(AAP Image/Dean Lewins)

Film producer 1: You’re lying! You’re lying to me!

Film producer 2: Yes I know! But hear me out!

Old industry joke/reality

As far as Australian politics goes, I have no idea what’s going on. I’m not sure anyone else does either. That may well include the people doing it.

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In the past couple of months we have seen the Morrison government and much of the wider right completely pivot to accepting the reality of human-caused climate change, to resituate the right/left divide and to steal a march on Labor. This appeared to fit in with a wider openness by the right towards big government spending and an abandonment of the conservative moralising about small government, the virtue of the private sector, the list goes on.

But that was a week ago. Now we appear to be pivoting again. Using their outrageous simultaneous lies and volte-face on electric cars, team ScoMo has reinstituted the private sector v small government division. They didn’t do it right, the line goes.

Now here we are, and we have to fix it. This is a line that News Corp is running — especially, it seems, in the Daily Telegraph, where gurning clown Joe Hildebrand has become the poster boy for the “we can fix it” school.

The further sense that something may be shifting is suggested by, of all things, Peta Credlin’s most recent column in The Australian. Yesterday, Credlin noted the US Republican victories in Virginia, a state that had been Democrat for a decade and was trending towards solid blue, but went Republican based on a “platform of cutting taxes, cutting regulation and supporting the police — but with the added ingredient of banning leftist race indoctrination in schools. Apparently it “reassured conservatives that the culture wars might be winnable after all”.

That’s an old-school Thatcherite face-saving construction of what was overwhelmingly a culture-war campaign around schools, curriculum, gender and bathrooms. But does it indicate Liberal thinking in the centre of government? Credlin’s cubist meat puppet Tony Abbott is also reported this morning as saying something like this.

So is it on? Are they now going to pivot to a mix of post-COVID anti-government messages combined with a renewed and redoubled culture war? With a bipartisan position established that net-zero is the goal, the politics around it are reduced to questions of means and method — i.e. no politics at all.

Could the Morrison government really now let it all rip? Just ignore its own statism, bang the anti-big-gov message and throw a series of dodged-up culture war conflicts into the mix, aided and abetted by News Corp?

You know it can, and you know that the idea being absurd is not a disqualifier per se — it’s all about the ratio. Can it pivot again without falling over or looking like it’s a modern dance? It seems like it’s going to have a go.

But while that move can clearly still work in the US, is it possible in Australia? Your correspondent suggested recently that the culture wars may be coming to an end here. That may have been a bold oversimplification for effect (so unlike me!); there’s going to be raw material around for culture wars for quite some time, as the knowledge class expands. But the structure and content of Australian life is somewhat different — less religiosity, and an absence of elected school boards as in the US model — and the capacity for culture wars to really take off much diminished.

Furthermore, News Corp has knocked out the keystone of its own culture war triumphal arch — climate change denialism. With the Oz and tabloids bleating about solar panels and green growth, the other stuff is just rubble on the ground. The rubble of their love, from which no castles will be built.

The further risk of such a pivot is that the right may end up on the wrong side of the taxing-spending-debt triad. COVID gave it the cover of a national emergency to spend hugely, run up vast debt and not raise taxes. But it can’t commit to all three forever.

Cutting services and spending will mean that the right loses the socially conservative section of the working class; raising taxes, the lower middle class; and expanding debt, the sections of the middle-middle class listening to Labor’s dissident fiscal responsibility message broadcast from resistance headquarters.

Labor, one presumes, is waiting to see which way the Coalition finally jumps before it decides how to oppose. This now has the left and progressive elites screaming at the ALP to stand for something consistent, and oppose on those grounds. Your correspondent is screaming inwardly, himself.

But one can also see the point as to how politics works these days: if Labor establishes a set of principles, outlines of a program, etc, the Coalition will run against it from an opposition-in-government sort of stance. We are once again caught in keirin-race politics — the velodrome bicycle event where two riders slow down so greatly, as they wait for the other to crack and set the pace, that they will sometimes wobble and fall over entirely.

What I guess this period is a useful test of is how politics works at two levels. Has retail politics become so rapid and transactional that you can keep trying new pivots and feints and then make a final decision ten days before the poll, gain the retail votes and not be penalised by lowered levels of trust from the electorate?

Or has Scott Morrison’s professional adman/PR work history transformed the Liberal Party’s balance between lying and consistency to such a degree that the party centre is now in the grip of magical thinking which obscures to it the damage it is doing to its own brand? 

“You’re lying to us!” “Yes, of course we are, but just listen to what we’ve got to offer!” 

If team Morrison loses this election, then retrospective wisdom will be that of course you can’t just endlessly lie and pivot and expect to be able to win the electorate over.

And if it wins, of course, then it tells us something about how those levels work in public life today, and the relationship between program and identity affirmation in politics. To vote in large numbers for people who obviously lie and contradict themselves rapidamente is to affirm that you aren’t voting for a program or an action-oriented worldview — for how could you have any assurance it would be delivered? You’re voting instead for the affirmation of an attitude, carried consistently through a set of shifting lies.

It can be a rational course of action but only if the political imperative is to preserve your class/group identity — or contest and resist someone else’s — above all else.

And that’s what team ScoMo appears to be betting on. This is not a time for big political dreams, even though dreams are the only place where truth and lies have no meaning.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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