Well, it’s taken a while, but the mainstream of opinion seems to be coming around to your correspondent’s contention from weeks and weeks ago: there is something deeply wrong with this election. It is not that it is a boring election, though it is. Nor are the major parties offering the same basket of initiatives — it would be a lie to say that either party has a program — nor do they have the same approach. But yet for all that, everyone is now starting to see that there is something cracked at the base in this election.
Even those trying to boost it up — such as Margo Kingston and Gay Alcorn, the Thelma and Louise of actually existing democracy — have a defensive tone: “Plenty of interest in this election,” they say, with the tone of someone defending ’70s prog rock (“if you’re going to insult the Alan Parsons Project, I’m going to have to ask you to step outside”). But are their hearts in it? Laura Tingle’s defeated slumped posture, captured by Mike Bowers, said it all.
Tingle is one of the champions in the gallery of politics as a debate of technocratic expertise, and different strategies to achieve it. She should have loved the debate, in which ends were barely examined, but micro-differences in means were thrashed out at a level incomprehensible to 90% of the electorate. But I suspect even she could see that this debate was the election in miniature; it had almost collapsed in the middle. It seemed entirely possible that one or more of the participants or audience might have stood up and said, “right, I’m off. Beer o’clock. Who’s with me?”
I’ve seen performances like this before — as a theatre reviewer, hundreds of years ago, when you would be sent to La Mama twice a week, for pot luck. Often it was excellent, usually bad, and sometimes — well sometimes, some hapless youf group had been taken over by a 21-year-old in an opera cape, and convinced to do Ayckbourn in the style of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. His bluster and bullshit carries the group through … until partway through the four-hour opening night, when they realise, with unavoidable clarity, what they are trapped in, and the will to do it, the suspension of disbelief, drains away. A sort of fatigue comes over them. They fight their way through to the conclusion, as if wading through mud, in fog. Which is what both leaders looked like on Sunday night.
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But the delusion is widespread and wilful. On Insiders that morning, the panel earnestly debated who had won the week, whether the $67 billion “black hole” and its later part-walking-back, and the schoolkids bonus, had been a win for Shorten or Turnbull, how “disastrous” it was for either. It was like watching the famous theological debate from the mediaeval Council of Trent, as to whether or not angels have rectums. Do they really imagine that anyone of significant number is watching and scoring this way.
This bizarre game of “who won the day/week?” is a measure of how completely the press/politics bubble has detached from the broader public. It bears no relation to how politics is happening on the ground. What is worse is that the major media’s editors don’t care that it bears no relation to such. They just want to fill the pages with easy ding-dong that can be done from an office.
There is an easy answer as to why there is no sense of contestation and stake in much of this election — and that is the exclusion of the Greens. This was made obvious by the rural debate, with Richard Di Natale, Barnaby “Killer Tomato” Joyce, and Joel Laborbot 3.0. After a slow start, this roared into gear, with the exchanges between Joyce and Di Natale especially representing genuinely different approaches to rural and national development, and both of them poking holes in the other’s arguments.
Why are the Greens necessary to any really interesting political debate? Because as they have gained in strength and developed a distinct program — a left/green social democratic program with a distinct view about taxation, capital, the role of the state, and the (slow) emergence of a post-capitalist order — Labor and the Liberals have started to clump together, in terms of ends.
Labor presents a program of means and strategies that is more to the left than it was — abolishing negative gearing, ramrodding renewable energy — but both parties agree on a conception of the Australian future. It’s “growth-ist” — but founded on the now useless measure of GDP growth — and it’s substantially individualist at the ground level, seeing the management of life as a matter of individuals and families, with some state assistance.
Both major parties are “nationalist” in their sense of collective well-being. Labor is not really willing to attack the process of widening inequality in our society, and the mechanism that guarantees it: state funding of private schools to an absurd and draining degree (though, as a political and strategic decision, I can’t say I blame them). So of course you’re going to get furious agreement between the two parties. You’re also going to get a refusal on the part of either party to put forward a worldview, or to challenge one when it comes up.
In the Sunday debate, Turnbull outlined the rationale for corporate tax cuts — “when companies pay less tax, they invest more”. We know that to be trickle-down juju bullshit. The widening inequality and the stagnating base in the West is because such tax windfalls are paid out as CEO bonuses and dividends. The planet is awash with uninvested capital — as much as $6 trillion, by some measures — which is held tonight because ground-level capitalism is now in the grip of a profits crisis. But Shorten was unwilling to tackle the whole base of Turnbull’s self-flattering, trickle-down nonsense, on those terms — as a worldview. Because Labor is desperate not to outline a renewed social-democratic vision.
The inclusion of the Greens in any debate would not only make that set of shared assumptions visible per se, but it would also force Labor to make clear its implicit logic and beliefs — in an enabling and productive state, which is essential to social development. Aside from that, however, the Greens have a right to be in the debates, since they’re running candidates in all 150 lower-house seats.
In determining who’s in the debate, it is not for the networks to determine who’s likely to win; they should simply rely on the question as to whether or not the party has potential to form government. The Greens do, formally; the Nationals and the Nick Xenophon Team don’t. Therefore the leaders’ debates should be a three-way proposition. To suggest that the Greens should be excluded because they don’t have the polling to make a majority win plausible is circular illogic, nothing else.
But beyond that, there’s no reason why the debates have to be these tiresome leaders’ debates. I’ve seen tapes of TV debates from Hungary in the 1970s, when a brief pseudo-thaw allowed a measure of debate within society — and thus two apparatchik economists would debate whether a bus factory should be allowed to conduct 8% or 12% of its output as private trade under “goulash” communist rules.
On Sunday I switched the TV to black and white, and made the picture a little snowy, and who could tell the difference? Turnbulletz was Mr 12% because he had a better-fitting suit; poor old Shortencs had clearly been shopping at the GUM summer sales. Because realistically, when you have leaders’ debates only, you have pretty much the same system: two parties, whom you must vote for in 90% of seats, if your compulsory vote is to count, who are then rewarded with public funds for their vote (yes, yes their primary vote; even so). Each then competes to see how many favours they can do for the private TV networks, while a press oligopoly throws them softball questions, and wonders why the whole charade is falling apart. The “green left GayBC” meanwhile has a political editor who believes that Marxists infected society with the “virus” of political correctness decades ago, for their own nihilistic ends.
If the press gallery had any sense, they would see that the more boring the election campaign, the sooner their demise. Who needs most of these people? Whoever read them in the first place? They desperately need politics to be something that the mass could become engaged with, and that means more ideas, not less. The obvious thing would be to have several debates, along the lines of:
- three major party debates — Labor/Coalition/Greens — one on domestic economic policy, one on foreign affairs, and one on social and cultural issues;
- a Senate parties debate with: Wong vs Brandis v Ludlam, or Waters v National Party bozo v Leyonhjelm v Xenophon. That line-up is a little arbitrary at the end, but my suggestion is that the Nats represent social conservatism, that Xenophon has the numbers on the ground to demand a place, and that Leyonhjelm represents a libertarian dimension in society, which happens to be scattered over a range of parties; and/or
- a minor parties “undercard’ debate with: the Greens v Xenophon vs Leyonhjelm, and the remaining three slots for the top three polling, averaged over three states (i.e. if Lambie is polling 10% in Tasmania, but only running there, she gets a 3.3% score; if Family First or Socialist Alliance are running in three-plus states and averaging 3.4%, they edge her out).
Now tell me that wouldn’t be a more interesting, illuminating, exciting process over the next five weeks, than the grim funereal parade we are being subjected to. Tell me that wouldn’t more resemble democracy, rather than the pseudo-Eastern European sham we’ve got running at the moment? Tell me something interesting wouldn’t emerge from that. Tell me any of that and I will tell you that the there will come a time when Robin Trower is acknowledged as the god that he is.