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Fixing Australia

Australia is broken. Democracy has holes in it, cracks in it, and it needs fixing. Since the 2004 Federal election we know that our government is not going to fix it. I think we need to do that fixing, and this blog is a start of getting some ideas together.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Coming to terms with the 2004 election

The 2004 Election: An Analysis

Part One

On Saturday, 9 October 2004, Australians went to the polls in a general election for the federal parliament. Although the pundits suggested there was a possibility of a victory by the opposition Labor Party, most people expected the incumbent Liberal - national coalition under the rat cunning John Howard to be returned, but with a possible reduced majority; payback for his lying consistently to the Australian people over such matters as the sinking of SIEV X; the "children overboard" scandal; and above all the WMD issue in Iraq and the decision to take Australia into that Iraq war. Polls, and above all audience response to the leader's debate on TV, indicated that many people felt Howard had not been truthful, that his conduct of foreign policy had been characterised by lies and that above all, participation in the Iraq war had not made Australia a safer place. In general there was a perception that the Green party would make a strong showing, particularly in the Senate.

The expectation was half right: the coalition was returned. It was half wrong - Howard gained an increased majority winning more seats than before and obtaining a swing of 2% across the nation (up to 10% in some seats). Given this is the fourth term of the coalition government, this is an amazing outcome. And it looks possible that thanks to the sudden emergence of a party of the overt religious right (Family First party - whose candidates are either pastors of, or members of, the Assemblies of God Church) and that fact that the Greens did not do as well as expected, the coalition could have control of the Senate as well - the first time this happened since 1981.

It's the half wrong part that has left people stunned. I worked on the booths that day and Liberal Party workers and scrutineers were equally overwhelmed by the result. Howard himself has announced that it was unexpected.

As Labor frontbencher, defence spokesperson and ex-leader Kim Beazley has stated in Monday's The West Australian [11 Oct -Ed], this result needs to be examined and studied carefully, on the facts, without preconceptions. Exactly.

The problem is in most cases that won't happen. Post-electoral analysis normally focuses on matters such as: the conduct of the campaign in the prior weeks; the pronouncements and images of the leaders; the messages delivered; the intricacies of the preferential system; the advertising, slogans and tactical machinery of the electioneering. All of these issues have a place, but they perpetuate the idea that electoral victories are won or lost during the election campaign and are the outcome of the activities of the political parties and their advisors and staff. The people in this analysis vanish - they become a passive "mob" who respond to inducements, scare tactics, manipulation, dirty tricks or whatever and are thus lead to vote the 'right' or the 'wrong' way.

Hugh Mackey in Monday's The West Australian is closer to the truth - the election campaign just isn't that important. People have largely firmed up their views long before. They may say they are undecided in opinion polls, but that just means they are open to reconsideration, but they have baseline fall back position already. We can't keep pretending the people are stupid, able to be (mis)led; we have to recognise that on polling day, they made a choice. A conscious choice for John Howard and all he stands he for.

So we have to understand why people have made that unpalatable selection. Commentators and analysts are pointing the way - people they say were concerned about the "economy" and "security", and that the ALP failed to reach them on those critical issues. That is probably right. But what do those words mean?

Another way of putting this - and probably more accurate - is that they are satisfied with the coalition's handling of these issues. "Economy" thus means - by and large people are (or believe they are, which is much the same thing), "doing OK". They are renovating their houses, doing over their backyards, acquiring investment properties, acquiring beach houses; stocking up on the latest electronic toys, getting their kids into private schools, 4-wheel driving their way to inner peace. Underneath this prosperity they are scared - they know the world has changed, they know their jobs aren't secure, they know their prosperity depends on high disposable income, so that means keeping their jobs and keeping taxes down. Managing their highly geared property portfolios only works with interest rates kept low. There is a lot of fear out there in elector country - fear ultimately arising form the globalisation induced economic restructuring that has occurred in Australia since 1983. Fear compounded by the destruction of post war social democratic consensus - quality and free pubic schooling; universal accessible health cover; guaranteed retirement and disability incomes. They know this has gone, and this drives their incessant accumulation of assets. People are aware the safety nets are full of holes - and the only answer they can see is to work longer hours (Australians work among the longest hours in the world and these have steadily increased over the last 25 years); and acquire more insurances, more assets, more property to support themselves if things go wrong. With the affluence is enormous fear of failing to deliver an acceptable quality of life to their families. The Australian elector has "privatised" the pressure of globalisation. She and he accept they must be "self reliant" (while depending on someone for a job). As long as they have a job and can accumulate assets they are doing OK, but if that economic balance changes- if interest rates rise and put pressure on their budgetary strategies; if they lose the job, the whole shebang falls apart.

So along with the feeling of doing OK goes economic and with it social insecurity. People know other people aren't "doing OK". They are terrified of crime, of the have nots scaling the walls and running amuck in the carefully tended made over backyards and tasteful renovations; of the expensive 4-wheel drives being nicked. Of the children being assaulted in public spaces; of themselves being mugged or experiencing "home invasions" by drug addled losers. So the paranoia increases, reinforcing the tendency to live privately behind security systems in their own spaces; to ferry everyone around in the big "secure" 4-wheel drive. And as you separate yourself from others and "privatise" your life, the social contracts that underpin civil society are snipped; the connections between people fray. It is easier to communicate vis SMS or e-mail than actually experience interaction with all the risks that entails! And of course, when the social connections fray, then it becomes easier to fear the other, to repackage the other from a tolerated if annoying part of the community, perhaps needing some assistance to a threat, intolerable, not to be helped but to be kept as far away as possible.

And what is a more quintessential other than swarthy people with limited English who practise a strange religion who come over the sea in leaky boats and want to share in this affluence which the average elector so wants to hang onto but in the dark reaches of the night knows is so fragile? Especially when these people share a religion with others who vent their frustrations by blowing up pubs, committing suicide with bombs in public places or fly planes into buildings? Does it really matter how badly a government treats these people, how unsympathetically they are imprisoned and hounded, how many lies are told and illegitimate military operations are waged provided it stops them coming to share the prosperity that is so fragile? Wealth, greed and fear go hand in hand. The historian Klaus Nauman has wondered how a poorer, less populated Australia could absorb over 150,000 refugees between 1946 and 1953 (about 20,000 per year), when a current larger, wealthier country has trouble with a mere 4,500 per year. The answer: precisely because it is wealthier -rather than now seeing a gain from taking people in ("with their help we can all make more") the elector now sees a threat ("they will take away what I have").

Economy and security thus go hand in hand. Hanging on to what we've got, precludes decency. Greed means not sharing. If we have, we must hold. We must resist demands for sharing or any potential for sharing, or any activities that might weaken our ability to hold on to what we have. And to hold on to what we have, it doesn't matter how much mendacity, immorality, indecency, lying and outrageous behaviour a government practices, as long as Bruce and Sheila Elector get to keep on accumulating.

And there lies the answer - Saturday's vote was a vote for greed, for keeping the world at arm's length, for erecting an impenetrable border, for not sharing what has been acquired, for a rejection of claims for justice. And in a conflict between two look alike parties (Tweedledum and Tweedledummer) the best bet is the devil you know, the one who has shown that he can deliver the outcome wanted rather than the one who says he can deliver the same outcome, only more nicely.

Proceed to Part 2 -->>>


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