The ancient Romans used to get their thrills from public baths by running from the steaming hot room to the cold room, to get the blood moving. There’s a similar effect available in passing from the US back to Australia, in the week in which our budget is brought down and Donald Trump triumphs. The Republican Party will now try to rally behind Trump and unite, but it remains a roiling, traumatised outfit, running on myths that become ever more fantastical.
Whatever the policy differences between Cruz and Trump and all the others, it’s a party that still trades in a political religion: the idea that, if the country could only get back to its founding principles, prosperity and dominance would burst forth once again. Its opposing party is a ramshackle centre-right social market party, currently besieged from within by a social democrat movement that the US calls socialism. Though it is shot through with deals and clientelism, it is still a party that believes that governing is a practical matter of policy and real-world conditions.
The two parties don’t merely have different policies; they are different sorts of things, different activities in the world, a cult versus an administrative subcontracting outfit. Cut back to Australia, and you find a paradoxical situation: on the one hand this budget, and the position of the two major parties, does have a political direction rightwards or leftwards; it’s a nasty budget for the poor and low-income workers, who are sequestered in safe Labor seats and thus of little political import.
On the other hand, compared to the US or the neo-Thatcherism of David Cameron’s UK, it doesn’t really compare. The freebie of huge super pile-ups is attacked; the Abbott-era university deregulation and fee hike are gone. The front end of Medicare services is left unravished; the changes to unemployment are a bit of busywork, but they are nothing like the “40 jobs a month” sadism of Eric Abetz. The cuts to business tax rates are clientelist and ideological and counter-productive at the high end, by any measure; globally, capital is sitting on trillions of uninvested wealth. Globally, also, the most important thing now for national advancement is adequate social, educational, physical infrastructure. But whether tax breaks for “SME” hundred-million-dollar businesses is a rallying issue on the other side remains to be seen. Nothing in Bill Shorten’s budget reply offered anything resembling a qualitative alternative to the government — simply a “left” version of the overall framework the government is working off.
So both sides are going to try to extract a politics — “class envy/warfare” and the “fair go” — from a budget that, in what it does, is really a mix and match of practical measures, tinged pinkish or bluish. The budget is really a sellable version of Abbott’s 2013 election pitch to Labor’s swinging voters. It sets up no unfulfillable promises, but it unleashes no horrors either. Those will come, if Turnbull is re-elected, in the 2017 budget. We will now commit to a seven-week election campaign around such measures, with the major media eager to co-operate in it. Four weeks in, it will be tedious. By late June it will be intolerable; either that or Oz politics will hare off in a quite different direction under that much underestimated historical force: boredom.
The budget and Australian politics are currently a kind of militant, organised boredom, because both parties agree to leave so much out of the mix. Overwhelmingly, neither party will address the major paradox of Australian social life: that though people are told they’ve never had it so good, everyone under about $200k a year feels squeezed by a system that has no give. The working poor and low-income earners have no savings and no security, little access to the real tools of social mobility; the working middle class that the parties compete for are squeezed by mortgages, student debt, exploding childcare costs, horrendous commuting times — a lot of “prosperous” Australians live ant-like lives, which are the direct consequence of a failure to share the common wealth of the resources boom and general growth, through social capital and universal provision.
Nothing offered by either party goes much in the way to solve that. Labor, especially, is ducking the reckoning it needs to have with its 30-year role as the loyal opposition of neoliberalism. One wouldn’t expect the Coalition as it currently stands to offer real answers to this wider problem — it, too, will start to retreat into fantasy politics, if its leaders cannot or will not redirect it. Our politics is petty, but the problems we face are not, and that creates this bizarre situation in which tax brackets acquire the status of Mao’s 1949 entry into Beijing.
There’s no sign this will end soon, although, as I say, the long election campaign might do it through the sheer process of mutation. It’s worth remembering, in the months to come, that he final stage of the Roman bathing process was to be flogged with birch branches to bring the blood to the surface.