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.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Excellent summation and yes, why over 12% of the primary vote to Others (I stood in the booth perplexed: who and what are some of these ‘parties’?)? The Greens vote down too (unsurprisingly), but voters were clearly hedging their bets judging from the dangerous balance of power in the Senate. In my case, being less outrightly and outrageously dismissive of the whole party political process, as well as those who voted in a new government, in favour of “some soul searching”, is a good call.

  2. I’m shattered by the election result. At the moment, I’m feeling more than a degree of annoyance at Australian voters. I’ve limited my public comments to the expression of disappointment, even though I’d love to go much further. Thanks for the reminder this will only alienate me further than I already am from the mainstream. And, as Mug Voter has also reminded us, at least voters have hedged their bets by not giving Abbott control of the Senate.

  3. This is only tangentially related to the above but in another case of art censorship James Bridle, out here for the Brisbane Writers Festival, was prevented from installing a Drone Shadow by Arts Queensland – “This is despite the fact that we have drawn them in Istanbul, during a period when the Turkish government was in negotiation to purchase Predator drones from the US, and in Washington DC – right next to the White House – at the height of the US drone war”:

  4. Well you can say that it is the job of the Left to convince the ordinary Australian, rather than abuse them as slackjawed dupes, but without any effective media to counter the Murdoch monopoly’s project, you will pretty much only be speaking to the converted.

    On Drone Shadows – I think one needs to take a leaf out of the book of street artists – this should be a statement of defiance – asking permission should not be part of the process.

      1. I think you are being a little simplistic here Jeff. People are influenced by their environments and not everyone has the same environment. Differences in environment allow people to learn different things. Some people are exposed to a lot of Murdoch and some are not – by accident and design. This difference in exposure leads to different understanding of the world in which they live. Those who have Murdoch as one of their primary information streams will, of necessity, develop a distorted world view. To claim otherwise is to claim that learning is independent of environment.

        1. I’m not saying Murdoch doesn’t have some influence. But that’s the environment in which we operate it and to use it as an excuse is akin to a swimmer saying she would have made it across the channel if the water hadn’t been so wet.

          1. sure – I read that as a bit softer than your article. It is important not to be defeatist or histrionic about Murdoch – that plays into the hands of the conservatives. Murdoch is influential rather than overpowering – it’s not as if the conservative vote is a high as his market share. But as it only takes a few percent to be in or out of government, even with a strong margin, the Murdoch influence is significant.
            Progressives need to have a good look at the Lib 3 year campaign and draw inspiration from their techniques. And they need to find other channels through which to engage with the public, over and above the traditional media which I suggest should play a smaller role in the campaign strategy for at least the next year or two.

  5. The Left should unite behind the Greens because they are the only cohesive, effective, progressive force in the country. It’s pretty simple, really.

  6. See what you mean about that ‘straw in the wind’:

    ”It doesn’t actually have to be an image of a child to constitute child pornography … ”It just has to be a representation of a child. In some jurisdictions, that’s been held to include a cartoon.”

    So print literature is the next death cab off the rank?

  7. Some progressives spend all their time complaining about how “uneducated” “bigoted” “disgusting” ordinary people are, and I’m extremely annoyed by that. These elitists hate ordinary people so much – no wonder why ordinary people don’t want to listen to them.

  8. A very interesting analysis of who voted for PUP here.
    ‘With 76% of the vote counted, the Palmer United party (PUP) got 5.68% of the national vote. The bulk of this appears to have come from the 4.14% swing against the ALP, as the Coalition had only a marginal primary vote increase of 1.74%. Thus, the election of Tony Abbott seems not to be due to a growth in popular support for the Coalition, but more to a rejection of Labor.’

  9. Let’s say ‘influenced’ rather than controlled. And when I hear my mother, a perfectly reasonable and intelligent, but usually non-political person, utter names like ‘Julia’ and ‘Krudd’ in the most disparaging terms, it is clear she is under the influence of the message she is exposed to. And when I hear someone I know who works in banking, someone you might expect has some inkling of economic and social realities, declare that they hate Labor because under Labor all her taxes go to support single mothers, clearly this is a knee-jerk reaction to the messages she is hearing from the Murdoch media.

  10. Agree with this wholeheartedly and it’s difficult to level accusations of stupidity and bigotry etc. at members of your own family, sadly, that happily cast a vote for Tony etal. I don’t even want to get into a conversation about why. We can’t even revel a little in some well deserved schadenfreude towards those who willfully brought in the ‘Tony Years’, ruined, as it is, by the fact that we, ‘the left’, and everything we care for is also in for hard times.

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