Identity politics is not only within the orbit of the left: it was harnessed by the Coalition to win May's Election, writes Scott Colvin.
WHAT A breathless finale — the Australian election gave us some of the year’s best television. Between the pollsters and the pundits, no one seemed to see the plot twist of a Liberal victory coming.
Never has such a dull election campaign been enlivened by a last minute moment of high calamity.
As always, in the calm of the aftermath, various search parties are sent to find exactly what happened. My answer is this: identity politics.
There are those who say that it has little sway in Australia — look at America, where almost all discourse is riven with the stuff — but, although not necessarily to the obvious, identity politics is hugely relevant in informing much of what we see, hear and feel from those running for office.
And it was identity politics that won Scott Morrison the election.
Now that the U.S. has been mentioned, a comparison to set the scene: presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was recently booed on stage at an event aimed at getting black female voters to the polls (never a good start), and must now and for the rest of the campaign bear the sound-bite crucifix of having a “black women problem”.
It was odd, especially to an outsider, to see Sanders sneered at by an African American audience for telling anecdotes of having marched with Martin Luther King and of supporting Jesse Jackson in 1988. Sure, those pages of the Sanders songbook are well dog-eared, but they at least represent a long dedication to singing in support of black causes.
The Senator was also pelted for answering a question on rising white supremacist violence with a discussion on the minimum wage and universal healthcare. Again, consider me sceptical, but isn’t it reasonable to think that much social fracturing is caused by the faultlines of economic inequality, causing many to retreat into an intolerant racial groupthink?
Perhaps this is to forget that, as has been put elsewhere, Sanders is “a full-fledged white man no matter how leftist he believes himself to be”. In American identity politics, Sanders is out twice, with his socialism largely still non-gratis to much of the white voting population: a fully-fledged socialist, no matter how white he is.
“Red” Bernie is the white man pitching to the blue-collar U.S. workers and that doesn’t raise much of a flag with many American political identities, despite his economic policies seeming to be in the best interests of large swathes of the American working and middle classes.
If the stress in America is having to appeal to different identities, traditionally in Australia there is only one identity that’s of any interest to those running for office — the great Australian identity.
This Australian identity is the real battleground on which electoral victories are had. Once you notice it, you can’t un-notice it. It’s in the test of which candidate you would most want to drink with at a pub; it’s in politicians necking a beer at the cricket; it’s in being true blue and giving a fair go to Aussie battlers.
So prevalent is the great Australian identity that little effort is put into any other, despite "ScoMo" having a half-hearted go. He unfortunately made the classic mistake of assuming all Asian people are from the same country, offering a friendly "Ni Hao" (Chinese) to a passing Korean (not Chinese).
And it was dominant in the campaign. We were inundated with faux-candid self-portraits of the two vying leaders as people, between Bill Shorten shed tears over his mother's stunted career prospects and the “simple, decent, honest aspirations” of Morrison’s family.
Neither of them really attempted to be anything other than a painful caricature of same shallow Australian cliche. Their ability to pull off the charade is perhaps one of the main reasons they are chosen as leaders of their parties in the first place.
But, of course, they need it. How else to garner support from those they are asking to vote against their interests — they have to not just represent you, but be you.
Morrison needed it the most.
Why would a majority vote against changes to negative gearing (against Treasury advice), a flattening of the progressive tax brackets (creating greater wealth inequality), and a dangerous nonchalance regarding our warming planet?
Shorten needed it, too, just less obviously. And even if he didn’t, you can bet he would still be out there spruiking his fair dinkum credentials. Policies be damned.
What happened this time, and which was missed by Labor, was a slight widening of the fracture down the middle of the great Australian identity between cosmopolitan capital city-dwellers and those living further from ever-gentrifying centres.
The former is increasingly interested in progressive policies (though arguably still at its fringes), while the latter registers little movement in that direction, despite arguably being at the forefront of climate changes in this country.
As it was, Morrison and the Liberal-National Coalition won the election, with the consensus view that an unexpectedly strong Queensland result betrayed the polling. Much was made of coal and of Adani and jobs.
Adani is only going to add 1,464 jobs, according to an expert retained by the company behind the mine. Australia will eventually move on from fossil fuels, even if it has to be dragged kicking and screaming. So much could have been done (and still could be done) to invest in creating jobs in renewable energies in Queensland and re-skill the State for a post-fossil fuel future.
But for now, the Australian identity, particularly in Queensland, is focussed on the old-school. Jobs in traditional industries, no matter the cost. Morrison knew this, and exploited it to his advantage, with more than a lashing of help from Clive Palmer’s single-handed attempt to boost the advertising industry.
To what extent these political machinations influence Australian self-reflection and identity and form a self-serving feedback loop, it is difficult to say. That phenomenon is very likely, however, and comes as another example of politicians playing the role of preacher to and of the lowest common denominator.
Labor has selected Anthony Albanese as its next leader, a man praised for his straight-talking approach. In the circumstances, this would be a natural reaction for a party out-manoeuvred by the Coalition in respect of a voting demographic that so frequently rewards no-nonsense, salt-of-the-earth types.
Australia is an identity politics country. It’s focused on one identity instead of many for now, but the division is growing. But no matter what form it takes, it’s there. And so is its potential for manipulation.
Scott Colvin is a lawyer and writer based in Melbourne.
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