Surprised at the disgust of politics in Australia and elsewhere? This would itself be a surprise. Disliking Australian politics has not only been a pass time for decades in the country; it has become something of a nervous tic. One outstanding feature of this loathing lies in the dulling and dumbing of the “centre” of Australian politics. The movement of the major political wings in Australia towards a toxic, misguided centre has left other parties a chance to capitalise. New cooks are arriving, not so much to spoil the broth but change it altogether.
When voters go to the poll, notably in a country where one is punished for not doing so, fat cat heavies start to suffer from sloth. They assume that, with each given election, a staple vote is guaranteed, a decent number passing their way whatever monstrosities they might enact. We vote, and therefore they are. Machine politics is the inevitable outcome. Robotic tacticians earn their keep by advising the major parties how to win votes in marginal seats. Dignity is damned, constructive ideas deemed unnecessary distractions.
Come September 7, there are the cheerful rogues keen to make an impression and challenge the moribund centre. It is not merely the candidates of The WikiLeaks Party who are charging to Canberra with well-directed yet sober indignation. Other parties, be it in the form of the agrarian socialist Katter’s Australian Party, or the eccentric Palmer United Party are also channelling voter dissatisfaction. The supposed fringe is not merely alive but raging.
The emergence of what are termed “fringe” parties suggests the precariousness of politics and complacence. A refusal to take the temperature of the electorate can spell doom. Both the Liberal-National coalition and the governing Australian Labor Party threw away the thermometer some time ago, assuming they knew the patient all too well. That casting aside, that abandonment, revealingly demonstrated by a vicious populism, has forced alternatives to the fore. This political scene is no accident. It is axiomatic. It is even, heaven forbid, logical.
In 1995, political scientists Richard Katz and Peter Mair tagged a label on this phenomenon, something they had mulled since 1992. It was hardly revolutionary, but it was important. The authors hit upon the idea that democratic countries were witnessing the cartelisation of politics. Indeed, their article in the first volume of Party Politics remains useful as a starting point. “The cartel party thesis,” argued the authors in a restatement in 2009, “holds that political parties increasingly function like cartels, employing resources of the state to limit political competition and ensure their own electoral success.”
Such parties of the cartelised centre tend to collude. They form ties between parties and state. Membership is merely symbolic and distant. Such parties, without necessarily declaring an open consensus on key issues, essentially accept the premise of what the other hopes to achieve. What matters here is that they play the same game, augmented by the same rules. The mad monk Tony Abbott squares off against the hollow yet egomaniacal Kevin Rudd. The former prefers militarisation of the issue of asylum seekers steered by a three-star general; the latter, a broad, regional camp system of concentrated human processing. The objectives are the same; the means, slightly different.
The phenomenon is hardly specific to Australia. In the Eurozone imbroglio, countries such as Greece have witnessed long standing political parties who have seemingly sold their economies down the river. Those cartels did their best to pension off country assets and make ruinous financial deals. The increased share of votes of the left-wing, anti-austerity SYRIZA grouping has proven mighty, rising in number in the elections of 2012. Their targets were many: mainstream Greek politics, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund.
The cartelisation of America’s political landscape is also worth noting, if only because it took place so much earlier relative to other liberal democratic countries. The monetisation of politics tends to spell doom for any healthy democracy. The late Gore Vidal, perhaps at times unfairly, was dismissive of the progressive streak of American politics, renowned for its populist undertones and occasional outbreak of fringe fever. In a state where there are essentially two right wings, where is one to straddle?
In Australia, there are no political wings, merely an unimaginative flat centre governed by one fundamental dogma: pragmatism. It might even be said that Australia is the only country to have made pragmatism a form of acute fundamentalism. Everything else is irrelevant huffing or simply pure sentiment.
A debate of ideas is desperately needed. Whether it is abridging the rules of privilege for parliamentarians, enabling a broader access of information for the public, opening up the labyrinthine system of decision making in Canberra, isolated and estranged from the electorates that give it its blood, this needs to be had. The politics of pragmatism has to be replaced by a politics of ideas.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and is currently running with Julian Assange and Leslie Cannold for the WikiLeaks Party in Victoria. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org