Shhhhh! You might not have noticed it, but this week the federal government changed the country’s policy on infrastructure. Big deal, but it went quietly. The pivot point? Turnbull released $1.5 billion in federal funds to the Victorian government for transport projects as determined by the Andrews state government. The money was originally earmarked for the East West Link, which the Victorian people decisively and unequivocally rejected at the last election.
The Abbott government held the money back, less as part of complex federal-state re-provisioning but in their capacity as the last-ever student politics government — the rugger-bugger SRC withholding the queer officer’s salary out of sheer pique. Turnbull has come to the amazing conclusion that the duly elected government should determine its own priorities, and also that blackmailing a state to build a road it doesn’t want is a less-than-optimum re-election strategy for the Victorian Liberal Party, the diamante in the cardboard crown. It came in the same week that Turnbull appointed a new chief scientist who expressed his enthusiasm for a target of zero fossil fuels output.
Together, they form part of the new direction the Turnbull government is taking — which is, as I noted earlier, not towards the left, but towards simple rationality and external focus. In case we needed a reminder of what we were coming out of, Mr Tony turned up in London last week to do the last two years in rapid dell’arte dumb show before an invited audience. The whole act — the narcissism, delusion and private narrative — reminded us all of an important truth: governments take on the personality of their leaders, even if the personalities do not change over completely.
Abbott’s “opposite of a victory lap” as it was called, reminded us of one other thing: much of the political opposition and renewal of left or liberal pushback in the past two years was brought into being by the Abbott government. Having promised a cautious quasi-Labor program and government by adults, their right-wing freak show gave many people no choice but to wearily return to the barricades once more. With Abbott gone, and Turnbull in, this oppositionality may well all but disappear. Turnbull’s path to hegemony and a multi-term tenure comes not from moving to the centre or the left, but from simply allowing many people to stop having to care about politics, and to return to their private lives. Whole sections of the right haven’t got this. It’s hilarious to see someone like Planet Janet Albrechtsen suggest to Turnbull that he consolidate himself by opening up the 18C issue again. It’s precisely by consenting to statist multiculturalism as a dominant value that he’ll make himself indispensable to the party’s re-election chances.
Turnbull’s elevation comes at a time when a deeper social and cultural shift is underway, a fundamental process of class realignment. For half a century, a recognisable and unified working class has been in alliance with a small class of cultural producers, known at various stages as “bohemians”, “trendies”, “elites” etc. To draw them to Labor in the 1960s, Whitlam and those around him took a one-time nativist socialist party and turned it into a social democratic-social liberal alliance. That alliance lasted so long as to seem natural and inevitable, even though there were obvious contradictions between a class of people whose orientation was cosmopolitan and global and a larger class whose values sprang from local, parochial and more grounded lives.
“Turnbull can pull off what many Australians have been asking for: the chance to switch off politics, out of a satisfaction that we are being sufficiently well-governed.”
Long story short, the working class has fragmented into sub-groups with contrary interests, at the same time as the culture-knowledge-policy (CKP) producers group has become so large and so powerful as to constitute a class in its own right. Its members know they are central, not marginal, to the Australian economy, and to its culture and government at all levels. They feel their values — liberal equality in all its manifestations — to be true values, and dissent from them to be a matter of simple backwardness. They always have. What they used to have, and don’t now, was a matching belief in left-wing economic policies — public ownership, sharply graduated taxation, public housing, etc. For three decades that match-up was taken for a given. But now, anything resembling a social-democratic politics has fallen into abeyance. Liberal social issues and the environment have become the whole of such class politics. There remains a commitment to what are often called “social market” or ordoliberal politics — a progressive tax system that will pay for a welfare state whose role is limited to doing what the market can’t.
That political-cultural shift has occurred at the same time as the ALP has turned back to what one might call the “social democracy of fools” — a clientalist statism, which lurches from soapbox worker nativism to the sharing economy to neo-protectionism, sometimes all in the course of a week. None of it is guided by a strategy for progressivism in the new world — and none of it is even remotely impressive to many of the culture-knowledge-policy class. Nor is it impressive to the new top strata of the working-middle class, holders of capital in the form of property, super, cars, boats, etc, etc. The disaster of the Abbott government sent people from both these groups back to the ALP, however shambolic it was, giving them a 40% primary vote. Now that Abbott has passed, they have departed again and Labor has fallen back to 35% and may sink further.
They will do so especially if Turnbull can pull off what many Australians have been asking for, demanding: the chance to switch off politics not out of disgust or apathy, but out of a satisfaction that we are being sufficiently well-governed to allow attention to return to family, work, friends, life in general. They will accept a climate change policy that is mostly useless but not derived from the Book of Revelation; a refugee policy that uses cruelty as deterrence, but not with grotesque inefficiency; an economic policy that does nothing about the rising levels of inequality, lack of opportunity, dominance by the rich, and underinvestment in the future, but is not constructed out of a set of private obsessions and score-settling.
That Turnbull could get back a section of the working-middle class was obvious. But we are now in a situation where he can quietly put to sleep many of the remnant leftist impulses of the CKP class. The older half, in their 50s and 60s, are not going to keep banging on about a politics that has disappeared, and the younger half, the rising cohort, don’t have any knowledge of it. They have lived in the total market their whole lives. By and large they see politics as something that happens within it, about identity and culture. They won’t vote Liberal — not yet — but between elections, as far as any sort of activism — even the minimal activism of the online world — many will simply stop. In their hearts, they’ll have a sneaking gratitude that they can turn to other matters.
Should Turnbull achieve that, then he will have created a structural shift in Australian politics, from which dividends will flow (to him; dividends always do). Howard permitted a broad working-middle class to be “comfortable and relaxed” about the society they lived in. Turnbull is permitting many of the CKP class to feel the same about a centre-right Australia — to acknowledge to themselves that they no longer have that much in common with the class, and its party, they marched into the future with, out of the end of the Menzies era. The Greens understand this — some of them, anyway — which is why they are reconstructing their politics. Labor better, fast.
Turnbull’s next project, I would imagine, will be a selective purge of the party’s right — not enough to prompt revolt. Just a series of political disappearances, which thins the numbers and demoralises them, while still giving them sufficient stake in the party not to leave it and form some saddo hard-right group. Which would increase his and the party’s appeal further. That’s his road out of the party’s impasse, not without political cost, but he may well be willing to pay the toll.