The Politics    Thursday, November 10, 2016

A new world?

By Sean Kelly

A new world?
Malcolm Turnbull talks to US president-elect Donald Trump.
What Australians should be worried about

A lot of people this morning wondered what, precisely, this new world was that they were waking up to. They didn’t like the look of it. It unsettled them.

If you were one of those people – and I certainly was – the most important thing to realise is this: the world did not change yesterday. The truth is that the world had already changed, and we missed it.

At first glance this is still more unsettling – the moment in a horror movie when the camera tilts slightly. Paul Krugman explained his shift in knowledge this way: “What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of the New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in.” A lot of us feel that way about the world today.

The first thing to say is that it is OK to feel this way. It should be unsettling to realise that things you believed about your environment were mistaken. This is even more the case if you are a member of a minority, and believed there were sufficient numbers of people around you who would stand in the way of somebody who didn’t give two figs about your rights.

The second thing is to look at that key sentence again: the world had already changed, and we missed it. It can be comforting, when looked at from the right angle. If we could miss such changes, it might suggest they are not as radical as they feel right now.

This is borne out by the voting. Hillary Clinton is still likely to win the popular vote. This means that even in America – a nation in which, it bears saying, the vast majority of us do not live – a majority of voters supported a woman for president, and opposed a bullying buffoon. And, as has been widely noted, it would not have taken too many votes for the result of the election to have been different, and for all the “world has changed” conclusions we are now drawing to look very different.

It can even be argued that the polling was not drastically wrong (though at a state level it clearly was). What so many of us forgot – including myself – is that polling really is only probabilistic. Trump was not the favourite to win, but he was always a chance to win, and that chance was the one that came up red. What went wrong is that so many of us were so confident the polling was perfectly predictive. We listened to other people say that the polling was dead on. The echoes gathered pace and volume until they sounded like an authoritative voice. They weren’t.

Which of course was what happened with the world changing, too. We paid too much attention to what we could see, rather than what we couldn’t. This is not caused by social media – solipsism has always been around – but Facebook and friends make it a whole lot easier.

I have seen many arguments that Australia is not prone to its own equivalent of the Trump presidency, because of the strength of our institutions. I tend to cleave to this view myself. But there are a couple of important points to keep in mind.

The first is that Australia is no progressive utopia. Whatever your stance on “strong borders”, our treatment of men, women and children on Nauru and Manus Island is beyond awful. We still do not permit LGBTI people to marry, and there is no clear indication of when we might. The one female prime minister we have had endured bitterly sexist attacks. We have had few federal Indigenous parliamentarians, and no Indigenous prime minister. We continue to celebrate Australia Day on a date upsetting to many of our first peoples. There is no figure like Trump to attract the spotlight. Instead, our disgraces lie largely out of sight, where they remain able to be ignored.

The second is that institutions are not always as strong as we think they are – surely we can learn that much from Trump’s election.

There is clearly something going on in much of the developed world right now.

We in Australia, without a Brexit or a Trump surge of our own, should heed them as early warnings. We already know that votes for the major parties in Australia are falling. There is a disillusionment there to be tapped. Its precise causes are a matter for a longer discussion.

One thing does seem clear: outsiders are having a field day at the expense of insiders (Trump, Sanders, various European figures). This has made me think again about Malcolm Turnbull and his problems. A common analysis here is that voters are confused and disappointed by him – which I think is true. But I would add to that by suggesting that part of his original appeal was that he seemed to be an outsider, not an obvious creature of either of the tired major parties, a man prepared to say what he thought, a man whose main credentials came from outside politics. In the past year he has tried, slowly, to morph into an insider, with the result that he is not quite successful at being either. He no longer excites people with the idea he might represent a cure to their too-oft-ignored problems; he also lacks the political skill to simply manage things effectively. He is two glasses, both half empty.

His trajectory also suggests that the opening is still there for a talented outsider to stroll in and change the way we think about politics. This will not likely be a good thing.

The only alternative is for the major parties to begin to do the thinking that was largely missing from the last election (with the possible exception of the negative gearing policy). I wrote a few days ago that politicians have a responsibility to reshape what we think is possible. If Turnbull and Shorten won’t do it, somebody else will.

For the rest of us, we have a responsibility to open our eyes. The world had already changed, and we missed it. We should not allow that to happen again.


Today’s links

US election

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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