Like most people, my attitude toward the recent Liberal Party leadership spill could politely be described as ‘put off’. The naked greed and egoism on display was distasteful, of course, but the part I found most offensive was Bill Shorten’s statement once it was all over.
Shorten described Turnbull as ‘an advocate of great intellect and eloquence and as someone who came to parliament, relatively late in life, because he was driven by the desire to serve.’ (This despite the fact that, as many commentators observed, Turnbull’s sole display of backbone appeared to be driven by the desire to defend his own position as Prime Minister.) Shorten went on to cite Turnbull’s apparently plentiful use of the word ‘love’ in his public speeches: ‘Anyone who listened to him speak could always hear his deep and profound love for his wife Lucy, for their children and grandchildren but also his abiding love for our country.’
It was all rather … chummy. So much for the supposedly fierce opposition between the two leaders and their parties; so much, indeed, for the notion that politics is fundamentally divided along lines of conflict (most notably, the conflict between capital and labour), and never the twain shall meet. Reading Shorten’s statement, it was hard not to feel that the sound and fury regularly witnessed in parliament was all for show: a rather hollow performance, after which the actors retired to some backstage party to which we were not invited.
I got the same feeling a few days later, when John McCain died and many of those on the supposed left – including, disappointingly, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – fell all over each other to pay their respects. McCain’s enthusiastic championing of US wars of imperialism – conflicts which resulted in mass death and destruction of livelihoods in the global South – was forgotten. He was instead portrayed, in an act of incredible doublethink, as a man with ‘standards’ and ‘honour’. (For liberals, this appeared to be based on nothing more than his rather sporadic opposition to Trump’s legislation.) In the face of death, it would seem – McCain’s being actual, Turnbull’s merely political – ideological opposition withers instantly. The fault lines are not so deep, after all.
But is this necessarily a bad thing? A common complaint, after all, is that politicians engage in too much mud-slinging and not enough governing. Surely the occasional instance of mature, respectful behaviour in politics should be welcomed. However, it’s worth considering the way that the compulsion toward civility – which is on clearest display at moments of upheaval, but also permeates everyday political debate more and more – functions to flatten worthwhile and necessary political difference, silence opposition, and reduce genuine ideological conflict to little more than personal disagreement.
In Australian politics, this perhaps is most clearly illustrated in the strange relationship between the left faction of the Labor Party and the Greens. As the two major parties increasingly converge on policy positions, the political difference between the Greens and the Labor Party is arguably becoming more substantive than that between the Labor and Liberal parties. Faced with a challenge to their progressive credentials, many Labor-Left politicians have adopted an attitude of extreme antipathy toward the very existence of the Greens.
It is interesting, however, to note how this antipathy falls back on the notion of ‘bullying’ in order to draw attention away from the real policy differences at hand. Recently, for example, Labor voted with the Coalition to retrospectively legalise the detention of up to 1,600 asylum seekers. The next day, Labor-Left MP Ged Kearney – who won the seat of Batman, now Cooper, in a by-election closely contested by the Greens – released a video in which she accused the Greens of running a ‘particularly nasty and hateful campaign against me personally’ by pointing out her failure to vote against the legislation. According to Kearney, the Greens had ‘unleash[ed] an army of trolls spewing hatred’. At the end of the video, she issued a call to action for her supporters – not to contact then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull or Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to express their anger at the cruelty of current asylum seeker policies – but to contact Adam Bandt and Janet Rice to tell them to ‘stop attacking people who are actually fighting the same fight as you when it comes to refugees and asylum seekers’.
This is, of course, a rather generous interpretation of the Labor Party’s asylum seeker policies: the Gillard Government reopened offshore detention centres in 2012, and the Labor Party’s website currently boasts that, ‘Labor believes in strong borders, offshore processing, regional resettlement, and turnbacks when safe to do so’. But the video’s masterstroke is the way in which it repositions Kearney and her party as the victims and reduces the Greens’ genuine political opposition to petty personal wrath.
Kearney is not the first to undertake this rhetorical manoeuvre in order to silence voices on her left. Earlier this year, Labor MP Terri Butler tweeted a video of herself giving a speech at the 2016 vigil outside Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital, held to ensure that an asylum seeker baby being treated at the hospital would not be returned to Nauru. During Butler’s speech, the crowd chants over her, and some heckle her about her party’s record on asylum seekers. According to Butler, this intervention was ‘bullying and thuggery’. Once again, the actual issue at hand – the Labor Party’s continual support for offshore processing – was drowned under a tide of righteous indignation. Form, not content, won the day.
This is where the contemporary political class’s obsession with respectability politics leads us. Genuine, substantive ideological opposition, however manifested, can be instantly shut down via an allegation of bullying. And anything can be bullying – the category expands at will, able to encompass actions that might otherwise be interpreted as fairly harmless and even ineffectual. (Like, for instance, chanting over a speaker at a rally.) And of course, it conceals a fundamental truth of politics: that it’s supposed to be about conflict, not harmony. Increasingly, the dream of centrist and centre-left liberals seems to be a future where all political differences are resolved, or simply held without conflict, in glorious bipartisanship. But this is a fatal misunderstanding of politics, which exists to further certain interests at the expense of others. ‘Between equal rights,’ wrote Marx, albeit in a slightly different context, ‘force decides.’
Finally, it is worth recognising that the insistence on respect and basic camaraderie reflects only the interests of politicians, not the mood of the public. To return to the Liberal leadership spill, it’s telling that the only statement to really ‘cut through’ – that is, to genuinely connect with how people outside the Canberra bubble were feeling – wasn’t Shorten’s sycophantic statement about Turnbull or any of the other platitudes mouthed by politicians and figures in the media. It was Richard Di Natale’s screaming rant in the Senate, in which he eviscerated the Coalition as self-interested, power-hungry egoists who ‘deserve to be turfed out’. This was enthusiastically received by a public who had, perhaps, grown a little weary of all that respect.