June 2019


Family feud

By Lech Blaine
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
A firsthand view of the nation’s new political faultlines

Ninety-five per cent of my friends didn’t engage with the federal election one iota unless it was via a Betoota Advocate article, because most Australians feel allergic to politics and are committed to mutually assured passivity with occasional flashes of opinion. But by election night, my family was fighting an uncivil culture war via group chat. Despite having similar country Queensland upbringings, we couldn’t be less connected to each other’s aspirations. We are the microcosm of a divided Australia.

My brother Steven is a craft beer executive in Perth. Last year he ran 12 marathons in 12 months for charity. He has an undergrad commerce degree and a podcast for beer connoisseurs. Steven is a consummate “inner-city elite”, the favourite bogeyman of right-wing columnists and politicians. He lives in the electorate of Fremantle, a safe Labor seat. According to the 2016 census, 24.3 per cent of its adults had university degrees. He’s an atheist who reads Guardian Australia and Noam Chomsky while drinking double IPA (chardonnay is yesteryear’s left-wing linchpin).

Steven gave his first preference to the Labor Party. I called him the day after the Coalition’s shock victory. He was in deep mourning.

“I’m completely disillusioned with this country,” he said, “but I can’t say I’m really surprised. Most people are driven by greed.”

After studying, Steven lived overseas. He values experiences over possessions and views extreme wealth as immoral. He belongs to a post-materialistic voting bloc that has driven a wedge between the Labor Party and its traditional base. He believes that governments should increase the top tax rate – he actually wants to contribute more money.

Being a middle-class homeowner and father of three young children hasn’t made Steven more conservative. At the election, he hankered to see the death of negative gearing and franking credits, and the birth of serious action on climate change.

“Everything else is superfluous without an environment,” he said. “I just don’t understand how people can put money above climate change. Humankind is doomed. We want to be extinct.”

After that funereal conversation, I called my brother John, who is only 15 months younger than Steven. He was at the pub watching live sport. Despite their matching DNA, Steven and John couldn’t be less alike. John is a patriotic car salesman in Bundaberg, one of Scott Morrison’s coal-doting heartlands in central Queensland.

Bundaberg is famous for rum and structural disadvantage. The 2016 census reported that 11.1 per cent of the population in the local electorate of Hinkler were unemployed and only 10.2 per cent of adults had a university degree. Residents would trade the Great Barrier Reef for stable jobs.

John detests craft beer and worships XXXX Gold. He never went to university. His partner gave birth to twin girls when he was a young man with no money, which made him an overnight boomer: materialistic in a survivalist way. He is a medium for the aspirations of the Silent Majority, who dream of investment portfolios.

When I called, his mood was jubilant.

“How good is Queensland!” he sang. “How good is ScoMo! I don’t want to say that I told you so… but I told you so.”

Like taxi drivers, car dealers have a radar for the subterranean moods of the population. John has been the leading national salesperson for his company two years running. He is the Mozart of selling cars and his receptive audience is tradies, miners, small-business owners and self-funded retirees. At least once a week, he called to inform me that Labor was destined for defeat. He didn’t need to see my eyes to know I was rolling them. Unlike him, I had a Twitter account and wrote articles about politics for magazines. I told him about the polls.

“The polls are a crock of shit,” he said. “Wait and see. I don’t think you realise how much people hate Bill Shorten. He’s toxic.”

John is a modern-day Nostradamus. He predicted the election of Donald Trump. I snickered because I’d studied international politics at university and knew what I was talking about. He fundamentally understood Trump voters in a way I couldn’t, because they had something in common: a simmering antipathy towards inner-city elites and establishment politicians.

John isn’t a hardcore Christian or a traditional Liberal voter. A generation ago, he would have voted Labor religiously, but now he can’t connect with the leadership. He lamented the death of Bob Hawke before heading to the polls and voting for the Liberal Party. Since skipping university to be a bartender and then a car dealer, he hasn’t shaken the feeling that metropolitan progressives with better educations think he’s inferior.

John hates left- and right-wing labels. Essentially, he doesn’t trust major-party governments of any kind, especially Labor, because they are usually proposing big changes. He believes modern politicians are fundamentally corrupted by vanity or money. The fact that Scott Morrison wasn’t promising to do much – and came across as a normal person while doing it – was part of the appeal.

The more people like Steven cringed at Morrison’s flourishes of intentional buffoonery, the more people like John saw someone he could have a beer with.

At a time when the country had lost faith in politics, Labor promoted the last leader John would want to have a beer with, an insider famous for a robotic public persona and knifing two prime ministers. Regional people saw Shorten as an arse-kisser on the streets and a social butterfly in the sheets. He was a lightning rod for the resentments of outsiders who decided the election.

“I didn’t care about negative gearing,” said John. “It wouldn’t have affected me. I just couldn’t trust the guy.”

The day after the nation, led by central Queensland, eviscerated the assumptions of political pundits, I asked the oracle car dealer from Bundaberg who should lead the Labor Party.

“I don’t mind Albo,” said John. “He talks like a normal person.”

I was craving consensus in the midst of division, so I called my sister Hannah, considered the analyst of the family. Hannah is a vegetarian high achiever. She studied her master’s degree in neuropsychology at the University of Melbourne, while living in the affluent electorate of Higgins, where 46.5 per cent of adults had degrees. In 2016, the median weekly household income there was double that in Hinkler.

Now Hannah lives in Queensland and is working at a public hospital. In the electorate of Fadden, her local member is Stuart Robert, the numbers man for Scott Morrison’s “reluctant” leadership coup.

Hannah was in the backyard tending to a vegetable garden when I called. Harmony wasn’t forthcoming. She managed to repudiate both Steven and John simultaneously. Her first preference went to the Greens, motivated by issues such as Adani and the need for more renewable energy. Environmentalism had a profound urgency: she was three months’ pregnant with her first child.

“I voted Greens so that I can look my unborn daughter in the eye,” she said.

Hannah’s other main voting issue was indefinite offshore detention. As a paediatric neuropsychologist, she clinically understands the trauma transmitted into the brains and bodies of detained refugees, a state of existential agony that could make death seem preferable. She wanted the government to treat refugees with dignity.

How could a single family of siblings contain such a multitude of ideologies, when our political lineage was so steadfast?

My paternal grandfather was the state president of the Queensland Ironworkers Union. My thoroughly working-class parents were stalwarts who voted for Labor in every state and federal election from the age of 18. They traded the low expectations of postwar council estates for the anxious freedoms of 21st-century suburbia, via a decade in the bush. Upward mobility was a historical fluke of proliferating real estate and a Chinese appetite for coal.

I couldn’t handle any more evidence of our atomised identities, so I called my other sister, sweet-natured Rebecca, a buoy of neutrality at family get-togethers, where we argue about politics until we can’t breathe. Rebecca is a full-time stay-at-home mum with five children, including two-year-old twin girls. Her partner is a carpet layer. They live on a secluded 125-acre silver perch farm in rural New South Wales.

The closest town, Nana Glen, has just over a thousand people. The area is known only because Russell Crowe has a farm there, but the electorate isn’t as wealthy as their most famous resident. A 2013 study gave Cowper the gold medal for the highest percentage of people living below the poverty line, at 18.56 per cent, just above Hinkler.

By her own admission, Rebecca has zero interest in politics. She dropped out of high school after Year 10 and became a highly competent teenage mum. She doesn’t understand why the rest of us fight about it. I skipped through small talk and cut straight to the chase.

“So,” I said, “who did you vote for yesterday?”

Rebecca paused, not for effect, but because she genuinely couldn’t remember for a second. “I voted for the Nationals,” she said.

“You voted for the Nationals?”

“I think so,” she said. “Yep. It was the Nationals.”

“Why,” I asked, “did you vote for the Nationals?”

“Negative gearing,” she said, cryptically.

“But you aren’t a property investor.”

“Yeah, but I’d like to be one day.”

This makes more sense than anything else. My siblings and I are members of a nouveau middle class who don’t really belong anywhere. The boom means that the dreams and desires of Australians aren’t determined by surnames, but by how many years we studied at university, how close our postcodes are to the city and who we see ourselves as in the future. Democracy is a personal branding exercise.

Inner-city elites feel guilty for their privilege. Battlers want to be rich. How does a progressive political party craft a majority from that contradiction? How much more productive was my self-absorbed obsessiveness than the mainstream passivity?

I purchase chia seeds by the kilo, run 40 kilometres a week and make predictions about politics based on my personal biases. Meanwhile, the icebergs melt and ancient species become extinct and the Great Barrier Reef evaporates. I stare at Twitter and Facebook for six hours a day, letting them enrage and then placate me. The last chance to fix the planet dwindles away because human beings like me are addicted to a stream of deliberate stupidity and fake perfection.

“Anyway,” said Rebecca. “Who won the election?”

Lech Blaine

Lech Blaine is the author of Car Crash: A Memoir and the Quarterly Essay Top Blokes: The Larrikin Myth, Class and Power.


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