The new name for AusVotes 2013: Featuring quality political opinion, analysis and much more
The title is borrowed from Bruno Latour’s slab of a compendium subtitled Atmospheres of Democracy. It’s used here to refer to Public in the sense of public discourse, public sphere, public debate, whatever, as well as Public in the sense of public versus private, public asset, public good, not yet privatised. They’re very much related when you consider, for example, how the electorate might have voted if the coalition had campaigned on privatising all of Medicare, public schools, the ABC and public hospitals.
This is why it’s important for the Left, for want of a better term, to ignore the culture wars and people like Andrew Bolt. It’s about priorities like whether Keith Windschuttle matters more than the Harvester Judgement and minimum wage, or whether the meaning of the word misogyny is more important than childcare, or whether Chris Uhlmann’s personal political preference is more important than keeping the ABC in public hands.
Bear in mind that Tony Abbott successfully convinced voters that the country has been through four years of crisis by appearing on tv every single day of those years, bellowing about incompetence and impending ruin. It’s all very well for Twitter to argue the contrary, but the reality is that the electorate more generally is only aware of what gets to be front and centre for a long time. They spend their time living their lives as opposed to reading about other people’s opinions on obscure blogs.
Gay Alcorn is probably right about the country being wrung out, and it appears she’s also right about the culture wars grinding back into gear. She’s also right when she says that
“We fought them the last time without wit, without grace, without nuance. There was something true about Howard’s distaste of ”political correctness” and some validity in the Howard haters’ argument that this was an effort to crush alternative points of view.”
Alcorn goes on to argue that the left should fight on the basic principles of each war topic, but I’d argue that the left should dig back further than that, and argue on the basis of its underlying values. Capital versus labour, public versus private, the public good, equity, freedom to versus freedom from, that kind of thing.
Last time we allowed ourselves to be distracted by the history curriculum while education funding went to Scotts College and public schools rotted. We argued about the black armband view of history while history departments in universities were quietly removed. We laughed our heads off at Kath and Kim while the infrastructure in outer suburban areas wasn’t built or crumbled. We allowed ourselves to be distracted by initially false divisions between the traditional left and the cultural left to the point where those divisions now exist.
Andrew Bolt responded to Alcorn’s piece with a bit of typical Boltism you can choose to read, but would be best advised to ignore. It summarises down to “the culture wars are back, baby, and I’m back in business”.
Bolt personifies the entire logic of the culture wars. He’s a wealthy white male with extraordinary privileges peddling ultra-conservative wares. His audience consists of the permanently outraged; his devotees who live at the opposite end of the social scale to himself, if literacy skills are any indication, and his enemies on the left. While his fans are railing about boat people or appropriate duskiness saturation in the skins of Aboriginal professionals, they’re not railing against insecure employment, the cost of housing, insufficient expenditure on public transport or the uncertain future of public goods in general. While they’re hating the left, they’re not focused on the impact that distributions of education funding has on the literacy levels of the publically educated.
Therein lies the foremost weakness of the coalition and its appearance of a perfect union between social conservatism and economic liberalisation. That is where the left should be focused because in this country, cultural conservatism includes the preservation of leftist gains like public ownership of core infrastructure, well funded public education and healthcare, secure wages sufficient to maintain dignity beyond that of just having a job.
On climate change, what is it with Andrew Bolt and his hatred of solar power? Doesn’t he want us to have free electricity? Does he like it when the air is so polluted our little white children can’t breathe? I don’t know what to say about boat people. I really don’t. Possibly something about Bali or Rhonda and Ketut.
Jeff Sparrow got it right when he argues that
“blaming the populace amounts to a category error. It’s the task of the Left to persuade people. By definition, if we don’t manage it, the problem lies with us – and so rather than analysing the flaws of the voters, we need instead, with some urgency, to commence a discussion of our own failures.”
Ben Eltham suggests that:
“The problem for Labor is that the modern ALP has very little internal democracy. As such, there is likely to be a wide gap between the wishes of factional bosses and the ordinary rank and file. Labor’s base is far to the left of the caucus on issues such as gay marriage and asylum seeker policy. The membership is also far less enamoured of the economic orthodoxy pursued by every Labor government since Bob Hawke’s… Labor should begin its journey back to government … by getting closer to its base, and by mapping out a strategy of opposition that shifts the public dialogue in favour of the moral superiority of collective action, and away from the empty materialism that makes ordinary people so unhappy”.
You don’t start mapping out a leftist strategy by getting caught up in the distracting, tactical nonsense of the culture wars. You begin, middle and end by focusing and framing everything, every initiative and every response, in terms of the values you share with the people you’re trying to convince. Who are you trying to win over, Andrew Bolt or a few hundred voters in a swinging outer suburban seat? Do I need to point out which of those is more likely to respond in favour of well funded public hospitals and keeping Australia Post in public hands?
When the next minister for education says there’s not enough rugged white man content in the history curriculum and it spends too much time dwelling on indigenous massacres, the left should agree and suggest the inclusion of the Harvester Judgement, the inclusion of the indigenous population in the census, Mabo and the apology to the stolen generations. When they mock public funding of the arts the left should respond with references to Waltzing Matilda and Russell Drysdale. On climate change the left could argue that it’s unfair for insurance companies to increase premiums on vulnerable properties, and let the insurance industry make the case. When they start waffling about boat people the response could be something along the lines of how many white Australians are employed in the boat people industry. Or not. I really don’t know how to answer that one.
The point is that the arguments that remain front and centre for any length of time are the ones that engage the largely disengaged. Abbott’s success was not grounded in fact, logic, anti-politics or personal appeal. It was based in the gut instinct of self preservation on the personal and collective levels, which is where the left has the advantage, if they choose to see it.
Lyn Calcutt doesn’t have a blog and didn’t quite finish her PhD. Politically, she knee jerks to the left but usually ends up in the centre once she calms down. She can usually been found dithering or on Twitter at @hobjobblesmum.