Sunday, August 1, 2010

Election Fiction versus Political Reality

above: the author, Justin George

In this article, Justin George considers the shallowness of discourse surrounding the 2010 Australian Federal Election.  Spin and trivia overshadow political substance, obscuring the narrowness of choice between the main parties.  But regardless, rather than counselling resignation the author calls for mobilisation and hope.

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

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  1. Justin’s analysis is for the most part accurate, sadly.

    His analysis of a supine media in bed with market fundamentalist ideologues is accurate as far as it goes and his sketch of the Fairfax media as engaging in useless hand wringing while the Murdoch Molock takes a broadsword to news and current affairs is tragically amusing; but it fails to mention the fall of the ABC into the same mire of half truths and “star journo” opinion whilst absolutely abdicating any of its charter obligations to present a balanced analysis of the news of the day.

    This failure, this turning of the ABC into the common prostitute of the news space, pimped by Mark Scott to the big end of town, can only be interpreted as the first move in a long term fascist strategy to dumb down the ABC ready for its privatisation and rebirth as the organ of government power under an endless kryptofascist junta offering no choice elections and the slow slide of our once proud larrikin polity into a conformist political culture where it is demanded of us that we blindly consume and remain utterly silent while the blast of the panderers and fluffers of market fundamentalist consumerism shout their endless trivialising and infantalising slogans at us and finally, un-noted and un-missed, to die and be replaced by the next generation of automaton consumers.

    The only answer is the birth of a truly vernacular debate and direct action, in the streets if necessary. Engagement with the process has always been the answer and there’s no time like the present. What would both sides of politics think if someday in the next few weeks there was suddenly ten thousand people on the streets in the major cities saying that no choice was no choice at all?

    The alternative seems to be the slow decline to a state not unlike say modern Russia where oligarchs and criminals run things and the people take what they can get, or worse a Pinochet style Australia. Only a fool would think it can’t happen here.

  2. I agree with the general thrust of this piece. I think the alternative is to build a party committed to a socialist society of democracy and production organised to satisfy human need. The degeneration of the ALP into a party of the right confirms the critique of social democracy that revolutionaries make and means for me not building a more radical version of the ALP but a party that wants to tear down capitalism. I'd say to those still in the ALP or still with hope in a new social democracy to at least consider the alternative - revolutionary socialism and join with us in the struggles of the day - for same sex marriage, against the ABCC and jailing Ark Tribe, against the NT invasion and so on.
    My blog makes these points in various articles, including my most recent one Labor's death agonies.

  3. One rule this election for the best struggle option: Vote Socialist and Greens/Put Abbott Last.

  4. A very good article. But should we not rediscover Marxism-Leninism? Is not this article a good summary of the conflict of class interests entirely familiar to those great leaders? Surely the points made by this article further discredit the blind reliance on democracy espoused by fragments such as the Search Foundation (which should be closed, and the funds directed to a useful purpose)?

    It is hypocritical that anyone in the ALP could seriously expect “loyalty” from Kevin07 or anyone else.

    The post-1975 history of the ALP is one of ruthless expediency. During the 2004 election campaign, for instance, the Americans intervened very openly, against Mark Latham. While Latham’s position was supported by those such as Paul Keating, those such as Bob Carr undermined it (implicitly favouring then the shadow foreign minister Kevin Rudd).

    Kerry O’Brien has highlighted that the current flow of embarrassing emails is clearly a campaign of attack and reprisal. As its practitioners were from their earliest days cultivated by the machine for their ruthlessness and selfishness, they will be intending to continue it for as long as they benefit.

    NSW Hard Labor Right’s problem – also Julia’s problem, of course - is not just the brazen and blatant nature of the knifing (Hawke did the same to Hayden, while Keating did the same to Hawke) but also the frivolous and self-serving reason. Like the Roman mob as they cheered on the lions or the gladiators, for many people politics is a blood sport. Even so, people are aware of the need for sound leadership, so there are limits, and the latest knifing is generally regarded as having gone too far. Consequently it is not just Julia but also the Labor government that is being regarded as corrupt and degenerate.

    Our ABC’s site “The Drum” provides some first-class coverage of many issues, including the campaign. Allow me to quote from "The Drum's" Chris Uhlmann:
    “So Labor can't run on its record, because that belongs largely to a prime minister it discredited. Julia Gillard hasn't been leader long enough to erase the mistakes or the memory of the Rudd government so she is running on the promise of an ill-defined, but better, future. But that's a vapour trail which evaporates as you watch it. …
    But this election will be won or lost in New South Wales and Queensland. And there Ms Gillard doesn't play so well. There the wail of the fallen leader rings loudest because he is howling into the vast echo chamber of community anger built by the multiple failures of state Labor governments. The real problem is not that people feel sorry for Mr Rudd, but that he is a constant reminder of everything that is bad about the way Labor governs.”

    Critics of the USSR would do well to note that the removal of Khrushchev was certainly more democratic than that of Hayden, Hawke, and Rudd. The sad (also self-serving) delusion that democracy is an invisible hand that will naturally right all wrongs is an obvious barrier to any local perestroika, especially when the lack of it on the Left – as in the ALP – is so obvious yet so accepted.

    Organisations are not just a collection of individuals. They do develop a collective memory and a collective philosophy, whether good or bad. After all, whether ALP, Coalition, or the organisation misrepresenting itself as Socialist Alliance, they are selling themselves very much on that basis. The degeneration of the non-Labor left has, unfortunately, paralleled that of the Labor Party and union management.

    Similarly with government, the rise of the ministerial adviser and the destruction of independent public services from 1984 (largely by Labor) have led to a degeneration in quality and range of social services, with profit-seeking-sector replacements that manage to be both worse and more costly.

    Regrettably, what passes for today’s Left is as incompetent to produce good answers to these issues as any of the mainstream parties.

  5. Roger; what you say re: democracy - it depends on the extent and nature of that democracy.

    Obviously a democracy where mining bosses have a $200 million warchest to spread fear and disinformation doesn't have bosses and ordinary people on the same level... And then even in the ALP Left many of us have internalised issues such as capital mobility/threat of capital flight - and don't openly draw the radical conclusions about how this compromises the very liberal democracy we're engaging in.

    Re: What you said about the SEARCH Foundation; I think SEARCH continues to do good work; maintaining the old CPA networks; holding the Left Renewal Conference; providing grants, scholarships etc.

    But I would like to see a more aggressive recruitment effort. The recent Ecological Socialism essay was a step in the right direction, and shows there's still radical substance in SEARCH.

    Personally I would like to see a socialist party following in the tradition of the old (anti-Stalinist) CPA, but drawing tough conclusions re: very important issues - such as whether communism as imagined by Marx is really possible. And also bringing together those diverse tendencies on the Left into co-operation and exchange: but at least with a commitment to forms of economic democracy, liberty, a strong redistributive state ensuring social justice, at least some form of democratic mixed economy...

    I'm committed to working in the ALP myself; and one of the benefits of SEARCH is that SEARCH can maintain its networks; but individual members can intervene in a wide variety of forums. But I would like to see SEARCH take a more overt and interventionist stance...

  6. Without wishing to spend much time on the SEARCH Foundation – an organisation virtually none of us have ever heard of outside this discussion group – one of the few relevant lessons of leftist activity that we can actually apply locally is that people and organisations should be rewarded for performance, not for posturing. People can “network” over cups of tea, or at parties, without being paid for it.

    There are a lot of important issues that receive no attention, because every group wants to be identified with the popular issues. SEARCH's recent Ecological Socialism essay, for instance, appeared to be a threadbare but verbose filling around a scaffolding of today's populist adjectives - 'democratic', 'ecological', etc. Indeed, an academic would probably join me in classing it as being of an unacceptably low standard.

    A small sample of issues desperately needing a promoter:
    • Grossly imbalanced urban versus regional development
    • Preparing for peak oil, peak water, peak commodities, and peak food.
    • A practicable development scheme for the littoral states, and indigenous communities.
    • Re-establishing government business enterprises in strategic sectors.
    • Greatly reducing the inbuilt obsolescence and avoidable waste in goods and services.

    Certainly we ourselves need to insist on higher standards. Notwithstanding that plenty of people regard politics as an entertainment, many do seek meaning and leadership. But to attract them, the left needs to overcome its own mediocrity. That, not focussing on overseas situations of very limited relevance, is one of our big challenges.

  7. Justin's article has also appeared at On Line Opinion today - so those of you who have been reading and commenting here - are welcome to do so there too!!


  8. Thanks for sharing about the Australian politics. This was very great detailed news to read. thanks for the informative post. Keep it up the good work.


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