Australian Politics: the Centre, the Extremes, the Balkanisation

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A top-level look at the current tensions in politics in Australia, and a plug for the Pirate Party.

Understanding the political world around me has been an adventure, perhaps even a struggle. There are problems I see, that Pirate Party Australia sees, which I've tried to make sense of, and I'll now outline a few of them, in particular a few ways how politics and political debate has gone off the rails in Australia. Yes, I hope that you'll want to support us. But regardless, I hope you'll find what I say to be worthwhile.

More people are voting for non-major parties, suggesting they've lost faith in the current system, where we are obliged to make a choice between two competing world views. Sure, some people think things are going pretty much alright - apart from when their preferred party is not in power. Some people who have made it think that the system works - I suggest that's a selection effect. We can be nuanced - recognise the progress that has been made, at the same time as we recognise the very real problems and injustices around us. It is not like one cancels out the other.

But going back to these two dominating world views - as encapsulated in Labor and Liberal - each in their own way do contain useful insights, the problem remains that we are obliged to "buy into" one of two competing ideologies. At times there is a co-operative spirit between the political parties - as when things are done in a "bi-partisan" fashion. Nevertheless, this polarisation is also disappointing.

First, because of the ideological bias, some problems are emphasised, while many of us can see - without buying strongly into either ideology - that some problems are ignored, just because there's no particular ideological axe to grind. At other times, something of interest can be lost in the crossfire between the different parties. There's been the complaint that while there has been infrastructure development in regional Australia, local economies continue to flounder.

Then, you have tribalism. I've seen a spirit of one sidedness develop in Labor, where they start to see Liberal Party as "evil", and people in the Liberal party think the same thing about Labor. While some of this concern may be genuine, it also seems that both political parties are locked in a dance together the "oppositeness" of the other side stopping them from stepping outside and above the fray, their passion condemning them to be forever stuck together in the same fishbowl.

At times, I guess people will have a basic and perhaps justifiable desire to emphasise the worth of their party and people in it. But this makes people over-simplify the world in order to fit their self-serving narrative. Politicians lose touch with what's going on, because they see everything through the prism of the ongoing battle with the ideology of the enemy, rather than actually stopping to stand still for few minutes and actually take a look around.

Tony Abbott is trying to mischaracterise all his opponents as crypto lefties, while conveniently ignoring the large swing against him at the last election. Did those people who changed their votes at the last election become lefties, or were they already lefties? It seems more reasonable to think of them as thoughtful people who changed their minds, with the possibility that more thoughtful people will change their minds at this election.

Perhaps you recall the intellectual gymnastics that Abbott supporters went to when the rest of Australia was starting to realise that there was something suss about him. You had tribalism, an exasperating lack of objectivity, in the face of your good faith attempts to be objective. I think this single minded blindness caused more damage than their loyalty could have ever hoped to achieve. Not only do people standing outside of the fray start to think that the Liberals have lost the plot - much as they might otherwise be make worthwhile observations - damaging the repute of the Liberal party - but the intense polarisation rather than pushing them towards Labor would have pushed them towards losing faith in politics overall.

Further, when a party encourages you to vote for them because they are "not as bad as the other side" - something that happens with both parties though more often with Liberal rather than Labor - they may get a short term boost, but in the longer term they push people away from both major parties and undermine the overall credibility of the political system. Rather than the other side being bad automatically pushing someone towards your own party, they start to think about looking past both your party and the other party for voting options. You also get the campaign letters from the Liberal Party, not talking about the good things that they will do, but rather talking about how Labor will wreck the progress they have made.

When Abbott rode into election, he thought he was teaching the Australian people to be critical of the Labor party. In fact, he was teaching them to me more critical and cynical of whoever was in power. When in power, Australians poured the same scorn on Abbott as he'd taught them to pour on the previous Labor Government, with what little benefit Abbott had gained being turned into a greater cynicism about politics at large. My favourite metaphor to this is the commander who used germ warfare on the enemy troops. Initially effective, the contagion spread back to his own lines.

Still, I acknowledge that the disappointment with either mainstream party can have an ideological slant, thinking that a given party does not "go far enough". Labor may not "go far enough", prompting a vote for the Greens. People who do not feel the Greens go far enough will vote for parties further to the left. People who do not feel the Liberal Party goes far enough to the right will vote for other parties. What you might call religiously, conservatively or nationalistically oriented parties.

For sure, there are some parties at the extreme that I would strenuously disagree with. However, I do not wish to emphasise those disagreements here. The goal is to understand why people are drawn away from the mainstream parties. People who see the mainstream parties as not going far enough may not wish to vote for the Pirate Party of Australia. Well, fair enough. Our pitch is mostly towards those who are disenchanted with both Labor and Liberal, but not because they are insufficiently "pure". It is possible that people who see the political parties as not going "far enough" in particular areas - for example, the recognition of an individual's right to privacy - may be attracted to the Pirate Party ( welcome, if that's what's motivating you - good on ya! ), but it's not something pushing people to the left of Labor or to the right of the Liberals.

Now, there's a lot I can't cover in this article. I will mention, though, that we've had a lot of laws to undermine our privacy, abuse copyright and so forth. Just as we can be concerned about over-reach by corporations, there is also over-reach by Government. The Pirate Party of Australia recognises both. We challenge the bi-partisan slide towards greater state control and intervention that we've seen. While I've not really written about these issues in detail, there's content in the speeches I have presented, speaking generally
and on intellectual property and the right to repair.

But, get back to politics-in-general. There's supposed to be two main forces, pulling in different directions. A first is pulling the different parties together as they try to claim the middle ground. A second is where the parties try to pursue a different path to the other political party in order to differentiate themselves from the other party so people vote for them.

Cynics have claimed the political parties are no different to each other. This is something I totally disagree with. In some ways they are similar, and if both political parties are ignoring some issue of importance to you, they'll seem a lot more similar. But it depends on your perspective. Depending on what you emphasise, you can see significant differences between the two major parties.

I've already mentioned how what we're seeing are pulls towards the extreme. The Greens are a force pulling Labor towards the left, and there are parties to their left as well. There's a tendency to pull policies away from the centre. I think the Liberal Party is losing its sense of proportion, and has become dominated by free market and religious extremists. A friend of mine who has voted for the Liberal Party for decades, but no longer wishes to vote for them says they have "gone weird on him". He sees that rather than striking a sensible balance, they have become captured by the free market fundamentalists of the Institute for Public Affairs and also the actual religious fundamentalists.

The Liberal Party's focus on ideology now dominates over the pull to the centre to claim middle ground votes. Now, it would be very easy to make convenient predictions and I want to be careful. If you're so sure the other side will lose, why would you harp on about it? Why not relax in your armchair, and privately wait to enjoy what you claim to be inevitable? If they're wasting their time, money and resources, why not just keep quiet about it, sit back and watch the train wreck? What's to be gained from pointing it out? Unless you're actually a bit uncertain, and see the need to talk about it, to either buffer yourself against your uncertainties, or try to push things in your preferred direction by adding your little bit to the ongoing propaganda war?

Still, it does seem to me possible that the Liberal Party has lost the vital centre, and will lose a great deal of electoral ground, because they've become blinded by their pursuit of ideological purity. Maybe. Don't think that I would hammer away at the Liberal Party and make predictions about them just because I don't want them to win. I see too many people doing that. Whether I want a political party to win has always been totally separate to my assessment of their chances of winning. But let me say this - for this election, I'll make sure my popcorn supplies are well stocked.

While I'm more critical of the Liberal Party at the current time than the Labor Party, I recognise that I should have voted for Dr. John Hewson rather than Paul Keating in that fateful election of history. We ultimately condemned ourselves to four terms of Howard - Howard, who succumbed to the religious interventionists, who pissed the mining boom against the wall, and made policy and tax changes whose consequences we struggle with even to this day. If the price of avoiding those four terms of Howard was one or more terms of Dr. Hewson, it was a price worth paying. But Paul Keating lied to us all. And I recognise I was caught up in the rhetoric of the time.

In the Labor party, apart from being tribal and concerned about the parties to their left, they haven't really changed that much compared to the Liberal Party, and are mostly looking around themselves puzzled and trying to figure out what the heck is going on, feeling awkward about the alliances they need to make with the Greens from time to time, with the odd stumble like the time their preferences got Family First into the Victorian parliament.

It used to be that the Labor party had a monopoly on "Labor Party Values", broadly speaking. But, while they claim the Greens are "unrealistic", in fact I think they have become an alternate purveyor of what were once the values the Labor Party had a monopoly on. And similarly, while the Liberal Party once had a monopoly on "Liberal Party Values", this too is being undermined. Partly by other parties on the right, but also by independents who can make a credible claim to be "Mostly Liberal But Not Having Lost The Plot Like The Actual Liberal Party" ( cue that quote from my friend saying "The Liberal Party has gone weird on me" ). And so, when the Liberal Party talks about how Labor has lot the plot, even to the degree that has traction, it does not naturally push people towards the Liberal Party.

For, even as I talk about the middle, that is of course an approximation. In fact the world has become balkanised and the left/right distinction is less valid, with particular concerns overwhelming this notional divide. Some people with a quite nuanced pro-environmental perspective back nuclear power; others back limits on population growth. Working class voters who in the past saw the Labor Party as representing their desires now back the Liberal Party because it better encapsulates their concerns about immigrants and their effect on the Labor market. Workers in coal mining and resources start to think about backing the Liberal Party because of its continued support for coal. Middle class voters start to thinking about backing the Greens because of its environmental principles and how it encapsulates their concerns about social justice and foreign policy. The centre remains a worthwhile notion, together with the pulls to the extremes. But there's also complexities that don't fit neatly into the left/right divide. They're all a part of the larger picture.

We can say we are beyond right and left, and indeed the Pirate Party of Australia makes that claim. Lots of people make that claim. Is ours perhaps valid? Well, if what I say resonates with you, maybe you'll want to check us out and see for yourself. But not just because I'm telling you to, as many others might. I know what it is like to be at the receiving end of those exhortations. Rather, because I've said something interesting enough that might prompt you to. Only if I've developed the credibility for you to want to follow through on my invitation.

Further, while being "in" politics, we in the Pirate Party claim to at the same time be above the fray. We claim to see the fray, and see the problems it has. There's the old maxim that regardless of who you vote for, a politician gets in. And yes, we would be politicians, in the sense that we were voted in. But hopefully not politicians in the sense that we are the dubious result of the machinations of a party machine. Is our claim to be above the fray credible? I'll leave that for you to consider, should you want to.

Australians have many other issues. Many of us are more concerned about having competent Government than we are with having dollars in our pockets, though obviously for many of us the family budget and day to day living expenses are important. The Liberal Party sometimes try to play to what they see as our resentment about paying tax. But I think for most of us the concern is about wasted money rather than paying tax as such. Then there's a general cynicism about politicians of all sides breaking promises and throwing scorn on independent commentators and twisting the English language beyond all recognition, or ignoring real problems as I've mentioned earlier.

While the example of Abbott is most recent in memory, if you recall back far enough, there were Ruddisms, a classic example of twisting the English language to your own purposes.

Then there's a concern that the parties are influenced by those with money - usually business interests - mining - developers - clubs, pubs, gambling, tobacco - and so on - but also potentially unions - with the result that between the influence of those who can flex their muscles, the party machine and individual egoes, the parties become disconnected from the people they claim to represent.

When it comes to Government being captured by vested interests, research by Dr. Cameron Murray in Queensland underlines it, as revealed in the book written with his co-author Paul Fritjers "Game of Mates". The strange thing is, compared to obvious corruption and criminal behaviour, the abuses Dr. Murray identifies are a slow drag on us all we struggle to recognise - another reason why prices are so high and we lack infrastructure. Yes, we can be jaded about the unfinessed pursuit of economic prosperity and productivity. We should keep it in mind. And then there's the fact that - as outlined by Dr. Murray - the pursuit of economic principles like "user pays" in fact means that money is in fact channelled to privileged and connected parties. You do see a never-ending parade of vested financial interests making calculations about how such-and-such policy change will damage or improve the economy to the value of X dollars. And yet, the economy lurches on, and it is hard to see any connection between these numerous calculations and the world around us. But economics is a tool that can be used for good or ill, depending on that hand that wields it. And I think Dr. Murray is one of the most ethical wielders of that tool, who uses economics to provide valuable insights into the world around us.

If someone abuses their position, their connections, their privileges, to swindle the rest of the community out of improvements in prosperity this makes a real difference - we have a problem. We also give this sort of thing the label "rent seeking", a bit of economic jargon which captures an injustice in its jargony sort of way. But they are nevertheless very real, and identify one way in which Government decision making has been captured by vested interests, subverting democracy to the detriment of the rest of us. While Dr. Murray makes his economic calculations, they are part of a broader and comprehensive picture, and I think those numbers are more real and significant than any of the other numbers we hear. But it seems to me Dr. Murray identifies part of what has been making us uncomfortable, much as there are other symptoms of the underlying malaise that are much easier to recognise.

We can see many examples of the economically privileged getting their way, some are outlined in Dr. Murray's books. "Taxes" for resource extraction which should really be thought of as what you'd pay to stay in a motel room overnight. Utility and mobile phone service providers with incomprehensible contracts with a webwork of options. Abuse of intellectual property like patents, copyright and similar. They become the plaything of large firms, having their own stock of patents sitting on the shelf for devices that will never be sold, and firms try to stop us from controlling and repairing what we buy in order to maximise profits. For example, you may not be able to replace the light in a light fitting - and then on top of that you have planned obsolescence.

So far, these laws have progressed, satisfying those corporate interests who can flex their muscles and influence Government. The Pirate Party of Australia makes a stand against these excesses, we are probably the only party to have developed a deep appreciation for the abuses that are going on.

So, these are our concerns. I hope you'll see enough merit I what I've outlined for you to want to vote for us. I hope you've found this article interesting, and regardless of whether you'd like to vote for us - I hope the world now makes a little more sense.

I'm John August, Deputy President of the Pirate Party of Australia, NSW Senate Candidate. I've stood for the seat of Bennelong in the past, and you can find other articles with commentaries from past elections if you'd like to have a read.
See ya!