The Voice: caught between a socio-economic hammer and anvil

Oct 19, 2023
Australia on crossword puzzle.

As the shock waves from last weekend’s Voice referendum reverberate, a deeper reality is beginning to more fully reveal itself. The ‘division’ that Voice opponents claimed the proposition would create already exists among non-indigenous Australians and it is reshaping how politics is done in this country. We are moving ever closer towards a politics of grievance.

The campaign against the Voice was characterised by disinformation, fear and, in some cases, bigotry. There were unfounded claims about challenges to the High Court, land grabs, financial compensation and incorrect claims that indigenous communities already received $40 billion a year, that it squandered such money, and that colonialism was beneficial. Some even ventured, blaming the victim, that indigenous troubles were of their own making.

In democratic countries, there are formal rules as to how democracy operates, but there are also informal or unwritten rules. In Australia, the first unwritten rule to be broken was, via immigration, using race as a political tactic. Dog-whistle racism has since become a part of our political landscape.

The second unwritten rule was that intentional disinformation and fear-mongering not be employed in political campaigns. The unstated agreement on debating issues on their merits rather than on patently false information is fundamental to democratic health.

In an era in which there is little meaningful debate about traditional Left-Right economic orientation and political debate has focused more on social values, these unwritten rules have increasingly been abandoned. Doing so, the opposite of social progress has become not so much social conservatism as, increasingly, social reaction.

With little room to move on economic issues, conservative politics has drifted towards harnessing this social reaction, of which the Voice debate was emblematic. This had cut adrift economic conservatives but social progressives who are now dominant in what was the Menzian Liberal heartland, illustrated by recent elections and the geographic orientation of the Voice results.

It also helps explain why Labor’s primary vote has fragmented between social conservatives and more committed social progressives, one result of which is the rise of the Greens. These divisions can be demographically characterised by education or relative wealth, but more deeply reflect a general sense of existential security and insecurity, between optimism and fear and between advantage and grievance.

Driving this fracturing of traditional politics are two phenomena The first has been the reordering of economic distribution and accumulation as a result of neo-liberal economic policy prescriptions, which has created a larger rather than smaller gap between haves and have nots. The second the advent of new technology, which is recasting how economies work. Together they create a socio-economic hammer and anvil.

Many people have lost out in these transitions and are angry. And even those whose lives are not significantly impacted, there is also a sense of a threat of loss; of former certainties, of the nature of employment, of relative socio-economic status and of self-worth and self-control. Their main political driver is grievance.

This grievance is fertile political soil for conspiracy theories, disinformation and fear-mongering. It thrives on simple populist answers to complex questions. At a time when there is little to distinguish political parties by economic policy, the temptation has been to cultivate this cohort of grievance.

Cultivating grievance is not exclusive to Australia, with all Western countries being assailed to some degree. The rise of Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK, the near-election of a far-right president in France, the wider drift to the populist Right and the global decline of democracy both in quantity and quality all reflect this seismic shift.

Democracy, as we have known it, arose on the back of industrialisation as a mechanism to balance competing interest groups. From the advent of industrialisation, it took around a century to play out as liberal democracy.

The current technological revolution is proving to be as profound as the industrial revolution of two centuries before and, with faster and more accessible communications, its consequences are playing out more quickly. The question arises, then, will a new political model arise on the back of these fundamental socio-economic changes?

Electoral politics is necessary for liberal democracy but, alone, is not sufficient. We will have elections into the foreseeable future, but it is less certain that liberal democracy, as we have known it, it will be part of that process.

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