It is more than a week since the 2010 Australian Federal election and even though the drama is not yet over, there is much to reflect upon.
To begin with the mining industry assault on Labor has laid bare the real workings of power in this country, and the fragility of our democracy in a meaningful sense. No grassroots or popular organisation could match the mining industry “fear war-chest” that ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
And great sections of the media came on board for this assault on Labor too. Often the bias is subtle involving selective quotations, framing of debate or emotive language. At other times it is blatant. Even the ABC focused relentlessly for the first two weeks of the campaign on the “leaks drama”. This focus was at the expense of policy and substance - where the ALP could have made up ground given the opportunity.
Everything Labor did most of the mainstream media put a “negative spin” on it. For instance, former PM Kevin Rudd was brought on board to sell the message that whatever voters thought of the coup, too much was at stake to elect a Liberal government. The “Rudd legacy” was itself at stake. The idea was to put speculation about disunity and instability to rest and to show a united front. Instead we had commentary on Rudd’s body language, and more disruptive, and damaging media speculation.
The work of media in a democracy should be to provide balanced scrutiny and allowance for diverse viewpoints, including scrutiny of policy, not the pursuit of the most entertaining narrative. Was this just something to do with Australian media culture - or something more sinister?
Many voters were disillusioned with Labor on climate change and refugees, but the vast majority of these would have defected to the Greens and not the Liberals.
In pursuit of a majority, Labor has been on the back-foot for decades, as shown on the issue of asylum seekers. (Although for some much of the neo-liberal ideology was internalised, and thus support for its tenets is not even seen anymore as a compromise.)
Labor has to compromise to hold together a broad constituency marked by internal contradictions (i.e. the liberal middle class and traditional working class - some of whom are socially conservative). The rise of the Greens means there is now room for alternative (Left) perspectives to be voiced openly and publicly and thus influence the “terms of debate”. This could also translate into policy leverage in the context of critical and reasonably conditional support for Labor. But the broader support base now enjoyed by the Greens, and the imperative of maintaining the balance of power in the Senate, might mean the Greens also have to contain some of their most radical impulses. The Greens should also try and open lines of communication with the progressive Christian community in an effort to broaden their support base further.
Over the long term, change is a matter of mobilising the social and economic forces to counter the dominance of concentrated private wealth - in the public sphere, civil society, and in an industrial sense. Being a voluntarist I don't see this as impossible. But this is no easy task given the realignment of class forces in this country over recent decades. What I think is that we need to get unions, progressive NGOs and progressive political parties working together, pooling their resources and co-ordinating their efforts. Such a co-ordinated and determined effort could include marginal seats campaigning and efforts at establishing alternative media - especially where it's needed most.
Of course the importance of marginal seats in this country undermines the political leverage of most voters. The Greens are correct in supporting proportional representation. But even despite our electoral system ordinary people can have an influence by organising and intervening - in their communities, their workplaces and in the public sphere. A participatory culture is part of the answer to monopoly media and “one-way information flows”. On the other hand, many older Australians are not engaged with “new media”, so undermining the power of the monopolists could occur ultimately in the form of generational change.
The Liberals also pretty much got away with their campaign line on debt and waste without getting much in the way of media scrutiny. The Liberals blew these issues grossly out of proportion - especially debt - consequently progressives need to continue the work of putting the record straight.
It is extremely important that despite what's happened progressives cannot afford to let the Right determine the historical narrative. The Left and Centre-Left need to continue to contest this narrative vigorously by arguing that there was a need for a progressive stimulus, progressive tax reform, and for infrastructure investment, and how such policies resulted in positive outcomes.
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