The politics of sideshows and circuses

Too much time and energy can be spent examining the acts, stunts and words of Clive Palmer and his merry gang in a search for some unifying principle, insight into why they are there, or in some effort to divine how their influence can be harnessed or reduced. What Abbott should be focusing on is that the Palmer United Party is a fact of life for the next two years, and what Bill Shorten and Labor should be focusing on is that it will also be exercising power, probably even more power, for at least three years after. 

Abbott and Shorten should also be reflecting on how they personally, and their parties, have helped create a situation where something like 30 per cent of voters – an ever increasing number – are no longer prepared to give their first preference to either of the two sides capable, as things stand, of exercising power as the government. It may be that this rejection is becoming a more entrenched one, with those who vote for minor parties or independents inclined at times to change their view about which minor party or independent they prefer, but not to switch back to a big party; and for the remaining 70 per cent, for a proportion to swing between Labor and Liberal, but almost all eschewing alternatives.

The alternatives reflect disgust with modern politics and politicians, views that there is not much real difference between the mainstream parties, particularly when it comes to self-aggrandisement and being creatures of vested interests, and a marked distaste for the pettiness of the political tumult. But they also reflect disappointment in the lack of moral purpose or urgency in modern politics, or anger at a belief that politics has lost contact with the feel and the heart of ordinary citizens and their lives, their needs and their aspirations. Somehow, mere slogans – even those designed in focus groups – do not cut it, nor does the simulation of sincerity, least of all by Abbott or Shorten. 

Small groups and personalities, on different parts of the political spectrum, have been harvesting votes from the discontent for more than half of the Australian federation. The Democratic Labor Party was a splinter of Labor designed to keep it out of power until it rejected its left; later is became a half-way house for an advancing Catholic middle class to shift from the Labor to the Liberal side of the spectrum. The short-liveds, and largely unsuccessful Australia Party might almost be described as the opposite. We had the Australian Democrats, originally seeing themselves as a centre party keeping the (Liberal or Labor) bastards honest, later finding itself, fatally, in a contest with other groups for the votes of the disenchanted on the Left. There was the Nuclear Disarmament Party, and there are the Greens. But there have also always been individuals and grouplets, such as Family First or Brian Harridine, harvesting dissatisfaction on the right, or among the traditional and morally conservative. Others, such as Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party and, to a certain degree, the PUP, make an essentially populist appeal that ultimately tends to injure right-of-centre parties rather more than the left. Single-issue politicians, from Syd Negus, on death duties, or Ricky Muir, with motoring passions, are usually more interesting for the unusual bedfellows they choose.

Labor can reflect, with a certain short-term satisfaction that the usual victim of disarray in government or parliament is the government of the day. The public tended to blame Julia Gillard for any sign of political dysfunction during her term, and efforts to switch the spotlight on to Tony Abbott, and his consciously disruptive, mischievous, cynical and inconsistent tactics worked, at best, only among a narrow group of the already convinced. Likewise with the consciously disruptive, mischievous, cynical and inconsistent tactics of modern Labor, and its (rather more effective than Abbott) effects of creating chaos, instability, and financial incoherency in government. Voters, it seems, look more at consequences than causes, and blame instability on the people in charge.

Tony Abbott may explain, carefully and logically, until he is blue in the face that anything unpopular he is doing is because the Labor tenants trashed the place, or that Bill Shorten is saying one thing to one group and something completely different to another. He might try, if he dared, point to the inconsistencies, somersaults and sheer naked self interest of Clive Palmer and co. But he, and the ministers copying him, are only getting back, in spades, the tactics of total oppositionism they used with such effect on the Gillard government. If you stake all on winning, you better win. Abbott won; big, in the House of Representatives, but the success of PUP and other Senate gadflies was a predictable consequence of the way Abbott had trashed the processes, the institutions, the rules, and the logic in getting there. One cannot win by such tactics and then demand virtuously respect and a return to the old and civilised rules. 


The old and civilised rules were as focused on an essential continuity in government in spite of changes to the party in power. It accorded the opposition a place in the legislature, and gave some respect to their ideas and ideals, even if they proceeded from a different philosophy. A party that won power was entitled to its fruits, not least the right to budget. Just what a mandate meant, whether it had been achieved in an election, and whether a mandate was a moral, social or legal right, might be a matter of the keenest argument. But a party that won government was allowed, generally, to govern, and those on the other side focused their oppositionism on sharpening a sense of difference about the approach they would have adopted, drawing loud attention to mistakes and misfeasances and, sometimes with more faith than hope, the expectation that the unwisdom of ideological policy or programs would be shown not to work by the time of the next election.

Abbott, however, made seeking government a moral crusade. Not only did he attack the legitimacy of Labor's hold on power but, in certain senses, he encouraged some attack, sometimes an hysterical one, on the legitimacy of power itself. In part he was borrowing from the tactics of the extreme fringes of Republican politics in the US, particularly from among Tea Partyites, but with little adoption of their actual views or philosophy so much as a take-no-prisoners, never-compromise, never-give-them-a-break approach. In America this has also make politics much more dysfunctional and ineffective (with the target, Barack Obama, getting most of the blame). These groups are faltering, but are at that point where any signs of a lack of success tend to be seen as signs of not being tough enough; as a result, Tea Partyites are moving among their old allies, slaughtering the wounded, and punishing the survivors for lack of sufficient faith and zeal.

It may be --- though I doubt it --- that two of the new senators,  David Leyonhjelm (Liberal Democrat) and Bob Day (Family First) are conviction politicians in the sense that they would be prepared to commit political self-harm in support of an economic or social  principle in which they firmly believed.

No doubt, too, some of the others, Ricky Muir and Jacqui Lambie, will from time to time do idiotic, indiosyncratic things in support of their particular passions, obsessions or imagined electorates. No doubt, both Labor and Coalition tacticians wonder whether one can engineer any long-term split-up of the PUP senators, and, particularly, detach them from Clive Palmer. 

For the moment, however, they would be made to split up, even if it is within their interests to display regular pieces of individualism, particularly on things that do not matter much. This is because they exercise far more power, and get much much more attention, by hanging together, particularly when their votes count. Even more, they benefit from being forever in the spotlight, for being vital ingredients in the problems of practical legislation or government – or from the pretence, so far as they can sustain it, that they are jolly, decent, earthy friends of the people, rather than automatons thinking and voting at the behest of the Australian Workers Union or the Institute of Public Affairs.

That is primarily an impression thing. The thinking of a Clive Palmer or a Jacquie Lambie is rarely effectively exploded by reason debate, a sense of history, or an understanding of the realities and practicalities of big-league politics. No one, least of all Tony Abbott, demands any consistency or principle from an Alan Jones or a Ray Hadlee; how can he demand it from characters such as a Clive Palmer or a Pauline Hanson who play, or have played, in the same league. And can, for that matter, a Hadlee or a Jones (or an Abbott) demand from Labor with a straight face that it explain its policies, or how it would balance its budgets, when they claimed that the refusal, in Abbott, in opposition, to do so was evidence of his genius?

It's not merely a matter of chickens coming home to roost. Nor of a Labor needing to think ahead because a collapse of Abbotism could see it back in power well before it is ready. The truth is that the cycles of public cynicism can be broken, and people can be made to believe in the virtue of politicians and the need for good, rather than disruptive, dysfunctional government. But that involves having women and men of character and ideals, who actually believe in things and who articulate reasons for doing things, to which people can relate. Happily for the Clive Palmers, there are few such people around, least of all in the mainstream parties; and fakes, like himself, or tragics, like Lambie, who can sound appropriately shrill, seem better substitutes than those blessed with apostolic succession. If men like Abbott or Shorten are the best that the mainstream can produce, the moral and spiritual leaders on offer as well as those permitted to compel our service, is it odd that they lack followings? Is it odd that the public would prefer sideshows and circuses?