As an illustration of Australian politics, the Batman by-election is so perfectly dire it could almost have been engineered by a group of marketing interns wanting to tick every box.
Its origin story is crafted for the zeitgeist, with the sitting member for Batman — pratfalling comedic relief David Feeney — resigning over his dual national citizenship. So far, so hot right now.
Triggering a by-election, two main contenders entered the competition for both the votes and, just as important, online attention where everything is a symbol just waiting to be analysed by a first year Arts student who has just discovered Jung and Marx during O-week.
Ged Kearney, a high-profile ALP candidate with parachute strings attached, is meant to be a progressive offer from the formerly working class party experiencing as much gentrification as the seat of Batman. And the Green’s Alex Bhathal? Well, she’s run for the seat six times which, at our most charitable, promises an understanding of the area and tenacity required for politics.
Politics is often presented as a topic where civil debate is sorely needed, a yearning for a golden age of debate. So, if Australian politics is to rise above the US’ “American Horror Story: Covfefe” Administration, both politicians and pundits should aim higher than before.
And what’s happened instead? How has a progressive seat and its constantly-refreshing online audience of #Auspoltroons responded? With a cacophony of corflutes, a bedlam of branch-bitchery, a squawk of self-ownery, the ringing of racism with an endless shout of sanctimony.
Because the above is so florid, such a hyperbolic description of hyperbole, I will restrict myself to describing them with every political watcher’s favourite suffix, -gate.
First there was branch-gate, where an internal group of Greens kept leaking allegations Bhathal was a bully and branch-stacker, despite internal processes declaring her conduct fine. This attempt at sabotage also qualifies as a self-own because they managed to convey more personality in Bhathal than her last six election attempts.
Meme-gate has been hovering for a while, as the ALP (and others) try to snag the apparently most important vote of all: 23-year-old white males called Christian. Hovering between youth engagement and busywork for ALP interns, various accounts have pumped out memes for an audience who consider themselves so media savvy, they can only parse policy discussion with MS Paint and respond with “nice” or some other hilarious-if-you-get-the-convoluted-joke-with-history one word response they can thumb with autocorrect.
This ties into Racism-gate, because one of those one word responses those ambitious lads enjoy typing about memes critiquing the Greens is “namaste”. Alex Bhathal has South Asian heritage, and the connection to racist othering here is fairly apparent, though the spicy bois (again, all white, pretty much all called Christian) will say this is actually a nuanced and long-running job poking fun at the Greens’ bourgeois hippydom. You would think they would have the self-awareness to pause after saying “it’s not really racist, it’s … ”. But, again, here we are longing for the golden age of debate.
But the Greens can’t enjoy their outrage; not when you have sanctimony-gate and self-ownery following close behind the most dramatic — and pathetic — gate of all: corflute-gate.
Photos of a refugee rights rally emerged, showing Bhathal and Greens leader Richard Di Natale walking ahead of a vandalised Ged Kearney corflute (durable polypropylene sheets suitable for printing reusable political posters) criticising her silence on the issue. For some, defacing a poster of Kearney with non-gendered criticisms was sexist.
The accusation of sexism was then brandished by the ALP with all the fervour of holding a corflute at a political rally. This event was then used as a weapon, as though any (perceived) discrimination dilutes another discrimination — a case of the “oh you think racism is bad, what about … (looks back through Twitter drafts) … SEXISM!” card being thumped down on the table.
What we have instead of a by-election is a series of righteous indignations overlapping righteous indignation, where policy is not discussed as much as it is used as a cudgel to silence others.
No one looks good here: not the politicians, political system, its supporters, their Facebook pages or mum-voicing media jerk-offs like me.
Meanwhile, Australia’s economic inequality is growing larger, our infrastructure is rusting, the environment is crumbling, we’re about to try and give corporations that barely pay tax even more money, few can afford to live in their own homes and when we’re not dispatching early morning raids on families with a visa issue, we’re locking them up on nearby islands.
This is modern Australian politics and, given how Batman is being discussed, it’s all we deserve.