A politics waiting to be born

I wanted to respond to this piece in Overland, written by Elizabeth Humphrys. It's very good, and I would say broadly in line with the piece I wrote yesterday. But it puts some emphases in different places and makes some other points that I think are important.

What really struck me in reading it is the realisation that most of the political class––in which I would include the major parties and the media––simply don't understand the political environment in which they are operating.

This might sound like an incredible thing to say––that those most closely involved in politics, indeed those whose very job it is understand politics––don't actually understand it, but I think it is true, and Saturday's election result is evidence of that. Labor clearly made mistakes, but even the Morrison Government's (bare) victory was not because they uniquely understood the electorate, but more a statistical remnant of our voting system. 

As Humphrys says, 'A lot is being said by voters in this election, but one wonders whether many politicians and pundits are really listening.'

Her piece is an important attempt to do that listening. 

Humphrys calls this a period of anti-politics, a phrase I don't love, but let's go with it:

Anti-politics is a term referring to the increasing detachment from, and hostility to, political parties and their political system. People are angry at established parties, which once attracted the support of the overwhelming majority of voters....
Anti-politics is not a left or right phenomenon, but a hatred of the previously dominant political parties and a process whereby parties and projects attempt to capitalise on that. It is not a phenomenon that is only outside the established political parties, but one that also occurs within them.

I would add, that it also occurs within the media. To point out that the political media don't understand politics––or governance, or democracy, or their audience, or the electorate––is no great revelation, but it is something we need to understand, particularly because their failure to properly reflect what is happening feeds the very 'anti-politics' Humphrys is describing.

The evidence that people are fed up and abandoning the major parties is strong, and Humphrys supplies some figures:

As the count currently stands, the combined vote for the ALP and the Coalition sits at 75.3%, continuing the trend down over a number of decades – and down slightly on the result of 76.8% in 2016... 
At the 2019 election, 24.7% of voters gave their first preference to minor parties and independents – the largest percentage ever. 
This means a quarter of the electorate is voting outside the major parties in the lower house, but the ALP and Coalition will collectively take over 95% of seats because of the compulsory preferential voting system.

That last point is really telling, I think, because it means our very voting system is directing a significant clump of votes to parties that those voters don't actually want to vote for.

As I noted in my piece yesterday, many in the media deify the act of voting as some supreme moment of democratic participation (see the Annabel Crabb Tweet I quoted, for instance), whereas what these figures show is that, for a significant section of the electorate, voting is actively working against their wishes.

Which means, rather than being the ultimate act of democratic involvement, voting is a form of disinformation, or misdirection, and so it actively feeds our anti-politics.

(Please don't misunderstand what I am saying here: voting is important, but voting isn't the point of democracy. In fact, absent others forms of participation, it can, in the way I've just described, contribute to anti-politics sentiment in the community. And that anti-politics can end up being anti-democratic.)

As the Labor Party, post-election, gets ready to elect a new leader, we are hearing a lot from various candidates and party members that the party needs to move 'back to the centre'. There have been calls to abandon the 'latte-sipping inner city lefties' and take up the cause of the 'real voters' in the regions and suburbs.

But again, this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our moment of anti-politics.

'While we should be deeply concerned by the growing vote for ON, and the proliferation of racist micro-parties and candidates,' Humphrys argues, 'it would be erroneous to understand this as some sort of straightforward shift to the right in the Australian electorate.'

She says that at 'first this might seem counterintuitive,' but that 'we have clear evidence that the Australian electorate is generally becoming more progressive over time. As Geoff Robinson points out in his analysis in The Conversation, over the last decade, surveys (such as the Australian Election Study) have found that Australians are ‘more supportive of income redistribution, gay and lesbian rights and climate change action’.'

The other 'lesson' some seem to be learning from the election is that Labor has to abandon the idea of being a big target, of going to the election with an agenda of policy reforms, and instead, pulling a Morrison, and turn it all into a battle of personalities and cliches. Humphrys says, 'the opposite is true.'

In fact, she says, Labor's platform was 'piecemeal' and an '[attempt] to play both sides'. That is, it wasn't the big scary leftwing takeover that many in the media made it out to be, or that that explains why it failed. Instead, it was its very 'safeness', it's attempt to thread the needle in some clever technocratic way, that meant it lacked cut through and appeal. (And rising support for the Greens underlines this: their support was 8.6% in 2103, against 11.24% now.)

Frank Bongiorno puts it this way in another piece attempting to explain Saturday's election:

This may well be the kind of disaster that occurs when you stick a bunch of policy wonks in a room and give them something like free rein. No doubt they cleverly calculated that only this and that piddling percentage of voters would be affected by franking credit changes. The reduction of superannuation concessions to the wealthy would only worry people voting Liberal anyway. The grandfathering clauses of the negative gearing policy and continuation of concessions for new houses would neutralise serious opposition.
They forgot about the politics, about the ways particular policy positions can come to stand in symbolically for larger messages about what a political party is likely to do in office. 

Related to this, Humphrys points out that, from Labor's point view, this election result is arguably the period of the Hawke-Keating reforms coming home to roost. Their turn to neoliberalism in the early eighties is still held up as the golden age of Labor, but in fact, despite the electoral success it delivered in the short term, it has undermined their ability to counter the momentum of anti-politics. In fact, it has fed it.

Labor’s traditional base in the unions has been decimated since the start of the Accord and the neoliberal turn of Hawke and Keating, hollowing the party out of both members and its social weight. A national internal ALP inquiry after the 1996 Keating defeat found that the party had lost credibility because it implemented policies such as privatisation. A majority of the submissions to the inquiry centred on economic issues, and the report found that they ‘can best be encapsulated as being a collective criticism of Labor’s support’ for neoliberalism. This lesson has not been learned.

Bongiorno makes a similar point. He asks rhetorically what a 'move to the right' would actually mean, and wonders if it would be 'an embrace of the coal industry? A softening of commitment to renewables? More “environmental” water for farmers? Income tax cuts for the wealthy? A reduction in business tax rates (to encourage companies to employ more salt-of-the-earth workers wearing the same kinds of high-vis vests beloved of politicians on the campaign trail)? Does it mean a winding back of welfare entitlements? Rejection of the Uluru Statement? Higher university fees? More support for private schools so that the working class can afford to send their kids there?'

His suggestion is that if this is what it means, then Labor is still unlikely to receive any benefit:

[If] it means any or all of these things, why would anyone vote Labor when the Coalition will always be more full-throated in delivering on them?

Humphrys makes another key point––and I couldn't agree with her more about this ––that there is a tendency is to blame the people for getting it 'wrong' or for being ill-informed.  'It is the height of hubris to have voters continually reject your party and policies and respond by saying that it is that people just don’t understand and imply they are stupid.'


Yes, there is certainly a point to be made about the way in which media misinforms people, and about the lack of other sources of information that people can easily draw upon in order to understand what is on offer, but that is very different from saying people are stupid or simply not interested.

Finally, this might be the one area in which I disagree with Humphreys' assessment. She says:

It is not a question of calling for a change to the political system but understanding that increasingly larger numbers of voters are rejecting Labor and the Coalition, and most of them fail to see that rejection have a meaningful impact on who their representatives are.

I'm not sure I understand her point here, and it seems to me that 'change to the political system' is central to addressing the failure of that system to deliver votes in the way the people are indicating they want.

Surely part of our response to this moment of anti-politics is about providing the support that makes sure people are engaged and informed, an approach that has ramifications for everything from grassroots organising ('the strong and slow boring of hard boards'), as well for ambitious institutional reform, such as citizens assemblies, multi-member electorates, and the like.

If Humphrys is right and what recent elections are showing us is that voters want something other than the main parties, then that to me suggests a more fundamental and underlying desire: something along the lines of wanting a bigger say in their own future, or at the very least, parties and independents who are genuinely representative.

My reading of her argument is that there is nothing the major parties can do to reestablish their dominance. People have simply moved past the point where they are ever likely to support Labor or the LNP in the way that they did in the past. The so-called two-party system is dead.

The challenge, then, is provide more progressive options than are currently bubbling up from the wreckage of the old system.

This isn't just about forming new parties and getting people to vote for them. It is about––in my estimation––starting grassroots conversations and movements and letting new parties or independents emerge organically. Activism needs to be about empowering people to speak for themselves so that they can rally support from their own networks. (And we have models of this, I think, in Indi and Warringah.)

The corrorally of this is that our parliaments have to become more deliberative, which in turn means, as I said in yesterday's piece, getting over the idea that there is something inherently wrong with 'hung parliaments'. Indeed, they might be the only thing that saves us.

In the end, Humphrys piece is less about 'what we do next' and more about trying to understand the current situation in a way that makes sure 'what we do next' makes sense. Everyone should read it, especially if your bloody job is about understanding and analysing politics, and I'm looking at you, journalists.

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