Why Australia is missing the revolution


You could be forgiven for thinking that there is a general pall of weariness across Western democracies. The continuing aftershocks of the late-century push for liberalisation and — more recently — the global financial crisis has bred generations of dislocated voters who seek answers outside of the limited solutions presented by centrist governance.

Bernie Sanders and Donald DrumpfThis provides ample opportunity for true progressive change, the signs of which were seen first across Europe and Latin America, and now the United States and the United Kingdom.

Jeremy Corbyn led an insurgent socialist movement from within the UK Labour Party that seems more at home with Clement Atlee's postwar program than the liberalism of Blairism.

In the US, Bernie Sanders seeks to rejuvenate the New Deal model of labour-centred consensus, which is almost entirely atrophied in the midst of corporate Third Way political economy.

Where's Australia? Nowhere to be seen, really. As Jason Wilson writes over at The Guardian, Australian politics is 'reactive and defensive', abrogating itself of any responsibility for real structural change in favour of keeping our post-GFC prosperity stable.

We face similar problems — the Australian Council of Social Service's 2015 report on inequality found a trend of growing wealth disparity not unlike that of other Western nations — but it's hard to imagine a radically progressive candidate emerging here.

There are, I think, a few reasons for this.

In both the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns a populist progressive movement found its roots in the dominant centre-left party. Corbyn came from within UK Labour and Sanders, though nominally an independent, is running for president on the Democratic ticket and has caucused with Democrats in the Senate for some time.

There have been progressive figures with platforms outside the status quo in the Australian Labor Party — Melissa Parke and Doug Cameron come to mind — but it is near-impossible to imagine them finding greater success within the hermetic confines of Labor's factional warzone.

And the Greens, the third force in Australian politics, aren't likely to buck the status quo. If anything, their messaging under Richard Di Natale hews closer to consensus governance than it ever has before.

Some of the leftward push globally, especially in the US, hinges on the corrupting influence of money in politics. Sanders rails against the enormous lobbying money enabled by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which effectively unbounded the amount of cash that could be poured into political campaigns. 

Donations have at best an ancillary role in the Australian political psyche. Outside of major events, like New South Wales' ICAC debacle, it's hard to imagine a candidate making it the central issue of a popular movement.

There is another response to this new global mood. Figures of the Right, like Donald Drumpf in America and Nigel Farage in the UK, have redirected what are fundamentally economic grievances (offshoring, loss of income, joblessness) along nativist lines. Jim McDermott wrote here at Eureka Street that Drumpf and Sanders are like two sides of the same coin, candidates 'of dream, rather than practicalities'.

Our populist right starts and ends with Clive Palmer, who was unable to convert initial goodwill into any kind of lasting political program, and may not actually believe anything at all.

Though many analyses of Sanders and Drumpf as strange political bedfellows greatly overshoot the mark, there's some merit. The Economist suggested that white, uneducated working class men in wealthy countries have 'not adapted well to trade and technology', and are more damaged by the juddering pivot towards becoming service economies.

This is in many ways the base that both Drumpf and Sanders have activated — but whereas Sanders ultimately sees the degradation of the working class, Drumpf sees a deepening wound in white identity politics, especially around Mexican immigration. You can easily see the results.

Australia's economic politics are not quite so fractious along those lines. We weathered the GFC relatively unscathed, and the inequality that comes with globalised finance and economics has been kept in check by our heretofore solid welfare state. The ugly side of racialised economic politics manifests mostly in debates over housing and foreign investment.

And, if recent reports on 7/11's labour abuses are any indication, Asian immigrants are the ones slipping through the cracks of our industrial relations safeguards, with uniformly awful results.

What then, might an Australian Bernie Sanders look like, or fight for? If we are somewhat naïve to the degradation of social democracy elsewhere in the world, there are more pressing problems for progressives that have bubbled below the surface for some time.

We preside over one of the world's harshest border regimes, and both major political parties are in functional consensus on maintaining it. The economic gap between rich and poor pales in comparison to the one between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, who have suffered dispossession in all its forms since colonisation.

Any progressive movement, driven by young voters as has been the case elsewhere, would have to move in those areas first.

The world is in a state of upheaval against the status quo and the social and economic legacies of the 20th century. Australia, with its welfare state and resource economy, has been insulated from the worst of this. With our ossified political structures in mind, perhaps radical change should come from outside the system altogether.


JR HennessyJ. R. Hennessy is a writer in Sydney. He is the deputy editor of Pedestrian Daily, writes on media and politics, and tweets @jrhennessy.

Topic tags: JR Hennessy, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Clive Palmer, Jeremy Corbyn



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Existing comments

Our 'harsh' border laws have prevented thousands from drowning at sea. But I've long since realised that leftists struggle to cope with this fact.

HH | 18 February 2016  

The idea that Australia faced similar problems to the US and UK following the GFC is bafflingly weird, and yet it explains the bafflingly weird conclusion of the article. We haven't had a populist 'eat the rich' campaign because the GFC didn't disrupt us. Case closed. Australia had a populist progressive; he caused a constitutional crisis and was removed by the electorate. Australia has only had room for the illusion of progress (Rudd) ever since.

Mark Fletcher | 18 February 2016  

'With our ossified political structures in mind, perhaps radical change should come from outside the system altogether.' I am not sure what, if anything, you are advocating. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, change has been the way our system of government has operated, both in its country of origin and later on here. People like Wilberforce, Shaftesbury and Whitlam were able to work through 'the system', which, I believe, is not broken but probably needs rejuvenation. I find the tone of your article rather nihilistic and depressing.

Edward Fido | 18 February 2016  

Thanks J R Hennessy. I asked on my blog some time ago where was Australia's Corbyn. Like JR I don't see any such figure coming out of the ALP. 'Albo ' (a cute humanising of a party hack) is no Corbyn. He has been at the centre of the Rudd and Gillard neoliberal Labor governments. Memebrs might have illusions in him but their expectations and his reality, if he were to become leader, would quickly disabuse some of his alleged progressive qualities. I think the progressive left figure crystallising the discontent that already exists among many workers will come from outside the ALP and be built on the back of the rise of social movements, and the missing element - the lack for the last 33 years of class struggle in Australia. The failure of the old political structures to encompass a champion of change means that her arrival in Australia might take longer but is likely to be more explosive than Corbyn or Sanders. It is possible she won't be corralled within those current narrow institutional politics and political parties. Thanks again JR Hennessy.

John Passant | 19 February 2016  

Three points.First, its too easy to exaggerate novelty of the present. Popular disaffection from politics is not a new phenomenon in the West. Second, proximity does not mean causation. Neo-liberalism has lead to real social and economic problems but there is no evidence to show that this is the source of popular disaffection across the world, although it clearly is in a few cases. Third, the word 'progressive' covers many things. Its main contemporary usage in Australia derives from USA, where it allowed people to avoid identifying as socialist and covered feminism, anti-racism and a variety of other causes. Following the American usage in Australia today is another case of cultural cringe

barry hindess | 19 February 2016  

Politicians don't elect themselves. Ossified social beliefs, attitudes and structures structures are probably just as significant, if not more so.

Noel Kapernick | 19 February 2016  

In response to HH, I quote from Andrew Hamilton's article yesterday: "It involves doing harm to vulnerable human beings who have done no wrong in order to send signals to other would-be asylum seekers. It uses people as a means to an end, which is never just.".

Peter Horan | 19 February 2016  

Like the koala, the kangaroo and the platypus there is something peculiar about your average Australian. But unlike these native fauna he/she has had only a very short time in which to evolve into a person adapted to this strange continent. He/she has learned nothing from the country's First People. He/she has imported a federal system of representative and responsible government with some tinkering like voting rights for women and compulsory voting. But he/she on the whole would prefer if governments didn't interfere with his/her daily life too much. If this led to the creation of political elites he/she was happy to cut down these tall poppies every three or four years. Any spark of rebellion (not revolution admittedly) struck at Eureka in 1854 spluttered on sporadically. When the leader of the diggers, Peter Lalor, emerged years later as a conservative in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, he personified 'progress'. Lalor's example continues to this day. A progressive lawyer who defended a spy catcher who allegedly breached the Official Secrets Act can become a millionaire PM. What chance revolution when this can happen?

Uncle Pat | 19 February 2016  

Even if it were true that "Our 'harsh' border laws have prevented thousands from drowning at sea" (and there's not a shred of evidence to support that), that would only be a feeble excuse. The real purpose of the harsh border laws is to pander to a scared racist element in the electorate. Any lives that might be saved are an unintended consequence.

OldG | 19 February 2016  

another response to H.H. re faux moral indignation re deaths at sea and easy acceptance of our current policy of indefinite detention in concentration camps. Never hear much moral outrage from righties re the one and a half million deaths now directly attributable to the "invasion of Afghanistan Iraq. another sin due to our so called centrist politics.

vincent jewell | 19 February 2016  

Thank you J.R. Hennessy for a very thoughtful article. I'm really weary of reading that offshore detention is better than the drownings we hear so much about. Detainees are killing themselves and children as young as 8 or 9 are attempting to take their own lives. Life is losing meaning for them. There are still deaths at sea that we just don't hear about. In regard to the article's main argument, I do have some faith in the Greens. They only compromise if a proposed policy is progressive (i.e. fair, good for democracy). In respect of a revolution, it is not clear that either Jeremy Corbyn or Bernie Sanders will survive politically in their respective countries. At least in the USA., Hilary is far more likely to win overall; the play of power is almost certain to ensure this. What I find interesting and curious is that neither Corbyn or Sanders are young, far from it in fact. Are there any suggestions as to why this is so?

Anna | 19 February 2016  

I believe that this article does not get to the core issues. For USA and UK and Europe, the GFC meant a huge transfer of financial losses from private banks to the tax payer. In UK this was equivalent to the financial shock of WW1 and WW2 ie huge! That has led to huge public debt, austerity policies , and a major undermining of the economic well-being of ordinary people, especially the young. It has been exacerbated by the policies of low interest rates and huge buying of bonds by central banks. This has shifted massive amounts of money into the pockets of the rich and the same financial institutions that caused the problem in the first place (please see the excellent film "The Big Short"). This has been in the hope that thr rich will spend and stimulate the ecomomies of these countries; it has a bit but also led to huge accumulation of cash and "bubbles" in things like housing. Young people in these countries are REALLY angry.In Australia we were indeed spared most of that, but Rudd spent too much and for too long in "saving us" and stupidly Labour committed itself to long term Government funding we cannot support.I think this current government is getting there, and Morrison`s speech this week was right on the money.In addition to sorting out tax distortions and gradually bringing the budget back into surplus by spending less , we also need:1. big Infrastructure works; 2. sorting out the rorts and corruption in the Unions and especially criminality in the building industry ; 3.changing electoral laws to rid us of the strangle hold of the very minor pseudo-parties. We really can do this!

Eugene | 19 February 2016  

Perhaps we should be more like Iceland where the perpetrators of the dreaded GFC were put in jail (and God forbid, we're redolent with them in his country!) and ignored IMF's advice to cut health funding to save that famous global "triple bottom line"! While the rest of the world is moving on to right the wrongs of the Hard Right, we remain comfortably delusionery and believe that we're the "lucky country"! There's something worrying about this Australia Ubber Alles syndrome that is endemic to our psyche!

Alex Njoo | 19 February 2016  

Eugene, you started with the banks but by the end you had forgotten them. Hardly a month goes by without another instance of dubious bank behaviour. Perhaps number 4 would be a Royal Commission into our banking system although it is not on the Treasurer's agenda that you have endorsed.

Barry Watson | 19 February 2016  

Barry Hindess says, among other things: 'Second, proximity does not mean causation. Neo-liberalism has lead to real social and economic problems but there is no evidence to show that this is the source of popular disaffection across the world, although it clearly is in a few cases.' I'd be interested in exploring this. What then Barry is your explanation for the rise of SYRIZA, Podemos, Sanders, Corbyn etc etc. Of course there will be multiple factors but it seems to me dissatisfaction with austerity is a major driver of the political polarisation going on and the rise of left wing social democrats, As an aside, SYRIZA might be about to suffer from the very dissatisfaction it rode to power on as it too implements austerity. What seems to me relevant in discussing this swing in some similar developed countries of thew rise of a left wing alternative of sorts is its political nature in many of these countries, without an economic or social struggle underpinning it. Greece seems to be the exception, which is why perhaps the combined vote of the parties to the left of SYRIZA stands, according to the latest poll, at 10%.

John Passant | 20 February 2016  

I find most of this discussion to be pretty mainstream and unimaginative. We are being divided against each other, we are progressing steadily towards a police state, we invade other countries with no good cause and then turn our backs on the people fleeing, we are perpetuating a coal industry that will destroy farmland and the planet, we steadily degrade this remarkable continent, we continue to pack in too many people at great cost to ourselves, we sell off key assets and much of the economy to foreigners, we compromise our sovereignty over trade. None of this is necessary. The postwar social democracy worked better, though it was far from perfect. It was brought down by oil and profligate US spending. If we say the economy is supposed to serve people and our society then we could do better again. To get a couple of things straight, it was Howard and Costello who squandered the mining boom profits and created the structural deficit. Rudd's direct spending into the economy did save us from a recession. The debt he ran up is minor and was not structural. The China boom helped but it came a little later. (And I'm no fan of Rudd or Howard.) Our commercial media are highly partisan, and they distort, lie, distract and divide us. Our parliament is corrupt and governs for the rich, witness $10 billion subsidies for mining that never get mentioned in talk of balancing the budget. Both major parties are hostile to the people and need to be displaced. Both have been captured by careerists and extremist ideologues. The revolution here will have to come from outside the major parties and it will be harder. https://betternature.wordpress.com/commentaries-short-articles/

Geoff Davies | 20 February 2016  

Interesting article. Central to our problems is the growing gap between rich and poor. This is also inter-generational. We have a large unemployed and under-employed problem. We are also the most highly casualised economy in the OECD. Australian Bernie might start on these issues.

Warren Ross | 21 February 2016  

1. Peter Horan, I simply and strongly dispute that analysis. See my comments in a similar vein at "Asylum Seeker Ethics is Simple"(ES, 19 March 2014). Being denied settlement in Australia may understandably trigger various levels of negative subjective reactions in an asylum seeker, particularly if they've been taken in by boat smugglers and refugee activists. But the key question is: is this denial, for all the subjective reactions it triggers, a transgression of their rights? And the answer is 'No'. As an ssylum seekers I always have the right to asylum. But I have no right to dictate where that asylum is to be offered, or, needless to say, the country of my ultimate resettlement, however much I may desire it. The Australian government sees bringing boat-arriving asylum seekers into Australia as fraught with dangers, and frames its current policy in this light. The record of boat deaths under Rudd/Gillard, and the chaos now engulfing Europe as a result of bleeding-heart policies, supplies pretty convincing support to its viewpoint. 2) Vincent, I invite you to peruse the anti-Iraq/Afghanistan war articles at "LewRockwell.com", "Antiwar.com" and other libertarian and paleoconservative sites, before tarring all "rightists" with the same brush.

HH | 22 February 2016  

I would like to ask what "country of resettlement" option the current asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus are being offered. Does anyone know? If it's not Australia or New Zealand, where will it be? This is not a rightist or leftist issue. There is currently so solution to resettle these people.

Aurelius | 23 February 2016  

The country of resettlement certainly won't be New Zealand. That would be a reward for trying to come to Australia in the first place and the object of Government policy is to make life harder for them (that's non-partisan as well). On this basis you can rule out any other "developed" country and probably any country that would welcome refugees into their communities. What we are looking for is a country where the Government doesn't want "boat people" and will make life hard for them... sort of like Australia? Back to square one.

Brett | 25 February 2016  

I agree with Geoff Davies. I think we as a nation have lost our way.

Gavin | 25 February 2016  

If you put Bernie Sanders in the ALP his policy would not seem at all radical. So the US is just catching up.

David Goss | 04 March 2016  

What we need is a viable alternative to modern governance. As a nation were so scared to develop new lines of thought for fear of recrimination, that we simply follow the borderlines set down by those before us. We don't need more of the same. We don't need more of the same kinds of people, saying the same kinds of political jargon, delivering the the same types of political outcomes. We need change. Complete change. An alternative. An alternative form of governance and communication that is unique to Australia and its growth in the modern human world in which we live. A process of governance that puts the power and identity of the country, into the hands of the citizens that will protect it, love it and help develop its national pride as one.. An alternative needs to be for the people and of the will of the people. To be radical is good. To be a leader is strong. To learn and grow from our mistakes is normal. Australia is our family. It is our home. We all sit at the dinner table, so we all need to have a say it how Australia is governed. Whatis the alternative.

Edekit | 29 November 2016  

Australia is ripe for evolution towards something new and better, but established political structures can’t capitalise because they’re stuck in the intellectual straitjacket of Left and Right. ‘National populism’ is on the rise and will combine the economic outlook of the left with the traditional values of the right. It will reject the neo-liberal globalism of centrist parties and the personal identity politics of the so-called left and right. This will be the Australian Revolution.

jingelic | 27 March 2019  

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