The precise language used by political operatives, including leaders, usually has a designated political purpose. Very little is accidental, as most of it is carefully crafted. Political leaders are smart enough to know what message they are trying to send.
Populist political leaders have long sought to contrast the alleged concerns of anyone directly associated with Parliament, government and the public service as out of touch and less valuable than those in the supposed wider community.
This sort of talk has a long history and is rarely meant to be complimentary. The so-called silent majority is often contrasted with elites of one sort or another. Academics, based in universities, have long been characterised as living in an ivory tower out of touch with reality.
Universities and research institutes do have a special character which those who live and work in them should be aware of. In my teaching I always stressed to students that the ethos and mindset of a university could be quite distinct from that of the wider community when discussing matters of public interest like racism, religion or refugees. University-based views may not be representative, and other perspectives should be valued. But universities are no more out of touch than any other part of the community.
Anti-Canberra sentiment is another variant which focuses on the national capital. To say Canberra is boring or soulless is one thing, and should be treated as a joke or ignorance - but to say its opinions should be disregarded because it is out of touch with the so-called real world is a more serious allegation which has political implications. It is meant to reflect badly on the Canberra-based public service.
That is not to say that as a city Canberra does not have a special character. It votes Labor predominantly, it voted heavily for a republic in 1999 and it voted strongly for same-sex marriage in 2017. It is just that many cities, parts of cities, or regional and rural areas also have a distinct character. It is not unusual for a string of adjoining seats to vote for the one political party, and in the 1999 and 2017 polls whole areas voted in a similar way. Contiguous areas like the ACT, with populations of about 500,000, are to be found across the country.
All this is the background to the emergence of Scott Morrison's derogatory term "the Canberra bubble". He uses it whenever there is something going on in Parliament, government or the public service which reflects badly on him or makes him uncomfortable.
Morrison's use of the term is not only misleading, as my fellow Canberra Times columnist Crispin Hull has recently shown, but it is entirely intentional - aimed at warding off uncomfortable questioning and defining who is to be taken seriously by government and who is not. My view is that Morrison must understand exactly what he is doing, unless he is totally unreflective and merely devoted to defending his own position (he is a marketer by profession, after all).
The notion of a "bubble" describes an existence, life or lifestyle which is self-contained and impervious to outside opinion or influence. It contains hints of self-importance and is self-referential. The alleged "Canberra bubble" is both geographical and institutional, and also implies a mindset.
The best way to react to its political usage is not to reject it outright but to unpack it. Crispin Hull does this by rejecting its application to the federal bureaucracy. He points rather to the "armies of unaccountable ministerial advisers who are only interested in political survival rather than the public good", and adds that about half the Federal Parliament are political advisers. He also directs attention to Canberra lobbyists and "secretive corporate donors".
My starting point is to broaden the discussion. Not only are there many geographical situations or "bubbles" in which like-minded people are in a majority, but there are also many other similar forms of bubble. Another similar term is "silo", which is used to describe how agencies or sectors within government and/or the private sector talk primarily among themselves or constantly refer to their own limited experience rather than opening up the discussion to others for the wider good.
Many others live in what also might be called a bubble. This includes the denizens of political parties. Alexander Downer famously once said that he was a creature of the Liberal Party. I have written previously that Scott Morrison had spent a lifetime as an apparatchik and politician within the NSW Liberal Party, with all the intellectual and political baggage that brings with it. Equally one might describe the Pentecostal movement as a bubble within which Morrison lives. The respective worlds of Labor and the Nationals are bubbles too. They all shape the approach of those within them.
Bankers, church leaders, trade unionists and members of many social movements live within bubbles of their own. We all do.
Let's be open about it, and try to unpack what it means for our perspectives on life and politics. Let's also be generally aware of the politics of language. The wordsmiths and spin-doctors who make the bullets that are fired by our political leaders know what they are doing. Bubble is not a neutral term.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.