Why are our politicians so pathetic?

On the somewhat hip website crikey.com, politics editor Bernard Keane announced last week that “The surprisingly quick death of neoliberalism in Australia is underway”.

Now because I came back to Australia from the US just seven years ago, I’m still catching up on both our politics and our political commentary, and that’s one term that gives me the irrits – neoliberalism. It sounds like a good thing – new and liberal – so it’s a cheer word not a boo word. But what it means is rule by business elites who believe that anything socially managed, eg public transport, education -- or socially minded eg clean air and water, art, theoretical science – should be run by businesspeople according to their values. In any case, not many pub-pundits lace their epithets with “neoliberalism” except in Mullum’s Couthouse Hotel.

 

PM Turnbull with ministers Joyce, Morrison and Pyne, with a lump of coal

PM Turnbull with ministers Joyce, Morrison and Pyne, with a lump of coal

Now, Crikey’s Mr Keane says that PM Malcolm Turnbull and his shaky group of parliamentary supporters have looked at the polls, and at the last federal and state elections, and at what’s happened to Theresa May’s Conservatives in the UK and to both mainstream parties in France, and got it: that giving local and multinational big business everything they want, privatising everything while slashing social safety net programs and abandoning government-funded anything other than war, is NOT creating a trickle-down of jobs and money -- and that a rapidly growing percentage of voters aren’t going to take it any more.

So Turnbull and Co. have discovered that there are good and bad deficits, good and bad debt, and good and bad government spending. Across the floor, Bill Shorten and the Labor Party might be looking for inspiration not from yesterday’s corporate Labor leaders Hawke and Keating, but from old-school democratic socialists like Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbin, and parts of Scandinavia.

That said, our ruling coalition government is not about to abandon big business nor is it going to match the Labor Party’s half-arsed new and improved social programs. The ABC’s Leigh Sales wasted a whole prime-time interview last week with Labor deputy leader Tanya Plibersek trying to make her say “the government is spending more on education”, with no regard for how much more, to whom, or why it should pay church and private schools anything. (Another question that has bugged me since returning from the US: who thought is was a good idea to brand a wide reform of education “Gonski”, as if we all know what that means?)

Okay so we could go into the details of why Aussie politicians have spent decades slavishly copying the awful mistakes of American and European governments, and are typically slow to change when it all goes pear-shaped. Why don’t they lead the world instead of licking big brother’s boots? For example, be the first to institute a real carbon tax?

Answer: Australia’s top politicians have long been too much in love with swanning around Manhattan’s pricey watering holes with their American managers to cut the ties. Now, with voters of the Western world crying out for relief and maybe blood, and with Trump and his gang of mismatched dickheads throwing everyone under the bus because they sell the petrol to the bus, we have to do something different.

But can they? Can Turnbull, whose money is managed by his old bosses Goldman Sachs in New York, really see what’s going on in the world and break out of the myths that bind him?

Most of our pollies are captives of the corporates who fund them, and of the four great myths that underlie our social economic and political systems. To wit:

Myth 1: Nature is free. A staggering number of folks believe that naturally occurring things such as air, water, sunshine and soil are free and infinitely tolerant of whatever we do to them.

Myth 2: We are all white men with Christian values. In fact, Australia has more women than men, and “no religion” is the largest group in the “religion” section of the new Census, bigger than Catholicism -- and it’s closing in on Christianity. Third is Hinduism.

Myth 3: War is inevitable. Globally, war-based industries are estimated to cost US$1.8 trillion each year, plus the damage to human health, ecosystems and infrastructure. We can’t afford war no more.

Myth 4: It’s only money. Der Speigel magazine recently estimated that the entire tangled web of the global “finance industry” transacted $1634 trillion for the year 2010. Lord Adair Turner, chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority, told the magazine that many things the financial industry does are “socially useless” – I dare Turnbull and Shorten to say that.

Our “politics as usual’ cannot face up to these myths, so we need collectively to redesign politics. I'm working on that, but the New York Times' opinion today by Eitan Hersh says that only well-developed professionals, such as his Yale-self, should do that. The rest of us are are engaging in political "hobbyism" which is, I suspect, down there with populism.

 

Phillip FrazerComment