June 08, 2016

Horse 2122 - Our Timid Politics Is A Blessing

I think that it's fair to say that neither the current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull nor the Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, are the most exciting of politicians. Given the turmoil of the last decade, which was only outshone by the first ten years of the Commonwealth following federation in terms of turnover in the premiership, maybe that's a good thing.
In pulling back from the edge and stepping away from the precipice of chaos, the two leaders and indeed the parties themselves have retreated into themselves. This has had the result, that in the leader's debates and in this campaign, that both Bill and Malcolm have had to revert to attacking caricatures of each other because reality is just too dull.
Just look at the words of the descriptions being used. Malcolm Turnbull to a degree and people like Scott Morrison especially, will say "Labor" this and "Labor" that; while Bill can only make half hearted jibes about how rich Malcolm is.

I think that this is mainly because both sides have realised that the great reforms and experiments of the 1980s, which were expressed overseas in Reaganomics and Thatcherism, and enacted in Australia by Hawke, Keating and Howard, have either run their course or have been played out to completion. If the first half of the twentieth century was about installing the beginnings of infrastructure and the latter half was about setting up the welfare state and then selling the infrastructure back off again, then the opening decades of the twenty-first century have been about nothing more than basic economic management.
For whatever reason, politics seems to have come to the conclusion that there's nothing left for government to do or that apart from a little bit of tinkering, the machine is almost capable of running itself. Interest rates are barely conscious, economic growth is also mostly on autopilot and unemployment is increasingly being seen as the responsibility of the individual.
When you have government pulling back from what was once expected of it, this is bound to have consequences. Around the world, politics has been generally drifting to the economic right, to places that individual nations are broadly comfortable with, and this has meant that political parties have had to change where they choose to fight political battles on. Those battles are now mostly being fought on social policy and on the authoritarian / libertarian axis.

Broadly speaking in Australia, both the Labor Party and the Liberal/National Coalition are mostly the same when it comes to economic policy. The Liberals have been pulled a little bit by the hard right of the party and Labor now finds itself in a policy wedge between the Liberals and the Greens. The Greens have moved from being a party of mainly environmental policy to one with a libertarian social mindset and have made noises that indicate that they've taken notes from Labor's old discarded economic playbook.

This phenomena isn't unique to Australia at all. In the United States, the Republicans and Democrats line up almost to a fault with regards economic policy. Despite the bluster, the Obama administration isn't broadly different to either the Bush or Clinton administrations which came before it. What we have seen though is an undercurrent of unhappiness which has followed as a result of the two parties slow drift to the economic right.
The conditions which caused Donald Trump to rise to the top in the current maelstrom, have been visible for some time. We could look at the Tea Party which yelled from the economic right and authoritarian north and estimate that that was some prototype variant for it. A Trump administration probably wouldn't pull the economy any further to the economic right but the fact that he does favour isolationist policy, indicates that it might shift to the authoritarian North.
On the other side, Hillary Clinton is being pushed by a very vocal libertarian south set of social policy makers but apart from making token announcements on the minimum wage (because she was forced to respond to Bernie Sanders), there is no indication whatsoever that a Clinton administration would move anywhere with regards to economic policy at all.
Bernie Sanders, who at the time of writing this stands a non-zero but still trivial chance of getting the Democratic nomination, has been yelling for the economy to be pulled dramatically to the economic left. This is hardly a new message from him as he's been saying broadly the same things now for the best part of forty years. I've heard speeches from him which he'd made in the late 1970s and early 1980s and the only real differences between them are that the numbers surrounding inequality have gotten dramatically larger.

It could be argued that the current kerfuffle in the United Kingdom with regards the European Union referendum, is a proxy for the same set of arguments but the evidence just doesn't bear that out. The leave campaign, which has acquired the stupid name of Brexit, has made strange allies of the authoritarian Tory right under the very visible Boris Johnson and UKIP's Nigel Farage. Farage is closer in spirit to the far-right and borderline racist groups in Europe (as led by people like Geert Wilders and the Dutch Party for Freedom - the name smacks to me of doublespeak). Meanwhile the stay campaign under David Cameron, is hoping for that greatest of all British qualities, inactivity.
Britain has mostly fought its social battles and what we've seen is that the economic right mostly doesn't care and has let the libertarian south win its token symbolic fights. The economic left and the libertarian south, except for perhaps the gentle rumblings of Jeremy Corbyn, are mostly feebly timid. While Boris Johnson does like to be portrayed as a buffoon, he doesn't really represent the authoritarian north in the same way that Donald Trump does. I personally think that this is little more than a practice run for the premiership on his part. I think that Boris is eyeing off the black door of Number Ten and that this is all just a simulation at a tilt for the top spot.

Looking back at Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, neither they or their parties have the same mad isolationist streak that either a Trump or Farage has, Shorten isn't prepared to pull the economy as far to the left as a Sanders might and neither of them have either a great reserve of insanity or buffoonery that Trump or Johnson have.
I think that politics around the world, is largely being fought on negative grounds because nobody has the inventiveness or vision to positively stand for anything. Trump is prepared to blame the world and especially immigrants for America's woes, Hillary Clinton just has to stand against Donald Trump, Brexit is claiming that everything will go to ruin if Britain is tied to the sinking ship of Europe and the stay campaign is claiming that if Britain cuts itself adrift, then the economy will wreck itself.

Neither Malcolm or Bill have any mad populist or nationalist rhetoric to fall back on. Consequently, they're nor spouting anything that's particularly bonkers. Also, because we have compulsory voting in this country, they don't really need to shout from the rooftops to get people out to vote. What they're both doing is speaking to the safe zones that both of their teams play from and to be honest, I'd rather see dull and timid politics than fifteen different kinds of madness.

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