Opinion

Sean Kelly
Political attention seekers to the fore

If you snored through this week in politics, believing it a fairly inconsequential time, boy were you wrong. Once again, Australia bravely leapt to the defence of Western civilisation. It threatened collapse, but we pulled it back from the brink. The fact this happens every week makes it no less auspicious. Heroism should never be taken for granted.

Don’t take my word for it. Steve Bannon, often named as the architect of Donald Trump’s election, only to later be sacked, this week told Peter Hartcher at The Sydney Morning Herald that Australia is “the San Andreas fault between China and the West … You are the representative of Athens and the democratic Western tradition, and China is a Confucian totalitarian system.” Out of concern, Bannon is watching us closely. “Every day.” Creepy, much?

Australian politicians are no slouches – they had already reached this conclusion. John Howard was out this week defending his pet project, the establishment of a bachelor’s course in Western civilisation, by agreeing with Tony Abbott that the course should be “not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it”. One of the sticking points, apparently, is Howard’s desperate concern that the course not be called a bachelor of Western civilisation studies, lest it sound like, say, a bachelor of Islamic studies. That’s how fragile our society is right now – one word could tip it over.

But this week it wasn’t just those who missed wielding political power who were ringing alarm bells – or, rather, the same alarm bell, over and over. Cabinet minister Matt Canavan told the ABC’s Q&A audience, “I want to maintain one culture in this country … We’re multicultural, but we should have one Australian culture we get behind.”

Remind you of anybody? Here’s Pauline Hanson, talking to the ABC’s Insiders last year: “I believe we are multiracial but we must be Australians, the one culture, the one law.” Canavan also told the audience, “There is a certain ghettoisation … where there is parts of cities that are different cultures.” And here’s Hanson last year: “There are ghettos in this country that don’t assimilate.”

The spectre of Pauline Hanson, puppeteer, is ghastly, if no longer surprising: politicians on both sides have shown willingness to adopt her tactics rather than risk being outflanked. But certainly one of the most perverse manifestations arrived in the news this week that former Labor leader Mark Latham had recorded a robocall for One Nation in the byelection for Longman, in Queensland, in which he attacked Bill Shorten’s “dishonesty”.

Inevitably, Latham appeared on Sky News to defend his decision. What followed was one of the most unedifying events I’ve witnessed in what has hardly been the most wholesome era of politics – two former Labor politicians, Latham and Graham Richardson, bellowing insults and innuendoes at each other live on air for two minutes. “Fool”, “shyster”, “king rat”, “don’t you tell me what’s sad”. The whole thing was sad. But the most terrifying thing was the final moment, as noted by Paddy Manning at The Monthly, when the camera zoomed out to reveal the puppeteer herself, via video link, grinning with pure joy, as though somebody had guessed her wildest desires and then promptly delivered them to her.

Which of course is precisely what had happened. Hanson may not be the sharpest tool in the dilapidated shed that is Australian politics right now, but her instincts for spectacle are as strong as ever. Spectacle is where Hanson lives. Latham and Richardson going at each other was just another sign that politics had turned her way.

I have just returned to Australia from some months spent in London, and it was something of a shock to return to all this. Howard fighting culture wars, Hanson pulling stunts, Latham yelling – oh, and there was Abbott, too, trying to tear down a leader by talking about climate change. What was this hellish time machine that had somehow managed to gather together the worst bits of all recent eras?

Beyond the generalised horror, two things struck me. The first was not a surprise but was more depressing for the recent distance: this is Australian politics now. A constant parade of novelty and spectacle; anything for attention.

The second did surprise me: that the spectacle is not being driven by the government, which has somehow, at least for the moment, detached itself. Latham and Hanson, David Leyonhjelm, and even nominal government MP Abbott, can make their noise; the government trundles on regardless.

It is hard to overstate this shift – a little earlier there was a stream of massive, emotive issues, each embroiling the government. The banks had their day. Barnaby Joyce had his months. Citizenship had its year. Now, instead, there are a series of issues calmly sliding in and out of the frame: energy, GST, income tax, company tax. This lack of drama – the sense that issues are being calmly discussed, slowly herded towards resolution, and even occasionally legislated – is good for a government. Whether that is structural, a lesson the government has learnt, or merely a temporary accident, is hard to tell.

One of those issues slid into focus on Wednesday: the release of a report on the energy sector by the competition watchdog. The report was dense, and damning of both the current state of the sector and the policies that got us here, but mostly it was the political equivalent of the Laurel or Yanny sound clip. The Nationals heard, “Coal!” Labor heard, “Turnbull is to blame for rising prices!” Malcolm Turnbull himself heard, “My plan will work!”

Implementation of some of the report’s recommendations may lead to a fall in prices, but in the short term its main impact will be on the PM’s chances of delivering his national energy guarantee (NEG), which would mean finally achieving a truce in the climate wars. The report itself, insofar as it can be taken as support for the NEG, should help with that.

But as always with things climate, it’s complicated. The Nationals seized on a proposal they believed could result in support for coal-fired power. Turnbull, while insisting everyone had to “stop focusing on one technology or another”, also made sure the door was propped open for his Coalition partners: “It could be a coal-fired project.” Lucky, that.

This may give the Coalition a path to peace. It won’t satisfy everyone – Abbott, say – but may provide enough MPs with enough of a fig leaf to finalise a policy. But because the states, including Labor states, are involved, Turnbull needs the Opposition to come on board. For some months Labor has been making optimistic noises, while reserving the right to walk away if it doesn’t like the final plan – that is, if coal gets too much of a look-in.

In other words, the precise element that may get a deal within the government may destroy the chances of the government getting a deal with anyone else. To help with that, the Greens handed Labor a sharp weapon, calling for a royal commission on power prices. Labor, if it wants, could simply repeat its banks tactic – whatever Turnbull does, ask him to explain why he won’t just announce a proper inquiry.

But until recently it looked as though Labor’s desire to get something done – and take climate off the table before the next election – would trump all else. Now, the political calculus might have changed.

There was a series of polls at the beginning of this week. Two were new cuts of old data: quarterly looks at Newspoll and Fairfax Ipsos. Queensland appears to be a big problem for the government; so do over-55s. The Liberal Party leaked some of its own polling, which reportedly showed Bill Shorten’s unpopularity, particularly with young women in one part of South Australia.

No doubt Shorten will be concerned, if only because such figures are attracting a lot of attention. This is partly because the approaching byelections offer a convenient test of the impact of the Opposition leader’s unpopularity, and partly because Anthony Albanese has been making his presence felt. This week he delivered a speech on cities – squarely in his portfolio, straight bat, nothing to see here – and was interviewed on Sky News. That appearance was more notable. Albanese said the government had “stopped the boats”, that “circumstances had changed” since he opposed turning boats back, and that indefinite detention should end, though he did not support time limits. He also said, “You can have strong borders without losing your national soul.” Labor frontbencher Ed Husic might be right that “Albo’s just got to scratch his cheek a different way and people are going to be reading all sorts of things into it,” but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to be read into it.

But sharp people in the Opposition will be paying more attention to the PM’s personal numbers. Pollster Peter Lewis last week pointed out in Guardian Australia that a prime minister’s approval is closely correlated with a government’s primary vote. And Turnbull’s popularity has been rising.

It seems likely those improvements have come about as a result of the conspicuous absence of drama, and the recent passage of significant bits of legislation; the sense the government is governing. Looked at like that, you can understand why Labor may be unwilling to hand Turnbull a significant victory on energy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, the Coalition has to come together on a credible climate policy – something it has not managed in a decade. It may yet be that other master of pointless spectacle, Tony Abbott, who manages to derail it all. If he does, it will be at least partly in cahoots with a manic media cycle that still, too often in these strange times, rewards triviality.

Civilisation may yet fall. But if it does, it will not be because of any threat from without, or a failure to remind people of its debatable glories. It will be our own knuckleheaded addiction to spectacle and novelty, and the villainous idiots who were willing to take advantage of our failings for their own vapid purposes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Wearing the spectacles". Subscribe here.

Sean Kelly
is a political commentator and writer, and a former adviser to prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.