Tony Abbott and the Coalition are currently leading by 10-14 points 2PP, a lead that hasn’t changed for the best part of a year. Their triumph is easy to explain: the government narrowly won a second term by promising not to introduce a carbon tax, and was then obliged by two newly elected Green and independent Green supporters to do so, as the price of a coalition. The deal won them three years of government and may damn them for a decade hence.

Other factors have helped — their farcical handling of the refugee issue, the leaderlessness of a government now composed entirely of needy apparatchiks — but the carbon tax appears to have sunk them. Paradoxically, it will be their historical triumph; if a post-Labor Senate can lock it in, then it will be, for the Gillard government, a monument — and like all monuments, testimony to a burial. Such is life, and the other thing.

But this fate is a potential disaster for an organisation that for decades has been woven into the fabric of Australian life. I speak of course of News Limited. As its complementary grey pseudo-Stalinist apparatchiks watch the Coalition surge towards a victory that is, if not guaranteed, then at least theirs for the losing, the battered supplicants of Surry Hills are left with the dilemma, once expressed in the 19th century by The Spectator contemplating worker co-operatives — “but what place for Master?”

In 2007, Labor won power without the support of News Ltd. In 2010 it narrowly retained it, and the Greens surged to the level of solid third party, despite News Ltd campaigns against both that can only be described as psychotic. Now, News Ltd adds its usual shenanigans, but it isn’t the main game — the turn against Labor is based on a feeling out there, about actual things it does, unmediated by news stories.

News Ltd is feeling its aches and pains, something that can be seen from recent coverage. As the Coalition plateaued, it began a campaign for Abbott and co. to reintroduce some form of WorkChoices as a policy, to which one can only say, yes, yes, yes please. We agree entirely with this gambit. Do it tomorrow, and watch the Australian people reject it afresh. Feed the perpetual fantasy that Australians entirely assent to the economic liberal-social conservative quinella, when they never have.

Give Labor, improbably, another term. But Abbott, or his advisers, are unlikely to do it, much as they would like to. WorkChoices destroyed not merely Howard, but to a degree his memory. No Menzies II, he became instead the schmuck who lost his own seat to a female ABC journalist*.

Now, we are so thoroughly into the smooth post-political mainstream that News Ltd has discovered a problem: even its manufacture of scandal makes little difference to the atomised, partial, unsynthesisable process by which large numbers of people make up their minds when they come to vote, that activity wedged into the spaces — schools, church halls, etc — between the malls and freeways, an activity that increasingly feels like a bush-dance, some vaguely remembered and embarrassing tradition it seems important to keep up, for reasons that have been lost.

Its columnists bleat about competitive advantage, labour productivity, etc, etc, even as the Abbott coalition plots its erratic course — one in which it manages to borrow policies that should have been Labor’s, such as real paid parental leave (not Labor’s offer, of a couple of sick days in the stirrups), and rebrand them as a conservative, familialist move. They did it again on refugees, managing to be  hard-ass and compassionate in rejecting the Malaysian solution, a pretty miraculous move. Yes, yes, News Ltd helped, amplified, but it was the Coalition driving it.

Perhaps that’s why, in recent days, News Ltd has come to call, reminding the coalition of the role it played in earlier king making. That’s the only way to read Paul Kelly’s article today, in which he urges on the Coalition to make a political issue of … free speech, and the Bolt decision. Yeah, that would be the go. Leading by a clear margin on all fronts, they should take on a case that takes half an hour to explain to anyone who isn’t across it.

You wouldn’t want to underestimate this. Reading Kelly is like checking Konstantin Chernenko’s face, c. February 1985. Each twitch is not without significance, not least as a sign of life. The piece is an attempt to call in some old debts, but also an unmistakable sense of relevance deprivation. As News Ltd stares at years of global pressure, and perhaps global break-up, in Australia it is feeling keenly the dangers that the parliamentary inquiry into the media might provide. Critics have charged that this is a fishing expedition: it is, but teach a man to fish and you feed him for life, as the old saying has it.

The combination of UK hackgate, Bolt’s judgment, Manne’s “Bad News” and the stray moral felonies of the group are enough to tie it up for a long time, and, more importantly, feed into international fora, where Murdoch has not yet been given a 70% print media control BY A LABOR GOVERNMENT.

Kelly’s suggestion — it is the head piece of a campaign that has been under way since the Bolt judgment — is that the Coalition would entirely submit itself to the interests of News Ltd, which are simultaneously financial and ideological. And as with WorkChoices, those of us who support Labor like we support Collingwood — in failure, through clenched teeth, expecting defeat snatched from the oesophegus of victory — rejoice . Yes, please, please, assume that the Australian mainstream are as inward looking and obsessed as you are. Presume that the Vietnamese-Australians of Cabramatta, the second-generation wogs of all cities, most of whom want a stern refugee policy, etc, etc, also subscribe to the agenda of a Dutch-Australian neo-Calvinist chancer, whom even Kelly says “should not have been published”.

As with the WorkChoices campaign it fundamentally misunderstands the alignment of political enthusiasms in the mass population, the News Ltd elites having convinced themselves that they really relate to the suburbs. People who want to stop the boats, don’t buy into Bolt’s weird and creepy campaign, a cobweb of the worst of Europe, to test identity by skin-privilege; his blog readership is 100,000 dying Anglos, whom the News Ltd management live in thrall to, because (as with Fairfax) they would rather affirm their myths than succeed in a changed environment.

What keeps Australian politics interesting is that the values of the mainstream follow no easy path; in many ways nothing has changed since the sepia mutton chop days of the Harvester judgment, and the plaintive tone of News Ltd is the sound that has been heard for a century — why won’t Australians realise they would be better off as Americans, with their 25% working poor, their permanent deflation, and their dead cities, the product of free enterprise.

But the xenophobia has not changed much too, it has merely, as regards its anxieties, recalibrated — the yellow peril become queue jumpers. Yet what one can read from this is not a deep-seated xenophobia, but a random one — as long as many people are given a hate object, they will let the immigrants stream in. Paradoxically, and unavoidably, no one did more to break the back of Anglo Australia than the Howard government — the comprehensive economic immigration that occurred while boat-borne refugees were tied to a pole and whipped as a scapegoat, is a testament  to the deep cynicism of the Howard-Costello centre as regards the myth they peddled to their addled periphery, and to the cruelty with which they exercised it on the few thousand victims whose lives they felt were worth the ticket.

But they succeeded admirably. It was the Howard era that cemented a multiracial, multicultural Australian (albeit one based on economic access rather than need) because it came from the other side. The Slap, especially the TV series, is a celebration of Howardism — it honours an Australia in which people can hate each other because of differences over parenting styles, rather than skin, race or who put who in which camp whenever.

Australia: radical and deeply conservative, swinging from pole to pole, simultaneously at both ends, a quantum modernity. Labor, had it the wit and the audacity, and been free of the hall-of-mirrors of polling, could have understood that. It could have inaugurated onshore processing — i.e. accepting refugees pursuing their legal rights — but been stern about the exercise of it. It could have accepted gay marriage, and the fuss would have been over in two weeks, because let’s face it, half of Australia’s conservatives would have been so busy going to their ex-lovers’ newly legal weddings they wouldn’t have had time to write column 1021 on “traditional values”.

Look at how Obama ushered in Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, as afterthought, as barely a speed bump. Whitlam did that, the dandy-poet leading the ALP, holding it together, reconciling the “trendies” with the workers, winning power and a mandate, and a social transformation. Yet, on the occasion of the Whitlam oration, PM Gillard, an unmarried childless Labor lifer, a Rubashov, with nothing outside the party, and a kitchen like Antarctica, decided to say that the Greens — which included her ex-colleagues, and more, from student politics — didn’t love their families. To which the only real response is, go back to your cold house in 2013, and see who returns your calls. I’m not the only one for whom, at that point, the ALP was over and done.

Now, the remnants of the Left of that party, like Kim Carr demand support — and begin an article on irrationalism (again in The Oz), not with right-wing climate change denialists, but with accounts of a few Greens. So the basic solidarity between the two classes that sustained modern Labor — a progressive working class, a left-liberal inner city class — is sundered, even by the last person that left people placed some hope in. To which the only response now is, f-ck you. Die in a ditch, and get back to us. The only game for the left now, electorally, is for the Greens. Take whatever seats can be had in the House, and hunker down in the Senate, preparing for the inevitable assault on its quotas, on PR, on the whole basis by which minor parties exist. Wait for the moment when they start this.

This opportunity, this crisis, was Labor’s to win, to make its own. Beyond the personal limits of the people involved was their political limits — that they are so laced into a global culture of transnational capitalist leadership — taking in free trade, the ILO, the corporations, and more beside — that they could not think outside of it, outside of the first-class lounge. But they are not alone, as the compass-spinning that passes for editorial direction at News Ltd demonstrates, as does the desperate opportunism of the Coalition.

No one has a clue what the score is — save those of us who have been suggesting that the whole global system was a crock since the early ’90s — and no one has a clue what to do. This will all hit Australia when it becomes clear that China has the same accounting practices as Greece. At which point the question of what Andrew Bolt said about who, when, will become as distant to memory as … the Rudd government …

*(Howard has emerged from the premiership leaner, fitter, younger, as everyone has observed; but he is already fading in the memory. Keating was destroyed by the ordeal and its aftermath but lives on. As Winnicott, I think, noted, if a great love does not destroy you, smash you to pieces, then you never really loved in the first place).

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey