The Americanisation of Australian political culture

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has become a puppet of President Donald Trump (Image by Dan Jensen)

Australia has a long history of imitating American culture, but our mirroring of U.S. politics is bringing the nation down, writes Peter Henning.

ONCE UPON A TIME in Australia, maybe in the 1980s, it became commonplace to hear that when something happened in the United States it would only be a matter of time before it happened in Australia. The time lag could be a lazy several years or more, but the tendency of Australia to replicate the American experience was regarded as inevitable, irresistible and ordained, so therefore generally acceptable and unquestioned.

Hollywood, American popular culture and wars were the beachheads, with American film, music, news, fashion and infotainment being dominant in Australia for decades. Australian foreign and defence policies were controlled from the White House and Pentagon for most of the time since 1942. Australian military forces are now seamlessly integrated into American military adventures, belted on as a natural appendage.

Changes in technology, manufacturing, agriculture, mining and the transformation of a collectively organised and unionised life-long full-time workforce into a non-unionised, contractual, part-time or casual labour force, have similarly flowed inexorably from the U.S. to Australia, as night follows day.

But the pattern of replication has become much more rapid, thorough and comprehensive since the mid-1990s and has increasingly involved the Americanisation of the Australian political culture in values, policies, rhetoric and practice, with the culture and politics of the current Trump Administration now the blueprint for Australian policy and rhetoric.

John Howard successfully transformed the Liberal Party into a model of the Bush (father and son) Republicans, brilliantly and cynically appropriating the American term “political correctness” as a weapon to strengthen socioeconomic inequality, stymie environmental regulation and give free rein to corporate profiteers and carpet baggers.

The key targets for Howard were Indigenous Australians, the unemployed, the sick, asylum seekers, public sector workers like teachers and nurses, unionised labour and environmentalists. Howard came to grief with his union-smashing agenda, perhaps over-confidence taking hold after his 2004 success in gaining union support – especially from the CFMEU – for his forestry policies and the success of his fear campaign against refugees.

Ironically, Australia’s rejection of “Howard’s Brutopia” in 2007 has done nothing to impede or shift the direction Howard took Australia. Since 2013, the successive administrations of Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison have locked in stagnant wages and weakened working conditions using a number of measures, including the abolition of penalty rates, the creation of a large pool of migrant workers and refugees seeking residency permits and citizenship while holding temporary visas and the replacement of job permanency and collective bargaining with precarious contract systems of employment.

The American model provided Howard with a fundamental modus operandi to broaden socioeconomic inequalities, divisions and conflicts within Australia and the “Tea Party” movement within the Republican Party gave energy to Abbott’s Australian Liberals, but the election of Trump to the U.S. presidency in 2016 really revved up the Howard agenda and excited the overwhelming majority of Coalition politicians. 

Turnbull linked arms with Trump as a fellow businessman, the “art of the deal” thus being the art of politics in a new-born era of plutocracy. But the greatest victory of all belongs to Morrison. His “miracle” is not so much his victory in the 2019 Federal Election as his boundless opportunities to follow Trump’s lead wherever the boss might go. Abbott or Dutton would both have been fit for purpose and Abbott must rue the day he sought to lick the boots of the Duke of Edinburgh when he could have been Trump’s man of “titanium” instead of Morrison. 

Morrison went to the U.S. in September to impress Trump with his credentials as a forelock-tugging mate, gifting $150 million to Trump’s space program — funded empathy, of course. He promised Australian assistance in Trump’s fight against Congress investigations into his conduct, supported Trump’s attacks on internationalism, endorsed Trump’s dismissal of the United Nations summit on climate change – bravely belittling the voice of Greta Thunberg – and became Trump’s voice of attack against China from down under.  

Since then, Morrison Government imitations of Trumpist rhetoric have been more vigorously adopted, well beyond what former Treasury Secretary Ken Henry said in September this year that “deliberate ignorance” was putting Australia’s future prosperity at risk. The stupid refusal to acknowledge the link between climate change and the earlier onset of catastrophic bushfires, which scientists and frontline experts like Greg Mullins have been warning about for years, has now reached the heights of Trumpian absurdity in this country.

Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack labelled the link as the views of “raving inner-city lunatics”, Barnaby Joyce blamed the Greens for increased fire risks and Morrison provided “thoughts and prayers”, having declined to listen to expert advice.

A further manifestation of increasing Americanisation of Australian political culture is that for the first time we have an Australian Prime Minister who believes in a version of American Christianity which teaches that worldly wealth and power are signs of divine approval — a “prosperity theology” which updates the medieval European idea of the divine right of kings. This provides a neat fraternal link with Trump, whose key religious adviser is Pentecostal televangelist Paula White.

It is instructive that the Morrison Government, inspired by Trump’s attacks on an oppositional media as the “enemy of the people”, has been able to go further than Trump and launch police raids on the homes of journalists and newspaper offices, because Australia has nothing equivalent to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly protects “the freedom of the press”.

When Morrison calls young people demonstrating for action on climate change “anarchists”; when Peter Dutton advocates increased surveillance of Australian citizens; when government secrecy and obfuscation shrouds the use of water in the on-going destruction of the Murray-Darling river system; and when public funds are used to support international companies with dodgy environmental records like Adani, we should bear in mind that no matter how much we transform ourselves into the replica of a U.S. State, the one thing that Australia is unable to import from the U.S. is their Bill of Rights.

The greatest danger to Australia from the enthusiastic adoption by the Morrison Government of the worst of all things American – the Trumpist agenda, with its endorsement of inequality, racism, market fundamentalism, anti-intellectualism, jingoistic and nationalist exceptionalism and Christian fundamentalism – is the willful rejection of “commonwealth”, and the creation of an Ozymandian wasteland, ‘boundless and bare’, a place where ‘the frown and wrinkled lip’ of narcissistic hubris gazes with the ‘sneer of cold command’ across ‘the lone and level sands’ of wreckage. 

Peter Henning is a Tasmanian historian and author.

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