Just because you can see the train coming, doesn’t mean it hurts less when it hits you. Press and polls foretold a Coalition victory in Saturday’s federal election, but despite months of mulling it over, the headlines were hard to swallow. I was walking down Market Street in Freo when I heard the news. A single salty tear rolled down my cheek and splashed into my frogurt. Dark days were upon us.
Since then, my mood’s been zigzagging – from despondency, to denial, to desperate optimism and, overwhelmingly, disbelief. Tony’s in. Nine out of ten things you care about are being Express-posted down the crapper. How did this happen?
Because, seriously, if you’d told me five years ago – hell, even twelve months ago – that Tony Abbott would soon be Australia’s top dog, I would have spat coffee all over your face. It would have seemed a preposterous notion – and it still does – because it relies on not just one, not two, not a hundred, but literally millions of people believing that this man (memorably described by Paul Keating as an “intellectual nobody”) is apt to run a country. This man, who for the last decade and beyond has been a reliable source of cretinous gaffes, casual sexism, underhand racism – or at the very least cultural ignorance – all the while boasting the approximate charisma of a bowl of warm spew.
And yet, my disbelief isn’t really to do with the Abbotisms. Yes, I know, Tony’s a creep – a sometimes-incompetent public speaker, a bumbling constitutional monarchist whose not-so-carefully-scripted remarks routinely betray attitudes that don’t belong in this century (or any other century, ideally). Still, the man is not an idiot per se: he’s a Rhodes Scholar, a one-time journalist and business manager, a driven politician who evidently has the nous to climb to the top of the dung-heap. We are wasting our breath bemoaning Tony’s personal shortcomings, because they are (a) already well-known and (b) increasingly exaggerated (yes, I’ll say so); we risk hyperbole and ad hominem, thereby selling our own arguments short. Tony Abbott is perfectly capable of making himself look like a nasty, bigoted, vapid old crook.
Nay, what baffles me most is that we succeeded in electing a party that offered us no positive vision; a party lacking both style and substance, whose singular goal seemed to be dismantling anything put forward by the other guys. The Libs courted us with negative space, promising nothing new, save for some long-ass roads and a paid parental leave scheme. The rest were contrarian, subtractive, even regressive promises: no more carbon tax, no more independent Climate Change Authority, no gay marriage, less mining tax, less Racial Discrimination Act, no more sad-looking brown people arriving on boats. Less funding for schools, hospitals, public transport. A (very) watered-down NBN, a smaller (read: pissweak) emissions reduction target for 2020, and no targets for 2030 or 2050. On the last day of the election trail, they dropped this final whopper: a $4.5 billion cut to foreign aid. There were those who were outraged but, in the scheme of things, the announcement barely caused a ripple.
In swapping Kevin’s flawed plan for Tony and Co’s barely-there, anti-everything platform, Australia has thrown the baby out with the bathwater, done a poo in the bath, lit a cigar and is now reclining in its leather armchair to gaze on, smilingly vacantly at the destruction. I keep coming back to the question: how in Menzies’ name did this happen?
I’m not a political analyst and I’m not going to attempt to answer the question in any conclusive way. I do know, however, that the Wall Street Journal’s woeful article from Monday, (“Why Tony Abbott Won”) is one of many which offer no satisfying answers: it paints Abbott as the straight-talking underdog who called bullshit on climate change “hysteria” to win the hearts of the Australian public, all amidst “media bias against him” (never mind Rudd-as-Nazi on the front page of the Daily Telegraph).
Most other news sources cite Labor’s internal conflicts and the Carbon Tax as decisive issues. Okay, but really? Do people care that much if a party has two head honchos in one term? If the party was beset by disunity, it still managed to pass over 550 pieces of legislation – including some important reforms (for the record, I thought Rudd’s first ousting was embarrassing, and Gillard’s deplorable, but this doesn’t nullify their respective achievements).
Meanwhile, has the carbon tax caused us that much pain? And if it has caused a noticeable increase in the cost of living, are we so short-sighted that we’d prefer to let future generations bear the far greater load – once it’s already too late?
It seems we bought into an economy of fear and finger-pointing. Tony’s relentless antagonism was, if nothing else, hard to ignore. Do we love to hate our governments so much that as soon as a walking lizard-man shrieks “boats!” or “economic emergency!” (two so-called crises unsupported by the figures), we grab the torches and pitchforks without seeking out the truth of the matter? Or could it be that, after toying with Labor for a while, we inevitably retreat to the perceived “safety” of the Liberals – who are ingrained in our psyche (even in the subconscious of the left, as Ross Gittins has suggested in the SMH) as genetically better-equipped to handle the economy and preside over our comfortably capitalist, patriarchal society?
I dunno. I try not to assume the worst about my fellow Australians. I’m hoping that everyone voted Abbott in because they thought it’d be funny. And let’s be honest – it will be. The suppository of all wisdom?! Jesus. You can’t script that.
Coalition win aside, there is plenty to puzzle over in the Senate. Meet Wayne Dropulich – senator for the Australian Sports Party, whose policies focus on sports, sports, and uhhhhhh: sports. Then there’s David Leyonhjelm, the Liberal Democrat who got in because his name was first on the ballot (“looks like I’m the senator for donkeys!” he cheered) and because people confused his party with the actual Liberal party. There’s Jacquie Lambie, a member of Clive Palmer’s goon squad, and Glen Lazarus, a former rugby star known as “The Brick with Eyes” (exactly what you want in a politician). My personal favourite is Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, who’s tweeted jokes about 9/11 being an inside job, uploaded videos to Youtube where he flings kangaroo poo at family members, and supports the “unimpeded recreational use of the environment.” This guy will be sharing a room with ten Greens senators. Fetch the popcorn.
So where do we go from here? With a parliament peppered with various sorts of nutters, troglodytes and legitimately nasty dudes, the situation may already seem dire. For those of us whose prospects lie within the arts or academia, it might feel like we’re already totally rooted (to use the technical term). As per their 2010 campaign, the Libs haven’t deigned to formulate an Arts policy, and they will move to cut “wasteful” spending on academic research programmes – bypassing the Australian Research Council on the decisions because ARC might fund, y’know, art and philosophy and all that airy-fairy shit.
It’s a grim outlook. But as soon as we despair – as soon as we become disengaged, disillusioned angstophiles merely moaning on Facebook – they win. As soon as we resign ourselves to the “politicians suck, why bother?” mentality, they win. The bottom line is money, but the other bottom line is future votes, and that’s our trump card. A petition created just days ago, demanding the uptake of Labor’s fibre-to-the-home NBN plan, has garnered more than 120,000 signatures already; who knows if it will influence any MP’s decisions, but that sort of thing sends a message. It says that electing a government is not a blanket endorsement. Seats won doesn’t equate to a mandate on every policy. If we keep drilling it in, it will grow to be meaningful.
No, online petitions won’t be enough. We need to get a bit old-school, however uncool it may seem. We need to actually write letters to our local MPs. We need to call them up, bang on their door if necessary; hearing us out is their job. We need to protest, we need to make art and music that confronts those who are heartless, cowardly, short-sighted and selfish. We need to keep a critical eye on whatever media we consult, and call out spin and falsehoods. We need to let bad times galvanise us, and we need to keep the momentum up. If I sound idealistic, naïve, crazed, delusional: I’m cool with that. The one thing I’d hate to be right now is apathetic, indifferent, too jaded to bother. Because once the voting’s over, that sort of attitude plays right into the hands of parliament’s ultimate bastards and drongos. Democracy doesn’t begin and end on election day.
Don’t get me wrong – there was plenty to be concerned about under the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd government. But with these new developments, many of us are dreading three years of cold, conservative hell recalling the worst of the Howard years. Let’s give them hell back. At worst, our kids will think we were pretty cool.