Sunday, June 12, 2011

The grass is Greener!

An important milestone is coming soon. From July, the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate. In addition Adam Bandt is one of the numbers keeping Julia Gillard in power. This makes for interesting times for the Greens and interesting times for Australia.
Before I go any further I want to make one thing clear: I am NOT advocating for intemperate behaviour on the part of the Greens that would lead to continuing instability in the Reps. I think that would be bad for Australia.
Having said that, this is crunch time for the Greens. My premise is that Australian voters did two things, deliberately in 2010. They refused to place their trust in either major party; and they substantially increased their support of the Greens. I'm a great believer that nothing happens without a reason. I believe that the Australian electorate has given a mandate to the Greens - a mandate to show some real leadership in Australia. Whether the Greens choose to accept that mandate will determine the future of their support.
We reposed similar trust in the Democrats once. We believed their "Keeping the Bastards Honest" line and we gave them enough votes in the Senate to deliver on their promise. What did they do? They supported an unpopular GST, they negotiated with the Devil and delivered for the Devil. The electorate never forgave them and we can see the inevitable outcome now.
The same holds true for the Greens. We've given them our votes as a mediating force, as an opportunity for them to show real leadership. We haven't seen such leadership in this country since Paul Keating and Bill Deane - each in their own way - showed us leadership on things that were "right" but unpopular. They convinced us that we needed to accept and support things that were initially unpopular.
Federal politics is currently a moral vacuum. When I use the word "moral", I'm not using it in some trumped up Judaeo-Christian sense. I'm using it in a lower case, low key statement of our obligations, as humans, to ourselves and others. Neither Gillard nor Abbott are offering anything to the population in terms of moral leadership. Instead they have their stethoscopes firmly pressed to the opinion polls seeking for any advantage in their race against each other to the bottom of the cess pit. We are mired in the tip-toe politics of pragmatism and political advantage. Self interest is the order of the day along with short term political gain.
Meanwhile the train wreck that is increasingly Australian society continues.
Most concerning is the use of the politics of fear. In 1788 the First Fleet arrived here, sent from England and full of convicts. Transportation was driven by the disparity between the haves and have nots of English society and the fear, on the part of the haves, that the have nots would somehow hurt or harm them. The response on the part of the haves was a draconian legal regime and the transportation of even minor transgressors to the ends of the earth.
Unfortunate parallels are apparent in our society today. We hear this ongoing whining that society is not safe, tougher laws are needed, more jails...; we hear mining bosses forecasting the end of the world as we know it if tax rises by even a cent; ditto for a carbon tax or any attempt to curb and change our profligate use of hydrocarbon resources; refugees are vilified and cast as the devil incarnate. What is worse these fears are fanned and encouraged by the baying of the politicians from both sides of politics, seeking to harness fear for their own political advantage.
When was the last time a politician stood up and said things like: "Refugees pose no threat to this country and we should welcome them"; or "The community is safer than its ever been, more punitive laws do not contribute to community safety and we're not going to play that game"; or "A sensible mining royalty regime is critical to the future prosperity of this country, the miners are not contributing sufficiently and unless we change that we'll end up as a bankrupt hole in the ground".
On and on it goes. NOBODY at a State or Federal political level is providing leadership, nobody is seeking to help the populace understand real, complex issues. Instead we see politicians of all flavours chasing each other to the bottom.
Do we have the politicians we deserve? Are we increasingly a population of gutless, craven losers, focused only on small-minded self interest? Well the evidence on both counts suggests to me that the answer is yes.
However we are susceptible to listening to our leaders when they have something meaningful to say to us, and we did vote for the Greens and the independents in increasing numbers. That gives me hope.
So here's the challenge for the Greens and it's a tough one! I predict that if the Greens cannot find the skills and the backbone to step right up to the plate and provide vocal, moral leadership to this country, then we will treat them the same as we have treated the Democrats - as a waste of electoral resources. We have lots invested in the major parties, we're not prepared to trash either of them because we sense a need for the necessary electoral tension between them. Our "bet each way" always comes with the minor parties and we are quick to judge the success of our flutter and move on if it isn't working. That means that when we entrust our faith in a group like the Greens the stakes are very high for them. Their demise will take time, if it happens, because of the duration of Senators, but it will be inevitable if they don't step up.
If on the other hand, they step into the massive vacuum in public life in this country. If they start to show real leadership across a range of issues...then they may just have a future.
I hope they do, I really hope they do.


  1. @Dr_Tad on Twitter asked the question: "Leadership in whose interests?". I tried to tackle it on Twitter without success - 140 characters beat me. So here is a brief attempt at answering that question.
    For me it's in the interests of the common weal. Now the difficulty when I say that is that it depends who you are and what your ideology as to what you think the interests of the common weal are, and perhaps more importantly how you think those interests are best met.
    There is risk at either end of the spectrum. If we accept that everyone has different needs and interests then ultimately we fling our hands in the air and say that there is no such thing as common good, common interest. However that is simply, at its extreme, sectional interest, anarchy. Institutionalised self interest and selfishness if you like. At the other end of the continuum you end up with a totalitarian sort of view that says "I know what's good for you and even though you don't like it your'e going to get it". Neither extreme is terribly palatable but all countries of the world live at some point along that spectrum. America closer to the first than the second, China perhaps the reverse.
    Having said that, if a society is going to live together and have some sort of civilisation and humanity, then an acceptance of "common good" is fundamental. In such an approach all parties must contribute and all parties must expect to receive.
    My issue with Australian politics at the moment is that both major parties are dog whistling to the lowest common denominator - whatever the subject - and neither party are actually dealing with issues of shared contribution, humanity and care for the collective good. At least not effectively.
    Let's take asylum seekers as an example - and I've been called a hopeless bleeding heart - a disparaging term favoured by the right - on this subject. I believe that as a wealthy, developed country we owe an obligation to those less fortunate than ourselves and we owe a gift of humanity. Without that delivery of humanity it is us who are lessened and asylum seekers who are harmed. This is not necessarily a popular stance for a politician, I would argue that it's an ethical and moral stance and one that is fundamentally necessary for us as a society. It therefore demands leadership from our politicians for the good of all of us.
    Such was Keating's position on Wik and Mabo.

  2. Thanks for expanding your views, but we disagree much more than you might think.

    By "In whose interest?" I don't just mean different interests in a pluralistic sense, but the idea of class antagonisms — ones that cannot be reconciled within the framework of existing social relations. So in that sense, a "common weal" is impossible to achieve, all you can get are temporary and unstable balancing points.

    So the last 30 years has seen an unrelenting class war from above (roughly grouped under what is known as "neoliberalism"), tied to the re-assertion of right-wing discourses around nation, race & cultural conservatism. These have served the minority capitalist ruling elite by (a) shifting wealth upwards and (b) establishing ideological themes & associated policies that serve to divide ordinary people on other than class lines.

    If we are expecting better "leadership" from the political class, then we misunderstand their role in creating the current order. Indeed, if one drills down into Keating's record it is full of fine words about Indigenous rights tied to policies that actually watered down the Mabo ruling so that big business interests could be kept happy (and indeed occasionally playing to right-wing politics along the way). It was the Keating government that introduced mandatory detention of refugees in 1992.

    But, most significantly, Keating as Treasurer presided over the most sustained cutting of workers' real wages in Australian history under the Accord (over 12 percent cut in median F/T Award wages between 1983-90 by one estimate). This is also seen as a fine example of his "leadership" qualities, restoring profitability for Australia's capitalist elite. Writers like George Megalogenis tie the two kinds of "leadership" together in what is the dominant discourse on the centre-Left (see here for my critique).

    My take on why the political class' leadership has become ever more appalling is that as more people come to reject their regressive economic and social policies, they turn ever harder to the politics of divide-and-rule or simple distraction — a case of displacing social insecurity with national/border/racial/cultural insecurity — getting us to blame the "other" or a "breakdown in traditional values" rather than neoliberal policies designed explicitly for the benefit of the capitalist class.

  3. @Dr_Tad, thanks for taking the time to comment. For me, our differences are about the lenses that we use to view the world. Mine's different from yours - and neither better nor worse for it.
    I acknowledge your observations about Keating for instance, however I get to a different point when I make judgements about him and I ascribe different reasons for his actions - again simply using a different lens or analytical framework.
    If I could summarise the difference in one single "grab", from my point of view, I would say that you have a much more malign view of the actions of our politicians than I do. You ascribe malign motivation to them, whereas I tend not to.
    I hope that I'm right and you're wrong...but you certainly have me thinking.