Years ago, Peter Costello did one of those 20 questions-type interviews — last time you laughed, what was the breed of puppy you were torturing at the time, etc, etc — to make him look more human. Tough stuff, when you’re one of those shape-shifting lizards that rule us secretly, and he didn’t make it any easier with this exchange:

Q: What’s your favourite pub?

A: Oh God, look, it’s years since I’ve been into a pub …

Which came to mind last week, when everyone was prattling on about how Bill Shorten had failed the “pub test”. In other words, a whole section of the political/media caste were trying to apply some test of ordinariness, and acceptability, based on something they almost never do: go to a pub.

It’s a long time since Bob Hawke ran the ACTU and the country from the front bar of the John Curtin, or the Herald was put together in the front bar of the beloved Phoenix (demolished by hipster hoons, sadly). Today’s Australia is divided between those who maintain a rigorous control of their lives — which includes most of the political/media caste, subsisting on mineral water and yoga — and the rest, who don’t, one subset of which is “people in the pub”.

“The pub test” is thus not something that the political/media caste can rely on as something lived. It’s already anthropology and projection, like asking what so-and-so’s mob will say or the Sydney Greek Orthodox synod. It posits a “real” world of Australians meeting face to face, and attributes to them a certain set of attitudes, based on an assumed naivete: “Hey, Bill Shorten can’t fund his intra-union struggles via a questionable deal with a foreign company! That’s not the sort of thing we simple folk do! Let’s all clog dance!”

What people in the pub actually think about the Shortenanigans, thus, has nothing to do with actual pub talk, but about it being a simple “other” to the streamlined pseudo-politics of our era. But of course people in the pub aren’t “the people”, either. The idea that “the pub” is some sort of repository of mainstream Australian activity. In the past decades, pub attendance in Australia has plummeted — as has the number of actual pubs.

It’s been quite a while since Australia had a genuine pub culture that matched that of a genuine example of the thing — the UK, for example, where everyone has a “local”, and where, when a village loses its pub as a commercial venture, it is revived as a community asset, collectively run as a non-profit. Even a younger bar-oriented generation tend to have a “local” and see it as a place, a forum, something you maintain by regular attendance, and thus it does become a real forum of sorts.

Such a culture depends on two things: urban density, and the limited use of the car. Suburbanisation does not necessarily kill it, but the general use of the car does. It becomes easier to go from work to home. The pub becomes a specific detour rather than a drop-in, and then it stops being that. And then it closes down. Through the inner city you can note the hundreds of shuttered pubs by the distinctive architecture — the larger buildings on corners, longer run of windows, now houses for lawyers.

But it’s happened further out, too. You just don’t see it, because pubs of the middle-ring of suburbs of cities are simply gone, demolished without trace. They weren’t helped early on by the introduction of six o’clock closing in some states, from WWI to the 1960s — but they revived after that. They began to decline again when social patterns changed, and the era of the suburban big-barn pubs rose and fell.

Yeah, of course Australians go to pubs — but mostly, Australians go home. We were the most urbanised country on Earth, then the most suburbanised, and now we are the most podded. We go to work, we go home, we watch big screens, occasionally we go out, that’s it. Our arena of social life is extremely mediated, which is one reason why crazy pseudo-issues can take off and run for weeks. There is no central focus, no res pub, to clear it away. The incessant reference to the “pub test” is a sign that it doesn’t mean much.

Which is one reason why Bill Shorten is in the clear over the union stuff. Yeah, the whole idea of unions taking direct payments from business to fund intra-union campaigns, while at the same time making deals “on behalf of” their workers, is pure crap. But the idea that unions like the AWU are some sort of genuine workers’ public institution is of a piece with the “pub test”. The AWU is a state/corporate behemoth, locked into the process of system reproduction, no more the property of its members than this country is a “commonwealth”.

People who are “members” of the AWU have the same relationship to it as they do to “their” pub. For decades, from the moment they start work they have their fees deducted at source, see an occasional rep, and — for millions — have no clear idea what a union does. The office-bearers, and even the reps, are uni-educated student politicians making their bones, who have no relation to the workplace. The chance of voting on a deal with any real information about it is nil. The difference between the presence and absence of a union may be real, but the appearance of it is often nil.

So the idea that Shorten’s funding of his internal politicking would be a shock to people is of the same self-serving romanticism of the “pub test”. It’s something that the left-liberal media/political caste love to do — pretend that real politics exist somewhere, and that this mass-produced, complicit, bureaucratic shoehorning of the people into a smooth process is the anomaly rather than the rule.

People aren’t going to assess Bill Shorten on whether he passes the pub test or not. They’re going to make a decision between one or other of the lizards, and what their parties are offering, which is why the outfit led by Shorten — the political equivalent of a wank sock — continues to lead 52-48. This is not an example of the people being fooled, it’s an example of them not being fooled. They know that Shorten and Abbott have far more in common with each other than they have with anyone voting for them, and they’re not fussed by the fake outrage of a royal commission into trade unions. The pub test has far more to do with the mythologies the caste need to live by than with anything really happening.

Peter Fray

Inoculate yourself against the spin

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and protect yourself against news that goes viral.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today to get your first 12 weeks for $12 and get the journalism you need to navigate the spin.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW