Sinking like a stone: the new generationalism in Australia

Thank heavens the political children who wanted us all to be in their image have been voted out of office. At last some adults are running the show again.

That was Amanda Vanstone in September 2013 but it could have been any conservative commentator over the last two years, a period in which generationalism has been ubiquitous on the Right.

Note, for instance, how the Australian responded a few days ago to what it regarded as unfounded leadership speculation. ‘[On the weekends] political adults take a breather and the up-and-comers fill the media space. By yesterday, normal programming had returned, as had the old hands in the capital.’

This is what we might call, following Stephen Colbert, the ‘Papa Bear’ persona: the conservative as bluff patriarch, putting the kids back in their place.

It’s tempting to attribute the new generationalism to Abbott’s support base. Rachel Nolan recently pointed out how consistently the government defers to what she calls ‘men of a certain age’. She lists the personnel charged with conducting ‘independent reviews’:

Sydney businessman Tony Shepherd, 69, is chairing the National Commission of Audit. He is the immediate past president of the conservative Business Council of Australia. Sydney businessman Maurice Newman, 76, chairs the Business Advisory Council. A friend of John Howard’s, he is the former chair of the Australian Stock Exchange. Sydney businessman David Murray, 65, chairs the financial system inquiry. He is a former CEO of the Commonwealth Bank. Sydney businessman Dick Warburton, 72, chairs the review of the Renewable Energy Target. Like Murray and Newman, Warburton is an outspoken climate change sceptic, so his appointment to review one of the key planks of the government effort to combat climate change was unsurprisingly met with outrage and incredulity by environmentalists, climate scientists and renewable-energy advocates.

In social policy, Abbott’s big appointment is Sydney-based charity executive Patrick McClure, 63. The former head of Mission Australia, who rose to public prominence as the face of welfare corporatisation in the Howard years, now runs the welfare review. Kevin Donnelly and Ken Wiltshire are carrying out the national curriculum review. Both are long-term fixtures on the political scene who have supported not just conservative education causes but also the cause of the Liberal Party itself. Donnelly was a staffer to Kevin Andrews, now the minister for social services, some years ago.

Equally, think of Abbott’s ostentatious appointment of Gerard Henderson and co to judge the PM’s Literary Award, a decision that raised the average age of the panel to a sprightly 77.

We might rework Wordsworth: bliss was it in the dawn of the Abbott revolution to be alive but to be old was very heaven!

Yet, while the Australian electorate is undoubtedly ageing, these arguments should not be accepted on their own terms. Actually, for every boomer who’s soured over time, there’s another for whom the memory of 1968 burns as brightly as ever. People ‘of a certain age’ have been, for instance, mainstays of the long-running campaigns for refugee rights, precisely because many retain the ideals of their past.

In a 2007 Overland piece, Mark Davis outlined a more productive way of thinking about the rhetoric of generationalism. He suggested that:

the term “youth” is increasingly defined by its place in a complex politics to do with the interlinking of conservative political strategies, changes in the global distribution of wealth and power, changing patterns of media ownership, fashions in journalism and the wider range of mechanisms currently being put in place to protect what is becoming an increasingly conservative economic and social status … In a society that is increasingly oriented around ideas of fear and difference, youth and the idea of unruly fanaticism, and youthfulness has become emblematic of social decline and a marker of “otherness”.

You don’t have to be young to be one of the whippersnappers upsetting today’s curmudgeons – and, by extension, the term ‘adult’ refers not to biological age so much as a commitment to a particular set of ideas.

For instance, here’s Chris Kenny on the ABC.

Wrangling a toddler, as many of you will know, is one of the greatest joys that life can bring – but also one of the most frustrating. Aside from all those uplifting cuddles, hilarious antics and wonderfully refreshing observations (Daddy, look at the moon), there is the infuriating testing of boundaries. Tell your toddler to stop smearing yoghurt on the table and they will as often as not look at you, squeal with delight and let out a mischievous giggle as they slap another handful onto the deck.

This, I am beginning to realise, is the perfect analogy for the current behaviour of the ABC.

Classic Papa Bear – Big Daddy threatening the children with a paddling – and it depends not a whit on the relative ages of, say, Kenny and Mark Scott.

So what makes you an adult? In the current conjunction, the ‘grown ups’ are those who understand how the world really works. They’re the Very Serious People, the ones who know there’s no alternative to the market, who accept the US as the guardian of international security, who dismiss political theory or abstract principles in favour of pragmatic experience.

That’s why the generational stuff doesn’t come exclusively from the Right (even though they’re running it most often). Think of all those patronising pieces directed at uni demonstrators, articles invariably foregrounding the authors’ own exciting adventures on the protest front line in days of yore. On the one hand, if today’s students organise online, they’re lightweight dilettantes, obsessed with symbolism rather than the material; on the other, if they take to the streets, they’re hopelessly outdated. As Davis argued in Gangland back in the 1990s: ‘Young people just can’t get it right. They’re either full of piercings or complete prudes. Whatever the case, they just aren’t it.’

Again, it’s not a matter of age. It’s more that, for a long time now, public respectability has depended on the unspoken acceptance of a narrow consensus, in which protest marches are held to be (at best) naïve idealism and (more often) an unseemly distraction from the real business of politics: adjudicating which politician or party might be winning the narrative that day. Children might think they can change the world by rallying in the street; adults concentrate on whether Candidate A made a gaffe or Candidate B kept on message

The intensification of generationalism over the last few years is not, then, so difficult to explain. When a harried father shouts, ‘Do it because I say so!’, it usually means he fears the kids are out of control.

Everyone knows that, as a famous generationalist tract put it, the times they are a-changin’, leaving the old certainties increasingly threadbare. We can’t say what the future holds but in the face of environmental catastrophe, austerity, widespread political cynicism and generalised instability the insider consensus can no longer simply be asserted in quite the same fashion.

The disarray of the Abbott government provides a striking example, with the triumphalism of the conservatariat giving way remarkably suddenly to random sprays against the public. In the wake of the budget, the Australian, for instance, launched a full-scale attack on Joe Hockey’s critics:

Joe Hockey’s first budget has brought out the whiners and whingers, the grifters and grumblers, the loonies and looters. The culture of complaint is alive and well in our noisy democracy, with myriad platforms available to those who want to participate in an orgy of angst or add to a bonfire of miseries. That the supposedly serious end of the fourth estate is prepared to be barkers for a carnival of bellyaching where “everyone’s a loser” is invariably disappointing, but hardly surprising in a dumbed-down era of short attention spans and voluble expression. It is pretty puerile stuff and Bill Shorten’s budget-in-reply speech last night sits comfortably within this immature, facile political debate.

Of course, polls showed that the whiners and loonies were actually the majority of the population – which meant that the editorialist railing against immaturity came across less as ‘stern patriarch’ and more as ‘crazy old man shouting at clouds’.

To put it another way, the assertion of rhetorical authority is necessary precisely because real authority has vanished. The more the Liberals declare themselves to be adults taking charge, the more they seem like student Tories dressed up in their parents’ clothes. If you’re truly confident that you’re dignified and mature, you do not insist that the national broadcaster issue a public statement assuring viewers that you’ve never had sex with a dog.

There’s a Yiddish proverb that goes something like: ‘Surrounding yourself with dwarfs does not make you a giant.’ Along the same lines, possessing a bully pulpit from which you can abuse your enemies as children doesn’t, in and of itself, make you seem adult.

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

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

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

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  1. This discussion of generationalism reminded me of the Oz folk rock band, Things of Wood and Stone and their hit song, “Wildflowers”, from the mid 1990s:

    Across this land everybody settled down
    To a night of fitful dreams
    And strange apparitions
    As we tossed and turned we saw ourselves exactly as we are
    And not surprisingly we found it frightening


    Well you don’t choose the place or choose the time
    But history’s a slippery slide
    Be careful of those nasty drops down to the right
    When you’re hit it must seem a pretty good choice
    For they give all of our malice voice
    What do we expect if we won’t open our arms

    (Singin’ Hey) We’re all just earrings to the left of our parents
    They’re all just haircuts to the left of theirs
    And we all wonder
    “Why do Nazis grow like wildflowers!”

    (Hey!) Helen let’s ditch the car let’s hide
    We’ll throw seeds of doubt at passersby
    They will cross onto our side,
    We’ll sing our songs into the night
    As we cast off all those strange facades
    We’ll see that we’re all uniquely scarred
    By the same hand
    Beneath the same smile

    (Singin’ Hey) We’re all just earrings to the left of our parents
    They’re all just haircuts to the left of theirs
    And we all wonder
    “Why do Nazis grow like wildflowers!”

    Everybody dreams the same visions in the end
    I know, everybody feels trapped and tired
    So if you see a strange door to the left
    Then drop your things and run for it

    (Singin’ Hey) We’re all just earrings to the left of our parents
    They’re all just haircuts to the left of theirs
    And we all wonder
    “Why do Nazis grow like wildflowers!”

    “Why do Nazis grow like wildflowers!”

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