A sullen nation turns its lonely eyes to Albo, but the passion is elsewhere

by | May 20, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts


Every election is different, but this election is extraordinary. But there are parallels from another time, writes Mark Sawyer.

Not being curious about the deeper corners of the human interface with technology, I may have been in blissful ignorance of some modern developments. I have, however, dropped by a few information-sharing groups, and that’s where the fun starts.

My aim was to find out what ‘’real people’’, not professional stickybeaks, thought about the  election. Most of the responses were within a fairly normal range. But something else happened too.

In my inbox, at the end of a spiel about mask mandates: ‘‘This is why I vote for One Nation.’’ Someone else invited me to delve further: ‘‘Read more about the WHO treaty. This is why I vote for the pro-freedom party.’’

I was sent a nice image of Bob Marley and the legend: ‘‘Stand up for your rights. Don’t give up the fight.’’ (Well, the ‘’Third World superstar’’ was an anti-vaxxer.)

I got some wise advice about where to find the ‘’real story’’, although there were a few lilypads I would have to lift and look under. I thought better of that. At the end of one discussion I mentioned the Ukraine war. My correspondent replied: ‘‘This election is the Australian war.’’

Bloody hell. Is it just me? How long has this been going on – a paranoid, conspiratorial community, swapping dark web sites and memes? I guess I could have looked to the polls, unreliable as they are. Clive Palmer and Pauline Hanson are on a combined 7% or so. The right is on the march.

Wake in fright. What another election loss would do to Labor

 Oddly enough, one of its targets seems to be Scott Morrison and his team. Opening the purse strings to save the economy and throwing budget caution to the wind, Morrison overturned Liberal strictures on small government. He has gained no credit from the progressive side and plenty of heat from the right. Some of his most trenchant critics sit on the far right, deploring the lockdowns and mask mandates.

I try to look on the bright side. Covid was a massive public health challenge and the nation, trying to work as a team, got more things right than wrong. A lot of money was wasted on JobKeeper and a lot of greedy bastards got even richer. At least the nation had the money to waste.

But Covid has exposed things that may only become evident with time. In 2022, it’s evident in sharp and unnerving ways. Graffiti near me, four months after it happened: ‘‘Join the Canberra convoy’’, the one that called for an end to all the restrictions brought about by the pandemic.

I could almost feel sorry for Morrison. Then a brochure lobs into my mailbox. It shows an MP as a wrecking ball smashing into a church. ‘’In February, [the MP] voted against protecting people of faith from discrimination AND voted to remove laws that protect the values of religious schools.’’ Nasty, American-style stuff. 

The Americans, baby, the Americans

If the polls are right, Labor will win, and with an outright majority in the House of Representatives, thanks to the preferences of its long-time ‘’frenemies’’ the Greens. But an outright majority in a parliamentary sense only: Labor will inherit a nation that is fragmenting inexorably. That’s the real story of Election 2022. Australia is an angry nation.

Scott Morrison may have left it too late to save his government, but his campaign has been another step along the path that will lead Australian politics towards a realignment on American lines. Labor is part of it, and so are the Greens and the climate independents, now known as the Teals (the word now rates being given a capital T). But the most active participant in this realignment is the Coalition. The farce that surrounded the ‘’religious freedom bill’’ is one manifestation. But it goes back further.

In 2017 Australians voted in a postal survey to allow same-sex marriage. The result was celebrated nationwide. But in 17 electorates, the vote was no, quite convincingly in some cases. Twelve of these electorates were in western Sydney, three in Queensland and two in outer suburban Melbourne. Many of the electorates were safe Labor. But religiously conservative migrants and small-business people, tradies and contractors, have replaced the old working-class unionists who voted Labor.  Many of those seats are in the target range of the conservative parties, slowly but surely.

The postal survey had a very different outcome in Warringah, on Sydney’s northern beaches. A stunning yes vote of 75%. But local MP Tony Abbott abstained when parliament endorsed the vote. It was the final break in the compact the former PM had established with his electorate in 23 years as MP.  Within 18 months he had been defeated by Zali Steggall, the first ‘’teal independent’’.

Shades of Hanson’s rise in media coverage of Katherine Deves

Three years later, and the eighth-most mentioned candidate in 2022 was Steggall’s new Liberal challenger in Warringah, Katherine Deves. Her claim to fame is that she opposes participation in women’s sport by trans people. It’s not an issue the people of the affluent beachside electorate have been hankering to debate. But Deves has played a part in the Coalition campaign nonetheless. Morrison has showcased her in electorates where the Liberal Party suspects her message might have some traction, where people are ‘’tired of being told what to think’’. He has gone nowhere near the seats where the Teal candidates are challenging. 

Deves has been described as a ‘’foghorn’’ for bigotry. Her campaign is seen as a nasty manifestation of American campaign techniques. It’s common in the US for politicians to press as many racial and cultural buttons as they can. This looks like the lamentable future for the Liberals.

If the Coalition government had not been so weakened, it would be making greater headway on its realignment strategy.  Labor acts as if it owes nothing to the more conservative people in its western Sydney (and to an extent, western Melbourne) heartland. 

It still thinks it can ship its stars out to the western suburbs, where the locals will garland them with flowers. Andrew Charlton in Parramatta and Kristina Keneally in Fowler are the latest manifestation of this arrogance. Victory for Labor will mask its own shortcomings.

 Unfortunately we are deep in the mire of cynicism. The Coalition has been guilty. Labor has been guilty. The Nationals have been guilty. Even some of the more pure have been guilty of playing the public for chumps.

Governing with prose: take it away, Albo

If Anthony Albanese makes PM, he will be a genuine Labor oddity. Not because of the ‘’non Anglo-Celtic name’’ he boasted about on Friday. It’s his modest agenda, a product of the unexpected Labor defeat of 2019. If Labor wins, it will do so by offering the most cautious program of any incoming Labor PM since at least World War II. 

It’s as if Labor has got both the 2019 and 2022 campaigns the wrong way around. Albanese has overcompensated for the failure of  Labor’s ambitious, frankly redistributive campaign of 2019. If leaders ‘’campaign in poetry and govern in prose’’, as the maxim goes, many progressive voters will hope Albanese does the opposite. His small-target approach on everything from emissions targets to the tax advantages of the wealthy has exasperated traditional Labor supporters.

Nonetheless Labor has ridden a rare degree of luck. The world since we were hit with Covid is a world of empathy and co-operation, strong suits for Labor. Albanese has made some attractive but dicey promises in childcare, aged care and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. There is not a workforce to back up these promises. The medical ‘’super clinics’’ are a Labor version of the Coalition car parks in waiting. The childcare policy is a gift to rich families from the less well-off people who juggled their jobs and lives to raise their children without taxpayer support. The NDIS has the potential to overwhelm the budget.

But Albanese has done the one thing he needed to do: convince Australians that he has the goods for PM. It’s not that he didn’t know the unemployment rate, that he didn’t know about the borders, that he failed other gotcha moments. He has shown a fundamental decency and dignity in contrast to the flailing bulldozer, the kid-tackling Morrison, the man who told the women’s protest outside Parliament House they were lucky to live in a country where protesters don’t get shot.

Scott, Anthony, or other? Who will the independents support?

The Liberals have sheared apart over climate policy and an integrity commission. Pummelled by the vicious power-plays from the right, pressured on the left by the most tightly drilled insurgency the nation has seen, their campaign has been held together with sticky-tape, and Scott Morrison. In 2019 Morrison reintroduced himself (he had been a minister for six years) to Australians as a daggy bloke in a Sharks cap who would keep out of their lives. He was a pugnacious campaigner – and he wasn’t Bill Shorten.

A Morrison defeat would leave the Liberals without even the sticky-tape. The Liberals will look like a rag-doll impaled against a fence after a cyclone. If Albanese doesn’t win, Australia will look physically like two nations: Sydney and Melbourne in one camp, and everywhere else in the other.

But the division is apparent in another dimension: the crumbling of the old socio-economic structures. In the richest seats, the Greens and Teal independents harry Labor from the left on emissions targets and refugee policy.

‘Fake independents’: the exploding cigars of the Liberal campaign

If Morrison loses, one of the things that can be stapled to his forehead like stigmata, along with I don’t hold a hose, is ‘’fake independents’’. The campaign by the climate independents, Voices Of movements, Teals, Simon’s Angels if you will, has completely outfoxed the Coalition.

The relentless attack on the candidates from the Liberal Party, and MPs including Josh Frydenberg, has focused on the lack of authenticity of this movement. This has missed the point by a mile. Not a single volunteer for a Teal candidate (and some have the services of 2000 willing hands) has an ounce of fakeness about their quest for a better way of doing politics.

It is however fascinating to hear Teal candidates across the nation state that they are listening to concerns of their local electorates, and finding (lo and behold!) that these concerns are climate, integrity, women’s safety, equality and fiscal responsibility. What? Nothing about house prices, China in the Pacific, doctor shortages? (Alas some of the Teals are going to add to the latter, leaving behind their medical skills for the tawdry game of politics). And while their emails contain the usual respectful signoffs, not much about the state of Australia’s First Peoples.

Indigenous journalist Stan Grant puts it this way

Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese have said barely anything. Even the teal independents who apparently offer an alternative to the tired politics-as-usual have not made Indigenous people a priority. The environment yes, but us no. Green is in, black is out.

But overall, the Teals have to be a good thing, right?  More women, more accomplished women, in Parliament. What’s not to like? OK here goes. The fact that they accept big sums (not the majority but still big sums) from Simon Holmes a Court and play down the significance of that. The rigid talking points. The carpet bombing of their electorates with campaign material. The emphasis on the gifted individual over the collective. The fact that deep down they have nothing real to offer young people on housing affordability. The fact that deep down they present no challenge to the economic structures that make Australia a nation of obscenely rich at one end and working poor at the other.

If some of the Teal candidates win, they will be pushing Labor to bigger targets on emissions reduction and a new deal for asylum seekers. It will certainly be interesting to see Labor being criticised from the left by people from the richest electorates in Australia. 

The independents are not fake. What they are is a tightly organised movement. And they are floating on money. You can’t fake that. 

1977 and all that: a repeat in 2022?

This election just might be the reverse of the 1977 election. That year the Coalition crushed Labor. This time Labor may crush the Coalition. None of this hung parliament, power-sharing malarkey: Australians don’t like that concept nearly as much as is imagined.

The common factor of the 1977 and 2022 elections so many years apart is the overall public mood: sullen, even ugly. Deep mistrust of the other side. The victories were achieved without joy.

In 2022 the excitement centres on the rise of the Teals. In 1977 it was the rise of a third force in Australian politics. A former Coalition minister, Don Chipp, fielded candidates in the Senate and in almost every seat of the House of Representatives under the banner of the Australian Democrats.

The party was to hold the balance of power in the Senate under the slogan of ‘’keeping the bastards honest’’  for two decades from 1981 before being eclipsed by the Greens.

This is how Chipp made his pitch in 1977:

I have become disenchanted with party politics as they are practised in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties. The parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder if the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence political parties and yearns for the emergence of a third political force, representing middle-of-the-road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group.

The more things change …

Mark Sawyer is a journalist with Michael West Media. He has extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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