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If only the US had a Malcolm Turnbull

Not only does Australia have a superior economy to the United States, it has a superior politics, insists visiting American journalist John Nichols

20 August 2010

12:00 AM

20 August 2010

12:00 AM

American journalists fancying themselves ‘international correspondents’ do not generally seek the ‘foreign’ in large English-speaking nations with Starbucks, country music and an out-sized obsession with immigration ‘threats.’ As I waited to board my plane from Brisbane to Sydney barely a week before Australia’s 2010 election, however, I realised that the land down under is dramatically different from the United States.

A crowd of young men, decked out in hip-hop finery, started shouting ‘Ruddy! Ruddy!’ And there was Kevin Rudd, looking not young but not old, not handsome but not horrible, not prime minister but not nobody. ‘Ruddy!’ In an instant, Kevin ’07 bolted from his handlers to trade hand signs with the boys, dance clumsily and pose for pictures in a style so un-cool that it was almost cool. ‘Video?’ the hip-hoppers asked Rudd. Of course! The former prime minister of Australia busted a move and announced that ‘K-Rudd’ was keeping it real from the Gold Coast to S-town.

That’s when it struck me: Australia really is foreign. You people threw away a perfectly good Bill Clinton on the eve of a national election. Americans would never do that. Our political system, marinated in money and stage-managed to the last sound-nibble by consultants who see candidates as products, lacks the agility and the confidence to debut a new brand on the eve of an election. The last president to exit so unceremoniously was Lyndon Johnson, and only after the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. The Australian political consensus – and it is a consensus, not a party, not a candidate, not even a pollster, that defines what is possible in any country’s politics – retains a flexibility America has lost. Australia is better for it. Countries that cannot change when change is necessary – as opposed to when convenient – invariably mistake the rearrangement of deck chairs for titanic progress. They search, desperately, for ‘hope’ and ‘change’, and end up with black presidents who are almost as inept as white presidents.

So good on ya, Australia. But not too good.

The campaign between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott will not, I fear, be one of history’s great political tests. Disraeli versus Gladstone, Hindenburg versus Hitler, Kennedy versus Nixon, Whitlam versus McMahon… Gillard versus Abbott. Er, not so much.


Your pundits have noted that this is a ‘power without passion’ campaign. Unfortunately, taking their cues from the candidates, those same pundits produced a pre-election conversation for which the word ‘picayune’ is an insufficiently picayune description. When I appeared on The Drum, a savvier cable chat show than those produced by a US media that mistakes angry for smart, my witty rejoinders had to wait for a serious debate about which party was less disinclined to fund a proper rail link between Parramatta and Epping.

Don’t get me wrong; national politicians pander to vote-rich communities in the US. But our pundits spare the rest of the country the drab details. Indeed, as three able Australians debated whether it was ‘cynical’ for candidates to promise goodies on the eve of an election, I thought that I should probably move to a country with so few troubles that this passes for trenchant talk.

Unfortunately, Australia has more serious issues. But, as in the US, too many pundits take their cues from the ‘cynical’ candidates and neglect that which actually matters. To wit: foreign policy. Australians have involved themselves in our nasty business of occupying Afghanistan, an endeavour about which you really should consider the cautionary experiences of Genghis Khan, the British Empire and the Soviet Union. However, during a week of travelling with, observing and speaking to your political and media elites, I heard no serious discussion of the aforementioned engagement. Yes, of course, an Australian travelling in the US might note an insufficiency in our own self-examination regarding the latest imperial improvisation. But this is not the place to follow our lead.

When serious matters go unmentioned, the politics of personality infects any electoral cycle. And Australia suffers the condition. You have not quite degenerated to the point of nominating bear-hunting hockey moms from the Arctic. But the only thing that saves you is a lingering ideological diversity within your major parties and an electoral system that leaves a little room for alternatives.

During my Australian sojourn, I enjoyed the company of Malcolm Bligh Turnbull, as would any right-minded practitioner of a craft that instinctively inclines toward theatre. When we appeared together at the Walkley Foundation’s forum on campaign coverage, Turnbull was delicious. He skewered all parties, tossed off slightly naughty one-liners and oozed charm. [A tip for aspiring politicos: upon mention of the latest book by the author seated next to you, use your iPad to try to order a copy in view of said author.] Well aware that he was addressing journalists and academics who lap up intellectual pretence like cats do fresh cream, Turnbull punctuated a point about the accuracy of reporting with a quote that he just happened to have highlighted from Thucydides.

Masterful performance, just masterful. And it made me very sad, as I understood that I had come upon a species that has been hunted to extinction in my own land: the quick-witted and intellectually adventurous man of the right. Turnbull’s kind once roamed the American continent in the form of modern Republicans like New York Mayor John Lindsay and Illinois Senator Chuck Percy. Today’s bright young things are not invited to the Republican Tea Party, where Thucydides, being European, would be suspected of harbouring socialist tendencies.

America is rather obsessed with socialism these days, so much so that President Obama recently called a New York Times reporter to whom he had already denied being a Marxist to emphasise that he really, no, seriously, really did not have a social-democratic bone in his body. The fact of your country’s familiarity with the ‘s’ word insulates it from the silliness of suggestions that letting the government provide care to sick children is step one on the slippery slope to Stalinism. Indeed, the wider range of political debate in Australia allows for a formerly sincere socialist to compete with a formerly sincere right-wing ranter as the leaders of parties that still include sincere socialists and sincere right-wing ranters. And your voting system provides options that are practically unavailable in the US. We have our Bob Browns, mind you, but they don’t become senators and they certainly are not allowed to hold the balance of power.

So, yes, not only does Australia have a superior economy to the United States, Australia has a superior politics. As I watched your attempts at attack ads and listened to the debate about whether Tony ‘Not a Techie’ Abbott had been hobbled by an admission that he would not personally design the nation’s broadband system, I was overwhelmed by nostalgia. Australian politics and punditry remains unintentionally old-school; it tries to take politics as seriously as do the voters. Yes, there is too much polling and pontificating. Yes, there is too much Abbott and too little Turnbull. Yes, you have a bit of the American disease. But it hasn’t gone viral. There is something of the innocent, the naive, the fun and the possible in your electoral process. Your ‘hope’ is not completely manufactured. Your ‘change’ is not branded and rolled out on schedule. There is still something real about your politics and, in the form of Mark Latham, something surreal.

John Nichols
is political correspondent for The Nation in Washington DC and co-author of The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books), just out.


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