by Justin George
The vacuousness of the current Australian election is the culmination of several trends that have been shaping and directing Australian politics over the last 15+ years.
From the time of the ALP brokered ‘Accord’ between unions and business to allow for the introduction of Hawke and Keating’s free market reforms, to the push to the right and conservatism of the Howard years that resulted in a jingoistic and antiquated form of nationalism and political dialogue, Australian politics and political parties have drifted to the right of the political spectrum for the last twenty or more years.
The ‘wilderness’ years of the ALP during the Howard reign, saw it completely shake itself of any meaningful remnants of its past as a worker’s party. To share power in modern Australia requires appealing not to working class interests or improving the daily lives of the majority of the population, but to ensure and secure the wealth, privilege and power of those at the top-Corporate Australia.
Both the ALP and LNP have moved away from their traditional, ideological bases. The disconnect of the ALP from any meaningful popular working class base is mirrored by the trade unions themselves as both have sought power over true representation.
The Liberal Party under Howard moved away from the principles of classical Liberalism, where concepts of freedom, justice and minimizing the intervention of government in people’s lives emerged from a rich theoretical heritage, to a Liberalism that serviced the economic realm solely. This was combined with a social conservatism that abandoned Liberal notions, outside of economic policy, completely.
The result has been a politics in Australia that is firmly framed by the right, with a two party dominated system where both parties rely upon and pander to business for financial support to replace the lack of meaningful popular bases within the country.
In a feedback loop, each party has moved more to ensure business support and funding. The further disconnected they have become from traditional bases, the further their reliance on business has become. This in part also explains why both parties have needed to embrace the rhetoric of populist politics to camouflage their policies’ true benefactors.
All of this has been driven by the current corporate media environment we see in Australia today. In this environment only two companies own and control all the nation’s major newspapers and television stations. The result, here, is that only one nationally available newspaper is published - run by billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch’s media empire spans the globe reflecting his rightwing, neoliberal position via a cynical form of crass populism.
As media ownership becomes concentrated and as people’s spare time becomes more pressed, the pressures on politics and media are to strip away meaningful debate. Exploration of ideas, of policies and their merits, are forsaken in favour of sound bites, catchphrases and the more entertaining clash of personalities.
The economic structure of corporate media also drives this process. A focus on profit rather than providing a public service to the population drives the current media model. A general rejection of intelligent and challenging programming that does not assume a lack of intelligence on behalf of its audience has seen a rise in sensationalist and vacuous news and current affairs coverage that appeals to the lowest common denominator.
The dumbing-down of news, and particularly politics, to a circus - a real life soap opera of personalities - makes for splashy headlines and easy to produce but highly rating television segments and news programs. This strategy is designed to increase audience ratings - which then enable television stations to sell advertising time or space at higher rates. This facilitates - for the right price - the meeting of a captive audience to a company’s particular product or service.
Politics then becomes another profitable media extravaganza: cheap to produce and to market, but yielding excellent returns. Finding or developing a political narrative rather than political content and meaning becomes the primary focus. In this manner we see elections being a clash of personalities and special interest stories: of Julia Gillard’s husband; of Tony Abbott’s sporting pursuits; the drama of Kevin Rudd being pushed out of office- the ‘who said what to whom’. If a narrative line plays itself out, or a more exciting or controversial narrative can be found then the story changes quickly and like Orwell’s memory-hole the previous issues or stories are quickly forgotten.
It is this framework that politics and political parties - especially during an election - pander to. Rather than challenge the reduction of important issues and ideals to mere soap, political parties cater to it.
Hence we have ‘Moving Forward’ vs ‘Real Action’. Hence we have debates so heavily scripted that the purpose of having a debate is itself lost. This is visible in both parties’ policies, especially the craven and ugly narratives being played out regarding asylum seekers, immigration and all the fears and resentment it carries. Policies like that attract headlines and vocal support from Murdoch’s lackeys and shoulder shrugs or mild handwringing from the Fairfax media.
This corporate media environment facilitates the appearance of difference between the parties. By removing the need for meaningful difference, news media helps enable the appearance of difference via its soap opera narrative coverage. In another cyclical process, the shift of Australian politics towards the right has also driven the media to find stories and divisions where few actually exist. As the parties become similar on what matters, media coverage spends more time on the remaining superficial differences.
Both the ALP and LNP are parties of business: only the degrees vary. To compete, the ALP moved to the right. Now out of power, the LNP has found it necessary to move even further to the right. In an attempt to not be undercut, the ALP, with Gillard at the helm, has sought to trend its policies even further to the right again.
The ALP seeks to mask its politics with an appearance of concern for ‘working families’ and the like. The Liberal-National coalition isn’t restricted by such niceties. The fundamental policy and ideological substance shared by the two remains the same.
The lack of difference then sees debate centring on how much, if any, tax should be placed on the mining industry. Or which market driven response to climate change is preferred. Or who can be the most ruthless to desperate people arriving from war-torn countries.
The debate is not on whether the market is fundamentally flawed in addressing climate change, which is an effect of the wasteful inefficiencies of the market that now threaten environmental collapse.
The debate does not centre on whether the mining industry should be nationalized with public control deciding how profits are distributed for public benefit.
The debate does not centre on the fact that our military, or our allies, are directly responsible for the destruction that forces people to flee their homes in leaky boats.
Such a politics would require principles and courage, a respect for democratic notions.
The mining tax ‘furore’ especially demonstrates the increasing vulnerability of our meagre democratic processes to big business and media manipulation. The modest attempt by Rudd Labor to cut into mining companies’ profits, and therefore their power, was responded to by an industry threat to remove the government from power via a 200 million dollar media assault.
This highlights how all parties involved pursued their own interests and forgot about the Australian people. The ALP kowtowed to the mining lobby, avoiding a campaign against it during an election year. The mining companies obviously were seeking to maintain their exorbitant profits, not caring about the environmental and other costs that come from practices. The media not only received a situation that could be easily framed into an appropriate narrative, it also was happy to receive the money from the mining companies for the advertising space to protest against the tax.
The difficulty of a principled, truly democratic and participatory Australian politics emerging is thus evident. If introducing substantive changes that seek to shift power from corporate Australia back to the Australian population were introduced it would face challenges much greater and widespread than witnessed with Rudd’s mining tax.
It is in this manner that both parties are parties of corporate Australia. To challenge their masters would see them removed from political power either from without or from within as we have seen recently. The result then is an interconnected race towards a hollow democracy lacking in real choice or democratic participation, driven by image instead of substance.
However, just as the problem is a web of interrelated issues, potential solutions also rely upon addressing these interconnections. Addressing the corporate strangle hold on Australian politics involves in the short term refusing to participate in the two party system. Voting for independently funded parties helps undermine the two dominant parties’ power base. If third parties are successful, election reform and parliamentary reform could bring about an end of the two party system in favour of proportional systems such as those in Europe where a range of political actors shape policy rather than merely two.
Media ownership reform is needed. Australia has the least diverse media ownership in the world. TV and newspapers provide a vital role in educating and informing people about what is happening in their society, a vibrant media means a healthy democracy.
Reject sensationalist news media. Turn it off or don’t purchase it. Demand meaningful content, and support small independent operations that provide critical information about those in power. Democracy means informed citizenry.
In the longer term, corporate, market economics must be seen for what it is- inherently anti-democratic, environmentally unsustainable and unreformable. Our economic, political and media realms all need active popular participation, with processes that engage people, facilitating democratic input and direction on how we organize our lives, how we make decisions, the principles that guide those decisions and the media that reflects, questions and analyses those decisions.
Further, we need a politics that addresses the needs of a majority of the population; and that seeks to empower the population; engaging them in the political process rather than one designed to create apathy and cynicism.
It is easy to be cynical in the modern world. To do so often feels like rebellion, but it merely masks an acceptance - and thus a complicity - with the world as it currently stands, and those small few who benefit from it. Elections remind people of this reality: of how little say we have in the current workings of power.
That, however, can be changed in both the short and long term. It requires demanding more from those in power; critically engaging in politics; rejecting cynicism in favour of principles such as democratic participation, equitable outcomes, and sustainability.
In doing so, Australian politics still holds potential be filled with substance: such as to improve and enrich our lives rather than maintaining the current state of popular disillusionment. In promoting popular mobilisation and hope: a better world remains possible.
Justin George is a PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne and Participatory Society Advocate. His writing can be found at http://www.zcommunications.org/zspace/movingpast
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