Who wins from last week’s disastrous week in politics and what can we expect it to give rise to if anything? Nothing occurs in a vacuum and now that the carnage has been temporarily suspended the commentariat is attempting to find continuities and discontinuities that might possess some explanatory value.
The widening gap between the political class and the rest has been substantially documented, and the events of the last week provide a supreme example of this gap. And despite the rhetoric employed by the new PM–especially in the symbolic arena of drought relief, in the absence of any coherent policy on climate change–there is no sign that anything will change at all in the way politics is prosecuted at the federal and state levels. Above all the corporate sector will be protected and the gap between the one percent and the rest will remain. Government will still be directed towards sustaining the privileges of the corporate sector.
It is likely that the refusal of the coalition to engage in anything other than cosmetic change will give an easy election victory to the ALP. But arguably it will do nothing to reign in the excesses of neoliberalism, excesses now becoming obvious to even the most casual observer.
If Dutton had been successful there could easily have been a shift to the kind of populism becoming increasingly evident as a negative reaction to all the economic failures of the last two decades, though not yet having a great impact in a legislative sense. Dutton, in my view, could have possibly taken the LNP to victory again, for despite the disdain held towards him by the educated, the less educated in outer suburban areas would likely have voted for him in droves. He would give the impression of being strong, decisive and a non-nonsense man, one who would cultivate and reflect the black and white views of many voters. Dutton’s rhetoric is populist and his appeal is to those most negatively affected by the low wage regime associated with neoliberalism, even if he in truth supports this regime. But he is less tarred with the low wage brush than Scott Morrison who as treasurer has consistently pushed the corporate line of tax cuts for corporations and wage restraint and flexible (= casual) employment for everyone else.
To the corporatists in big business, the large consultancy firms and the lobbying groups, his victory would surely have raised alarm bells as he would hobble the conditions of growth–especially immigration–on which they so much depend and he would give no certainty on energy policy at all. Morrison might be more acceptable to them as he straddles more factions, and has actually worked with corporate types in his capacity as an executive in the tourist industry, a qualification completely lacking in Dutton.
As someone ostensibly seated on the various fences between extreme right, hard right and moderate, Morrison will not present the hardened no-nonsense persona that Dutton truly projects and which he has so successfully cultivated as Minister of Home Affairs. For those Liberals worried about maintaining their seats this will make Morrison much more attractive than Dutton. In order for Morrison’s amiable face to be further propagated, this may well mean an election will only be held at the due time rather than a snap election being countenanced.
If the essence of the neoliberal theory of government–as it runs in practice not theory–is that government should primarily uphold handouts to the corporate sector and oppose any groups seen as antithetical to business, then both Morrison and Dutton would be seemingly acceptable candidates. But who would be better to support the neoliberal project now that its failures are becoming so obvious is more difficult to answer?
Finally, there is perhaps a deeper question here concerning the fact that there have been six prime ministers over the past nine years, in contrast with only three between 1983 and 2007. One cause of this is individualism, the principal cultural expression of neoliberalism, which has now worked itself into all levels of society. This has been of considerable value when used in conjunction with the media’s tendency to find charisma in particular politicians-Bob Hawke, Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull–then to repeatedly define this charisma as coming from the ordinary Australian’s emotional response to these figures. As such parliament has become more presidential and individualistic than it might have once been.
But the other three, especially John Howard, did not manifest this individual narcissism, and Howard, in particular, succeeded by placing his own form of “common sense” at the centre of his persona. Yet beneath all of this superficiality the “liberalization of the economy” has continued, as has government welfare provided to the large corporations, the elevation of individual ambition over social cohesion and–apart from Julia Gillard’s carbon price–a refusal to take climate change seriously.
Dr Greg Bailey is an Honorary Researcher, College of the Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Latrobe University.