October 28, 2015

Malcolm the messiah

By Nick Dyrenfurth
Malcolm the messiah
The saviour complex has a long history in Australian politics

One hundred years ago this week, members of federal parliamentary Labor party made a fateful decision. In spite of well-founded reservations, caucus unanimously elected Billy Hughes as leader, and thus prime minister, following the departure of an ill, war-wearied Andrew Fisher to take up the position of Australia’s High Commissioner in London.

In truth, Hughes was the only viable candidate. Laborites within and without parliament judged that his leadership might salvage the drifting, increasingly divided wartime government, even if they feared his autocratic ways and volcanic temper. “There is no side about him, and throughout Australia he is known as ‘Billy’ Hughes,” crowed the Australian Worker newspaper, official organ of the powerful Australian Workers Union. “Unquestionably he is a great man, with great services still to perform for Australia.”

The comrades were to be disappointed. Hughes proved more of a naughty boy than a messiah. Almost immediately, the new leader antagonised the labour movement. Bowing to conservative pressure, one of his first acts was to drop plans for a referendum to give the Commonwealth greater power over prices, effectively splitting the ALP. In early 1916, Hughes left Australia to attend the Imperial War Cabinet in London, where he appeared to advocate for military conscription to win the war, pouring fuel on the fires by dubbing the growing anti-conscription movement “foul parasites”. When Hughes returned, he declared for conscription. The proposal was narrowly defeated at the resultant October referendum (technically a plebiscite), but Labor formally split in its aftermath. Early in 1917, Hughes merged his ex-Labor supporters with the Liberals into a “Win the War” coalition that soon called itself the Nationalist Party. Labor was exiled from power for a generation.

Until the late 1960s, the ALP avoided political messianism. From that time on, however, Labor’s salvation has appeared more and more to depend on a transformative leader in the mould of Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Kevin Rudd. The arrival of such a leader works like a political sugar-high. The initial euphoria cultivates unrealistic expectations and, when reality hits, supporters are inevitably disappointed. In 2003, faced with the Howard ascendancy, Labor turned to Mark Latham for its salvation with disastrous consequences. The lessons of the Latham experiment were soon enough forgotten, with the appearance of Kevin 07. Rudd brought Labor in from the electoral wilderness and he appeared unassailable until early 2010. Yet his replacement by Gillard and redux three years later only deepened Labor’s messiah complex.  

In October 2013, aspiring Labor leader Bill Shorten declared the end of the “age of messiahs”. His counterparts, however, had other ideas. The ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership has confirmed the messianic appetite of the political class, media outlets and voting public. Needless to say this is a dangerous phenomenon. The belief that one man – or woman – can singlehandedly transform the hyper-partisanship of recent Australian politics or magically turn around the fortunes of a flagging economy is naïve in the extreme. 

Granted, Turnbull’s early prime ministership shows some promising signs. The China Free Trade agreement was concluded with a measure of bipartisan support. Turnbull’s prime-ministerial demeanour contrasts starkly with the intemperate manner of his predecessor Tony Abbott. He also appears determined to avoid pandering to the insatiable demands of the 24/7 news cycle. Recent opinion polls should strike fear into the heart of Laborites.

Yet there are unnerving similarities with Rudd’s prime ministership. Take, for example, the multiple “excusive” interviews published across four newspapers on Saturday. In the manner of Rudd, Turnbull desires to be all things to all men and, in the process, ends up not saying much at all, besides mouthing contradictory platitudes and “big picture” motherhood statements. The one relatively concrete policy advanced by Turnbull in regards to infrastructure evoked Rudd’s penchant for centralising power and resources in Canberra. This desire to control from the centre is a tendency both sides of politics must arguably jettison.

The paucity of critical media coverage of Turnbull’s leadership record or policy prescriptions is striking. A good proportion of political analysis has approached sycophancy. Even Turnbull’s bizarre invocation of Chairman Mao, one of the greatest mass-murders of the 20th century, prompted next to zero criticism. Part of the problem, as I have suggested here previously, is that the media’s reception of Turnbull’s ascension is complicated by the fact that many journalists generally share his cosmopolitan ideological worldview, which combines progressive social values with an adherence to free market economics.

This much is revealed by the media’s regurgitation and explicit advocacy of the old Liberal party attack line on Labor’s so-called “class warfare” politics. Such rhetoric is, in reality, a means of shutting down debate. If questioning Turnbull’s utilisation of a world-renowned tax-haven unavailable to 99% of Australians, or rejecting a fringe hospitality industry push to abolish Sunday penalty rates constitutes “class war”, then I’ve got a bridge to sell you. It’s about as convincing as the idea that the working class have morphed into “aspirationals”, as if working men and women have never wanted a better life for themselves and their children.  

Concerning, too, is the lack of scrutiny applied to Turnbull’s use of a private email server operating outside the federal parliament’s secure system and deployment of secret messaging applications such as Wickr. Serious questions surrounding national security were left unexplored when journalists merely accepted Turnbull’s denial of using a private email account to send classified government information and his strange assertion that “you shouldn’t assume that government email services are more secure than private ones”. The most powerful person in Australia is simply not subject to proper levels of scrutiny.

Of course, political honeymoons never last. For all Turnbull’s dubious talk of “exciting times”, the next election will be determined primarily on the basis of the economy. Anxiety and fear may prove more apposite markers of the electorate’s mood than Turnbull’s Obama-like stress on hope and optimism. (Indeed, we are inclined to underestimate the significance of the sluggish economy in contributing to Abbott’s demise by preferring to focus on his ill-suited leadership). Economic self-interest, broadly conceived, will trump feel-good politics.

Just ask Billy Hughes. On 28 October 1916, Australians narrowly voted to reject his plans to introduce conscription. Hughes’s defeat owed to a range of factors: his divisive, arrogant campaigning style, a well-resourced labour movement campaign of opposition that invoked the supposed threat to the sanctity of White Australia alongside notions of unequal wartime sacrifice and civil libertarianism. Significantly, the bush proved crucial: some farmers, fearful of losing their workforces during a bumper harvest and wool season, voted “No” out of self-interest. The ministry of Billy the Messiah lasted a mere 12 months. Will Malcolm’s last much longer?

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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