The False Promise of Conformism


Stop the War Against the Poor
Sydney resident’s placard, May 18, 2014

The Australian voter, as a political species, remains alien to ideology. There is a certain cavalier ruthlessness with which governments can be dispatched at the ballot box. Being one of the most electioneered, if not over-electioneered countries on the planet, there is much room for such removals ‘down under’. These are not necessarily done on the basis of cerebral revelations or snappy policies. The chat here is always structural and mechanical – budget cuts, and more budget cuts; the fantasy of a “bottom line”; commodities markets; interest rates; mortgage payments; the US-Australian alliance.

Street protests are generally dismissed as angry voices in a sea of conformist calm. It is a recipe that Australian politicians thrive on, hoping that each election brings with it its automatic bounty (Australia, being a country where voting is not a right but a duty). Major parties know that most voters will park their choices in an ancestral manner – predictably, unquestioningly. It falls to “swing” voters in a few seats to alter the balance, a truly unsatisfactory state of affairs.

The growing anger against the Australian government, run by an ideologically drugged leader, suggests that assumptions of happy conformity may be misplaced. The March in May protests in major cities on Sunday attempted to replicate the steam of March in March – catchy calls for protesters to vent some steam. They don’t necessarily have any unifying theme other than wishing the Abbott government would go away in an act of glorious self-liquidation. They just might get their wish.

On Sunday, there was a sting in the tail. Much of it was in evidence outside the Victorian State Library in Melbourne. The statue which dominates the front space of the neoclassical building is the girth-like wonder of Sir Redmond Barry, one of the state’s foremost colonial judges, liberal, erudite, something of a rarity in nineteenth century Australia. His head sports spikes to ward off defecating pigeons, and his manner simulates that of the imperious, if overly weighty, patriarch.

In some ways, he is an odd presence before the protesters. He insisted that the cultural quotient of Victoria be increased, sponsored book and museum collections, and pronounced the death sentence of Australia’s favourite horse thief and cop killer, Ned Kelly, in 1880. Frontier battles were being waged by judge against outlaw, and Barry was in no mood to heed the thousands of petitioners who wished Kelly to be spared. Some of the protesters would no doubt agree with the judge’s first achievements; many would have lynched Barry for the last. History, in that sense, has treated Kelly better than Barry, though Barry was spared the future celluloid transgressions that would be inflicted on his opposite number.

The air proved indignant with placards sporting such statements as “Liar, Liar, budgie smugglers on fire”. (For those unfamiliar with Australian beach lingo, the budgie smuggler remains a famous aesthetic atrocity worn by such men as Prime Minister Abbott.) One poster was striking – “Bust the Budget; Follow the Money”, featuring Australia as a bin reserve moving money into the US-Australian alliance in the name of untried military assets. That is the lot of any decent satrap.

Others were directed at the inarticulate treasurer, Joe Hockey, possibly Australia’s least financially literate member for the job in a generation. “Joe Hockey suck my cocky.” Then came Shaun Murray of Friends of the Earth Australia with “so Tony Abbott and his Congo line of assholes.” Some speakers and protesters preferred to focus on the effects of proposed budgets rather than personal vitriol. “The burden will fall on Australia’s first peoples.” Another speaker noted that, “This budget is a poisonous recipe for homelessness for Australia’s young people.” The national broadcaster, seen as conservatism’s sworn enemy, is also set for a sharp pruning.

The Greens House of Representatives member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, made a popular suggestion at the rally. “If Labor and [Clive] Palmer join us, we can have a new prime minister by Christmas.” Whether one of Australia’s richest men, whose Palmer United Party won seats on the back of the mining magnate’s huge war chest, should actually determine who remains in power is troubling, but the hatred of Abbott at gathering is entrenched and unequivocal.

There is, in short, nothing cerebral here. This is the politics of the tribe and the pocket, but it is heartfelt. The Abbott government is doing its level best to squander its already slimming margins of popularity, invigorating an otherwise conformist electorate. The failings of the previous Labor government lay in its inability to articulate an ideology; the failing of Abbott’s conservative coalition lie in making ideology too evident, a nasty construct indifferent to dissent. The market is sacred and divine – forget everything else and bow before it. Common to both parties is the assumption that the Australian voter will essentially swallow any gruel on offer.

There are voices at the rally promising the ram the budget cuts back down the throat of the Coalition. Special fury is being directed at welfare cuts and co-payments for visits to doctors. Over $12.4 billion dollars is on the table, and opposition leader Bill Shorten is promising to remain firm in the Senate with the backing of minor parties. But in the main, there is unlikely to be any genuine change to the status quo. As veteran journalist Paul Sheehan explained, “Moral outrage is used to hide moral cowardice, with the assumption that voters are too ignorant or self-interested to notice” (Sydney Morning Herald, May 19). Beware, and be wary, of the Australian voter.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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