Australian politics as judged by the antics of the two major parties over the past three weeks is almost a (hyper-) reality television show, replete with microscopic media coverage of the principal personalities involved. Building up for many years this has implications for the survival of these parties, but disappear they certainly will not. The task for long-term survival is certainly before the LNP, whereas for the ALP the prospects seem brighter.
Where to for the two major parties after the past few weeks of serious disruption in the LNP and the ongoing distraction of Peter Dutton with his war against Roman Quaedvlieg, a battle exacerbated by the intervention of the former PM urging Dutton’s eligibility for parliament to be heard by the High Court? Accompanying this is the gender chasm emerging in the LNP which resists all efforts to fill it. All of this is grist to the mill for the mainstream media for whom politics is above all about personalities, but it is anathema to that clichéd category called the “ordinary voter,” who has a despairing attitude towards politicians at the best of times.
Recent polls have both major parties receiving 68% of the primary vote, in contrast to about 81% in 2010. Whilst they might be seen to be in a steady state of decline, nonetheless they are still the major agents of political continuity and change in this country. They are also still the major political reference points for most voters in the electorate. Most disaffected people will look at the two main parties first, and only then move to one of the smaller parties who represent what the voter considers the two main parties should be doing, what they might have once done, but now are no longer doing.
Arguably government–parliament and public service–, big business and big unions are the three principal components of what has become the corporate state, buttressed by a panoply of think tanks, consultancy firms and the fourth estate. Each of the three uses a corporatist mode of organizational behaviour, built up over more than thirty years. This results in the people at the top accruing most of the benefits, with the rest trickling down in a highly diluted form to all the others involved in the organization. As such a barrier is erected between the beneficiaries and the rest and constitutes a real obstacle to the kind of changes needed to bring back trust in the integrity of elected representatives.
This is the background to the well-documented public despair with the major parties. It is fed on the public’s part by a fragmented perception of the problems–too much immigration, congested roads, crooked banks, overpaid executives, drought–the country faces and the accompanying belief that governments do not represent the concerns that beset the ordinary voter personally. Both parties are tarred with the same brush because they are seen to be so distant from the interests of the ordinary voter. A corollary to that is the belief that individual members of parliament are regarded as having come together as a single group of professional careerists, cultivating their own careers. Politics is no longer a seen as a vocation, it is a career.
Yet both main parties still represent reference points. Both take pains to depict a particular brand, which is strongly manifested in the childish spectacle of question time where ad hominem attacks take place continually and ideas about policy and its implementation are minimalized. Where there are debates –or better harangues about policy–is primarily restricted to the party room of the respective parties themselves, and in the largely stage-managed national and state conferences hosted by the party elite.
Ultimately both parties have tacitly fused in their enthusiastic take up (now three decades old) of neoliberal ideology and its cultural manifestations. Despite their usually oppositional rhetoric, it is from within this neoliberal culture that both parties are required to differentiate themselves. In practice both have shown they are still committed to it as a mode of governance–though the ALP is beginning to express some independence by ramping up its rhetoric on reducing carbon emissions.
Neither party will just fade away because the historical trajectory of both, and what they once stood for, is still so strong. Especially with the LNP, the closeness it has to the free-market with the economic liberalism that has always characterized it (but not the agrarian socialism of the NP), and the individualism associated with this, means it is not necessarily seen by its supporters to have changed much over the past three decades. Where the LNP is struggling to remain a broad church is in its response to the social changes demanded of contemporary society, changes which, paradoxically, have arisen from its commitment to the cultural aspects of neoliberalism. For here the individual and individual advancement is sanctified above anything else, and it is immaterial if social structures, whose principal characteristic is their transcendence of the individual in empirical terms, breaks down.
As has been much recognized the LNP is stuck between, on the one hand, its universal commitment to economic liberalism and, on the other hand, the social changes such liberalism inadvertently brings with it. These changes clash against the desire of many of its parliamentary representatives to cling to a more nostalgic view of the world where people were classified into tribes and groups, the boundaries of which were usually observed. The level of certainty of hierarchies was much stronger than now when possession of wealth accumulated in the corporate world governs all, and which allows of less gender and colour discrimination.
With the contradictions in government support for the corporate sector now becoming obvious even to the most disinterested voter, with the broken promises about electricity privatisation, the enduring droughts, and the widespread taking up of solar rooftop panels, the LNP will have to alter seriously if it is ever going to attract the “centre” again. That is, if there will be a real centre given the threat–social, economic and environmental–climate change mitigation will make on business-as-usual. The party will either have to move even further to the right and resist everything in the interests of the maintenance of corporate interests. Even if it does this it will inevitably be taken over by these very same interests who will see the writing on the wall effected by climate change and massive income differentials weakening the purchasing power of most people and therefore diminishing the ever-increasing consumption on which corporate capitalism is based. Or it will divest itself of its extreme right rump, which will have to join the Hansonites and Bernardis, and confront the changing world as it really is, not as ideology would like it. But this is the LNP, whose problems of continuity are much more evident than those of the ALP.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.