Australian politics, society & culture

Australian Politics

The mysterious disappearance of the student protester
By Mikaela Davis
By Mungo MacCallum
Reflecting on the failures of Australian politics and media
By Michaela McGuire
Macmillan Australia; $32.99
By Richard Cooke
Paul Kelly and Kevin Rudd laughing together at the launch of The March of Patriots in 2009
Contesting Paul Kelly’s ‘Triumph and Demise’
By Robert Manne
Asylum seekers and freedom of speech
By André Dao
Portrait of Tony Abbott by Neil Moore
The brief life and quiet death of Tony Abbott’s love of liberty
By David Marr
Palmer to the left, Palmer to the right
By J.R. Hennessy
So Clive Palmer has lost the Left. There was a brief, shining moment – amongst his Medicare defences and heroic activism for free education – that Australian progressives reluctantly embraced a billionaire mining plutocrat, revelling in his open hostility toward the Coalition. But then came his appearance on Q&A, where he castigated Chinese state corporations, describing them as ‘bastards’ and ‘mongrels’. His tirade highlights an irksome fact about Australian ideology: there is only the thinnest membrane between populism and a particularly virulent nationalism. There’s a hazy grey area of non-politics within the Australian electorate; voters with strong belief systems that they refuse to integrate into existing party platforms. Traditionally, these people are swept up by straight shooters: self-consciously unpolitical politicians who cleave through the Canberra bureaucracy with their Real Australian Values. In this sense, Palmer sits alongside Pauline Hanson, who zeroed in on anti-Asian hostilities in an era when racial tensions between immigrants and white Australians was considered too tawdry for polite discourse. In the glorious pantheon of no-bullshit crusaders, Palmer and Hanson seem far apart – at least on social and economic policy. But inevitably, appeals to the internal lives of the general populace tend to converge on the big picture issues. Palmer has to navigate two terrifically opposed truths: much of his revenue flows from China, but the man on the street is allergic to Chinese investment, which he blames for everything from shifting demographics to inflated housing prices. The Q&A blunder stakes his populist position. On the issue of China, he’s willing to go the whole hog. During the gladiatorial spectacle of last year’s Rooty Hill RSL election debate, a woman interrogated the leaders of the two major parties about the grim spectre of Chinese investment in agriculture. Rudd tried to have it both ways, with a consciously half-hearted commitment to protectionism; but Abbott refused the populist path, reinforcing the Coalition’s obligation to neoliberal globalisation. Palmer, who funds his empire with Chinese cash, seems ready and willing to hang them out to dry in favour of a broad appeal to a skittish class of economic nationalists. In some sense, the Left are no different – resistance to neoliberal globalisation runs deep, and Australian progressives generally support protectionist measures to stem the flow of jobs and production overseas. But their nationalism grows from working-class solidary rather than side-eyed xenophobia. Palmer, by exploiting unease toward Chinese intrusion into Australia, alienates the progressive protectionist. Unlike in America, where working-class sentiments often curve toward individualist market liberalism, Australians are less likely to swallow the Liberals’ commitment to big business freedom. Pauline Hanson, amongst her demands for a staunchly restrictive immigration policy, was also a proponent of a harsh tariff system, utterly antithetical to the free market drive of the Coalition. Conservatives in Australia are often inward-looking, economically. Bob Katter, the conservative who enjoys widespread support in Queensland’s north, readily embraces a brand of agrarian socialism utterly at odds with efforts to deregulate industry. The Australian can advocate for libertine international trade policies till the cows come home, but the unpolitical nationalist will never sign on. We’ve seen Clive stray spectacularly, but it was inevitable. At some point, rhetoric from populist Australian politicians must address race. It is telling that since the election Palmer has rarely referred to his liberal policy on asylum seekers. The issue is too toxic, and it’s safe to assume the disillusioned voters upon whom he coasted to power are not particularly troubled by our offshore detention regime. Hanson maintained a frightening baseline of popularity predicated purely on her hostility toward immigrants, and tensions have not abated in the years since. Jacqui Lambie doubled down on Clive’s comments with a hysterical warning of an impending Chinese communist invasion. The fear is there. But it is also true that Palmer has captured the attention of the Left, who see him as an unlikely brother-in-arms on healthcare and education. There’s a tedious inevitability that progressives must accept going forward: Clive Palmer is going to say some profoundly unsavoury things. Australia has a nationalist narrative that can not and will not be ignored.
By Stephen Mills
Election night, September 2013: Before a whooping crowd in the ballroom of Sydney’s Four Seasons Hotel, the prime minister-elect claimed victory for the Coalition parties. Thanking those who had contributed to the victory, Tony Abbott singled out for special praise the Liberal Party’s federal director, Brian Loughnane, who, he said, had “run our most professional campaign ever.” The moment passed with more cheers – but it raised important questions about contemporary Australian politics. What is a professional campaign? What does it mean to run such a campaign? The Liberal Party, of which Abbott was the parliamentary leader and Loughnane the organisational head, had been in existence for nearly seventy years and had won seventeen national elections, along with plenty more in the states and territories. So was 2013 actually their “most” professional campaign? To answer these questions, we need some way of defining party professionalism and measuring it across different election campaigns – and, for that matter, across different political parties; was the Liberals’ 2013 campaign more professional than that of the Labor Party, which was defeated after six turbulent years in office? And that leads to even bigger questions. Does professionalism actually “work” – that is, can it translate into electoral success and if so, how? If it does work, by somehow influencing the behaviour of voters, then the next question must be whether that is a good thing: if election campaigns are crucial events in our democratic life, are we happy that they are being “run” in a professional way? Do professional campaigns aim to provide what is best for the electorate, or simply what is most effective and efficient for their parties? Is a profes- sional campaign something to be celebrated? The prime minister’s compliment for the party official may have left the television audience scratching their heads over a simpler question: “Brian Who?” Party officials such as Brian Loughnane, or his Labor Party counterpart, national secretary George Wright, are far from household names. They stay out of sight, or at least off-camera, working in head offices and campaign headquarters that are closed to the media and to voters. Their work remains secret and invisible: formulating a campaign strategy, assembling a campaign team and raising the funds to deliver victory. Part of their identity as political professionals is a reticence, a protective silence about the party and its affairs. Loose lips sink ships. They might be glimpsed during an election campaign: shadowy backroom figures, briefing the candidate on their latest focus groups, or boasting about their campaign preparedness, or negotiating the rules for a leaders’ debate. Their names can be heard spoken rapidly at the end of TV advertisements, which by law must be “authorised by” them. On election night in 2013, it was Brian Loughnane who had interpreted the results and at around 8.45 pm privately told Tony Abbott he would win; he got a bear hug in exchange. After all the votes are counted, and whether their party has won or lost, the party officials make rare outings to the National Press Club, to spin the result as best they can. In this zero-sum contest, everything they say and do is directed at advancing their party’s interests relative to their opponent. Loughnane stands at the end of a line of party officials that began with the formation of the Liberal Party in 1945. He is the eighth person appointed to the job of federal director of the Liberal Party of Australia and in 2013 was directing his fourth federal election campaign. George Wright, directing just his first federal campaign, is Labor’s fifteenth national secretary in a series that stretches back nearly 100 years to 1915. In all, twenty-three individuals have served as Labor Party national secretary or Liberal Party federal director, of whom by good fortune more than half were still alive when I was researching my book[, The Professionals]. All of them – nine from the Labor Party and five Liberals, with careers stretching back to the 1960s – agreed to be interviewed about their experiences in head office and their attitudes towards professionalism. Brian Loughnane was far from the first Australian party official to be described as a “professional.” The word has been applied to party organisations for more than fifty years. As long ago as 1961, when Menzies was still prime minister, one Canberra journalist wrote about the “highly paid, highly skilled team of professional political experts” working in the Liberal Party’s national head office. In 1968, Labor’s federal secretary, Cyril Wyndham, was praised by another journalist as “a professional among amateurs.” In the lead-up to the 1972 election, Labor’s structure was reorganised by the party’s national campaign director, Mick Young, to provide what he called “a more professional, unified” approach. For the commentator Paul Kelly, the re-election of the Hawke government in 1990 was “a case study of Labor’s superior professionalism,” while in 2001 Brian Loughnane’s predecessor as Liberal Party federal director, Lynton Crosby, attributed the re-election of the Howard government in part to the “professionalism of the Liberal Party team.” Many other actors in Australian politics can also be described as professional: MPs, their numerous staffers, marketing experts such as pollsters and advertising agents, consultants, journalists and lobbyists. Sometimes the word has positive connotations, but it can also carry darker meanings. In 2006, a disillusioned Liberal Party member bemoaned the rise of “a class of political professionals” in his party, whom he described as “hacks … young men and women who want to spend every hour of their day playing party politics.” By 2012, the former Labor minister Lindsay Tanner was criticising the ALP’s “distinct class of political professionals” for being adept at the “mechanics” of politics but largely uninterested in its purpose. Professionalism in fact has a long history in scholarly discussions of representative democracy. In the classic distinction made by the German sociologist Max Weber in 1919, one can make a profession out of politics in two ways. One can live “for” politics, making it one’s vocation, deriving inner meaning from political pursuits – or one can live “from” politics, earning a livelihood from it. Weber insisted that these are not mutually exclusive; indeed they often go hand in hand: “Generally, one does both,” he observed. In this sense, elected politicians and their skilled advisers, engaged full-time in paid political work either as a vocation or as a source of income, are essentially different from the citizen-voters who are called upon occasionally to deliberate, speak out or cast a vote, but who live their lives apart from politics. Weber’s insights are borne out in the Australian political context. Loughnane and Co. certainly live “from” politics, earning incomes and building careers through their work in the party organisations. Yet money does not appear to be a significant motivation for them. More powerful is that they seem to live “for” politics, wholeheartedly engaged in the partisan contest and pursuing a vocation as much as a career. Weber’s portrait of the political professional was given more contemporary clothes in the 1980s with the scholarly identification of a new class of party officials, the “electoral professionals” – skilled knowledge workers capable of campaigning in the modern era of polling and mass media. In the Australian party context, “electoral professionals” introduced a new model of professional campaign management. They built centralised campaigning structures, in which they coordinated the efforts of the whole party – state branches, party members, candidates and the parliamentary leadership – and of an expanding cast of external marketing specialists. They designed campaign strategies based on market research, targeting potential supporters (swinging voters) in strategically significant locations (marginal seats) with relevant messages via the media. They took responsibility for raising the funds necessary for these increasingly expensive campaigns, harnessing the donations of business, individuals and taxpayers as campaign budgets skyrocketed. They did all this as professionals, devoted to promoting what they saw as the best interests of the party. But they encountered resistance. From the outside, political parties might look like united armies. Especially at election time, they seem to have a single leader, to march in the same direction, sing the same battle hymn, share the same aspirations, ideology and identity – and to fight the same enemy. Such appearances can be deceptive. Like any organisation set up to attain collective goals, parties contain a world of competing interests. Some of these revolve around different policy goals and ideological preferences; others are centred on the ambitions and authority of powerful individuals; others still reflect broader social cleavages of geography, class and religion. Some of them concern the best way to conduct election campaigns. In seeking to professionalise campaigning, the national party officials were engaged in a disruptive process of institutional transformation, which affected all the other actors, structures and processes within the party. The new cohort of professionally trained technicians challenged the party’s traditional rules and conventions and introduced new behaviours, attitudes and identities. Their professional campaign model displaced and downplayed the enthusiastic amateurs and volunteers in the party’s grassroots; in seizing control of campaign management, they took on the old-style bureaucratic hierarchy in the state branches as well as the parliamentary leaders – who in turn challenged, tested, and at times threw off the new disciplines. So professionalisation did not always proceed on a smooth forward trajectory; at times it was held back and even reversed, as contrary influences reasserted themselves. Inevitably, too, these internal party reforms changed the parties’ relationships with the voters. In the professional campaign model, parties could ignore and take for granted many voters while relentlessly wooing those who happened to be undecided and to reside in strategically important locations. Election campaigns became occasions for strategic calculation by the parties, rather than for informed deliberation by voters. This [is a] long contest between the campaign professionals and the rest of the party structure. [There have been significant junctures when] a party official has said or done something that pushed professionalisation forward. This process – which continues today – has had significant implications for the character of our political system. How and why the professional campaign model emerged should therefore be central to any attempt to understand Australian democracy. This is an edited extract of Stephen Mill’s The Professionals: Strategy, Money and the Rise of the Political Campaigner in Australia, published by Black Inc and on sale now.
Talking about the narcissistic national daily only encourages it
By Margaret Simons
How the Liberal Party has exiled its last reasonable man
By Amanda Lohrey
NewSouth; $49.99
By Rhys Muldoon
Black Inc.; $29.99
By Peter Christoff
Bill Shorten and Tony Abbott at the opening of parliament, November 2013. © Gary Ramage / Newspix  
The distance between us and our rulers is getting bigger
By Richard Cooke
The Palmer United Party are anti-politics wildcards in Parliament
By Amanda Lohrey
The ALP, the Libs, the Greens, the split
By Amanda Lohrey
Adam Bandt at his election-night party, 7 September 2013. © Paul Jeffers / Fairfax
Government or activism?
By Guy Rundle