Retrospective reflections are now beginning on what might be the heritage of the five and a half year long Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison governments. In advancing such reflections attention should not just be focussed on the political infighting within the government, and between it and the opposition. Consideration should also be given to what has occurred outside of, or in spite, of government in defining Australia’s governing culture and the cohesion of its society.
Will the five and a half year period of government of the LNP be seen as the climax of a long period beginning with the election of the Hawke government in March 1983? This has witnessed a thirty-seven year period dominated by the imposition of neoliberalism onto all modes of governance in Australia, accompanied by a corporatist ideology which has seemingly pervaded all institutions, public, private, sporting, civic and religious. If it is a climax, will it give way to a government that will reposition Australia internationally and internally by attempting to reverse some of the changes–intended and unintended–that have been highly profiled over the past five years? Or will it be seen as simply continuing the neoliberal hegemony? Or, finally, should it be seen as having provided a period of governance imposing its own stamp and either offering the prospect of real changes in Australia or simply maintaining the status quo?
If one were to analyse these five and a half years from the perspective of the main stream media, focus would be placed on the three prime ministers who prevailed during this period, their relations with their own party, their donors and the opposition. Each has stood out in his own way.
In Tony Abbott the country was given a hard right neoliberal ideologue whose Catholic beliefs made him extremely conservative socially. His government was dominated by him (and Joe Hockey, with Peter Dutton given a strong ratchet upwards), and marked above all by the extremely poor public reaction to the 2014 budget, a perfect illustration of neoliberal budgeting with the intention of producing a dramatic cut back in the role of government in society. In addition, it was marked by a repudiation of any efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change, thereby giving a strong fillip to climate change deniers in the LNP. As such it pushed the LNP from the centre right to the hard right, with an influential rump of extreme right figures.
When Malcolm Turnbull overthrew Abbott in September 2015, the LNP appeared to have made a serious aberration in appointing a prime minister who had minimum ideology, was a secularist republican, yet still nominally a neoliberal. Many expected him to take the LNP back to the ‘sensible centre’, yet the political aspects of his leadership were upstaged by his conflict with the hard right, whose apprenticeship under Abbott had steeled their resolve about climate change and the protection of their corporate interests. It was especially compromised by Barnaby Joyce whose ego guaranteed a show of politics as theatre, whilst functioning as a perfect representation of the neoliberal focus on individual ambition always trumping the collective. Thus Turnbull was seen by the media, and many of his small-l liberal supporters, as being waged in a constant battle with a party that for them no longer represented the sensible centre.
When finally overthrown in August 2018 it was in favour of his treasurer, Scott Morrison. In him Australians have been treated to an evangelical Christian whose economic ideology and overweening personal ambition is somewhat concealed by his fundamental persona as an advertising man. Yet in the political theatre he is still providing allegiance to the climate change deniers, as evidenced by the Minister for the Environment giving federal sanction to the Adani mine, and is still being undermined by the poisonous conflict between his two prior successors.
What unites these three, and others such as Barnaby Joyce and Peter Dutton, is their unalloyed personal ambition, their complete ignorance of criticism of their own faults, and their capacity to undermine their own party through their constant infighting. But, beyond this, and overriding all the others in its negative outcomes is their failure to realise how far away they are from most Australians, including the ‘ordinary voter’ as well as those who take a more informed interest in the political process.
Whilst the media may luxuriate in the personality conflicts these attitudes produce, collectively they have led to a realisation amongst the general public that the parliament- both main parties being tarred with the same brush-is filled with people who are utterly divorced from the changes they, the public, have witnessed and experienced over the last three decades.
The riches that would supposedly flow to all through deregulation and privatisation have been proven to be a chimera. And despite the oft quoted claim that Australia has had twenty-five years of continual economic growth-whatever that might mean–, the benefits of this growth have escaped many people who now see the promises originally, and continually, made about the neoliberal reforms to be false. Most would not know what neoliberalism means but they are fully aware of the increased costs of living, the difficulty for their children in buying houses, the ruin of the social welfare system, and the withdrawal of governments from so many traditional areas.
Most responses to these realisations have been apathy or a movement towards the extreme right in search of simple responses to the country’s problems. The hard and moderate left seem not to have been rewarded with increased patronage by these groups, Get Up being the possible exception. Accordingly, the past five and a half years of the LNP government will be seen as a time of great political theatre matched by an increasing distrust of the political system and its incapacity to deal with the economic and social problems now affecting so many people, who do not have the capacity to articulate them successfully.
In the next section I will write about the changes in the socio-economic and environmental sphere that will be remembered as having occurred during these five and a half years.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.