The great political lesson of the “black swan” 2016 year of disruption is the tearing apart of the political centre and the rise of radicals, populists and frauds from opposing ends of the political spectrum defying conventional wisdoms and up-ending weary orthodoxies.
Paul Kelly, The Australian December 14, 2016
A ‘black swan’ event is unexpected, and momentous, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. The two seminal events of 2016, ere the Trump and Brexit phenomena in the U.K. And the USA respectively, and a similar, but pre-existing surge towards populism in Europe.
These were driven by economic and indeed existential insecurity experienced by large segments of the population, casually dubbed the ‘98%’, evidenced by the loss of jobs, wages stagnation, housing crises, and the like; the feeling of powerless and futility by those left behind by technological change and globalization; and the perception that a small but influential segment of the population are calling the shots, and reaping disproportionate benefits, particularly politicians and their hangers-on, and big business – the ‘establishment’. This mix is leavened, as so often is the case, by a rise in prejudice and xenophobia, and fear and anxiety about the Islamic extremism and terrorism that is exacerbated by the refugee crisis precipitated by the Middle East meltdown and third-world poverty. Tangled up in all this is frustration with the so-called elites’ perceived preoccupation with matters that are of no interest to ‘ordinary people’, and indeed, run counter what conservative circles perceive as “national values” and “Christian” mores – subjective things, but often believed to include environmental concerns, multiculturalism, gender rights, and the whole ‘political correctness’ thing.
All these, experts tell us, drive the disgruntled, disillusioned and disenfranchised into the arms of opportunist, populist demagogues who declare that they alone can fix that which is broken, set the world to rights, and lead the ‘people’ back to the “happy land far, far away”. Yes, there is a lot of “back to the future” about all this.
Paul Kelly, the respected and perceptive editor-at-large of The Australian, attributes this “great lesson” from the apparently random and unexpected events of this year to “outsider centrifugal forces”. Indeed, it was Kelly who first introduced those amorphous nouns ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ into our political lexicon nearly a decade ago (notwithstanding that the ABC’s ‘Insiders’ political talking-shop has been airing since 2001).
The dualism refers to (a) those who wield power, have access to those who wield power, and who influence those who wield power or have access to those who wield power (i.e. politicians, public servants, plutocrats, lobbyists, commentators, and others within what Americans call ‘the beltway’). And (b) those who don’t – the majority, the suburban strugglers, rural and regional Australia, ‘Howard’s battlers’, ‘Tony’s tradies’, Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’ – that is, the political fringe dwellers.
It is a mutable thing. Whether we see ourselves – or more to the point, whether media commentators see us as ‘insider’ or ‘outsider’ depends upon our political views, our level of education, what we do for a living, where we live, and, even, how we live. But most ordinary folk probably do not view their world in this fashion. It is a simplistic, lazy taxonomy, this categorizing and analyzing of shifting political, social and economic hopes, fears and expectations. And it is vulnerable to transparent and hypocritical manipulation and opportunism.
Witness how right-wing commentators, in the wake of the tumultuous, events of 2016 are slaves to this didactic dichotomy. They claim with the benefit of hindsight that they knew all along that things would unfold thus, that they’ve made the diagnosis, and will now write the prescription. Whilst not exactly ‘working class heroes’, they are at least the outsiders’ best friends. And yet, curiously (well, not THAT curiously) they play down the actual economic and social backdrop to the great dislocation in order to flagellate their own partisan bêtes noire – the scourge of political correctness and the pantheon of shibboleths worshipped by the small “l” liberal ‘elites’ (and even invent or reeingineer fresh pejoratives to punctuate their point, like Chris Kenny’s favourites: “value signallers”, ‘rent-seekers”, and “Green-Left”).
As an extreme but apposite example of such political kalisthetics, almost straight after the last Australian election, former MPs Mark Latham and Ross Cameron announced that they’d teamed up with The Spectator’s Rowan Dean for a Trump-flavoured chat program on Sky News. It would be called ‘Outsiders’ – an antidote to “an out-of-touch, inner-city leftist class”. Think about that for a second. A newspaper editor and two ex-politicians (drawing the usual huge pensions from the public purse), right-wingers all, sufficiently well-connected that they can make a few calls to Murdoch’s men and get themselves a gig. And yet, they’re “Outsiders” QED! (many thanks, Jeff Sparrow of The Guardian for reminding me of this farce – see below for the link ).
Meanwhile, up and coming politicians of both major parties, our future leaders, one assumes, are wrestling with the new imperative of “thinking like an outsider” in order to assuage disaffection and rejection in the ‘burbs and the bush, and thus ensure the survival of the locked-in monopoly of the two-party system. Not that they are about to actually doff their well-connected insiders’ garb and walk a mile in the outsiders’ unhappy shoes.
Anyhow, it is perhaps a mite too late for these well-intentioned aspirants. The political class is already in the nose with a large segment of the electorate, right across the political, social, economic, and demographic spectrum. People from all walks of life have had it with leaders who fail to meet the expectations of those who has supported them. They no longer buy the hyperbole, negativity and sloganeering that has for too long been the nature of politicking. They see double standards, duplicity and hypocrisy, and respond with distrust, cynicism, betrayal and disappointment. Young and old are becoming disengaged from the mainstream political process, and are drawn to the extremes out of frustration and disillusion, and a nihilistic desire to shake the system and even break it.
The Australian story is not quite as dark and drear as that elsewhere. We missed the bullet of the Global Financial Crisis, or the Great Recession as it was called in the USA. But many of the same issues resonate in our compulsory electorate, and predictably, as elsewhere, politicians have emerged to exploit them. Trouble is, they do not hail from the mainstream parties that have dominated state and national politics since federation. Many share the life-experiences of those left behind by change, and speak in language that they understand. People vote for for these folk because they are maverick outsiders who promise to shake up the system. It is not surprising that these combative renegades with fresh, bold, often utterly nonsensical ideas about politics and reality aren’t the most reasonable people to deal with. So they scare the bejasus out of the political elites with their university degrees, their professional qualifications, their assured career-paths, and their big-city perceptions, lifestyles and preoccupations.
It is passing strange that insiders with impeccable insider credentials and pedigrees talk now about “thinking like outsiders” and indeed presenting themselves as those outsiders’ great white hope. Those who have seen the light now assure us that the revolution is at hand, that the war against the “establishment” is on, that the sheep have looked up, and that the “elites” had better watch out for their days are numbered. To quote our newest Noble Laureate, “the slow one now will later be fast, and the present now will later be past” for the times indeed are a’changin’. But, stranger still, these “men of the people” (for they are, indeed, most often men) offer themselves as the ones to lead us to the promised land.
None of this is new – or surprising. Three years ago, if we were listening, there was a voice crying in the wilderness, come to prepare us the way of the lord – or rather, a Risorgimento of sorts against a rigged system, against the scourge of ‘political correctness’, against the political, social and cultural ‘elites’ and their boosters in the media, in the universities, in the arts, and in inner city cafes and wine bars. And the ‘disruptions’ 2016 would indeed appear to have proven our putative baptist right.
Enter Nick the Baptist
In 2013, publisher HarperCollins Australia released a quixotic piece of Australiana entitled ‘The Lucky Culture’. The title deliberately harked back to Donald Horne’s seminal book ‘The Lucky Country’ of 1964. But its subtitle, ‘And the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class’, bespoke a more conservative agenda.
Its author was Nick Cater, at the time, senior editor of The Australian newspaper, and currently, director of the conservative think-tank The Menzies Research Centre. ‘The Lucky Culture’, a jaundiced view of his adopted country, sold reasonably well for a book of its kind (which is not very well by customary best-seller benchmarks) being boosted by News Limited’s commentariat (left wing media were, predictably, less effusive whilst maverick mouth-for-hire Mark Latham was quite abrasive). The then Prime Minister Tony Abbott called it a “…beautifully written and perceptive book [that] is a historical essay on Australia’s public culture…it’s a personal reflection by a refugee from Thatcherism, now born-again conservative, observed and analyzed with a newspaperman’s thoroughness”.
‘Tones’ ought to know what he is taking about, I suppose, but I thought it a strange melange of Tory groupthink and a shallowly-acquired knowledge of Australian history and politics. Nick must’ve seen himself as a conservative answer to Donald Horne, and yet, he missed the original’s point and irony entirely: “a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”.
Nick Cater is a curious piece of work. An 1980s English immigrant – Abbot’s “refugee from Thatcherism, now born again conservative” – who found a home in News Limited as spear-carrier and caddie for the Murdoch narrative. He sees himself as that rare bird, the conservative intellectual, but sings from the same songbook as the rest of the News Ltd choir, Chris Kenny, Gerard Henderson, Janet Albrechtsen, and Jennifer Oriel, and shares the same ideological bed as Miranda Devine, Piers Ackerman, and an assorted band of bombastic brothers at Fox News. He shares their ability to make any subject fit the News Ltd party line, and remain on-message with anti-Labour, anti-Green, anti-Union, anti-elite, anti-anythingwedontlike shibboleths. That, my friends, is what “post truth”, le mot de jour, is all about: the ascendency of opinion, and not necessarily informed opinion at the, over fact – “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with the facts”.
His is a cautionary tale – beware of geeks bearing grudges. Having arrived in Australia, he quite quickly assumed we didnt know our own political history very well, and proceeded to enlighten us. The result was a complete misrepresentation of politics in Australia during the years before he disembarked QF1. Many on the left view him as an annoying insect buzzing in the room, barely qualified in knowledge or experience to make the comments he does, and I must confess that it is difficult not to feel irritated by his presence in print in The Australian or as a guest on Fox News.
Reading Nick’s latest offerings in The Australian (you will never see him in the Fairfax press, the Guardian or The Monthly), I was reminded of a review I wrote when ‘The Lucky Culture” was published. Many of the observations I made back in April 2013 are as valid now as were then, so I have decided to republish it in In That Howling Infinite. Please indulge me with its free-form format and a tendency to wander down wander off the path at times. It was fun to write, and I hope you will find it fun to read to.
The Outsiders’ Manifesto
A specter is haunting Ausralia — the spectre of the outsiders. All the insiders of old Australia have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre…Let the ruling classes tremble at a revolution. The outsiders have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.
After Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848
My old Irish grandad used to say there a three things you should never talk about in public. politics, religion, and sex. Because these are not the ties that bind. Indeed, they are the source of sundering. The Irish, let it be said, never obeyed these basic rules, but they tried, nevertheless. And this used to be the case here in God’s Own Country.
This latter, by the by, was a myth. And so too was, and is, Australian Exceptionalism. Like American Exceptionalism and English Exceptionalism [Update 2016: all three are getting a good run this year with Brexit, Trump, and Hansonism], it is a myth, a creation myth. We have never been, as a nation, egalitarian, innovative, fearless and spirited. It is the stuff of legend, like King Arthur, Robin Hood, Aragorn and Aslan.
Google the seminal events in our national story and you will uncover dark secrets. Timothy Leary, god rest his restless, inquiring, substance-experimenting soul, reminded us to never trust what we are told by those in authority, be they in politics, the church, the media, or the voices we hear in the dark tea time of our souls.
For a better-written telling of Australian history, I highly recommend William Lines’ challenging ‘Taming of the Great South Land’, and the late Robert Hughes’ magisterial ’The Fatal Shore”. Think Transportation, The Rum Corps, Hard Times, the killing of Chinese labourers at Lambing Flat, Aboriginal Dispossession and Death, The Orphans of the Empire and the Stolen Children, the White Australia Policy, the shysters like Bond and Skase, Fixers like Eddie Obeid, and wannabe messiahs like Pauline Hanson and Cory Bernadi. Think religious and racial prejudice, environmental vandalism, corporate hijinks, and political skulduggery. In our perpetual and pointless “culture wars”, this is simplified as the “black armband” view of history versus the “white blindfold” view, whilst most of us would agree that we are a ‘cowboy’ country where many look for an opportunity to acquire a hat and a horse.
Anyhow, to get to the point, in Cater’s opinion, the “real” Australia, whatever that means (exceptional, egalitarian, innovative, fearless, spirited, blah, blah, blah) has been hijacked and hoodwinked by educated, out of touch inner-city urban elites that have imposed their left-wing, globalized, multicultural, political, environmental, ethical and social agendas upon ordinary, dinkum, hard-working Aussie folk.
His line not an original one. it is pretty much the same argument that has been pushed by the News Limited newspapers and their Fox News colleagues for nigh on three years now. Paul Kelly and Peter Van Onselen have been talking about insiders and outsiders for ages and indeed, it was Kelly who originated it. Peter and Paul are actually the reasonable, rational spruikers. Behind them are the less evenhanded hard-heads like Andrew Bolt, Janet Albrechtsen, Piers Ackerman, Gerard Henderson, Chris Kenny and Miranda Devine [Update 2016: they are all still with us!]
But, sorry, Nick. There isn’t a new ruling class. It is the same old ruling class. The great and the good that turned up to the Institute of Public Affairs recent birthday bash. Google the guest list and you will find a who’s who of the so-called ‘outsiders’. It is an argument that suits the ideology of the owners and rulers, and has been the ‘party line’ since the last election and the failure of Tony Abbott to (a) win the election and (b) secure a deal with the independents. [Update 2016: haven’t we moved on! Abbott has come and gone, and Malcolm Turnbull is still fighting the right wing warlords of the Liberal Party and an upper house that for four years now has been much less cooperative than Messrs Windsor and Oakeshott ever were]
Anyhow, my review:
From ‘The Lucky Country’ to ‘The Lucky Culture’, Nick constructs a social and political history of Oz from out-of-date creation myths. This is not to say that the country he presents did not exist. It did, in parts, and not to the wall-to -wall extent that he paints it. And if that was then, it is certainly not now. It is easy to assemble a collage of quotes, epigrams, stories, and concepts to fit a preconceived theory. We all do this. Ex-post facto rationalization is as natural as kangaroos, meat pies, and Holden cars. [Update 2016: today, we call this “post truth”]
With my contradictory totems and confused valences, I cannot quite work out what values and views encapsulated my weltanshaung. It has been a long time since I read up on Emile Durkheim – not since, like Nick, I studied sociology as a callow undergraduate way back in the day. But I share with Nick an amorphous, what is it he calls it, Bildungsburgertum (or spiritual development of the bourgeoisie).
Yes, he really does. But whilst you take that in, excuse me whilst I digress.
Anyhow, there I was, doing what latte-sipping, Chardonnay-quaffing Greens do of an evening after a hard day’s night at the coal face of accountancy (working in a News Ltd company, I must confess). On my cross-trainer at the uni gym, listening to the ABC news on my headphones. Something about the mental condition of asylum seekers vacationing on Manus Island, organ-harvesting in Chinese prisons, and the need for more taxes to cover the budget black hole. And I could not help taking note what was on the other big screens in this very well equipped Sweatbox. There was Delta Goodren mentoring a tattooed crooner wearing denim cut-off jerkin and shorts. Yes, shorts. An attractive but nervous blonde was lying in a glass coffin covered in big black scorpions – a kind of Adams Family take on the mourning scene in Snow White? Another attractive blonde in bikini and navel ornamentation was jumping off a high diving board into a neon lit pool to much fanfare and ballyhoo. A squad of unappealing, very kilogrammatically challenged punters were being harangued by an attractive blonde in muscle-enhancing trackies. Hey, guys! Bright yellow t-shirts do not look slimming. But then, I guess, that is the point. And so back to the ABC and Tony Abbott in white shirt with blue tie clutching his Little Blue Book in a manner reminiscent of those Chinese folk way back in the, well, Cultural Revolution.
Which is where I must get to the point, I guess. Anyhow, there I was, doing the right thing by my health, as a chronologically enhanced, relic of the old left (old hippy, actually, but who remembers them these days?), before settling in for the evening with some tofu, salad, and a cheap but good Central Otago Pinot (not a Chardonnay man, me) to watch the latest episode of Mad Men. And I thought, how sweet it is to be an Insider.
And I wondered if my old, disabled, deep-green, leftie friends in the northern forests would feel that same inner warmth, or my Krishna muso pals on the Tweed River. How does it feel to be part of the new power elite, I will ask them. And they will not know what I am going on about, because they never read the Australian, because it is right-wing and owned by the Dirty Digger. And they will never read this book in any case as they do most of their reading on FaceBook, for that is The New. [Update 2016: I did indeed lend the book to by old Bello mate Warren, who actually does buy books – by left wing writers like Don Watson, mind you, and takes the Sydney Morning Herald and the Saturday paper), and he enjoyed the review better than the actual book, but endorsed my take on it]
And so they will never know, as I noted above, that it was Paul Kelly of The Australian (and in my view, more erudite and balanced than his News amigos) who first coined the terms Insiders and Outsiders, and that it was the News Ltd stable of journalists and opinion writers who then took up the clarion call. So yes, this is the party line that Nick is pushing, and that influential Australian icons and role models like Gina Reinhardt and Alan Jones are keen to read more about. A bit like my pals on The Left who only want to read what they agree with.
And so, Nick’s superficial thought-bubbles; stream of consciousness tropes; meaningless memes; trandom gleanings culled from undergraduate studies; and a cursory reading of Australian history and politics. Strange forays Into our culture. Very ‘survival of the fittest’, and, dare we say it, elitist. Beware the wisdom of the half-educated, self-styled, anti-intellectuals, who think they are much cleverer than they actually are.
And Nick, my old cobber, fellow expatriate and, it would appear, working class hero, I am not quite sure what you actually believe in other than you don’t like the Greens, the Universities, Multiculturalism, and the ABC. Oh, and intellectuals. [Update 2016: and predictably, you like coal, think global warming is overrated, and like your playmates, you bang on about the green-left, inner-city “elites” who would consign Australia to the stone age, and the curse of political correctness – because, as ever-clever Attorney General George Brandis says, everyone has a right to be a bigot]
Actually, mate, Australians of all classes and political hues are glad that Gough dragged Australians into the Twentieth Century (even if he did indeed drive his government over the cliff), that the Franklin River was saved, that the Mabo Judgement was brought down, that it was the right thing to say “sorry” to the descendants of the original inhabitants, that that Tampa moment was one of national shame, that multiculturalism was and is, at its heart, a good thing, that the ABC is very popular across the land, especially in rural areas, that climate change is for real, that the republic referendum was indeed rigged by tricksy questions, and that Pauline Hanson and her ilk did not represent ‘the better angels of our nature’, nor speak to the core of our national identify. And remember that over a million bleeding-heart ‘insiders’ marched in Sydney and other city’s throughout this land to protest the war that our ‘owners and rulers’ we’re about to drag us into – and we know how well that all turned out.
But back to the book. Did I mention faux-sociology? And the drawing of many long bows. When a Judeo-Christian, Protestant Ethic segues into Confucianism, you have to worry about how many dots can indeed be joined to make a cogent argument. A revisiting of undergraduate studies mingled with a shallow and selective skimming of Australian history’s ‘Greatest Hits’, placed in a polemical oven and then over-cooked. Forget the ‘black armband’ school of thought. Put on the golden halo of technological innovation and progress.
And get a sense of humour, please! Cherry picking the artefacts of old Anglo-Celtic cultures is no way to go. The Sybil Fawlty and Crocodile Dundee lines you quote were meant to be ironic – they were not the statements of fact or fashion that you imagine them to be. And Scot Mackenzie’s ‘When You’re Going To San Francisco’ was not an anthem of a zeitgeist. It was written by the Mommas And The Papas for crissakes!
Ah, yes, the book.
The last three chapters are strange. I really wondered what Nick was on about. And as for the last chapter and postscript, I wondered what he was on – either drunk or stoned – when he wrote these (and not sure whether or not I want some). Using Crocodile Dundee and the Adventures of Barry McKenzie as opposites to balance his argument upon was a brave move (in terms of ‘going out on a limb’, I mean, in the vein of Sir Humphrey Appleby’s “a courageous decision, prime minister”). The idea that one can use two Australian films, one over forty years old, and another twenty years, to ground a discussion of contemporary Australian identity (to his eye, Paul Hogan the ocker is more true to our identity than the dilettante Barrys Crocker), and to progress an argument for Australian exceptionalism, is drawing a bow so long that either the bow or the string will break! And to paint virtuoso violinist Richard Tognetti as the proletarian heir to Hoges and the Shearers of yore is, well, wierd man!
‘The Lucky Culture’, as I noted above, sold fairly well for a book of its calibre. Tony Abbotts’s ‘Battlelines’ sold several times more with some twenty thousand copies, and Peter Costello’s memories, upwards of forty thousand. Sales of News Ltd journalist Nikki Savva’s voyeuristic ‘The Road to Ruin’ have exceeded both, demonstrating as much as anything that down under, we view politics as a blood sport that is both entertaining and exasperating. The reigning champion of publications political is John Howard’s ‘Lazarus Rising’, which has sold upwards of 115,000. Back in 2013, Nick Cater was expected to pen a sequel. At the time of writing, none appears to be forthcoming.
Did my review amuse or bemuse you? See what others thought of it:
Here is a Jeff Sparrow’s entertaining piece:
Here is a worthwhile and relevant recent oped by Waleed Ali:
And this is that article by Paul Kelly I referred to at the beginning of this post – if you scal the News Ltd pay wall:
If if you can’t, here it is:
Centre of politics pulled apart by outsider centrifugal forces
Paul Kelly, The Australian, December 14, 2016
great political lesson of the “black swan” 2016 year of disruption is the tearing apart of the political centre and the rise of radicals, populists and frauds from opposing ends of the political spectrum defying conventional wisdoms and up-ending weary orthodoxies.
Amid the confusing trends in varying countries, the weakening of the political centre — once the main battleground of politics — and the rise of polarising forces on the Left and Right is the pivotal event with the most alarming consequences. This model is most obvious in the US, where Bernie Sanders erupted from the Left in the Democratic primaries and Donald Trump took over the Republican Party from the populist Right.
Historical comparisons are useful yet misleading. It was, however, the 1930s that saw a deep polarisation when Fascists and communists in Europe became the ideological beacons and the weak middle ground testified to a decline of Western democracies.
In compulsory-voting Australia most of the postwar period has been dominated by the Coalition-Labor competition to win the “politics of the centre”, with the inevitable and desirable result being that ideological extremes were marginalised.
“I see particular commonalities in the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders,” Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of France’s National Front, told Foreign Affairs magazine. “Both reject a system that appears to be very selfish, even egocentric, and that has set aside the people’s aspirations. There is a form of revolt on the part of people against a system that is no longer serving them but rather serving itself.”
Australia has no Trump or Sanders or Le Pen. What happens if their equivalent does emerge? Australia exhibits to a far less degree the trends in other Western democracies. But distrust of the major parties is growing as part of system disillusionment, with the recent Newspoll showing a total of 75 per cent primary vote support for the major parties and the Fairfax/Ipsos poll showing only 66 per cent such support.
Every sign is that politics is being reshaped, with the Greens, Pauline Hanson’s party, Nick Xenophon’s party and a “revolving door” of Senate minor party candidates now entrenched in influential positions in the Australian parliament. The appeal of the “outsider” trading on grievance and exploiting regional and demographic alienation is the new gospel. The question for Australia becomes: is such disillusionment now factored into our system or does the tidal wave of disruption still lie ahead fed by economic downturn and cultural conflict?
Malcolm Turnbull was re-elected this year and Labor under Bill Shorten staged a year-long surge in the polls. Yet neither looks convincing. The latest trend in political discourse cannot be missed: lumping Turnbull and Shorten together — despite their hefty policy differences — as figureheads of a discredited system and a polemic technique to promote the outsiders to “shake up the system”.
The upshot is a vicious circle of failure — a dysfunctional parliament unable to address national problems in relation to the economy or budget. Governments are in office but not in power. Decisions are impaired or not taken. Governing is more difficult; reform is more difficult still. The result is obvious: the system is further discredited and support for outsiders keeps growing. When does the bubble burst?
The litany of the optimists — that such diversity will encourage compromise and better outcomes — must be a joke. The answer is more of Hanson or Xenophon or the Greens or Derryn Hinch? The only trouble with this polemic is the evidence against it. The recent Senate negotiations over the Australian Building and Construction Commission bill — a flawed law from a chaotic process — testify to the authentic decline of the system.
Elections are the lifeblood of democracy. But our national elections are failing in their purpose: they deliver weak government and they fail to resolve issues. What happened after the last election? Labor lost but acts as if it won. The Coalition won but struggles to assert its authority. Deadlocks on the budget, economic policy, climate policy, tax reform and the same-sex marriage plebiscite are the main story. Turnbull correctly points to the legislative progress he has made, but that comes at a cost. Ministers are pragmatists: they have no option but to work with a system of declining utility.
Ideological obsessions are strong within the major parties on the high-profile issues of climate change and the economy. Where is the centre ground? It is being sacrificed to ideological fixations. Last week was a watershed for climate change policy in Australia. Labor runs an ideological mantra that will hurt living standards and investment with its 50 per cent renewable target by 2030 while the Coalition has decided it cannot abandon its ideological rejection of emission trading or emission intensity schemes — the latter cannot even be assessed despite evidence of its efficiency.
On Friday at the Council of Australian Governments meeting, the Prime Minister and premiers barely concealed their core divisions. Three Labor states refused to sign the new intergovernmental agreement on competition and productivity. Having a quarter of negative growth had no impact on these splits. Much of the press conference was consumed with ideological differences over climate change.
In Australia the weakening of centre-ground politics and the rise of new forces on the Right and Left is much less pronounced than in the US and Europe. But the trend is under way. It has three sure consequences: weaker government, ideological conflict and a decline in public policy. None of this is to deny that Trump, as president, will deliver some good results after the disappointing legacy of the Obama era. Nor is it to deny the central causes of the new populism: the sustained failure of elites in the US and Europe during the past 10 years in economic, social and cultural policy.
The reality, however, is that our politics is changing in fundamental ways. The age of the permanent campaign is at hand with Trump, as president, probably bringing this technique to a new peak. Can anyone doubt Shorten is waging a permanent campaign or that Tony Abbott did before him?
Fragmentation of media is accentuating fragmentation in politics. In Obama’s recent interview with David Remnick in The New Yorker, he said the new media ecosystem “means everything is true and nothing is true”. The agreed factual foundation for political debate is disintegrating. Remnick said of politics today that “what frustrated Obama and his staff was the knowledge that, in large measure, they were reaching their own people but no further”. They could never reach behind the collective wall of the Right’s media and social media edifice and, of course, the same argument applies to the Left. People choose media to reinforce their belief system. So the centre is weakened further.
The US election revealed a frightening decline in standards of discourse, with Obama saying “until recently, religious institutions, academia and media set out the parameters of acceptable discourse”. But this has changed with a “social permission” for Trump’s aggressive language in relation to race, ethnicity and women. Trump was retaliating against the destructive and patronising identity politics used by the Left. The upshot again is apparent: the language and debate around politics is being shaped not by the centre but by the ideology of a polarising Left and Right.
As a resilient and successful society, Australia’s defences against such destructive trends are not to be underestimated. Yet the forces driving the new populism and the decline of the political centre are immense. They are starting to penetrate in this country and the result will leave us diminished.