The political caste playing student politics in Canberra
When Tony Smith was mock-dragged to the speaker’s chair this week, there was, across the country, a mix of emotions. The slow single-engine stall crash to earth of Bronwyn Bishop had been so delicious, so deserved and so protracted that the only people glad to see it end were the country’s cartoonists, who were by now utterly out of ideas. Bishop’s Imelda Marcos act had been of a piece with her management of the house of representatives, a chamber intended to be the free assembly of elected representatives. By continuing to attend party meetings, and treating the opposition as there on sufferance, she – with the eager assistance of the prime minister and Christopher Pyne – turned it into a star chamber. Her replacement by the more, well, liberal Tony Smith, who guaranteed to stay out of the party room and rule more fairly, was thus greeted with relief.
Fair enough – we want parliament to work, at a basic level, which it hasn’t – but it marked another, more disconcerting shift. With the appointment of Smith – who was Melbourne University Liberal Club president in the 1980s, before being hired as press secretary and eerie doppelganger to Peter Costello – we have reached the point where all the key roles in both chambers are occupied by former student politicians. These are people who have had almost no job but politics, who went from university scuffles into back offices and then onto government or opposition benches.
Tony Abbott cut his teeth and punched near women’s heads in the cockpit of Sydney University’s late Cold War politics in the 1970s. Bill Shorten rose through the ranks of the Melbourne student Labor Right in the 1980s. Christopher Pyne and opposition leader in the senate Penny Wong tangled at Adelaide University in the same period, and George Brandis floated round Liberal student politics in Queensland. One could find another half-dozen figures in the front ranks who took the same path: a fee-free degree leaving plenty of time for student politics, all-involving clashes for the spoils of office, culminating in the annual National Union of Students conference where enmities and alliances, now of decades’ standing, were put in place.
Among the journalists reporting on them, analysing them, are more than a few who edited or wrote for student newspapers, including this correspondent. Political, personal and ideological battles fought in the confines of cramped student union buildings, fluoro lights and beige floor tiles, the chemical reek of the paper’s bromide camera, meetings run by 20-year-olds with their own copy of Robert’s Rules of Order. It never occurred to me at the time that it was the adult world in miniature, as prologue, but so it is. Parliament House, that great disaster, exacerbates this, a student union writ large, self-contained and too far from anything else to make leaving during the day worthwhile. For two decades, this new political situation has been under construction. Now it is here. We have been ruled by political professionals for decades, of course, but even those who started early, such as Paul Keating, went through an entirely different process, in a wider world that was also more testing. What we have now is the bonsai version. And it shows in our politics.
So it is always amusing to see journalists from this milieu talk about “the political class” as if they weren’t part of it. Or as if there were a class at all. “Class” suggests a social category, a group too broad to know one another. The people we are now ruled by constitute a political caste, quite a different thing – a group small enough for all the principals to know one another, have associations, obligation and affinities stretching back decades, and hidden from wider view. Nor are we alone in this narrowing from class to caste, though it happens differently in other places. In the United States, the most likely scenario for the 2016 presidential election is Clinton–Bush, a battle for supremacy between two dynasties. The Bush clan stretches back to senator Prescott Bush, a disgusting crook, one of the few men charged with trading with the enemy during World War II; the Clinton clan is more nascent, beginning with Bill, and now with Hillary rising, and Chelsea waiting in the wings. In Britain, the dominance of Oxbridge, the world of London think tanks, and the brazenly class-prejudicial hiring policies of the newspapers provide a bubble under which a caste can flourish. Thus, the establishment’s new favoured candidate for leadership of the Labour Party, Yvette Cooper, is married to a previous candidate, Ed Balls, who was gazumped by one of two Miliband brothers, who had grown up at the heart of the Hampstead Left. Across the world, it has transpired in this way. And across the world, people are now getting jack of it.
Why it occurred is not difficult to see. Modern politics was drawn from the struggle of two great and mass classes, each with their different institutions: unions and labour and left parties matched by the clubs and associations that knit together the middle class. This structure, based around industrial capitalism, began to shift as manufacturing was globalised and sent to the developing world. The concomitant rise of consumption, media and image as a significant part of the economy changed the way in which people formed their identities and affiliations. The political representation of the working and middle class was increasingly outsourced to those who specialised in policy, culture and image. Thus we have union leaders, who become Labor leaders, who have never worked in the occupations they represent; right-wing politicians who have never run a business or worked in the private sector. Both sides must thus put on a minstrel show that expresses the values of those who grant them legitimacy.
With the big battles over for the moment – socialism 1.0 defeated, neoliberalism cowed by the 2008 crash, and a middling right-shifted managerialism in place – the demands for a show become all the more urgent. But this has happened just as the real divisions between this close group of right-shifted market technocrats have started to collapse. Some advantage can be gained in this field by figures such as Abbott, who live in a mad fantasy world, whose passions they can project outwards for a time. But for the most part, the field is left to people such as Shorten, a leader who accepted direct payments to his union from businesses, and traded away his members’ rights in “all-in” deals never ratified by shopfloor meetings. Until the Beaconsfield mine disaster, when he was lifted into the stratosphere by Channel Nine, many Australian Workers Union members had little clue who Shorten was, or who they were led by. In Britain, the mainstream candidates for the party’s leadership have struggled to differentiate themselves, as they attempt to strike the pose of leaders of a working-people’s party, while endorsing demands of capital for a flexible economy – which has led to comic scenes of these identikit figures flip-flopping on cruel welfare bills, opposing, then endorsing them, as Labour’s corporate backers clear their throat at any leftward movement. By contrast, Hillary Clinton has been willing to move leftward to answer a dissident mood, just as she moved rightward in 2008, with the strong suggestion that the content of her politics is fast approaching zero.
This could all have continued for some time had it not become clear to ever larger numbers of people that our inherited political caste is utterly incapable of dealing with the emerging challenges we face. It is no accident that “don’t know” and “someone else” now outpoll Shorten as preferred Labor leader. Only Malcolm Turnbull is more popular than “don’t know” in the Liberals. Few people have been fooled by talk of recovery in Britain and the US following the 2008 crash. These have been paper recoveries, leaving millions stranded in un- or under-employment, in decaying cities and blighted regions, with no prospect that a real old-fashioned upswing may take place. Those doing well have lives that groan under the weight of student debt, unaffordable housing and squeezed living standards; those losing out are watching the permanent structural transformation of the world of work, which leaves no place for those denied education and training – or never offered the chance to take it up later in life. What you hear, in the north of England, the east of London, in the US Midwest, in parts of Australia, is now a degree of desperation that historians remarked on as characterising the final years of the Great Depression – a sense that it may never end, especially when millions are being told that it is already over.
That exasperation with the status quo and the blitheness of the political caste with regard to it has generated its own opposition, rational and otherwise. The British Labour race has been turned upside down by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, a bearded Islington left-winger who was let into the leadership race – right-wing candidates lent him their supporters, so he would make the ballot – and who is now leading the field, and very likely to win the position, on the basis of union and branch member votes. The prospect has so alarmed the Labour party machine that they attempted to withdraw their nominations, and to threaten a split of the party. In the US, the veteran self-described “socialist” (by which is meant “social democrat”) Bernie Sanders is drawing crowds in the tens of thousands in the race for the Democratic nomination. He is the champion of people who don’t want to consent to a coronation of the less worse candidate. And on the other side, there is of course Donald Trump, America’s id, a sort of zombie Reagan, assembled from dead flesh, shambling around a blasted landscape, representative of all middle America’s howling bewilderment at the country’s fall from greatness.
None of this has hit us yet, but it will. We have been protected because the one outsider in the political caste – Kevin Rudd – led a government that kept us out of the recession. This political caste is protected by our closed political system, which allows publicly funded major parties to reproduce themselves without effort, thanks to compulsory voting and the exhaustive preference system. Another kink in the system – the senate ballot, as rational as a Keno ticket – has opened the parliament to outsiders in a process that has been little more than a lottery. These are mere curtain-raisers. When the tsunami from the West’s financial earthquake really hits our shores, the political caste may well find itself being dragged away in a manner that has no pretence about it all.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 15, 2015 as "Political animal house". Subscribe here.