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Aug 23, 2011

What motivates the Parl house rallies?

Do the right-wing rallies that have proliferated here this year have anything to do with protest movements elsewhere? Well, one in particular...

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Quite a bit of effort is being devoted to explaining why, from the Arab Spring to the London riots, from suddenly Eurosceptic Europeans to the Tea Party, governments everywhere are under siege.

Thomas Friedman, he of the most laughable piece on the Arab Spring in the entire Western commentariat, tried recently to manufacture a “theory of everything” to argue it was all about — sitting down? — globalisation and communications technology. The year 2000 called and wants its copy of The Lexus and the Olive Tree back, Tom.

More usefully, Reuters’s Felix Salmon has talked of a massive collapse in consent and trust in governments. Nouriel Roubini, warning of the possibility of a depression, said “recent popular demonstrations, from the Middle East to Israel to the UK, and rising popular anger in China — and soon enough in other advanced economies and emerging markets — are all driven by the same issues and tensions: growing inequality, poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness.”

It’s rather a long bow, but at some point someone may make the effort to link up the Convoy of No Confidence, the anti-carbon tax protests and efforts such as last week’s anti-gay marriage rally with this wave of worldwide discontent. There is a connection, of course, but it’s only with the Tea Party in the US, in the apeing of tactics, the cultivation and manipulation of a grassroots movement by media figures and wealthy conservatives (whether the Koch brothers or Gina Rinehart) and shared platforms of climate denialism .

But similar demographics also keep recurring with these groups, and it’s interesting to think about why. The Tea Party is characterised by middle-aged or older, conservative, white, middle- or higher-income people, more often male than female. That’s exactly the demographic for climate denialists in Australia and, judging by those who have turned up to the no-carbon tax rallies, similar to that group as well.

There’s some overlap with the demographics that characterised One Nation voters — who tended to be middle-aged (but not, despite the stereotype, old) middle-income and religious. But One Nation members tended to be poorly educated (Tea Party members are better educated than most Americans) and were primarily regional.

That’s why there’s no link with what’s happening elsewhere. It’s isn’t comfortably-off middle-aged white men breaking into Foot Locker in London.

Why the shared demographics between here and the US? What’s interesting about the Tea Party and the various rally movements that have emerged in Australia is that both have only done so since Barack Obama became president and Julia Gillard became Prime Minister. Moreover, they’ve emerged despite Australia and the US being almost polar opposites in terms of economic performance.

While the Tea Party (particularly where it overlaps with the birther movement) contains racist elements and there’s a strain of misogyny in the attacks on Gillard, I suggest these groups aren’t driven by overt racism or sexism. The participants in such groups are unlikely to be any more racist or sexist than the rest of us.

Instead, the motivating force behind these groups appears to be more about expressing resentment about social and economic change in recent decades, and particularly because such changes have delivered nothing but difficulties for the demographics we’re talking about: social change has undermined the once-dominant status of older white heteros-xual people and males in particular, and, in the Australian context, economic changes have squeezed them, along with everyone else, into a far more competitive, market-based economy that no longer delivers the sort of certainty they grew up with and that Generation X, in particular, never had.

For such people, Gillard’s gender (and unmarried status) or  Obama’s race are not so much a problem as a high-profile, indeed inescapable, symbol of how much the world has changed and changed in ways that deliver nothing but pain for such people. That’s why they elicit such fury, not because of innate s-xism or racism.

This resentment of change and sense of persecution at the hands of broader socio-economic forces perhaps explains another commonality of such groups,  here and in the US: a conviction that they are being repressed and censored. There’s plenty to be concerned about when it comes to the state of free speech in Australia. But when right-wing rallies receive massive media coverage out of all proportion to the number of attendees, the claim rings hollow.

And sure, it’s a staple of the Left that the mainstream media is biased and right-wing, and conservatives always think the media’s full of trendy left-wing journalists. But in the case of the recent rallies, it has a peculiarly personal flavour of persecution to it. And it had its most absurd expression yesterday in the sight of Alan Jones, a rich, old, white, conservative male and thus the perfect — OK, near-perfect — rally spokesman (though alas, Alan, you were only following in the tyre tracks of the truckies’ mate, John Laws), inventing a wholly fictitious claim that the AFP had stopped trucks outside the ACT. That is, the miserable numbers at the rally weren’t because people disagreed or weren’t interested, but because the federal authorities had stopped them.

This claim about “censorship” is now a regular argument of right-wing groups or commentators, and often expressed along the lines that any criticism or even inconvenient factual reporting of its claims is an abrogation of free speech — that is, the “right to free speech” is now supposed to encompass a right to be heard without any counter-argument or undesirable coverage.

Sophie Mirabella attempted this pre-emptively ahead of the rally yesterday, using News Ltd’s opinion platform to accuse “freedom of  speech-loving journalists” of trying to “find an offensive placard, to photograph someone looking unhinged” as a way to deter free expression — even of politicians themselves (who as we know lack their own platform to say whatever they like and get national coverage). Mirabella herself made the comparison with the Tea Party, claiming “the same uneasiness was revealed in the way the US media reacted to the Tea Party movement. Protest, it seems, is the preserve of the left.”

Evidently Mirabella doesn’t read too much US political coverage. The coverage of the Tea Party by the US mainstream media has been a publicist’s dream, and a critical part of its success in swaying the Republican Party’s political tactics — exhibit 1, the “Democrats are just a recalcitrant as Republicans” tone of the debt ceiling debacle.

Sometimes the demands for free speech are a cover or precursor for attacks on critics. In July, the Australian Christian Lobby withdrew from a debate on same-s-x marriage in Tasmania, insisting that one of its members had been “slurred” by the “gay rights lobby”. “For many these concepts are precious, even sacred, and people with those views should be free in this society to raise them in the public square without intimidation,” said Jim Wallace.

Last week’s anti-same-sex marriage rally at Parliament House, convened by the “National Marriage Coalition”, of which the ACL is a founding member, then featured US speaker Rebecca Hagelin who compared same-sex marriage to polygamy and “marriages” between paedophiles and children (imagine the stir if a visiting progressive had compared heteros-xual marriage to rape). And what better example than Alan Jones, angered by a straightforward and appropriate question about fees from journalist Jacqueline Maley yesterday, gallantly trying to incite the gathering against her? Perhaps Maley, being, you know, a woman, and deemed a “leftist” by one participant, was the nearest they could get to Gillard.

The trick is, these groups aren’t motivated by any particular issues, however angry they may be about a carbon price or taxes. The issues are mere tokens. It’s more about them and their resentment that the world has changed on them in ways they don’t like and don’t feel comfortable with. It’s the sense of persecution that comes from no longer occupying a privileged position in society but instead having to cope with life just like everyone else.

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125 thoughts on “What motivates the Parl house rallies?

  1. Perry Gretton

    Interesting that this article appears immediately after the lead in the newsletter in which Crumb’s accurate observation features: “One can see in this example how skilled media professionals with low standards of integrity are able to mould and manipulate public opinion, popular beliefs and, ultimately, the direction of politics. The majority of the population in most places is not alert to this kind of deceptive manipulation. They are more or less defenceless against such clever ‘perception management’.”

    The Coalition of the Credulous, addressed by the misogynist rabble rouser Alan Jones, are ripe for this kind of manipulation. I’m older than most of them, yet do not feel adversely affected by the changing times, perhaps because I have a sceptical disposition.

  2. Jimmy

    “It’s more about them and their resentment that the world has changed on them in ways they don’t like and don’t feel comfortable with”
    It seems to me that any movement towards a more socially responsible and equitable society is treated as communism by the likes of Jones, the Tea Party and the organisers of this rally.
    The American rights mantra of “everyman for themselves” seems to be prevading Australian society more and more.

  3. Charles Richardson

    “But One Nation members tended to be poorly educated” – did they really? One Nation voters, yes, but I’d be less sure about members, and because of compulsory voting I don’t think you can directly compare voters here & in the US.

    “The participants in such groups are unlikely to be any more racist or sexist than the rest of us.” Research suggests that’s definitely not true of the Tea Partiers, & I doubt it’s true of the convoy of no consequence either.

  4. Jillian Blackall

    I also think there is a strong partisan element, hatred of the ALP & Greens, but that could be a result of the factors described here.

  5. Suzanne Blake

    Bernard,

    These people are motivated by anger. They don’t get a hearing from their local MP, they feel the Government are not listening, despite the overwhelming feedback from various sources.

    I wrote to my local MP twice about a small business issues, and the PM and Minister and Shadows. It got the thanks for your letter response and 4 months later got a pathetic letter from Minister’s office, that did not answer the issues and looks like a standard issue letter. I must say I got a similar letter from Shadows, just saying they would raise in Parliament at the right time. Unsure if that happened.

    All you have to do is look at the polls, “leader” satisfaction and letters to editor to see Australia is in major problem. We are being laughed at by people who read widely overseas, as some of my business contacts remind me of.

    So…………no wonder there is an overwhelming call for an election.

  6. Margaret Kerr

    To be simplistic, perhaps the Alan Jones and his followers are just really, really bad losers who, not having won at the ballot or its subsequent tie break, will keep throwing tantrums until they get what they want. Too bad there isn’t a naughty corner to send them to.

  7. Andrew McIntosh

    The copying of American tactics seems right because culturally Australia has been copying everything US since the last war. It would have to be a factor, at least. It’s not just the right that are into copying overseas tactics, either. The radical left have for decades as well, although I’ve noticed more a tendency to favour British and European tactics rather than North American. Witness so-called “black blocs” at some large rallies.

    In a way, it makes sense to take note of tried and practised methods from overseas and adopt them here, rather than take the time to think and develop new ways. We’ve always identified with the larger anglo powers than anything else, including anything unique. Taking a simple political concept and swapping “Australia” for “America” is about the easiest thing to do, and has the most appeal to easy thinkers rather than anything more original.

  8. Simon

    Great article, Bernard, but the line about resentment of how the world has changed seems a little to easy and convenient. Maybe it is right, but I can’t think how anyone after a certain age doesn’t feel insecure at how the world has passed them by. Why this is happening now can’t just come down to the eroding of privilege. These guys are rentseekers – are they complaining about being done over by other rentseekers? i.e. the younger middle class families with an over-sized mortgage living somewhere west of sydney? I don’t know. This bears more analysis.

  9. Jimmy

    Jillian – I was talking to a bloke the other day who thinks this is the worst govt in Australian history and the carbon tax is going to be terrible for Australia.
    He thought the scientists & economists didn’t know what they were talking about and said “the people are right.
    I pointed out theat weh Howard brought in the GST “the people” were against that (he actually lost the popular vote) but it turned out be be a good thing, he diagreed and stated that the GST “is killing business”. So i asked, “did you vote against for the ALP in that election then?” but he vehemently said “No, the GST was just the price you had to pay for good govt!”

    So yes you are 100% correct, these people would vote Liberal no matter what policy the liberals had (in this case one rally organiser said she wanted a govt that got back to “market based” economics while opposing Gillars carbon policy) or what policy the ALP had. It’s the old “only the liberals can manage the economy argument” despite the fact that the current liberals need to find $70b in savings just to fund promisies they have already made.

  10. ralph

    This is the same lot who argued that anyone who disagreed with John Howard was a “Howard Hater”. The supposed Howard Haters don’t hold a candle to the poisonious rantings of this lot against Julia Gillard and the Greens.

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