As a secondary student of the Hawke-Keating era, I attended a state school with a budget ample enough not only to fund the leased tubas of a terrible brass band but teachers bright enough to describe the political system that had made our education possible. I think it was Mrs Tan who taught us a very straight “democracy” unit where she told us over and over again that it was the primary job of our government to collect and redistribute revenue. We should vote, she said, not for the man who seemed the nicest but the one who was best at maths. Her view of politics as an essentially algorithmic force and not, as many voters now suspect, a moral one stayed with me, and I have always preferred the candidate who collects and spends judiciously. “Politicians should be good calculators,” she said, and it was this view, then more broadly shared, that allowed Paul Keating, a human abacus, primacy for so long.
Since the 1980s, we have begun to value politicians less for their mathematical skill than their moral appearance. Government is now seen less as a public service than it is a Big Other; this has long been the case on the Right, with conservative voters preferring a Father Knows Best tough-love politician in the style of Joe Hockey, but is now also the case on the “Left” with organisations like GetUp wooing us with a daddy morality and urging us to vote for the papa who seems the kindest.
On both sides we now vote less with our rational minds than with our superegos, and we do not ask so frequently as once we did “is he good with sums?” but “is he good?” We care less that a politician is a calculator and more that he is a parent with the correct values. Or, really, the correct brand. This new superego-led fascination for the goodness of politicians allows many, for example, on the putatively progressive side of politics to presume that Malcolm Turnbull, a former director of Goldman Sachs and out-and-out supply-side guy, would make a better prime minister than Tony Abbott. His brand seems softer and nicer. The electorate care less about economic policy, or skill with calculation, than it cares about the brand of calculator. But, as Mrs Tan would affirm, it really doesn’t matter if Mal is a Texas Instruments or a Casio machine. It’s the sums — and these are identical in the case of Turnbull and Abbott — that are important.
But, now, parties are led by polls rather than factions, personality rather than debate and brand instead of policy. That just about every Lib will work on the same unjust equations is irrelevant so long as the party and the electorate see a difference in the brand.
Brand choice for consumers is often little more than a paralysing illusion. We have the sense as we browse the shelves for the right product that we are liberated by the market when, in fact, we are trapped and distracted by the money and time we spend in selecting the thing that seems just right for us. The product that we eventually purchase is going to have the use-value. But the experience of purchase gives us the delusion of freedom and its new synonym, choice.
Leading up to a potential spill, I like to make sure I have a lot of coffee so I don’t miss a minute of the real-time drama. A little over-tired at the supermarket, I looked at the paralysing range of available caffeine and I began to idly compare Lib contenders to different coffee brands. When it struck me that Bishop, slick, convenient but lacking in flavour depth and potentially bad for the environment, was a Nespresso pod, I found I couldn’t help but continue.
Looking for Pyne on the shelves, we find him in the tea section. He lacks the force of coffee and is Twinings. Probably something conventional, unpopular and fragrant like orange pekoe. Served with skim milk. And Michaelia Cash. Well, she’s that once-popular but now discounted sugary hazelnut flavouring that makes regular coffee irregularly nauseating. Mal Brough promises value but offers a bolt of tepid milk, and so is a mug-o-cino served at a down-at-heel mall cafe.
Brandis, for his expensive tastes in fixtures, is not even available in supermarkets. He is kopi luwak: elite and costly with recycled ideology shot out of a civet’s arse. And Bernardi, from whom the church profits, just has to be Gloria Jean’s.
Hockey is cold-drip filter. He is icy and tasteless but still inexplicably popular on the lower north shore. Morrison is International Roast: we know he tastes bad, but his contents are a mystery.
Abbott is clearly Moccona. Everybody has tried him but nobody really wants him in their home anymore. His keenest competitor — who does not “canvas” for numbers but merely “talks” — is a chic and subtle choice like single origin. His brand seems to point to some kind of refined justice but is actually just a bit hip, progressive and posh. Or, maybe, single origin at Starbucks. He offers us lavish descriptions of the same old shit but does so with a promise of free wi-fi that never really works as well as we hope it will. Possibly to a soundtrack of Bruno Mars.
They’re all bad for our health. They’ll all keep us awake and anxious once we have consumed them. But the illusion that we have a choice will keep us, and the party, momentarily entertained.