Malcolm Turnbull is intent on launching the government into a series of Howard-era culture wars. The problem is he’s not very good at it. By Mike Seccombe.

A playbook for the culture wars

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Bondi Beach.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at Bondi Beach.
Credit: Mark Evans / Getty Images

Jobs and growth, as Malcolm Turnbull is wont to remind us, is no longer just a Liberal Party election slogan. It’s an outcome. The economy is humming along. More than 400,000 new jobs were created in the 2017 calendar year.

So why, then, does the government continue to languish in the polls? It’s a question that puzzles many. But not Ian McAllister, professor of political science at the Australian National University, and director since 1987 of the Australian Election Study, the most comprehensive survey of Australians’ evolving political opinions.

It’s not just that the economic gains are shared unequally and that at the household level most people are not seeing their incomes rise, even as their bills get bigger, he says. It goes deeper than that.

Most people just don’t believe that government has much capacity to influence the economy anymore.

McAllister points to a chart on page 51 of the 2016 election study, which records voters’ responses when they were asked to predict the effect of government actions on the economy.

Just 13 per cent of respondents thought government would make things better in the coming year. Another 20 per cent thought the government would make things worse. And a whopping 67 per cent thought the actions of the government would have no effect on the economy at all.

“It was the lowest figure we’ve ever recorded,” McAllister says. “Even Coalition voters in the 2016 election mostly didn’t think a Coalition government would be able to do much for them.”

The result, he and other political scientists and social researchers suggest, reflects an understanding in the electorate of the huge influence on the economy of global forces, substantially beyond the control of government.

It’s a problem for both sides of politics, and part of the reason for the decline in the vote for major parties. But it is a bigger problem for conservative parties, because the claim to superior management of the economy has traditionally been core to their electoral appeal.

And it’s a bigger problem given evidence, found in the election study and elsewhere, that voters increasingly favour stronger government action to redistribute income. Thus the persistent lead in the polls for Labor, which voices those concerns about economic inequality.

What to do?

The time-honoured response, says Carol Johnson, professor of politics at Adelaide University, is “to use culture war arguments to wedge off a section of Labor’s traditional support base, to split off socially conservative members of the working class”.

She says, “It’s an old technique that John Howard used very successfully.”

In contrast to the effective warrior Howard, says Johnson, Tony Abbott was an enthusiastic but clumsy one. And Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t really one at all during the early part of his leadership. Then he had the near-death experience of the 2016 election.

“And since then,” she says, “we see these culture war issues rising again.”

Last year, particularly in the latter half of the year, they dominated politics. This year is starting out the same way. Before 2018 was a week old, Turnbull got himself tangled in the issue of an Australian republic, suggesting a postal plebiscite, à la the same sex-marriage vote, but only after the current queen expires.

In short order after that, he launched a defence of the Australian flag – ironic, given he once supported changing it, just as he once supported the republic. Then he declared he would not be “bullied” by a “tiny minority” into changing the date of Australia Day, notwithstanding the fact many Indigenous Australians see it as marking the start of their dispossession by white settlers.

And then, in response to the revelation that former immigration minister Scott Morrison had directed ASIO to delay the security clearances of refugees so as to deny their legitimate claims to permanent protection in Australia, Turnbull virtually channelled John Howard: he made “no apologies”, he said, for “securing” Australia’s borders.

If Turnbull’s performance in the political silly season is any guide, we could be in for a combative year in the culture wars. And possibly a turning point in the culture wars, after two decades of dominance by political conservatives.

Before we get to the reasons for that, though, let’s give some consideration to what “culture wars” actually are, for they are far more often alluded to than defined.

On one interpretation, says Ben Oquist, executive director of the progressive The Australia Institute, all political and economic positions are ultimately an expression of cultural considerations.

Another take on culture wars comes from Toby Ralph, self-described hatchet man, marketing bloke and sometime propagandist, who has worked on scores of elections around the world, including all of John Howard’s campaigns.

His view is more cynical: they are a means to keep a party’s base activated by providing “political alternatives to the tedium and predictability of major party policies and narratives”, which are otherwise “as boring as batshit”.

It is characteristic of culture war issues that they generate more heat than light and tend to be steeped in “vitriol” and “sanctimonious outrage”. They serve as a populist proxy for broader political debate, says Ralph, and can have “a significant impact at the polling booths”.

As the eminent public intellectual Robert Manne noted a few years back, cultural warfare tends to be a tool of the political right, adopted from the United States Republican playbook, that plays to conservative values of “a proud national history, the Western canon, the traditional family, Christian virtues, patriotism, a unified national culture”.

In reality, anyone of any political stripe can play at cultural warfare, although it’s easier to make an emotional plea for the status quo than a rational case for change. It is easier to appeal to fear for what might be lost than hope for what might be gained from change.

A bit of political history makes the point. Social researcher Rebecca Huntley, of Essential Media, harks back to the end of the Keating Labor government.

Having engineered big economic changes, Keating had moved on to championing major cultural changes, but failed to bring the electorate with him.

“The social research from the tail end of the Keating era suggested that Australians by then had had a gutful of economic reform and engagement with Asia and republicanism and multiculturalism and Indigenous reconciliation, and there was a kind of fatigue,” Huntley says.

John Howard recognised this fatigue and won big by offering a small vision, limited to sober economic management and cultural stasis.

Aside from “a brief moment under Rudd, who dared talk about big issues like climate change and the apology to the Stolen Generation and engagement with China”, major party politics has barely touched these bigger cultural issues since, she says.

ANU political scientist Dr Jill Sheppard agrees. “The lasting impact of the ’96 election,” she says, “was that everyone retreated into their shells and didn’t want to talk about wholesale social reform.”

The Liberal Party was remade in the image of John Howard, overtaken by social conservatives. In response, Labor has been wary of attack from the conservatives and their right-wing surrogates in the media.

The result, according to the various sources spoken to for this story, from Oquist on the left to Ralph on the right, and the data-informed academics and researchers in between, is that the cultural attitudes of the public have moved way ahead of the politicians.

The evidence is there in the graphs of the Australian Election Study. Ever since Howard was elected in 1996, Australia has been moving consistently leftward on the political spectrum, and the rate of that move has sped up considerably since the current government lucked into office on the back of Labor Party disunity in 2013.

Electors are increasingly dissatisfied with the nature of our democracy, increasingly inclined to see no real choice between the major parties and to believe that powerful vested interests have too much sway.

Once Australia overwhelming preferred tax cuts to increases in government spending. We no longer do. We are far more progressive on a whole range of social issues, from abortion to drug laws to crime and punishment in general. We are far more in favour of government support for Indigenous Australians and land rights, less hostile to asylum seekers, and vastly more inclined to see climate change as a serious threat.

“A lot of things are happening in parallel,” says Sheppard, who works with McAllister on the election study and who also is primary author of the ANU poll of social attitudes and behaviours.

“We are at a weird juncture in which we are increasingly sceptical of governments’ economic impact, where we are increasingly liberal on social issues, but where most of us still are voting for our parties of habit.”

But that will change, and the change will be seismic.

“That elector passivity that parties have relied on for so long is breaking down and the younger generations in Australia are driving social change so much faster than anything we’ve seen for decades,” Sheppard says.

“All signs seem to point towards social issues becoming much more important in political choice.”

Rebecca Huntley detects the same thing in the focus groups she conducts, and sees last year’s same-sex marriage survey as a “massive loss” for the conservative culture warriors, with ramifications far beyond that single issue.

“People have a new appetite for larger issues,” she says, and the postal survey showed them they could effect change from outside the established political process.

“We’ve got a culture war led by activists, through new media channels, which is different. The role of organisations like GetUp! has no precedent.”

The old culture warriors are desperately scared of the campaigning power of these new activists, she says, which explains their recent rush to change electoral laws, to “squash the model that GetUp! represents”.

This mood for change will not be limited by sly donation laws, however. Huntley cites the debate over Australia Day, on which she did significant focus group research.

Far from being a “tiny minority”, as Turnbull said, the mood for change is strong.

“What we found was that roughly one third of people thought Australia Day celebrations on January 26 were shameful. Another, slightly smaller cohort … had little empathy for Indigenous pain or thought it was a token issue which obscured the real issues of Aboriginal disadvantage. Then there was another disengaged but pragmatic third, whose attitude was ‘as long as there’s a day where I can have a holiday and a beer with my mates, I don’t care what day. Change the date if it upsets you.’

“I think the mood is there to have conversations about a range of issues: about reconciliation, Uluru, the republic, other things. There is definitely a greater energy about these questions that relate not to the economy or what we import or export, but who we are as Australians.

“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of these issues become quite critical in the next election.”

Ian McAllister, likewise, sees a new mood abroad in the wake of the same-sex marriage debate. “It suggests to me that in the next five years or so there will be a lot more discussion of these moral issues, unless the economy really goes south. I think education, religious education, funding for religious schools, the whole role of religion, perhaps.”

Certainly, Oquist says, the progressive forces are at last ascendant in the culture wars.

“The defeat of the conservative forces on same-sex marriage and euthanasia, along with the tarnishing of organised religion as a moral force as a result of the child abuse royal commission, has put the cultural right very much on the back foot,” he says.

And it’s hard to argue with that. The old issues so deftly exploited by John Howard just don’t seem to cut through the way they did. The biggest of them historically – the alleged threat to national sovereignty posed by asylum seekers – has receded in the public mind, ironically because the government succeeded in stopping the boats. Despite the government’s best efforts to dehumanise the people left bunged up on Manus and Nauru, public attitudes have softened, even among those who would not see a change in policy.

Peter Dutton’s attempts to pick a fight with New Zealand over its offer to take some of the detainees are increasingly perceived as a desperate effort to gin up a fading issue.

So what else have they got? The long campaign to make an issue of the Racial Discrimination Act quietly expired without much change. Safe Schools? It’s hard to see any great mileage left in that one, particularly as the religious right’s efforts to conflate it with same-sex marriage fell so comprehensively flat.

As we noted at the top of the story, Turnbull’s recent forays into the issues of the republic, the flag and Australia Day got little traction. Indeed, they served to underline the contradictions between the old Malcolm Turnbull, of whom voters initially approved, and the new one, who is beholden to the hard right of the Liberal Party.

“At least,” says Carol Johnson, “voters knew where they were with John Howard, knew that he was consistent in his convictions, whereas they don’t see Turnbull as completely sincere on these things.”

There remains, of course, the issue of climate change and energy policy, but the polls indicate the government is losing that one as well.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, Turnbull delivered what was billed as an “agenda setting” speech in Toowoomba, spruiking the creation of those 403,100 new jobs last year. He claimed it was the result of his government’s trickle-down company tax cuts.

In the absence of real wage growth, though, there’s Buckley’s chance he’ll get any real poll bounce out of it. Ian McAllister speaks with the authority of 30 years of electoral surveys: “Jobs haven’t been an issue since the 1990s recession.”

What’s left is culture war. But as much as he tries, Malcolm Turnbull is not much good at it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "A playbook for the culture wars".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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