Nick Bryant
The Rise and Fall of Australia

Two events bookend Nick Bryant’s stint as the BBC’s Australian correspondent, and they reflect what we might call the “Australian condition”. The first was the death in 2006 of celebrity crocodile hunter Steve Irwin, as confected a “character” as any foreign correspondent could hope to find. The second was the return to the prime ministership in 2013 of Kevin Rudd, as contrived a leader as Australia has experienced. (“That’s it, folks. Gotta zip!”)

Irwin’s death, and the exaggerated public grief, amplified the debate – I think we call it a “national conversation” nowadays – about Australian “identity”. Bryant chronicles the kitsch that is part of our public culture: the rhyming slang that is actually Cockney; the “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi” war cry, a ripoff of an English football chant; the “G’day USA” trade promotion; the “Dumb blonde Australia” tourism campaign. This is a bracing reminder of how we self-consciously debase ourselves before the world.

But he also falls for the flawed argument that we need a “national story”. Apart from being tedious, the identity argument is futile, always rendered in abstract terms. Australia needs to be confident, mature, sophisticated, informal, forward-looking, adjective upon adjective, blah, blah, blah.

The only national identity or story possible in a polyglot world is something tangible. The 2012 London Olympic ceremony nailed Britain’s postwar civic culture in three letters – NHS, for National Health Service. For the Scandinavians, it is “the welfare state”. For Australia, it was being a pioneer of the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, female suffrage, workers’ compensation.

If Labor, in power from 1983 until 1996, had exhibited a little more economic patriotism, it is unlikely that Pauline Hanson would have gained a foothold in Australian politics. Her ugly views on race and immigration rode on the back of an economic grievance. And remember, Hansonism did not disappear – after the 2001 election, it was absorbed into the mainstream of asylum-seeker policy.

Bryant is on firmer ground when analysing the political malaise.

Recalling Gillard’s climate change policy at the 2010 election – to have a “citizens’ assembly” of 150 voters decide – he delivers a killer line: “Focus groups had long helped mould policies, but this marked the apotheosis of this method. The policy was a focus group.” The dispatching of Rudd by Gillard, then Gillard by Rudd, provides him with another: “Canberra is the coup capital of the Western world.”

Bryant’s prognosis of what ails Australian politics is accurate and damning. Its shallowness, and callowness, is exemplified by the Coalition’s Scott Morrison and Labor’s Joel Fitzgibbon. But his preferred model is also trite – a mythic era of bipartisanship with Malcolm Turnbull in The Lodge. “With his background in law, banking and high technology,” coos Bryant, “Turnbull has the sort of CV that reads like a composite of at least three high achievers.”

The problem is not that Australian politics is nasty but that it is nasty to no great end. Nothing substantial is at stake.

Two titans of 20th-century Western politics were often nasty. Aneurin Bevan, health minister in Britain’s postwar Labour government, described Conservatives as “lower than vermin”. Franklin Roosevelt attacked the “economic royalists”: “We know now that government by organised money is just as dangerous as government by organised mob ... They are unanimous in their hate for me – and I welcome their hatred.”

This is hardly the conciliatory, hands-across-the-aisle stuff for which Bryant seems to pine. But Bevan and Roosevelt were fighting to preserve Britain’s NHS and advance America’s New Deal. These men were possessed of deeply held principles and endowed with the courage to defend them against privileged and powerful interests.

What Bryant should be lamenting is that we have in Australia, writ large, the dictum that Henry Kissinger (and Richard Neustadt and Wallace Sayre) attributed to academic politics: so bitter because so little is at stake. Former treasurer Wayne Swan talked a good game in class warfare but it’s unlikely that he squeezed a dollar out of Gina Rinehart in higher income taxes. Rudd was a “Christian socialist” until he was an “economic conservative”.

Along with Turnbull, Bryant’s other political pin-ups are former Labor ministers Martin Ferguson and Lindsay Tanner, and this is the surest indication of the author’s worldview. “Grown-ups,” he calls them. They were also quick to rush into the bosom of the mining and merchant banking industries when they left parliament.

Yet neither Ferguson nor Tanner are Labor “originals” (as such apostates are often termed, if not by Bryant). They adhere to the familiar template of the “out of the box” thinker who not only sees the merit of the other side but effectively joins it when freed from obligation to the party or movement that put him in political office.

Bryant was evidently a good student of Australian politics but his thinking is pretty much stock-standard 1990s New Labour–New Democrat. Free markets and open economies equal free societies and open minds. He evokes the continuum of Hawke, Keating and Howard as the model of reform. But like so many affluent liberal critics of adversarial politics, he does not recognise that politics is as much about grievance as progress – and that much grievance is justified. Why shouldn’t the jobless, the homeless, the working poor and the squeezed middle resent the entrenched privilege of the 1 per cent, and demand redress from their politicians?

Now based in the US, Bryant is witnessing a new political landscape, one marked by a renewed debate about middle-class struggle and inequality. It defined the 2012 presidential election and helped Obama win a second term. If Labor were an effective and principled opposition, it could also determine the next election in Australia.  PT

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 5, 2014 as "The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: PT