It’s customary, after days like Saturday, for the Left to identify the silver lining hidden in the dark cloud, to argue via, some dialectical jiggery-pokery or another, that defeat might, in a certain sense, be understood as victory.
Yet, with all due respect to Joe Hill, before you can organize, you need to mourn.
So, without for a moment gilding the ALP’s record, let us acknowledge what Abbott’s election means. On many issues, the difference between Labor and Liberal was merely one of emphasis but in politics emphasis is not unimportant. Yes, Rudd and Gillard’s track record on the environment was terrible but the victory of a PM who barely pretends to care about the planet will embolden every crackpot climate denier and sunspot enthusiast throughout the land. Rudd’s conversion to the cause of same sex marriage might have been opportunistic but, with Abbott, homophobes now have one of their own in Canberra. And so on.
In the circumstances, the Left can easily fall prey to bitterness, a disdain for the public who voted in such a deeply reactionary figure. That would be a terrible mistake. Denouncing ordinary Australians as fools and halfwits, as slackjawed dupes of Murdoch too dim to grasp the obvious, might make us feel better but hurling abuse at those you want to convince has never been a successful strategy, particularly in a context in which the Left is all too often portrayed as a clique of self-satisfied elitists.
In any case, blaming the populace amounts to a category error. It’s the task of the Left to persuade people. By definition, if we don’t manage it, the problem lies with us – and so rather than analysing the flaws of the voters, we need instead, with some urgency, to commence a discussion of our own failures.
After all, what’s clear from these results is that great swathes of the electorate are deeply alienated not only from both parties but from traditional politics as such. Even as he successfully dispatched both Gillard and Rudd, Abbott never managed to transform himself into a popular figure, and there’s no evidence of a groundswell of support for a Liberal program. Indeed, as so many people noted, the Coalition campaigned mostly on not being Labor, rather than any particular platform of its own.
That, then, seems a useful place for the Left to begin some soul searching as we enter the Abbott era – why has the current political disenchantment manifested itself in successes for, say, rightwing vanity projects like the Palmer party rather than anything more progressive? What does the Left need to do to transform that cynicism into political resistance?
One other quick point that’s especially relevant to Overland readers. We should expect a return of culture war, not merely because Abbott’s always been into that kind of stuff (as an acolyte of Santamaria, he’s far more comfortable denouncing leftwing decadence than promoting the neoliberalism of the IPA, though he’ll do that, too) but also because the current conjuncture makes it an inevitable temptation for the Right.
Over the last years, conservative politics has been held together by a visceral loathing of the Labor usurpers ensconced in the Lodge. With that now out of the picture, Abbott will need to keep a fairly fractious coalition in line, a task made more difficult by the various commitments he embraced to get through the election. He didn’t win on the basis of, say, austerity or war on the unions, and while he may well launch savage cuts or a new version of WorkChoices or both, getting such ventures off the ground will take a certain amount of maneuvering. Much easier to feign horror about some artistic provocateur or another, especially since the Liberal rank-and-file is now so attuned to the Fox News Tea Party-style politics of the US Right, in which permanent outrage is more-or-less compulsory. Let us note, as a straw in the wind, that, even as the country went to the polls, the young Melbourne artist Paul Yore was being charged with producing and possessing child pornography because of collages he exhibited in St Kilda, the result of a deliberate campaign by local rightwing agitators.
So buckle yourself up, because it’s going to be a rough few years.