A double disillusion election – part two

In other countries, voters disenchanted by their options simply stop voting. While both opinion polls and a rising number of informal votes show that many Australians would like to throw up their hands, they’re instead compelled to visit the ballot box. This means ripples of unrest can turn into tidal waves. 

Our polity now suffers from the same kind of leadership carousel found in Japan and Italy, both countries where political instability was deliberately introduced to break single-party strangleholds. Here, the disgruntlement has come about organically, to the extent that even the most recent Council of Australian Government group photo looks like a gallery of the disappeared.

Unable to exercise authority even over their own parties, leaders have instead tried to obtain it in quixotic quests against enemies of the state, as well as instituting hardened stances on welfare, crime, refugees and other soft targets. It’s now impossible for an adverse event to occur at state level without “tough new powers” being introduced. These are the only form powers come in. 

Campbell Newman (that name already feels faded) began by asserting himself against bikie gangs, and ended up just repeating the phrase “strong choices” like a protective incantation. As his office crumbled around him, he took the unusual step of openly threatening voters, telling them that if they failed to return a LNP candidate, they would find their goodie bags taken away. 

This attempt to turn a carrot into a stick showed the paradox at the heart of conservative Australia’s thinking on entitlements: that welfare has turned voters into spoilt children, and the response is a kind of Super-Nanny state, surveilling, cajoling and scolding them back into thrift. 

Plenty of people have pointed out the irony of Tony Abbott and co. talking about “intergenerational theft” when their own response to climate change is inert. Less remarked on is that the right’s obsession with debt is bedevilled by similar public cynicism about long-term problems, and our current politicians’ ability to solve them.

Joe Hockey’s bizarre claim that 150-year-olds being born now will impoverish the nation sounds like those warnings of 10-metre sea rises. And in the face of AAA credit ratings, it’s even more difficult to stoke a permanent state of crisis. 

Underlying this sense of national disappointment is the chasm between what the government claims to be able to do, and what it can do in reality. If your policy program becomes contingent on the caprice of Jacqui Lambie, that’s bad luck. (Though the Liberal party previously excelled at dealing with Tasmanian oddball senators – Abbott’s “no deals” tough-guy pronouncement is one of many that has left him looking weak.) But being bent to the will of Glenn “the Brick with Eyes” Lazarus while simultaneously trying to stand up to Vladimir Putin starts to look . . . incongruous. 

The Prime Minister’s Office suffers from a similar malaise. At a time when the pace and scale of media make it more difficult to control than ever, Peta Credlin has reverted to Kevin Rudd-style micromanagement. In the process, she’s proved one of classical liberalism’s most compelling ideas: that the “fatal conceit” of centralised control will always fail in a complex system.

Such is the fate of Tony Abbott. Obsessed with displays of will that burnish his authority and strength, he has instead shown he’s not in control of anything at all. “Labor chaos” has become just chaos. 


Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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