, what the election had meant for those on the margins, for those who can’t afford to be apolitical or aspirational. That election was an act of power over the unheard.

Some see Australia as a party, where the tables are long with bread and wine and the sounds of celebration ring through the night. Elections are, at best, a night’s entertainment for those inside. Others aren’t always invited, however, and don’t get a place at the table. They remain outside, in the dark.

The result of this current campaign remains to be seen but the noise sounds the same. Facebook is attempting to  combat disinformation, but Clive Palmer’s advertising is already expected to be worth $60-70 million. News Corp is repeating itself, and 112 newspapers are closing in the regions. Federal political advertising is not required to be factually correct and trust in government has been at a record low. Is anyone even listening?

No political party is the sole solution to a country’s challenges, (both major parties still receive the support of vested interests with a lack of transparency). Regardless of the election result, the story of what is lost can’t just be decided by the politics, but by those on the margins, by hearing them. What happens at the coming poll should be answered by those Australians too often silenced by power, and whether they might finally get a seat at the table.




Anthony N. Castle is an Adelaide-based writer. He has written for The Guardian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and other national publications. He tweets @AnthonyNCastle

Main image: Candidates await results of Federal election in May 2019. (Brook Mitchell / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Anthony N Castle, election, Auspol, AusVotes2022



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Existing comments

The election coverage dominates the daily news feed. It’s like when the sharks mill around the jetty looking for scraps (or something larger). However, careful listening reveals the stories of the battlers: the serious assault of a woman at a shopping centre, kids being targeted by drug dealers, the evictions, the cars crashing through glass. Those struggling do speak. Only we don’t hear properly. A surge of Independents taking on the major parties, a Greens leader standing up to media and an Opposition Leader willing to ignore disparaging remarks about his new glasses, his new weight and his fitness regime may add up to victory over mediocrity.

Pam | 18 May 2022  
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Well, a lot of the 'mediocrity' has gone now Pam, rejected, at last, by a frustrated and despairing electorate. It remains to be seen whether the new government can deliver on its promises and whether the behaviour of parliamentarians, both in the chamber, and in their portfolios, improves. Lets; hope so, but at the same time hold them all to account, on both sides of parliament, and on the cross bench.

Ginger Meggs | 24 May 2022  

There is such a thing as governing this nation in its own long term interest as a good citizen of the world. The buck stops at home in the first instance. David James, in another article in this issue of Eureka Street, discusses the problem of housing affordability and offers a sane and practical solution: end negative gearing. No major political party, as far as I can see, is prepared to bite that bullet. There are a number of serious issues like this: serious long term planning for future climate change affected disasters, such as the recent floods and bushfires; increasing homelessness; food insecurity in many families and the health system. Vested interests abound and we need to beware of single issue politics. Will a Treaty and a Voice help end Aboriginal disadvantage? Questions like this need to be asked. We have not, as far as I can see, really begun to ask them.

Edward Fido | 19 May 2022  

Word game. Victory for the silenced is defeat for the silent, and the proof of that is from the same demographic of, say, LGBTIQ* ‘rights’ (or perhaps ‘wants’ as opposed to ‘needs’) over parents who want their daughters to have bathroom facilities without intrusion from chromosomal males, or parents who want the cultural transmission of an internally coherent religion be unaffected by nesting cuckoos among students and staff, or anybody who wants to know how reparations work when the beneficiaries are not the ancestors, or whether Australians, logically, can make treaties with themselves.

As for standing beside one despondent asylum seeker while watching election returns, the difference between Australia and the US southern border is that there, one would be standing beside hundreds of asylum seekers while watching election returns because the only difference, a very thin one, is that walking to a land border is easier than sailing to it, but, otherwise, the real principle of whether people can just turn up unannounced is the same. The somewhat fake argument of wanting to put people smugglers out of business for the dangers they impose on their clients is a luxury argument available to nations like the UK and Australia which are girt by sea. It’s not a luxury argument available to the US which has to deal with the real principle of whether people who don’t need assistance from smugglers can just turn up unannounced.

Anyway, the problem is the atheistic state which professes no values and has to treat everybody equally. A confessional state can, under the religious principle of hospitality, accept many more unofficial migrants because the same internal coherency also allows it to sort between values and to treat like as like.

roy chen yee | 19 May 2022  
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Hear, hear. On one point, I recall hearing this The Conversation article on Marriage Equality on Radio For the Blind that year (2017). The fundamental misunderstanding between these opposing sides (neatly stated as "My argument is very simple. There are two conflicting ontologies: modern rights versus cosmological rites, and the difference cannot be resolved by giving one precedence over the other") has always seemed to me since as now entrenched in our Australian society, your society, my society, his, hers, theirs.
Why bring up something so 'head in the clouds'? When voting on Election Day, I'm struck by how distanced all our warring sides' views are from one another. The article just recommended, decries the sad situation, "as we have yet to properly define the terms of the debate."

Nathanael | 22 May 2022  

Good article. Rich Vested interests won last time. Anything goes in campaign.

Michele Madigan | 19 May 2022  

The US Constitution's Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."
And both the US and Australia are parties to the United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees recognising the right to seek asylum.
So its not as simple and trivial as saying that these asylum seekers and economic migrants are just turning up unannounced. Many of them are fleeing persecution and violence and have a legal right to seek safety.
Despite established rights under U.S. and international law, people’s access to asylum was severely limited under the Trump administration.
And people-smugglers in fact do operate on the US-Mexico border. They are known as coyotes, and they're part of a huge network.

And LGBTIQ rights are just like rights for heterosexual and cis-gendered people. So everyone, including those who identify as transgender, have a right to be treated equitably and with dignity.
But if students or parents indicate discomfort with sharing single-sex facilities (toilets or change rooms for example) with a student who identifies as transgender, there are ways to address this.
There have also been cases where transgender students felt uncomfortable using single-sex facilities, and so used the gender-neutral bathroom designated for disabled use.
I cant see what the big issue is here. There’s not really much of a chance that students would be making judgement calls about the gender identity of other toilet users. Most people just respect others' privacy and do what they've got to do and leave.

AURELIUS | 22 May 2022  
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'uncomfortable using single-sex facilities, and so used the gender-neutral bathroom designated for disabled use.'

That's a great message to send out on behalf of the transgenders! Not only are they neutral, but they are also disabled.

Trans are not 'neutral'. They are not 'intersex'. That's a different rights-claiming category. 'Trans' identify as one of the traditional expressions of gender. If you identify as a man or woman but you can't use a man or woman's bathroom, your supposed democratic right to self-expression is being silenced.

roy chen yee | 07 June 2022  

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