The Show About Nothing – Contemporary Australian Politics

Bomb damage at Pearl Harbour, by Marion Doss

No matter how many Kevin or Julia supporters may wish it was all over, it isn’t. Nor for Turnbull and Abbott, across the aisle, whose differences are likely to come to the fore when they take government.

In a first class piece of analysis of the Seinfeld-like state of our politics, Geoffrey Robinson in The Conversation hits the nail on the head.

“As traditional partisan divisions between and within parties have declined politicians have pursued power all the more aggressively as an end in itself. The irresolvable viciousness of internal conflict within political parties reflects not policy divergence but convergence.”

This leaves us with meaningless yet damaging contests such as we saw yesterday, between politicians who will fight to the death for power, but have no idea what they want it for. Their policies are not those they think are right, or good for the country, but those they think will gain and maintain power for themselves and their clients.

Thus a conservative government is quite willing to exercise state control over a business if the electorate demands it. And a nominally socialist government is quite willing to privatise one, if enough voters say that’s they want.

This leaves the thinking voter with nowhere to go, because you cannot trust anyone to operate on a consistent basis.

If I vote for a party which claims, as Labor does, to want to reduce disadvantage and level the playing field to give ordinary Australians a fair go, then I expect that to be the guiding philosophy of all their actions once in power, regardless of what polls, party apparatchicks or the media may be saying at the time.

I expect them to govern in accordance with stated principles, and take the electoral consequences if they fail. Not abandon the policy to save their necks. And I expect the Coalition to do the same. That’s how democracy is supposed to work, if it isn’t broken.

Labors action with regard to the people who matter most to me, my own LGBTI community, do not pass this test of integrity. They will, after grinding, remorseless effort by activists, occasionally deliver some improvement in our situation. But only so much as the polls tell them the public will stomach. This is no way for any party to govern.

The problem is that the backroom, the fixers, have taken over the parties. They decide what will be policy. And they are not thinkers or visionaries. They are the political equivalent of accountants. Excellent servants, but poor masters.

Companies like Virgin, Apple, Microsoft, even the evil empire itself, News Limited, grow and thrive and are profitable because they are founded, led and controlled by visionaries. In a curious way, companies like these make big money because making money is not their primary focus. It is a more of a side effect.

Accountants do not pursue visions, and nor should they. Their job is to pursue the profits necessary to make the visions happen.

It is perfectly possible to have a successful company without vision, although it isn’t easy. Those companies tend to subsist on low profit high volume consumer products that are basically indistinguishable from their competitors.

For example, Ford and General Motors cars are, for all practical purposes, interchangeable, because they are designed by customer research and built to customer-determined and accountant-enforced price points. They are not built to fulfil a vision.

What we now have in Canberra or Spring St is Ford v Holden – consumer-driven commodity politics. The driving motivation is not to deliver a vision, but to engineer advantage slightly more to their own side than the other. Any philosophy they attach to this is mere marketing and packaging, devoid of any actual content.

In such a contest, Tony Abbott has an advantage. His philosophy, his vision, such as it is, appears to align more closely with his product (although I would argue that it is in fact as false and empty as Labor’s packaging, but that’s for another article). Labor cannot clearly articulate a competing vision, because there is division over what that vision is, a division they seek to paper over rather than confront and resolve.

Are they truly a progressive liberalising party, or are they, like their British counterparts, just pale pink Tories? They cannot be both. They must have a unifying philosophy. They can argue among themselves about means, but their ends must be the same, and clearly stated.

To get back to the issue that’s most important to me right now, do they believe that I, as a gay man, am a fully equal citizen who should have exactly the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, or do they believe that certain people in society, e.g., those professing a religious faith, should be elevated over the rest of us, with extraordinary rights and privileges, as is currently the case?

Tony Abbott’s position appears clear and unequivocal: not only will religious privileges be maintained, but he would die in a ditch, politically speaking, to defend them. It may turn out differently in practice, of course. Labors position is equivocal. Yes it will, no it won’t, well maybe in some circumstances; but in any event, the party is not prepared to put it’s political life on the line for the principle of equality.

You only have to look at the ridiculous business of the media reforms. These were supposed to be one of the most important achievements of the current administration. The bills were far from perfect. They were further compromised by the attempts to stitch up a deal with the independents. The Prime Minister personally intervened to try to get them through. But in the end, Conroy withdrew them rather than let them be compromised any further.

Compare that with the government’s behaviour over the Human Rights & Anti-Discrimination consolidation. They had an exposure draft. They had a comprehensive inquiry, which refined and improved the original proposals. Did they put the Bill before the House? Did the Prime Minister put her weight behind it? Were the independents wooed to support it? Was there intense lobbying, a media blitz?

As my father always said, ignore what they say. Watch what they do. That will tell you the truth.

They did nothing. It was withdrawn because it was all too hard. Too risky. Too complicated. Despite having a far better provenance than those cobbled-together much-patched media bills.

The government was prepared to bring in one fig-leaf to cover their retreating arse – amending the Sex Discrimination Act to cover GLBTI – but in a fatally compromised form, continuing the extraordinary and quite unjustifiable privileges of religious and religious owned or run organisations.

They are exempt. It’s one law for us, and another for them. And so a bill meant to bring us closer to full citizenship and equality ends up by entrenching the privileges of the very people whose discriminatory behaviour most urgently needs to be stamped out. And there is your truth.

Yes, I know there are many within Labor who do fight tooth and nail for equality, and achieve much, but time and again, they have foundered on the rock of religious intransigence. Progress is grindingly and unacceptably slow. “But there’s no-one else with the power to deliver what we need,” they cry.

They remind me of the battered wife defending her abusive husband. They need to ask themselves if the time has come, in the Prime Minister’s famous phrase, to move forward. To abandon their nostalgic affection for the progressive Labor that used to be, the one they fell in love with. The one who demands their absolute fidelity, while openly conducting affairs with the likes of Jim Wallace. To leave behind this abusive, manipulative lover he has become. To stop providing the fig-leaves that allow him to maintain a progressive facade.

There must be socially progressive LGBTI people inside the Liberal Party, too, not to mention the Greens. Maybe it’s time we sank our political differences and came together as a single voice with a single aim: to leave behind the established parties and marshall the votes of GLBTI folk and their allies, and negotiate their conditional delivery to the party that offers – and most importantly, delivers – the best deal. To overcome our divisions and discover the power of working together.

Or maybe even form a party of our own.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)