Issue 11, March 2010 | Sarah Burnside

 

The brightly coloured sign outside the Metro Church on Beaufort St reads ‘Real People Real Life Real’.

This simple message taps into the deep desire for realness in our lives. There is a pervasive sense that modern life is artificial or false, which has contributed to a fetishisation of authenticity; the descriptor is used for a variety of consumer goods from powdered soup to ‘peasant food’ and the concept is played out in debates on the politics of identity.

The hunger for reality is grounded in our experience of the world. The often-quoted phrase in the Communist Manifesto – ‘all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned’ – rings true in 2010 as in 1848. Indeed, it rings truer still; the eminent Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman characterises the present as a period of ‘liquid modernity’ in which ‘there is change, always change, ever new and different change – but no destination, no finishing point, no anticipation of a mission accomplished’.[1] The twentieth century, Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘age of extremes’, has been followed by yet more seemingly intractable wars, global terrorism, growing awareness of climate change, and most recently, the recent global financial crisis which, while not completely shattering the complacency of market capitalism, surely dented it. There is a profound disconnect between these larger events and the increasing and relentless banality of much of our popular culture: the reality of the world we live in is not reflected by the words and images that surround us.

Each age has its own peculiar dreads. The creeping anxiety in this young century is that things are not what they seem: ‘stories of conspiracy’[2] thrive. A reportedly secure job might be capriciously lost; a mortgage or other debt might be crippling; a ‘sound’ investment in a company might fail[3]; ostensibly nutritious food might contain transfats or dangerous chemicals (truly this is an age of deep anxiety about food); the child with whom your offspring correspond on the web might be a predator. Alternatively, a neighbour might be a terrorist; alleged asylum seekers might be ‘economic refugees’ looking to take your job; there might be a vast global conspiracy to dupe the public into believing in human-induced climate change.

Well might we ask: what is left that is tangible, knowable and understandable? There is a longing for known quantities; for something solid that one can grasp hold of and be sure of. The movements towards organic and local food, the phenomena of sea changers and tree changers and downshifters, are attributable to the quest for a life that is, in some physical or elemental sense, real. Such concerns, contrasting sharply with the poverty, hunger and despair that continue to plague humanity in the 21st century, can be dismissed as mere middle class indulgence. Nevertheless, there is merit in Clive Hamilton’s argument that society must provide more than ‘a consumer life’, and his suggestion that ‘responding to most people’s wish to live with purpose in an ethical society ought to be the natural territory of progressives, since the sentiments that underlie this yearning are consistent with the construction of a more just, sustainable and peaceful society’.[4]

Rather than this more nuanced focus, in recent years, Australian politics has increasingly become a competition over one’s realness. The politics of the ordinary – the bland, known, and unremarkable – was best exemplified in the public persona of John Howard, who was described by Michelle Grattan as ‘awesomely ordinary’.[5] Howard reveled in being ‘an average Australian bloke’[6] – what you saw, he suggested, was what you got. Despite Labor’s efforts to paint Howard as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, his mantra – I am normal, common-sense, like you, not like them – was successful, both in 1996 and in three successive elections. The narratives constructed by and around Howard were always implausible. It is absurd to think that, particularly in the era of mass media, focus groups, intense polling and mass campaigning, an entirely ordinary, run-of-the-mill schmo (as distinct from a lifelong political animal) could find himself elected Prime Minister of Australia. More insidiously, the mantle of authenticity too often blurs into the knee-jerk anti-elitism in which a concern for civic life and a focus that extends beyond the material are immediately equated with latte-drinking effeteness, green misanthropy and holier-than-thou false piety.

Howard was eclipsed in 2007 by a politician who outdid him in embracing ordinariness. Rudd’s folksy ‘I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help’ message was effective, and voters concluded that the punitive Work Choices scheme was not the kind of policy that good ordinary blokes would have any truck with. Since his election victory, Rudd has been dogged by accusations that his persona is confected; that he is merely a mirror which reflects his particular audience at any one time. Rudd is critiqued for using language to obfuscate, when he is not employing it to craft a sellable persona for himself – witness the derision attracted by the ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’ remarks.[7] Concerns about Rudd’s malleable persona are slightly reminiscent of the unsettling, quasi-racist paranoia among conservatives in the US that Barack Obama is not what he seems: he is by turns a Muslim; a communist; a socialist; ineligible for the presidency due to not being born in America; and so forth.

In chipping away at Howard’s dominance during the 2007 election campaign, Labor members repeatedly described the then PM as ‘a very clever politician’. The underlying message was clear: Howard is cunning, a trickster, someone seeking to fool the electorate. A ‘clever politician’ is, in the public mind, a very different beast from ‘a good bloke’. The same epithet – the ultimate backhanded compliment – is now being applied to Rudd by Liberals who hope the public will learn to distrust Mr. ‘Programmatic Specificity’. (Parenthetically, the use of ‘clever’ in this fashion is somewhat concerning, revealing the anti-intellectualism that too often characterises Australian political discourse. We may not want our politicians to be mean and tricky, but surely we would prefer that they were intelligent?)

The Liberals floundered after Howard’s end. Now, following the ambiguous leaderships of Brendan Nelson (a former ALP member) and Malcolm Turnbull (who never seemed to ‘fit’ within the modern Liberal Party), Tony Abbott has consolidated his image as a ‘conviction politician’, one who says what he believes. Notwithstanding the somewhat unfair and unhelpful focus on Abbott’s religion, he has gained from the perception that he is what he seems: a capital-C Conservative. Shadow Attorney-General George Brandis writes glowingly of an Abbott who is ‘is as plain-speaking a politician as you will ever find, a living embodiment of the Australian virtues of forthrightness and blunt candour’.[8] Abbott positions himself as a man of action, in contract to Kevin Rudd who – nicknamed the Milky Bar Kid during the 2007 election campaign – is framed as an ineffectual milksop; milquetoast; Milhouse. The narrative runs as follows: Abbott will address climate change with practical, commonsense action that the ordinary bloke can understand – planting trees, enabling industry to operate at ‘business as usual’ levels, and carbon sequestration in soil.[9] Rudd, on the other hand, will pontificate at length before sneakily delivering a Great Big Tax cunningly disguised as an emission reductions scheme. The party that gave us ‘practical reconciliation’ now promises to deliver what might be termed ‘practical emissions reduction’.

The comparison is instructive. Rather than being a holistic policy platform, practical reconciliation boiled down to no more than a continuation of government spending programs in remote areas, coupled with some Shared Responsibility Agreements and derisive remarks about the emptiness of symbolism. The implicit, and nonsensical, suggestion was that practical and symbolic initiatives could not co-exist. In essence, practical reconciliation is what you have when you don’t believe in reconciliation.[10] Similarly, Abbott’s direct climate change policy reflects a deep ambiguity within the Liberal Party as to whether it even needs such a policy; whether the overwhelming scientific consensus is to be believed and acted upon.

The Liberals’ policy, which foots the bill to the public rather than high-polluting industry, purportedly aims to reduce emissions through investment in environmental programs, with the latter being selected by a body yet to be created. The policy has received sustained criticism; in a controversial parliamentary speech Malcolm Turnbull scathingly commented: ‘Schemes where bureaucrats and politicians pick technologies and winners, doling out billions of taxpayers' dollars, are neither good policy nor economically efficient and they will not be environmentally effective’.[11] Abbott has emphasized that the main criteria by which environmental programs will be evaluated is cost: there must be ‘no increase in cost to consumers’ and no impact on jobs; industry will be rewarded for maintaining emissions at a business-as-usual rate; and non-specified financial penalties (designed in consultation with the industry sector) will apply to increases above this level.[12] In the words of political commentator Ben Eltham, ‘the party of free enterprise has proposed a policy of free pollution’.[13]

The Liberals’ scheme is not intrinsically objectionable, but the suggestion that it will be adequate in and of itself to reduce emissions is mere cynical posturing.[14] Worse, it increases the shallowness of the ‘debate’ around emissions reduction, masking the inadequacy of the Government’s own policy, which Robert Manne characterises simply as ‘from the point of view of the future of the Earth…a cause for wonder and for shame’.[15]

In his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope, US President Barack Obama noted that the Republican party had won elections ‘on the basis of pledges that often defy reality…tax cuts without service cuts, privatization of Social Security with no change in benefits, war without sacrifice’.[16] A similarly illusory promise is ‘emissions reduction without cost’.[17] It is clear that climate change will be a low priority for a future Liberal government – nothing done to avert it is considered to merit the merest negative impact. This is a tokenistic policy designed as a strategic move against the Government rather than reflecting any particular goal of the party proposing it.

Those in search of the politics of the real would do well to look elsewhere.

 

Sarah Burnside is a Perth-based lawyer and freelance writer.


[1] Z. Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009.  

[2] B. Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, New York: The Crown Publishers, 2008, p. 24.

[3] In Bauman’s words, ‘Allegedly rock-solid companies are unmasked as figments of their accountants’ imagination’; see Bauman, Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?

[4] C. Hamilton, What’s Left? The Death of Social Democracy (21) Quarterly Essay, Melbourne: Black Inc., 2006, p. 62.

[5] Cited in P. Hartcher, Bipolar Nation: How to Win the 2007 Election, Quarterly Essay 25, Black Inc., Melbourne 2007, p. 9.

[6] Cited in J. Brett, Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia, Qaurterly Essay 19, Black Inc., Melbourne 2005, p. 30.

[7] See for instance G. Brandis, ‘A True Believer in the Community’, The Australian, 16 February 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/politics/opinion/a-true-believer-in-the-community/story-e6frgd0x-1225830656446.

[8] Brandis, ‘A True Believer in the Community’, The Australian, 16 February 2010, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/politics/opinion/a-true-believer-in-the-community/story-e6frgd0x-1225830656446.

[10] This is not to say that an objective meaning of ‘reconciliation’ can be readily determined. David Ritter notes that ‘precisely what ‘Reconciliation’ means has always defied simple definition because the word is ambiguous and is the subject of contested interpretations. Lacking any sense of measure, the mantle of ‘Reconciliation’ is readily usable and is open to appropriation and political competition’, D. Ritter, The Native Title Market, Crawley, WA: University of Western Australia Press, 2009, p. 63.

[11] M. Turnbull, ‘Why I Support the ETS’, 9 February 2010, The Australian, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/why-i-support-the-ets-proposal/story-e6frg6zo-1225828034340.

[12] http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/national/opposition-leader-tony-abbott-unveils-liberal-climate-change-policy/story-e6frf7l6-1225825893684. In a recent interview on The 7:30 Report, in which Abbott somewhat unconvincingly recast his ‘absolute crap’ remark as ‘rhetorical hyperbole’, the Opposition Leader emphasised that it will be taxpayers and not industry who fund his plan. Further, there will seemingly be no effort to reduce emissions, merely to keep them at current levels. To Kerry O’Brien’s statement that businesses would ‘not face penalties, if they continue to pollute at the same level’, Abbott responded ‘business as usual is not going to cost them more, because we don't want to put their prices up’. The 7:30 Report, 2 February 2010, http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2010/s2808321.htm

[13] B. Eltham, ‘Have the Libs Lost Faith in the Market?’ New Matilda 2 February 2010, http://newmatilda.com/2010/02/02/have-libs-lost-faith-market.

[14] B. Keane, ‘Abbott’s Answer to Climate Change: ERF’, Crikey, 2 February 2010, http://www.crikey.com.au/2010/02/02/abbotts-answer-to-climate-change-erf/

[15] R. Manne, ‘After Copenhagen’, The Monthly, March 2010, p. 13.

[16] Obama, The Audacity of Hope, p. 23.

[17] David Marr recently predicted: ‘The debate will grind on unheard because, as much as anything, both sides are sheltering in complexity. One line would cut a swathe through the increasingly unlistenable rhetoric of both the government and opposition: whatever measures we take to combat global warming have to hurt. We won't change without pain’; D. Marr, ‘Climate Change Debate Losing Urgency’, 11 February 2010, National Times, http://www.nationaltimes.com.au/opinion/politics/silent-sound-of-air-sucked-out-of-the-debate-20100210-nsc7.html.