Australia’s politicians might be pretty clean, but even local commentators can see the limitations of their worldview
There is a certain breed of Australian intellectual, to repeat the vivid phraseology of a recent Spectator Australia editorial, who like few things more than being harangued, dominatrix-style, by Europeans about the barrenness of their homeland. This is useful information, especially if sterling continues its downward slide against the dollar, for it could open up a lucrative new sideline. I can picture colleagues in the Sydney foreign press corps turning up on doorsteps in Marrickville with a copy of The Lucky Country in one hand and a rolled-up edition of the Economist’s Australia special report in the other. ‘Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck,’ I can imagine them bellowing, as prostrate intellectuals squeal with orgasmic delight at their feet.
The more serious criticism of the Spectator Australia editorial was that foreign observers, like me, have been giving Australian politics an unduly harsh time of late, and have come to view what goes on in Canberra with condescension and contempt. ‘[T]he body politic is remarkably healthy,’ the leader countered, and ‘at a fundamental level it works.’ Prior to publication, the editor was decent enough to show me an advance copy, and also offered me the right of reply. So here goes.
Perhaps it will sound like pandering if I start by pointing out that I generally write with great affection about a country that has been my home now for near-on five years. I arrived here determined to avoid the kind of dog-eared stereotypes regularly deployed to portray Australians as prime vulgarians and have long argued that the country’s cultural creep is far more noteworthy than any lingering pangs of cultural cringe. As for the seemingly recession-proof economy, it deserves to be called a ‘wonder from Down Under’ — a consequence not just of Australia’s abundant resources but the subtle calibration of its regulatory system. In terms of its international punch, Canberra enjoys the kind of strategic relationship with Washington that would be the envy of most other countries and can boast a close commercial rapport with Beijing, which again sets it apart. All of this suggests that Australia is poised to exert much more diplomatic and economic influence, should it wish to do so, as the Indo-Pacific century unfolds.
However, at a time when the soaring Aussie dollar has become a totem of national success, Australian politics has headed in the opposite direction and gone through a process of speedy devaluation. Over the past 12 months especially, it appears to have become chronically parochial, narrower in its focus, angrier in its tone, and far less consequential from a global perspective. Julia Gillard’s first major announcement as prime minister, which was to ditch the Big Australia policy, can be viewed not only as emblematic of her style of leadership but also of Australian politics as a whole. A golden era of regional influence is there for the taking, but the ambitions of both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott seem happily accommodated within these shores.
In reaching this judgment, my chief concern was not of causing offence but of merely ventriloquising some of Australia’s leading political writers. In George Megalogenis’s recent Quarterly Essay, his title doubled as his thesis: Trivial Pursuit. Paul Kelly, the untitled dean of Australian political commentators, has spoken of the ‘degeneration of Australia’s political culture’. The same derisive tone has been evident in Peter Hartcher’s recent musings, as well as those of Mungo MacCallum. I may well speak with a British voice — alas, it is the only one I have — which I know can grate on Australian ears. However, local commentators have been far more damning.
The Spectator Australia is right to point out that Australia does not have a prime minister as randy as Silvio Berlusconi, a deputy prime minister who throws punches in the manner of John Prescott or MPs who expect the taxpayer to foot the bill for the dredging of their moats. At the federal level, politicians are neither corrupt nor particularly scandalous. Indeed, for that kind of sordidness foreign reporters generally have to turn to Macquarie Street or the state parliament in Perth. But again, it is not the personal behaviour of MPs that is up for discussion, rather their political behaviour. Canberra, far from summoning the nobler instincts of politicians, seems to have a much more malign effect, whether it is on the floor of the House of Representatives during Question Time or standing before a thicket of microphones at those media stakeouts outside. Arguably, the occasional personal peccadillo might prove welcome, for it would point to a hinterland beyond the confines of the Capital Circle, and a life outside the 24/7 political whirl.
Perhaps the more germane question is not whether the political culture has regressed, but how it can be revived. There have been calls for longer parliamentary terms, which might curtail the perpetual politicking of the three-year permanent campaign. Preselection might be reformed to slow the advance of career politicians and factional powerbrokers who seem to graduate so effortlessly from the back room to the backbenches. Technology might also be harnessed by the major parties to lend them the kind of social networking allure of groups like GetUp!. Perhaps Canberra could even follow the lead of Westminster and cut down on the number of Question Times.
In hasty conclusion, it is probably worth pointing out that my most feisty assessment of Australian politics was published a year ago in these very pages. Taking as its literary touchstone Robin Boyd’s opus The Australian Ugliness, it spoke of the cannibalistic fury within both parties that had wiped out a generation of able leaders. It reflected on how the political culture had become more overtly tribalistic, clannish and intensely partisan. It was also the first time that I used the phrase ‘political cringe’. Then, it was deployed in conjunction with a question mark, and simply raised the question if this was the direction in which politics was heading. To domestic and foreign observers alike, the past 12 months appear to have provided the answer.
Nick Bryant is the BBC’s Australia correspondent and the author of the forthcoming Adventures in Correspondentland.