Getting out and about in Brisbane of a morning, you’re greeted with something you’ve forgotten: this is a one-owner town, newspaper wise. Looking at a news rack and seeing The Australian and The Courier-Mail side-by-side — and nothing else — it’s a sort of parody of pluralism. Yeah, I know it’s newspapers, and having a monopoly on them is a little like cornering the spats market, no one under 30, blah blah, etc, but it’s still the way a city talks to itself, the public face of its dialogue. And yes, there’s other TV networks — supposing that they differ in any significant fashion — and the ABC, etc, but still.

There’s a pseudo-pluralism at play that still rankles — would you like the broadsheet which does Kevin Rudd slowly, or the tabloid that sinks the slipper? The Courier-Mail runs with a “Does this man ever shut up?” cover while The Daily Telegraph has a “Mr Rude”, Mr Man parody, using allegations by a make-up artist from a debate run by Sky News — a broadcaster Rupert Murdoch owns a stake in — that Rudd was a bit of a grump. Such “front pages” are nothing of the sort. They’re propaganda posters which happen to be attached to the front of a newspaper, their purpose political as much as commercial. Knowing that people don’t buy newspapers, but still see them around, they go for the microsecond hit, the fast meme. Which may be enough, when aggregated for a Coalition win, without anything else whatsoever.

Really, to talk about the election without mentioning this — the framework of information within which people will make their decision — is really to aid and abet the process. The whole country has become a leagues club owned by a monolithic media corporation; pokies in the main room, a debate going on in the entertainment lounge, the ownership and core business a series of windfalls and rents — mining, sports rights — with the ultimate ownership arrangements a matter of mystery. But to mention this every time is the pathway to madness. So the debate cannot help but be skewed, every time we tap out a line about costings or paid parental leave or whatever. That’s really the genius of Murdoch taking to Twitter — he now hides in plain sight. When he was a mysterious presence behind the scenes, speculation on his motives and power were endless. Now he simply tells us in his weird telegrammatic/spoken-word style that he wants Rudd turfed — and pretty much nothing more can be said about it.

Thus, as soon as the campaign started, the Tele was off and running with its front-page propaganda campaign (even though some of the news within is played — or delivered — straight). Two weeks later, in its major market of western Sydney — perhaps the latest place with a large, old-style working class and literate tabloid readers, out of the social media/The Project/etc carnivale loop — Labor is suddenly tanking, its numbers running well below the national average. What a surprise! What could possibly have created this sudden shift, this bifurcation in the numbers, we go. Is it the boats? Is it the negativity? Is it being mean to TV crew? We know what it is, but we can’t talk about it because that would be the politics of how we do politics, of who controls the information on which we make our decisions. Rudd quite sensibly put his marker down on Murdochracy quite early — and then left it alone, also quite sensible. Because you either run on that, and nothing else, suggest an all-encompassing undemocratic process, and risk the charge that you are sledging the umpire, or you leave it alone — and try and deal with it by a series of guerrilla tactics.

“The effect of such furious agreement on politics has been weird here. Australia must have the most policy-focused debate in the world.”

That appears to be what the Rudd campaign is doing now. When Rudd returned he seemed to be willing to, as Tad Tietze has noted, try anti-politics again, present himself as the man of the people beyond all that palaver, the only guy who could keep the crazy Labor Party under control. That was abandoned early, probably because it can’t be sustained from government. After a lost first week — perhaps a lost fortnight — which felt as if someone had opened the manila folder labelled “election strategy” and realised they’d left the contents on a train somewhere, scribbled five points down on a used envelope, hoping no one would notice (“1. Fly around a lot; 2. Errrr; 3. Gotta zip!”), Team Rudd developed a tighter schedule of visually rich, TV news eye-candy, wrapped around a series of “announceables”. They hit both marginal electorates and mildly safer ones, but with something always angled on a very sectional interest — the aged, the remote, cancer victims, etc. How much of this is due to some Team Obama advisers in the mix, and how much is native wit, is something we’ll find out afterwards. But it bears all the hallmarks of an Obama strategy, one key insight of which is this: there is no such thing as “the public” any more.

The “public sphere”, that always somewhat fictional entity, has, so the theory goes, been so sliced and diced by consumption, markets, micromedia, social media, etc, that there is no point speaking out Cassius-style any more. Instead, you accumulate leading margins among 20 or 30 subgroups, connect with them, identify with them, give them stuff, let them know you will represent them, and thereby secure their solidarity. These micro-groups don’t have to know each other, and they are as heterogeneous as a Borgesian encyclopaedia, from R&D enthusiasts to cancer survivors to people having their school closed, but that doesn’t matter. You accumulate a majority of them, you take them to the bank, and on election night, you stun everyone with the magnitude of your victory. That was the Obama method, and the only difference between that and the Rudd strategy is, as far as I can see, that, errrr, Obama was leading for six of the eight months before the election.

Such campaigns suit social movements parties — even the shrivelled version of such that Labor has become — and they start to differentiate the grassroots politics of each side, even as other things start to converge. On the morning of the public forum for example, Rudd was doing a cancer event with an announceble of $15 million, which is sparrow-feed — unless of course you’ve lost/are losing someone to the big C, are involved in support groups/are a carer/etc, in which case it is a sign that someone out there cares. Quite possibly, in our era, cancer has become your identity — more than class, gender, etc. For that period of your life it is the place from which the meaning of your life comes, for worse and better. That situation is part of a fundamental socio-cultural shift that cannot be factored into old frameworks of political understanding. It’s one reason, for example, why micro-parties such as “The Carers” proliferate — half-brave, half-forlorn, they start up (when they are not cynical fronts because people do not feel represented in their most important aspects).The Liberals have for the most part eschewed this approach, for a more traditional form of attack — unsurprising really, since they have the last newspaper empire in the world on their side. Rudd’s media appearances, run together, look like a book of kitsch Maoist-era postcards. Tony Abbott’s appearances are conducted at a series of party functions — “blue ties, blue rinse, Abbott’s blue heaven”, someone remarked on the press bus, in one of those flashes of dry wit you wont see in the press because it would harm his access to a 6am appearance at the Gympie Penguinarium with Lupus Australia — the presser done before an identikit blue scrim hoiked around for the purpose, with nothing to relieve the visuals, save for yesterday, the sight of Sophie Mirabella clearly about to throw up behind him, and excusing herself. The physical visuals are different, too. Rudd, by now, has become even more suburban in appearance, a chubby little blonde butterball with the mien of a Pymble dentist. Abbott has become leaner, hungrier, retro. He looks like a timenaut sent from the ’40s to sort out our politics. He fades to sepia before your eyes, making his pitch to a sense of national direction, of collective destiny. The narrative of looming disaster — “we cant afford three more years like the last six” — appeals to a sense of worry and impending disaster that many people feel, but which, oddly, they haven’t taken from disasters in their own lives. The country sailed through the last five years without a recession, any slowing cannot be compared to the smoking ruin of the United States or the United Kingdom in the wake of 2008, and deficit etc levels, are consistent with investment in the future, rather than a Greek-style meltdown. But of course many people don’t feel that way. Yet much of the angst comes not from real economic-social reversal, but from the perception of it in Labor, i.e. government politics.

Ironic, really. While the Gillard government was getting on with a series of big legislative programs, steadily and relentlessly, the perception was all focused on the fractiousness of Labor infighting, corruption, etc, none of which made much of an impact on the overall economy. The sad antics at the Health Services Union don’t make us Zaire, but the perception is that it does, and that sticks. When you add to that the suggestion from — once again MurdochMurdochMurdoch — that a minority government supported by independents is somehow unstable when it has been solid (whether one agrees with its policies or not) then the perception becomes one of a country flying out of control. There is then the opportunity for Abbott leading a party of neoliberals — the ultimate atomisers — to present himself as a nationalist, a unifier, a collectivist of sorts. He’s done this by an extraordinary move, which is to accept so much of Labor’s program, and then add a Scandinavian-style parental leave scheme on top of it, as to — in social policy terms — move the entire political debate leftward. No wonder his shadow cabinet are throwing up in the background; they hate so much of this, yet there’s sod all they can do about it.

Thus we have this strange election in which a vast swathe of social-democratic — or at least social-market — policy has been accepted as bipartisan, and the fight focuses on the settings and roll-out. The state and the market? Medicare: under threat until the late ’90s, now welded in. Wages and conditions? Fair Work legislation imposed on the unions by Labor, then signed up to by Abbott, after the 2007 WorkChoices drubbing. The National Broadband Network (i.e. the idea that the state should be the leading hand in infrastructure development)? An argument over to-the-door/to-the-node extension, rather than — as say you might have in the US — an argument over whether the state should do it at all, or simply minimally regulate private roll-outs. Gonski education reforms? Quantitative argument about how much of it is rolled out, not about, say, whether the state system should be turned over to a voucher/free school system versus its current behemoth process. Disability insurance? Agreed. And so on …

“So the policy debates go on, among a small political/media/clued-up public elite …”

You would have to say that — at least as far as the politics goes — in Australia, the centre-left has won a tremendous victory in the past few years, a completion of the process that began when Paul Keating saw off John Hewson’s “Fightback” program, and continued through John Howard knuckling under to Medicare, and losing government on WorkChoices. If you think this is a Pollyanna focus on what we kept rather than what we lost, I invite you to glance at the neoliberal nightmare going on in the UK at the moment, where a bunch of old Etonians are privatising a public health service most thought was concreted into the very green and pleasant land itself.

The effect of such furious agreement on politics has been weird here. Australia must have the most policy-focused debate in the world. Watching a ding-dong between Greg Hunt and Mark Baker on climate change on 7.30 last night was dizzying, like watching a seminar at a thinktank (and would have had real political difference if the Greens had been included). Australians have become so accustomed to this — even on commercial media — that they don’t notice it as strange. Nothing of the specificity of debate happens, even in the UK. In the US, well, you may as well run it in Finnish for all it would play. There is something admirable about that, about the degree to which we are being invited to choose between competing programs in some detail — but of course, the degree to which policy is actually about policy is variable indeed. For a start, when you actually start to talk to people about what they’re hearing from politicians – and there is criminally little of that done by the MSM at these staged events, a casualty of the instant-file and 24 hour online news culture – then you see that most of this policy chat simply washes away like water on rocks. And that is not a criticism of the public because the whole point of policy is that it is designed by specialists to deal with complex situations and possibilities. Politics is not about the specifics of “fibre to the node/fibre to the door” — it’s about the general question of whether the state should be the lead agent of reconstructing our whole infrastructure, or the market should be. And beneath that, about how much technology we want in our lives in the first place, and whether it promises more freedom, or increased control.

So the policy debates go on, among a small political/media/clued-up public elite — not the pseudo-elite promulgated by Nick Cater whereby every aromatherapist with a Celtic tattoo has more power than Gina Rinehart, but the real elite, wired to material power, who make these decisions. Trying to do policy while appearing to do politics, both major parties put a spin on technical and procedural choices, to give them the appearance of a contest of values, ideas and integrity. The bizarre game of political twister over paid parental leave is a case in point. Parental leave should be something advanced by Labor as a basic condition of freedom, indispensable to lessening gender inequality — by simply acknowledging the policy should go where the sentiment does, which is that people love children, love having them, is the most meaningful event in their life, etc. Any discussion beyond that, about ideal workplace arrangements, etc, isn’t material liberation, it’s socio-cultural engineering on behalf of the economy. That’s why Abbott’s scheme, wildly uncosted, has gained such expansive public support — not merely because of what it offers individually, but because the airiness of the commitment acknowledges the moral imperative implicit within it. Abbott did it from the Right, with a familialist spin. Labor now has to oppose a liberatory initiative from the Left, based on the small number of very high income earners who would get a free kick from it. Nothing better expresses what happens when we stop doing politics, and do policy as politics.

Moreover we do it within an arena that shapes the limits of politics/policy absolutely, excluding a wider debate. The suspicion would be that the Coalition is simply following the David Cameron playbook to the letter — smiling, agreeing with a leftist social market arrangement, and hoping against hope they get control of the Senate so that they can then drive a truck through the front-window NT-style. If you want to see what we might get, check out the Institute of Public Affair’s 75-point wish-list.

But beyond that, we are going to have to widen out the frame to do real politics in the future, so that the audience can see the full extent of the leagues club, the logos and quiet men in suits, running the whole thing from the back of the room. Not this time though, not in the last half, when the power monolith has got so exasperated with us, that it now simply tells us to “shut up”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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