Trumping Australian politics

Here in the national capital we are getting a daily diet of Australian electoral politics, with an occasional foretaste of the ACT election race we will have in October. At the same time, across the Pacific Americans are watching the build-up to national conventions that will select the presidential candidates for the two parties in the November elections there. Actually it is already clear who they will be, Hillary Clinton (Dem.) and Donald Trump (Rep.), because each has built up such a lead in the primaries that no one else can supplant them. Indeed, Trump is now the only Republican candidate, since the others have pulled out. The likely outcome of the actual election is unclear, though the demographics seem to favour the Democrats. Much depends on whether Donald Trump can actually get the voters who like him to turn up and vote on polling day.

Much has been said already about the Trump phenomenon. He was given no chance at all of getting the Republican nomination when campaigning began, and he is completely outside the ordinary cursus honorum — the traditional path through which American presidential hopefuls come, a local political base of some kind, then election to either the State or the national legislature, perhaps serving as governor of the state, then the call to the White House. Trump is a political never-has-been, a businessman who inherited money and made much more of it, and likes to thumb his nose at the Republican party machine. He shrugged away suggestions that he would be dependent on rich supporters by saying that he was rich enough to pay for his campaign by himself. In Australia, you couldn’t say that and get away with it. In the USA it drew cheers. It is still to be seen whether or not the anti-Trump Republican leadership will try to frustrate his race by putting up, as an Independent, someone well-known who would siphon off some of his notionally Republican support.

What has given him the rise and rise that we have witnessed is the resurgence of a strong political tradition in the USA — populism. It is not simply an American phenomenon, though it has been strong there from the beginning. It refers to a political movement that claims to speak for the people (Latin: populus) against elites of some kind, the wealthy, the military, racial superiors, the well-educated, or whoever the apparent enemy is. Julius Caesar was a populist. So was President Andrew Jackson in the 1820s, and William Jennings Bryan in the USA of 1896, who failed win a presidential election. So, in their separate ways, are both Bernie Sanders, the Democrat aspirant trailing Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump. There was a good deal of populist support for Barack Obama in 2008, too.

In the present context there is a widespread perception, accurate to a degree, that middle America (the skilled working class and the middle class) has lost its way, its place in society and its standard of living over the last decade or so, but especially since the GFC. A dispassionate observer might put that down to the rise of China as a maker of things at prices much cheaper than those of American factories, and to the GFC itself. No matter: from within the USA it is not hard to see that the banks did survive where the automakers on the whole did not. Detroit has suffered an appalling decline as a city, and there are smaller examples wherever factories were the important engine for local prosperity.

Trump and Sanders both point to this change. Sanders sees it as a clear instance of capitalism and its failures at work. Trump sees it as the fault of anyone who takes his fancy, but China, the Harvard elites and the media are frequently cited as villains. And both Sanders and Trump have an audience, though Trump’s is much larger. Trump’s actual policies are not outlandish, though the TV clips that we see suggest strongly that he is. It is being argued that there is a populist strain emerging around the world, and that there is one in Australia too. The milder version is that we have all become disenchanted with the political class.

We have had one Trump-like figure, in Clive Palmer MP. He was not and is not nearly as outlandish or as interesting a figure as Donald Trump, but he did show what you can do in politics, in a limited way, if you have lots of money. And he possesses the same indifference to what the media think about him. He could not have done that without a widespread disenchantment with what passes for political debate in our country, and the present election campaign only emphasises how empty that debate is. I have used the football team analogy before. Our parties are like professional football teams: they attract the same highly skilled would-be politicos; it doesn’t matter much where they were born or grew up, and the local party faithful often have little say in choosing them, which means that they are not ‘representative’ of the electorate as would once have been the case; they have often served in the private office of a Minister MP or Senator (or the Opposite numbers); they say much the same things, and say they stand for much the same things. For many people, it doesn’t really matter which team is in power: they are both objectionable.

In the meantime we have problems, and no one seems to be addressing them. No matter what the passionate say, we cannot afford both the Gonski funding and the NDIS funding, and arguably we cannot afford either of these long-term and expensive programs, and certainly not at the originally forecast patterns of funding. No one wants to talk about that. We have a large younger generation of voters that has never known anything like a real absence of money either within the family or the nation. The notion of ‘cuts’ to public spending is seen by it as almost obscene. We are a wealthy country they say, which is true, and we should be able to afford whatever it is. But even wealthy countries cannot do everything they want to do. The failure of our current debate to address this issue means that there is no obvious choice on July 3rd.

The major populist strain in our politics was appropriated a long time ago by Labor, which saw itself as the guardian of the workers, who were the ‘people’. The USA has no counterpart to the ALP at all. In the 1960s six Australian workers in ten were in unions. Now the proportion is less than one in five. Job security has gone, not because of greedy capitalists, managers or vice-chancellors, but because the context of employment is changing rapidly. University students don’t buy books any more. Machines are replacing workers in factories, secretaries and typists have gone, middle managers are being made obsolete, even the workplace is changing its location. All this unsettles people; they want answers, and they don’t like the ones they are being given.

From the right of politics we have a new populist strain, bits of which many workers can fasten on to easily. We don’t need all those refugees, we don’t need to be told what to do all the time by the nanny state, we want things the way they once were, there are too many handouts to the undeserving, we need more control over our own lives, and so on. Every now and then I see this as the new ‘middle ground’ in Australian politics, and I don’t much like it. What is more, I don’t see the battle for the middle ground providing any clues as to how to solve our real problems.

It was all so much simpler when it was we, the goodies, versus the USSR, the baddies…

For some sad light relief: John Spooner, the able cartoonist from The Age, and one of the few to poke any sort of fun at climate orthodoxy, seems to have been retrenched. I recognise that the major newspapers are having a lot of trouble, but it is  great pity to see John Spooner go. Here is his last work of Age art.



Join the discussion 15 Comments

  • Neville says:

    There is little doubt that people from left and right have had a gut full of pollies and the polly lovers.
    I’ve heard this lately from normally rusted on Labor and Coalition voters.
    Some of the old blue collar workers have drained away from the Labor party years ago over Nanny state issues and illegals wrecking our borders ( under Labor not the Coalition) etc. So far I think I’ll support my local member , because there isn’t a good conservative alternative that I would trust.
    But I’m waiting to see the final senate draw before I decide who to vote for, but the Coalition will be high on my list because I still trust them to have more basic common sense on most issues.
    On the US, I think Trump could beat Hilary if her email server issue blows up ( plus her lies) and becomes more of a talking point from now on. Probably this will be after the findings of the present FBI inquiry.
    On the face of it she does seem to be a fairly stupid person and shouldn’t be running for President. But Trump is his own worst enemy and seems to say the most outrageous and crude things about anyone he chooses. His attacks are just crude,stupid and unnecessary most of the time.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Yes, I concur with your sense of things here, Don, and Neville’s on the Yanks. Mostly I’ve been a labour voter since eligible to vote for Kep Enderby here in 1971, but I feel entirely adrift regarding the forthcoming Federal and ACT Elections, and am heartily glad I have no vote in the USA. Worse than being adrift is a kind of vengefulness that goes with it, and this concentrates on the AGW idiocy from all three prominent parties. It is an issue I find so pervasive and pernicious my attitude is to want to vote down, not up. This is bad for the spirit of democracy, I know, but accounts for my mood at what might be called the feral level.

  • Colin Davidson says:

    Paul Keating said something really sensible: “Grow the Pie”.
    This is essentially what happened through the late 90s and early 2000s. I remember well that the number of small businesses boomed in that period, a period when government and taxes were wound back, or at least static, and employment increased, and unemployment decreased, and national debt was reduced and money put into the bank.
    All that was destroyed by 6 years of disgracefully bad government, government which not only made no attempt to grow the pie, but also made every attempt to shrink the pie, for example (and there are many others) by introducing legislation and regulations attacking contractors and owner drivers. We now have a smaller pie, fewer small businesses, huge wasteful programs, a shrinking economy and increasing unemployment. And to cap that off the hugely wasteful education sector has managed, in a feat of unsurpassed brilliance, to achieve worse outcomes with greatly increased expenditure.
    The way forward is clear:
    1. Restore the goal of improving education outcomes. Be ruthless with those that waste education funds, and seek to reduce spending on the bloated slug that our education system has become.
    2. Remove all legislation which bars free access of small business to compete for work. Remove all legislation which feather-beds large organisations. Pass laws which remove protected status on Unions, charities, government and business.
    3. Lower debt. Lower taxes. Reduce waste in all government areas, but primarily in Disability Pensions, the Dole and in middle class welfare (churn schemes). Be savage with all Qangos – if something is a government function it should be performed by accountable government departments and not by unaccountable Qangos.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Govts have discovered just how easy it is to corrupt us with money. When it is so easy to access handouts today even people who have never had the entitlement mentality, now do.

    They say that democracy comes at a price but I didn’t realise this is what they meant.

    BTW, that Trump’s a misogynist, ain’t he?

  • George Thomas says:

    Has Spooner really been sacked? He has long been one of the few regular contributors to the Australian media with a truly independent and intelligent mind. Maybe he finally just got sick of The Age and quit.

  • bryan roberts says:

    I was never impressed by Keating, and the childish shibboleth impresses me even less. It is impossible to ‘grow the pie’ if you simultaneously increase the number of people eating it. Running to stand still is not progress.

    Everyone has forgotten that there is such a thing as pragmatism. No country can do everything it wants, and the limitations are invariably budgetary, which no-one, on either side of politics, let alone the population at large, is as yet prepared to accept.
    A small, but significant lie in this context, is the claim that humanitarian immigrants will quickly adjust, and contribute to the economy. As fifty percent of Australian families pay no effective tax after welfare churn, how will it be possible for the majority of refugees, with few employable qualifications or skills, to reach an income at which they will pay tax?

    Answer, it is not, and thus these people will either be on real welfare, or fiscally neutral (except for middle-class welfare), for the rest of their lives. This is not an argument against accepting them, it is simply acknowledging that doing so is going to cost the nation (and the taxpayer) an immense amount of money. Saying anything else is just flummery.

    So the real question is not cui bono, but who pays. The answer to the first question is the international bankers whose loans fund our generosity, the second, of course, is you and I.

  • bryan roberts says:

    You may also have noticed that all first world countries are bankrupt. They all owe more than they can possibly repay, and are kept afloat only by the connivance of bankers, who don’t really want to spend the rest of their lives in jail for corruption, but will probably plead incompetence.

    And yes, Don, I have spent three quarters of a century watching this comedy, and frankly, Symphony No11 by Shostakovich strikes a chord. I’m surprised he wasn’t shot for it, but maybe he was misunderstood.

  • margaret says:

    “University students don’t buy books any more.”
    A friend who is an ex primary school principal and university tutor of overseas adult students needing English language skills was then asked to supervise for a semester some third and fourth year Australian education students who were close to taking their knowledge and skills to their own classrooms. Most of them turned up to his tutorials with just an iPhone and their car keys, one or two with a computer, none with pens or notepads.
    It finished him off. Their English skills were poor and their writing was illegible. He retired, disillusioned. Brave new world.

    • bryan roberts says:

      ROFL. I doubt any ‘Australian’ and I use the word advisedly, under the age of 50 would recognise the names Elizabeth Bennet, Becky Sharp, or Heathcliff. What finished me were the shops advertising Pizza’s.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        Sir, you are speaking to the Chairman of the Australian Society for the Extirpation of the Apostrophe (ASEA). Our view is that since no one under the age of 50 actually knows anything about the correct use of the apostrophe, yet society continues, we would save a good deal of trouble by just getting rid of it altogether. Perhaps you would like to join …

  • bryan roberts says:

    Dear Professor Aitken,

    I was very tempted to rush for a life subscription, but hesitated. Do we really want to accede to the permanent degradation of the English language? ‘Progressives’ are forever concerned about our ‘international’ reputation; however, is it not more important that our young men and women, travelling in other countries, do not have to ask the meaning of a plural or possessive? A question that would be inconceivable to the French or Germans.
    If you excuse the apostrophe, you may as well extirpate the semi-colon, the colon, and any form of parentheses. It would simplify the language, but I do not look forward to the days when High Court judgements are appealed because their language is impenetrable.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    My title and organisation are somewhat ironic, since I share your view. But language and its conventions change over time, and each generation seems to know what is meant, though oldies like you and me and their counterparts earlier sniff a little at the loss of what they knew well. I am supposed to be halting a grandchild in mastering grammar and syntax…

  • […] third was something I have written about recently, the rise of a populist antipathy to ruling elites, including ‘experts’. It seems to have been the case that neither of the parties and […]

  • margaret says:

    A lifelong educator – she is authentic.

    “In terms of the issues that matter to me in this election, I like the policies that Clinton has been promoting about the middle class, and about education, which I think is the most important. I have a doctorate in educational leadership and spent 40 years in the Compton Unified School District in California. Eventually, I was the assistant superintendent of the district. I worked mostly with men, but I was held in high esteem because I was quiet and fair, and I knew my business. I understood what a quality education should be, and I pushed it to the hilt.”
    Neville you shock me.
    . [Hillary] “does seem to be a fairly stupid person and shouldn’t be running for President”.

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