The Politics    Friday, December 1, 2023

The empty centre

By Jonathan Green

Anthony Albanese and Peter Dutton are seen in the centre of the frame, walking past each other.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton during a division during Question Time, November 15, 2023. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

From border security to tax, the hollow centrism of the two-party system is destructive to the national interest

It’s an unlikely, but irresistible, political metaphor in two images. For yesterday’s Ausmusic T-Shirt Day, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese burnished his hard-rockin’ cred with a tastefully edgy Radio Birdman tee. On the same day, he posted his most-listened-to artists on Spotify for 2023. Number one was Lana Del Rey. Our metaphor: the PM’s public face is the sweaty, motor-city thump of Birdman, late 1970s Sydney’s proto-punk legends. His day-to-day reality, however, his actual listening, is a sweetly soulful soup of eternal-ingénue, bad-girl lispiness. (Taylor Swift came second.) So, yes, politics is a crafted reality in which truth may come second to the necessities of public posturing. Your heart wants to “Say Yes To Heaven”; your working world needs the “Hand of Law”.

It’s funny, but it’s a principle that cuts deep. In the past week we’ve watched our members of parliament square off like Sharks and Jets itching for a knife fight. Ever since the High Court’s NZYQ decision, the rhetoric has rattled around whether the opposition or the government is the side more inclined to expose an unsuspecting community to the predations of stateless rapists, murderers and paedophiles. The truth is that these are convicted criminals who have done their time, like any other convicted criminal; the risks of release are similar. But never mind the truth.

Both major parties are death-rolling in a race to the rhetorical bottom, an escalation of words to conceal a deeper commonality: they are both of one mind on this. This apparently bitter contest is a flailing of fisticuffs from people so twinned they might have been separated at birth, but whose survival in the public contest depends on making a show of significant difference. In reality, it’s just two naked people, fighting over a single shirt.

There’s been much talk of what many have cast as the government’s mid-term malaise since Monday’s Newspoll revealed a sudden evenness in the political contest. Labor and the Coalition are at 50–50 two-party preferred: two peas, one popular pod. Could Albanese be a one-term wonder? Could people be convinced that Peter Dutton was a potential replacement? The conga line of single-term PMs, with faces that stretch back to the hazily distant form of John Howard, was conjured like the warning ghosts of Christmases past.

Perhaps, in the eyes of the critical marginal voters who determine our collective fortunes, there is a deeper continuity in all this hectic succession, lines of constancy that run beyond the trimmings of party difference. There’s something about the mathematics of our politics that pulls it to the commonly contested centre, while creating an often fabricated and voluble bifurcation, a trick of angry words aimed at convincing that small body of people in critical seats to swing one way or the other.

All of which makes for mirrored positions and amplified postures, tools to create the illusion of difference. That’s what we’ve been watching this week on border security, it’s what will eventually force the government to stick to its guns on the Stage Three tax cuts.

The nagging question is whether all this serves our personal, national, perhaps even moral, interest. Equity and tax policy is one immediate area where this centrism is destructive. Climate change is another, with estimates that 20 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide could be released globally if Australian fossil fuel projects waiting on government decisions are approved. What will centrist caution push for there?

It’s also centrist collusion that has created the long-prevailing orthodoxy around the privatisation of essential government roles and services, an unthinking smugness punctured today by Labor MP Julian Hill, whose inquiry into privatised employment services has concluded that it is a system that is “torturing unemployed people”.

Like border security, the punishment of unemployment and disadvantage through meanness and “mutual obligations” is a feature of the political pull toward a centre most concerned that it might somehow be either threatened or disadvantaged by affording either justice or the barest of means to people battling the most invidious of circumstances.

We could do better. Questions of character loom for this government, and on its performance it should have the capital to make change. Yesterday’s Australian Bureau of Statistics monthly inflation data gave a striking picture of solid economic success. Wages growth up, inflation down, unemployment constrained, all while producing a significant budget surplus.

That’s a reality of this government’s own creation, and one it might choose to make noise about. The other option is being lured into loud argument by an opposition whose best chance is an ugly rolling brawl running towards perpetually shifting goal posts. Why engage? It might serve Albanese well to be more Lana, less Birdman, and present a true point of difference.

Jonathan Green

Jonathan Green is a writer and ABC broadcaster.

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