This isn’t an article about economics. This is an article about something far more precious – Culture. Australia is losing the best parts of itself and at the speed this slide is happening we’re going to be culturally bankrupt before we get a chance to save the farm.
Things started to go bad during the Howard years. Australia’s most reactionary leader and government sought to unravel the fabric of the social reforms of the Whitlam era, particularly in regard to the rights of women, whose proper station in life had clearly been forgotten. What he couldn’t achieve in that specific respect he made up for with his own ideas on how to reverse the progressive trend of the Nation’s growth pattern. He took our famed and admittedly somewhat exaggerated “egalitarianism” and thoroughly trashed it with middle class welfare programs. He is the progenitor of the modern illness of a sense of entitlement amongst the not-so-badly-off classes. He is the force behind the demonisation of people seeking asylum in this country. He took the long-standing and genuine humanitarian impulses of thinking Australians – from all parts of the political spectrum – and threw them into the frothy wake of a ship called Tampa. He took the children of moral decency and reason and threw them overboard like so much burly and watched the sharks of racism circle. He ignited the anxieties of the more conservative and insecure elements of our society with jingoistic rhetoric about border control and who should and should not come to this country. He openly and brazenly traded in fear and loathing.
It wasn’t just desperate foreign people using desperate measures that he sought to demonise. He managed to do it to all sorts of Australians as well. First it was single mothers, the perception of whom he changed to lazy sluts (with a lot of help from pathologically sanctimonious media types like Ray Martin). Single mothers in the worst financial positions (getting little or no maintenance) received less GST compensation than any other families. During this time single mothers were perceived as a threat to the institution of marriage itself. Not merely symbolically, but quite literally, at least in Conservative terms. Fifties’ Conservatism.
Then there was the welfare class more generally. Howard gave life and breath to a deranged individual by the name of Pauline Hanson, whose single greatest contribution to Australian culture is the sickly pious and demented mentality of “downward envy” – envy and judgement directed at people who get something that you don’t, even if they have nothing in the first place, or as one analyst put it, “The unhealthy desires of some people to ensure that anyone they deem to be lower on the social and economic scale than themselves, stays there.” The Liberals let Pauline go soon enough, only to enthusiastically embrace the worst characteristics of her social policy and sell them wholesale to a public keen for a cheap deal.
Howard also allowed greedy, profiteering insurance companies all across this country to make it nigh on impossible for community groups to continue with publicly staged events. Fairs, fetes, festivals, concerts and markets closed down all across the land. Many have never returned. This particular loss to Australian culture is still being felt today. Far too little has been made of it. It is a hugely significant matter to communities everywhere because it is precisely these sorts of events that make communities; these are the things that bind and unite. Howard’s complete inaction with respect to insurance company profiteering was nothing less than cultural vandalism. No effort was made to protect communities legislatively.
Then along came Kevin Rudd and a couple of moderate Coalition leaders and it seemed for a second that things might turn around a little. But by this time Labor had shifted so far to the centre-right that nothing much was going to change. Some of us thought that at least we might have some respite from the cultural and spiritual decline. No such luck. Tony Abbott and the Mainstream Media were soon on hand to ensure that no such respite was to be had. There was work to be done. There were institutions to sully, minds to manipulate and demons to exorcise. If you thought the Howard years were an exercise in abject cynicism, you hadn’t seen anything yet.
Six years of incessant Opposition negativity, mendacity, manipulation, backed, promulgated and codified by a sycophantic media, has reduced this Nation’s heart and soul to a lump of cold, dark charcoal. No-one can possibly engage in such scurrilous behaviour for an extended period of time and not expect that it will have social repercussions. Political apathy is a real problem in this country and it’s been made worse by the political environment of the last six years. Labor is certainly not innocent in this, but their role is far less sinister than that of the Coalition and the Mainstream Media. But lack of political engagement is not something any political party has to fear when the media is on your side. In fact, it’s in the interests of such a party to try and increase it. An ostensibly passive audience can be told most anything and have it be believed. You simply have to be the one in control of the message. The Coalition has offered the electorate what amounts to a policy vacuum and many have been sucked into it.
Over the last six years the Coalition has debased the Parliament by their actions and behaviour within those very chambers. Labor’s leadership problems were unfortunate (and not entirely of their own making), but they had nothing to do with the Parliament or the Government per se. They functioned perfectly well on the Government’s side of things despite the dramas happening in the Party Room. The tragedy is that the Coalition will not be punished in any way for their abject disregard for this Nation’s most significant institution. The deep cognitive dissonance that has been engendered by a long and consistent campaign to demonise successive Labor Governments will likely be successful. They honestly think they are Pavlov and we are their dogs. Sadly, the bell will toll for far too many Australian electors. Conservatives use demonisation at every turn. They know this taps into the worst parts of the Australian psyche and they don’t care – or perhaps more accurately don’t see it because that’s precisely the realm they inhabit themselves. Like an emphysemic lung, the soul of the Nation has been gradually darkened by this mentality and the only available oxygen is laced with a toxic blend of Conservative Carbon and Murdoch Monoxide.
Political cynicism and passivity, a rampant sense of entitlement by those who have no cause to feel it, xenophobia, downward envy, loss of charity, loss of our egalitarian spirit, loss of sense of community, loss of trust in important institutions, loss of tolerance. These are all facets of the cultural decline Australia has been suffering since the Howard Government. They are all consequences of the Conservative mentality. It seemed for a moment in 2007 when the Nation flushed the Howard Government down the toilet we’d done so in a moment of genuine insight into what had befallen us. It’s as though we woke up briefly, but have now returned to our default state of somnambulance. At this election we have the opportunity to slow the cultural slide or to add lubricant to it. Be in no doubt, an Abbott led Coalition Government will be a return to the Howard brand. A Coalition loss would instead see a movement in their ranks to something more reasonable and moderate, with Malcolm Turnbull at the tiller.
Be in no doubt also that a vote for the Coalition will be a vote for nine months of political and policy chaos. There is no chance that the Coalition can govern effectively given that the current make-up of the Senate does not change until July next year. The Greens have the balance of power in the Senate. Just how much of the Coalition’s policy agenda is going to see the light of day? Are we headed for a full election of both houses early next year? The Coalition is certainly chest-beating about that prospect. I guess that’s part of their plan to Stop the Waste. Will Abbott instead back away from his policy agenda and tear up his “contract” with the Australian people? Will he indulge in the mammoth hypocrisy and contradiction of doing deals with the Greens? No-one knows. What we do know is one of those scenarios will unfold and nothing resembling stable governance will happen for the first nine long months of a Coalition Government.
By contrast, the re-election of the Labor Government will mean a neat segue from a static carbon price to a floating carbon price, and in most other respects, business as usual.