Even before the Albanese government was certain that it would have a clear majority, the Sky News chorus had begun baying about the “mad left” taking power. What the madness constitutes is never quite made clear. It is “vibe” rather than diagnosis.
It is not to be dismissed because of that inexactitude. This is another echo of the games deriving from the American right where the so-called left is essentially unfit to hold office; only the right can form a legitimate government. The fear-mongering underpins the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, as well as the continuing efforts to “stop the steal.”
It is further developed in the US. The intertwining of the religious right with the Republican Party has given an Evangelical (Pentecostal) infusion to the mix. In the Spiritual Warfare battle between good and evil that must be won for Jesus to return, Jesus votes Republican and the “left” is a demonic force obstructing him.
Depicting the largely centrist Democrats as a wild left is quite an achievement. Two Democrat senators owned by the right prevent most legislation being passed, let alone progressive bills. Depicting the party as the face of evil in America makes democracy impossible.
The “conservative” parties of the UK and Australia are playing a less extreme version of the same game as part of their efforts to entrench minority rule. Their policies are not in the interests of the voters they need in (approximate) democracies: culture war battles inherent to “conservative” identity must replace policy platforms to attract the majority vote.
The GOP is aided by a deeply distorted democratic structure underpinning the republic. The Tories have just passed legislation that undermines the independence of their electoral commission in a substantial blow to British democracy. The Australian “conservative” parties struggle to surmount a hurdle not faced by their UK and US brothers: compulsory and preferential voting. Disillusionment and despair are strong motives not to bother voting if it is optional. These egalitarian measures force the Australian Coalition partners to work harder to convince their bloc to vote against their own interests.
The process of undermining Australians’ faith in our strong electoral processes is underway. Clive Palmer and his conspiracy voters are overtly echoing American talking points. Ballot boxes were hidden and shady companies provided electoral management, if you loiter in this underbelly of the internet.
The fact that the Labor Party achieved a majority government at all could be considered a miracle given the barrage of propaganda and nonsense that a lacklustre press gallery churned out as election coverage. That farce crested its years of echoing Coalition talking points; the members of Scott Morrison’s inner circle of reporters to whom inside information was granted were keen to maintain this access. Only a handful still merit the professional label of journalist.
This propagandist spin continues to seethe for the more mainstream “conservative” voter. News Corp has deployed the Dog Line to howl the weakness of Labor’s victory. Sky’s Gemma Tognini wrote in The Australian that Labor’s vote was “staggeringly low” and that the idea that Labor voters “abandoned it” robbed the new government of a “firm mandate.” Somehow “sliding into power via preferences” is a sign of shoddy victory rather than a canny electorate. The Australian’s National Editor, Dennis Shanahan, wrote to remind his peers that “tears, recriminations, claims of a lack of mandate, the lowest primary vote on record or that Labor is only a hybrid government tinged irrevocably teal and green from its independent allies” are “pointless.”
They are not, however, pointless. The point is to undermine faith in our voting system, as well as Labor’s right to form government. Through the Howard years, conservatives argued that voting should no longer be compulsory. In the controversial 2020 parliamentary committee report on electoral matters, conservative voices had pushed for the voter ID laws and optional preferential voting. Happily for the Coalition, optional preferential voting would “devastate Labor.”
Unlike the UK, Australia has so far seen off these Republican-style attacks on our electoral process, but we need to remain aware of the risks. The formerly conservative side of politics is entrenching a more radical right trajectory and undermining the numbers voting combined with enraging their base are the only ways they can bring a hard right government into being.
NSW moderate Matt Kean observed that none of the lost Liberal vote went to more conservative candidates. Nonetheless, Sky’s Peta Credlin celebrated the chance to go more radical right now the so-called moderates have been flushed. Sky’s Rowan Dean berated the moderate “bedwetters” betraying the base with their Labor-lite impotence. The toxic chorus demands the Liberals embrace more radical positions.
Sky News is funnelled free-to-air into the regions drumming in this message that Australia faces “three years of hard-core left-wing government that will destroy the fabric of this nation.” It unifies the conspiracy spheres that underly the UAP vote with a resentful base. Peter Dutton’s initial speeches as Leader of the Opposition have been loaded with disdain for the capacity of the ALP to govern. This has provided amusement for the many “safe Liberal” electorate voters who turned against the Morrison government’s malign incompetence, but it is to the base that he speaks. The mythical “socialist left” embodied by the Labor Party will destroy everything.
By depicting Dutton as a “pragmatic conservative” rather than a radical right figure, Greg Sheridan aims to normalise the leader’s authoritarian political leaning. Dutton has said he thinks parliament is a disadvantage for sitting governments. He combined Australia’s enforcement and surveillance arms in one body in the mega-department of Home Affairs, and deployed them in a highly illiberal way. He victimised an out-group for the vengeful pleasure of his in-group. His pitch is to lead this so-called party of the worker against the educated elite of the left.
Like America, we can celebrate the victory of the centre left over manifestly incompetent and malevolent radical right governments. Like America, though, we should be very careful not to believe the radical right is defeated.