For the last three decades the Australian public has been told there will be massive changes which they will have to run with or just suck it up. Now, after five and a half years of floundering and negativism by the government, the people are waking up to what these changes have produced. Such changes have been substantially helped along by the government’s promotion of the market as the arbiter of all things and all interrelations, changes exacerbated by the impact of digital technology and its individualising tendency. For its absence in attempting to properly guide these changes, this period of governance will be long remembered.
In part because of the continual leadership tensions in the LNP little has been done to confront, or even define, the problems that might be seen to face the country over the next two decades and beyond. Short-termism has characterized everything, except for the long-term trend towards ever declining tax rates that benefit high-income earners most of all. Yet in considering this period of LNP government as a climax/continuation of the last thirty-six years it is beyond question certain features stand out: the financialization of the economy, the development of oligopoly positions in former public utilities, constant attacks on the ABC, and of the demonizing of refugees and Muslims. Of greatest concern is the refusal to take climate change seriously–in truth taking decisions to make its effects worse–and a failure to counter the increasing level of economic inequality, both class based and cross generational.
None of these should just be seen within the framework of political theatre, although they are political in the sense that all have been magnified by LNP legislation and constant propaganda efforts. Their social and cultural effects should also be noted, as they are as significant developments of these five and a half years as is the political theatre.
It is perhaps timely to begin with the apparent collapse of trust in large institutions. This has been developing for many years whilst the politicization of government/parliament and the public service has proceeded. It has been exacerbated by the two royal commissions into banking and child abuse, and by the degeneration of print and television media, now focussing substantially on personalities and hyper-reality distractions, reaching constantly to the lowest common denominator of public culture. This has been deliberately pushed along by the ongoing LNP campaign against the ABC, resulting in large budget cuts and a perceptible self-censorship through fear of the ongoing criticism it has received. Add to this the take over of The Age by a commercial television station, and the level of serious public debate and investigation has been seriously compromised.
A likely direct consequence of this collapse of trust is the highly conspicuous movement towards the extreme right as people seek a sense of certainty, perhaps a fantasy utopia of a past culturally and socially homogenous Australia, in the face of the changing society, the break down of community by digitalisation and the apparent recognition that the economic benefits of free market economics have not eventuated. This is clearly an international phenomenon, but it will have unexpected results such as the marking off of regional Queensland from the rest of the country, an exacerbation of differences between country and city, and between north and south, that have long existed. It also resonates loudly with the ongoing disgraceful treatment of refugees on Manus Island and the broader problem of racism and anti-Islamic attitudes in Australia, pushed along both by the extreme right groups, and by the slightly more moderate LNP government. Most recently it marks a return to Chinaphobia, in a campaign being mounted in the mainstream media, as well as by many LNP politicians, even where China is our main trading partner.
The LNP’s attitude towards climate change mitigation will be marked in the coming years as one of, if not, the greatest failures of this period of government The government has done as much as it possibly can to sow doubt on the very validity of climate science, even where there is now near unanimity amongst climate scientists as to what is happening. In coming years the LNP’s reactionary attitude will be judged as utterly irresponsible, if not treasonous, especially if the predictions about the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef come to fruition.
Where there might be a positive side to this is in the rise of an international students’ movement which, in Australia, has seen some well organized demonstrations about non-action in regard to climate change, and the development of an ongoing campaign of opposition to fossil fuel production and the Adani mine. It can also be read as a sign of the younger generations’ disappointment with their elders, especially the baby boomers, who have benefited so much from the largesse of people like John Howard and to whom the LNP is pitching its present electoral campaign. Ultimately, The success of this campaign is that it is not just about climate change, but also about the failure of previous generations to manifest any kind of serious social consciousness or thought for the future.
Finally, it is certainly acceptable to ask if the main parties have succeeded in formulating the problems confronting the nation over the next ten years or simply responded to what the large consultancy firms and the lobbying groups determine as these problems. Further to this, we might ask if any attempt has been made to develop democratic values in a way that improves what has seemingly been a failing system by so many of those who refuse to participate in it. As such the role of government over the last six years might impress upon individuals what the limits of government might be and how government can realistically function. This relates directly to the lack of trust so many individuals now feel about government institutions, including the public service and the media.
Has the government set an agenda for reform or simply allowed the status quo–whatever this might mean–to continue? If it has not, this would be consistent with the neoliberal axiom that governments should only ever offer a slight touch. It is in keeping with the nihilistic impulses of this period of government.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.