Oswald Spengler noted that as a society moves further down the track of civilisation the traditional two parties in a democracy become indistinguishable from each other and all that is left is just a single party representing the bourgeois. Nowhere is that dynamic more obvious than here in the most bourgeois country in the world, Australia. As we come to the end of an election campaign that seems to have been going for an eternity, the difference between the two majors parties, Liberal and Labor, is smaller than ever. In fact, they really should change their branding colours. The upcoming election is a choice between beige and off-white rather than red and blue.
I saw an unintentionally amusing post online during the week where somebody was speculating that our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has Bell’s Palsy as a result of getting the vaccine. Sorry to disappoint, folks, but that really is what his face looks like, the default configuration of which is a look of smugness that in any other institution in the country would be a liability but in the Liberal Party with its private school educated, born-to-rule pretentions, is part of the job description.
Morrison has been a party man his whole life. So has his opponent, Anthony Albanese. Like the Prime Minster, Albanese appears to have failed upwards and somehow ended up as opposition leader through the occult inner workings and factional machinations of the Labor Party. Did nobody else want the job? The question must be asked. It certainly isn’t a good election to win but there might not be any better ones for a long time.
One of the main issues of this election was that core element of the bourgeois dream: home ownership. This has been steadily slipping out of reach for more than two decades now thanks partly to the reforms ushered in by ex-Liberal Prime Minister, John Howard. Albanese has a collection of investment properties which makes him somewhat of a hypocrite on the issue but hypocrisy is no hindrance to the highest office these days. It might even be a necessary quality.
Albanese’s solution to the problem is to have the government become co-owner in property purchases while Morrison’s is to let people draw down their superannuation (this is not a new policy but an old pig that the coalition slapped some lipstick on for the final week of the election). Neither is a real solution because the cause of the problem, the real cause, is that which cannot be spoken i.e. the fact that the US Federal Reserve has been spinning the printing presses so fast they’re damn near falling off. But that’s been the election in a nutshell. Six weeks of systematically avoiding any real issue.
Of far more interest in the election campaign has been the influence of the billionaires, forerunners if Spengler is correct, to the age of Caesarism. On the right, we had Clive Palmer reprising his role as a c-grade Trump wannabe. Unfortunately for him, Palmer simply doesn’t have the cachet for media manipulation that Trump has. Although, to be fair, it’s also the case that the media landscape in Australia is far more controlled than the US meaning that the bourgeois uniparty that governs the country has the discipline and wherewithal to systematically exclude alternative voices from the conversation.
It’s here that the arrival of a second billionaire on the scene has been of interest because this billionaire has received plenty of attention from the establishment and that is because he is, in fact, a political insider having previously been aligned with fundraising efforts for none other than the current treasurer Frydenberg. I’m talking here of Simon Holmes a Court, whose father was Australia’s most famous corporate raider back in the 80s where he built his fortune from scratch buying and selling companies. Like Palmer, Holmes a Court is not running for office directly but rather has funded a group of Karens….errr, I mean….candidates to run in blue ribbon inner city seats currently held by the Liberal Party including, amusingly, the treasurer’s seat of Kooyong. Holmes a Court had previously been kicked out of the Kooyong 200 association where he had been raising money for the treasurer.
If all this sounds like an internal spat between the blue bloods that’s certainly true but that spat has wider significance in the electoral landscape. The Liberal Party has adopted a “net zero 2050” position largely because of this internal pressure. In doing so, it has been trying to defend the inner city seats where the average voter’s idea of helping the environment is to trade in the Porsche for a Tesla.
Possibly the most interesting aspect of this election will be whether the Liberals lose those seats. Meanwhile, both the United Australia Party and One Nation look to do well in the outer suburban seats currently held by Labor. It’s one of unspoken facts of Australian politics that these supposedly right-leaning parties actually owe a great deal of their vote to what you might call old-Labor voters. The Labor Party sold its economic soul back in the 90s in the same way as Labour in the UK and the Democrats in the US. So, there’s a lot of old-Labor voters looking for a home. UAP and One Nation probably won’t do well enough to win any of those seats but they might flip a few to the Liberals on preferences.
All this implies a realignment of Australian politics which mirrors exactly what has already happened in the US and the UK. The right leaning parties could capture the old Labor vote in the outer suburbs. In order to do so, however, they would need to abandon the inner city blue ribbon seats such as the one the Treasurer currently holds. They won’t do that voluntarily. But if those seats get lost, they might figure it out the hard way.
That to me is the most interesting part of this election. I don’t expect it to happen yet. Australia doesn’t seem ready for our Brexit/Trump moment. As a resource rich nation, we actually benefit from some of the turmoil in the world which drives up the price of our food crops and energy exports. That might pay for quite a few electric cars for wealthy inner city denizens in the years ahead. The petrol price hikes and inflation, however, will hit home most squarely in the outer suburbs and it is there that the future of Australian politics lies.
I’ll be watching with interest one of those seats which is the electorate of Fowler in Sydney’s west. Australia’s answer to Hillary Clinton, Kristina Keneally, has been parachuted in by the Labor Party machine. Keneally, who even has an American accent, shares with Clinton the strange combination of being spectacularly unpopular with the general public and incredibly popular with the party machine men (I suppose we should call them machine persons nowadays). Her main opponent in the seat is a Vietnamese refugee who had previously left the Liberal Party to became deputy mayor to a man who had left the Labor Party. Together they formed an independent local council. In that local story there is a lot about a potential future direction for Australian politics. Fowler might be a bellwether for a more general trend in future years.