Auspol for Outsiders
With eight days to go until the world’s 14th largest economy goes to the polls, Australians face a deeply uninspiring choice between continuing with the Liberal (conservative) coalition that has barely kept a moribund economy moving forward in their six years in power, or a change and return to the Labor Party.
Woody Allen called this kind of thing ‘the evil of two lessers’, but really it’s a choice between relatively normal and frothing at the mouth insane for the next three years.
First, some history.
For decades Australia boasted stable leadership. Five men – Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard – led the country from 1972 to 2007, a combined 35 years. Since then all hell has broken loose. Australian politics has decided to model itself on Italy, with six PMs in twelve years and a positively Caeser-esque run of stabs in the back.
Kevin Rudd finally put John Howard out to pasture, but no-one really liked him either so his own party turfed him out in less than three years. Then his successor, Julia Gillard, herself got thrown out by the aforementioned Rudd, who said Julia couldn’t win an election, only he had the magic. Two months later he was wrong again and the nation had its Trump moment when, scarcely believably, the odious and peculiar (and peculiarly odious) Tony Abbott somehow fell backwards into the top job. Chaos naturally ensued, and Abbott was out on his fit, firm ass within two years, replaced by smooth, silky, boring Malcolm Turnbull.
But Mal, as no-one has ever called him, couldn’t convince the bonkers wing of his party (all of them) that climate change threatening the world’s driest continent was something worth giving a solitary toss about, so he got the flick and here we are – led by happy-clappy christian weirdo Scott Morrison.
Back in the day, Sco-Mo (a nickname that polls show has increased his likeability by 0.000%) was the Liberals parliamentary pit-bull. Like Abbott, his only method was to excoriate the other side and win the news cycle, no matter what the cost or how absurd your argument needed to be in the heat of the moment. Morrison was the kind of guy who brought a lump of coal to a climate debate (he really did this) to prove that no-one needs to be scared of it. Scomo has brought this dazzling level of intellectualism to pretty much every issue since. Bozo the chimp could do a better job of political persuasion.
Since Scott Morrison took over in August last year he’s attempted a personal re-brand, smiling and grinning like a stupid cheshire cat every time he pops up. It’s been like Jeffrey Dahmer selling himself as a ladies man but, astoundingly, Morrison remains Australia’s preferred Prime Minister, in significant part because Labor is led by a man who had his charisma surgically removed at birth and appears to have taken correspondence courses in how not to inspire people.
Bill Shorten has been the leader of the Australian Labor party for over five years but could still turn up at a church fete and need to be introduced by the vicar. Taken at face value, his lack of sparkly-bits is almost endearing, especially so in an age where other world leaders look and act like Trump, Bolsonaro or Putin. Shorten could have tea with your grandma and she would think he was a very nice young man. Yet with a thousand reasons to hate the Liberals, more Australians still think Mr ‘I Make Jokes With Pieces of Coal’ is a better choice for PM than Mr ‘Exciting Cardboard’.
It’s baffling, because these last few years have provided a veritable smorgasbord of incompetence, corruption and cruelty, throwing up politicians so revolting (I’m looking at you, Peter Dutton) that it’s not unfair to question whether they’re mentally ill. Let’s glance through some highlights.
Climate change is the greatest crisis ever faced by mankind, but these dinosaurs can barely bring themselves to admit it exists. Tony Abbott called climate science ‘crap’, Joe Hockey said that windmills were ‘utterly offensive’, apparently preferring to gaze lovingly at the coal-fired power stations that still provide 73% of our electricity. Liberal party climate policy appears to be ‘let’s do 0.1% more than nothing at all, but let’s not try too hard to achieve it’.
Water provides a good metaphor for the health of any nation. The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism on earth but has suffered crippling bleaching events as temperatures climb. Yet, as climate concern has risen the Liberals have decided that the best way to deal with the issue is to build the world’s largest coalmine (Adani) and have hundreds of ships bring the coal out through those nice little gaps in the reef, saved by the knowledge that no large boat has ever hit a reef and poured out its entire bloody contents into the sea.
On the world’s driest continent, water is scarce, and river management crucial. But not to these clowns. Somehow, on their watch Australia’s most iconic river, the Murray-Darling, got into such a state that in January this year all the fish died in about a week. Hundreds of thousands of them, floating on the top. Now, I don’t know much about river management, but I know that all the fish in your biggest river don’t die unless someone has colossally fucked-up.
Australia is protected from a lot of things by the fact that it’s so very far away. We face a tiny fraction of the migration issues confronting Europe in the Mediterranean. But for more than twenty years the Liberals have found a happy electoral hunting ground in demonising the few people with the temerity to try to get here by sea. ‘Stopping the boats’ has been a vote-winner in a country almost entirely populated by immigrants, who nonetheless don’t appear to want any more people coming here, specially if their skin is that nasty brown shade. Tony Abbott found an almost erotic fascination with the binary choice he sold us – be over-run by these disease-riddled criminal darkies, or lock them up forever in concentration camps, as a disincentive to anyone else figuring they’d take the easy ride in life and put their family on a rickety boat with no radio or life jackets.
Offshore detention has been a national shame, a horror show in which children become so disturbed they sew up their lips, grown men set themselves on fire and guards trade sexual favours with these poor people for scraps. Then film themselves doing it. Then email each other the movies. Putting morality aside is impossible, but even trying to you notice that the costs have been astronomical – we’d genuinely be better off if we’d put all the refugees up at the Sheraton. Yet the political well has been so poisoned that our timid Labor leadership has endorsed offshore detention too, so no major party in 2019 offers an immigration policy based on humanitarian concerns, and nothing’s going to change. It’s a cancer given to Australia by a mad monk, yet we still don’t have the heart to look our most shameful secret in the eye.
Australia’s greatest gift has been a miraculous economy. Once a country based solely on sheep and wool, a resources and property boom left us with a bunch of very expensive houses next to a hole in the ground. But these last few years the houses have gotten less expensive as the hole has brought up less cash, and our world-record breaking run of 26 years without a recession seems bound to end soon. The Liberals are running on the slogan that Labour is ‘the Bill (geddit) that Australia Can’t Afford’, but they’ve doubled the national debt in six years and posted six successive budget deficits. If that is effective fiscal management, I’m a banana.
As with all western democracies, there’s a smorgasbord of political interests outside the main two parties. We’ve got the nasty little racist (Pauline Hanson), a fat billionaire promising to make this country great again (Clive Palmer) and some more rational progressives in with a chance of getting a seat or two and affecting the balance of power. We’ve even got Fraser Anning, egg-man victim and a bloke so right-wing he thinks Genghis Khan was a poof. There’s plenty of nut-bags to go round, and our convoluted preferential voting system seems to allow the occasional fruit-bat a seat in parliament. This circus is over-run by clowns.
And behind all this is the insidious, cancerous presence of Rupert Murdoch, the Dirty Digger we exported to poison America but who still controls around 80% of Australia’s print media, and a bunch of our eyes and ears too. No other country allows such a concentration of media ownership by one man, and this dominance infects our political discourse like a turd in your coffee. Conservatives constantly have to prove they’re conservative enough to please the radio shock-jocks, and Labor is often portrayed as an existential threat to the nation, which is just silly. Murdoch is an Emperor Palpatine-esque stench in Australian public life, making everything worse and nothing ever better.
Like most western countries, Australia has seen three cross-generational political phenomena taking place – a collapse of the centre, drop in major party voting, and a shift of the political spectrum to the right. In 2019 Australians face the choice of a hard-right party heading further right, or a centre-right party masquerading as the Labor of old. We look across the ditch and swoon at Jacinda Ardern’s kindness and competence, but there appears to be just enough Aussie voters to keep us pegged as the crueller, nastier version of our Kiwi cousins.
Despite this, most elections, especially Aussie ones, come down to ‘how much money is in my pocket’ and ‘is it time to give the other blokes a go’. Right now we have a per-capita GDP recession, house prices dropping like a stone, no wage-growth and an economy just short of a bloodbath. Only 33% of Australians expect the Liberal coalition to get back in. There appears to be a mood for change.
Anyone with a broader international perspective, alarmed by the rise of the far-right across the world, would do well to pray for such a change next weekend, as the current government of Australia has veered further and further right, purging what little centrists remain, and is now to the very extreme margin of public sentiment. Should the Liberals retain the keys, it is likely to be in a minority coalition with a bunch of hard-right loons, knuckleheads and wing-nuts. This would be much, much worse than the last few years, and the last few years have made me want to be sick in my mouth a lot of the time. I think it’s just quietly the most consequential election in a couple of decades. Some of these friendly Aussies putting shrimps on barbies and playing on the beach all day have a nasty side to them. I am praying we don’t get three more years of it.