Politics is broken — but then it always has been

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Approximate representation of Australian conservative politics (Image @biggy1883)

The mainstream media narrative that "politics is broken" is a vacuous slogan and a sop to conservatives, writes Ingrid Matthews.

THIS COLUMN comes to you from outside Tamworth in north-west New South Wales — the district that sends Deputy Prime Minister (and currently Acting Prime Minister) Barnaby Joyce to Parliament. The local juice is that Joyce is smart as a whip and the buffoon show is completely contrived, which I struggle to believe, but that is the claim. We move on, conversationally, sitting on the front veranda of a sprawling farmhouse, enjoying the sunshine and country quiet.

Having tuned out of politics for days, I open up the newsfeed and there he is. Everywhere. Tony Tony Tony. The Liberal Party leadership death roll has entered that phase where nothing anyone says can take the spotlight off it and every comment makes the situation more terminal.

I start to catch up with the commentary. Here is Arthur "I-can’t-recall" Sinodinos, sent out to hose down the spot fires Abbott keeps lighting with merry abandon. That would be the same Sinodinos who stood aside as assistant treasurer while the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) investigated his potentially extremely profitable involvement in Australian Water Holdings. As is the way of these things, Sinodinos was dusted off and put back in a position of power and responsibility — like being the right hand man to the Prime Minister during the 2016 election campaign. You know, the one where the Liberal Party lost 16 seats. “I can’t control Tony Abbott,” the sage Sinodinos revealed.

There is the Deputy Prime Minister, referring to the Liberal Party mess as an “accursed soap opera” full of “fluff and mirrors”. Here is the Treasurer claiming it is all “a confected soap opera”. Over there, the Prime Minister saying he will leave parliament if he is ousted. Then he pops up again to tell us he will run in 2019 and he will win.

The trigger for the latest round of instability was Christopher Pyne breaking the iron-clad rule to never tell the truth — not even to factional allies. He deserves everything he gets, for joining an organisation which punishes its members for being truthful about something as basic as equality before the law. Interestingly, Pyne never once wavered from using the correct term, “marriage equality”. In contrast, Malcolm Turnbull referred to “gay marriage” more than once in response. These labels send different signals. Conservative opponents say "gay marriage", which tends to stigmatise rather than invoke the basic human right of equality.

The resultant mess even drew the attention even of the Washington Post, which did a routine write-up using the persistent yet erroneous idea that Turnbull is leftwing or progressive. There seems no logical reason for the WaPo to report on internal party politics here. Maybe it is because the New York Times recently expanded its reporting on Australia. Either way, the article noted that Australia has universal healthcare while Turnbull cosied up to Trump by congratulating him on the passage of a bill designed to trash affordable health care in the United States.

What a proud day for Malcolm Turnbull when the leading newspaper in Washington calls out his ideological hypocrisy.

It is tempting to kick back and watch Abbott do his wrecking ball routine with not a little schadenfreude, although the story arc is getting old. It is also entirely predictable. Just because the Liberal Party assumed they could do something Labor did but manage it better does not make it true. Even the most casual observer of Australian politics could deduce easily enough that when a deposed Abbott promised there would be "no wrecking, sniping or undermining" he was telling a(nother) bare-faced lie.

Abbott is a singularly destructive character, and always has been. He was a key head-kicker during the Howard prime ministership and he was a nasty, aggressive leader of the opposition. Malcolm Turnbull is not taking anything remotely like the heat that was directed at Julia Gillard. Remember when her dad passed away and Alan Jones suggested he had died of shame? Remember how Abbott picked up the phrase and ran with it, telling Gillard that her government should die of shame?

Who could forget Abbott hijacking the anti-rape phrase “No Means No”, by asking

“... are you suggesting to me that when it comes from Julia, no doesn’t mean no?”

For these and other repulsive displays of aggression and sexism, Abbott was lauded as an "effective" opposition leader and endorsed by media outlets around the country. “We Need Tony” claimed the Sydney Morning Herald, in apparent ignorance of what constitutes basic standards of decency in government and public debate.

We did not need Tony and nor did the Liberal Party want him for long. Nobody needs Tony less than Malcolm Turnbull, but Turnbull is a highly educated and very wealthy adult, he makes his own decisions. Despite the dreary repetition with which it is observed that Turnbull has his hands tied by the conservatives in his own party, it is often left unsaid that Turnbull chose this path in pursuit of his own political ambition. That he is as awful a prime minister as he was opposition leader, and environment minister, and communications minister and backbencher, and Republican Movement leader should come as no surprise.

There is a long history of Turnbull making terrible judgements on the public record. There was never any evidence that Turnbull would be a masterful and statesmanlike prime minister; nor is there any evidence that Tony Abbott has the capacity to operate in some way other than being aggressive and destructive. I find it interesting that, when Labor was in government and the leadership was in turmoil, Tony Abbott of all people was presented to the public as a viable alternative. Now that the Liberal Party is repeating the process of defenestrating a first term prime minister, almost losing an election and directing most of its energy to internal brawling, the emerging narrative seems to be that politics is broken.

Why? I cannot identify a single objective criterion by which Tony Abbott could be seen as more competent, more trustworthy, or more impressive on any measure, than Julia Gillard. To me, the notion is as absurd as electing Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. I am not disagreeing that politics is broken, but I am not sure by what measure we can declare that politics is more broken now than at some previous point in time.

Conservatives have always played dirty to get what they want. The most disruptive event in Australian politics, the dismissal of Gough Whitlam and his government, was rank bloody-mindedness from cranky conservatives who had come to see themselves as the only party of government. Politics has always been riven with megalomaniacs who lie to the people.

It is part of conservative ideology to want to keep society as it is or take society backwards — and society as it is lacks diversity in the top echelons of every institution. Everywhere we look, in the public sector or the private, at the top of corporations, industry, religion, media, government, everywhere the executive level is dominated by those from the same demographic as Tony Abbott. Conservative thinking directs that such singular dominance is not only right but natural.

Women struggled for decades just to be enfranchised. Are we really to suppose that sexism somehow evaporated from the polity after thousands of years of male-only rule? Sexism and other forms of bigotry are not the only problem, but look again at what set off the current round of instability. Abbott is fighting a rearguard action for his values and those values do not include gender equality or marriage equality.

Nor does the Abbott agenda resonate with the electorate, as social researcher Rebecca Huntley reports here. He is entirely on a frolic of his own.

The “politics is broken” narrative tends to universalise the failure of conservative politics, instead of reaching further into the  inherent weaknesses of liberal democracy. The Anglo-European democratic tradition proclaims the glory of rights and freedoms, while systematically denying rights and freedoms to women, to First Peoples, to people of colour, to people with disabilities, to LGBTQI people — in other words, to the majority of the population.

The Washington Post might call out Malcolm Turnbull for ideological hypocrisy – and I do not disagree with the call – but Turnbull and Trump, and Abbott, are all symptoms of the lack of true representation in liberal democracies. The political parties draw their membership from an extremely shallow gene pool.

As it turns out, a concentration of men who went to expensive schools and will say anything to get elected is not necessarily the best choice of who should acquire the power and the privilege to govern over us all.

You can follow Ingrid Matthews on Twitter at @iMusing or her blog oecomuse

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