“Super Tuesday!” The results of the 14 State Democratic Party “primaries” to select a candidate to face Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. It was the second item on the news after the inevitable coronavirus story (“toiletpapergate”).
But you already knew what it was, didn’t you? When did we become so obsessed with American politics that confected, partisan scandals; confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justices; White House gossip; and the personalities of nomination contenders; rated first-rank news in Australia?
Was a time when Australians knew or cared little about American politics; apart from their current president’s gaffes (why always “gaffes”?) and the vast amounts of corporate money spent to get elected.
Forty years ago, during the 1980 presidential election — a not-inconsequential battle between incumbent Jimmy Carter and a Hollywood B-Grade actor called Ronald Reagan — local Australian news had a five-minute rundown on the election to be held the next day.
The reporter explained the process of the electoral college and predicted that Reagan was likely to win. The election was presented as something of little direct consequence to Australians but of topical interest perhaps; like a giant snowstorm in Britain, or riots in Paris.
So why does the ebbs and flows of American politics hold such a sway over our news services now? The ABC even regularly broadcasts a naff, haw-haw, show ridiculing the excesses of the American political scene called Planet America.
It can’t be because America is of more real consequence to us now; American culture, movies, television, and music were, if anything, more dominant in Australia 40 years ago than they are now. Remember Welcome Back Kotter and Star Wars? In 1980, the United States was responsible for nearly 25 per cent of world total economic output. It is now about 15 percent and falling.
No, it’s not just America, it’s almost anywhere else. Whether it’s New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; the three-year Brexit battle in Britain; IRA-front Sinn Féin wining in Ireland; Canada’s (Canada!) Justin Trudeau… everywhere politics seems more interesting to Australians than our own “champions of change”.
When did Australian politics become so boring? It shouldn’t be. We are no longer a tiny population on a vast continent clinging to “Nanny,” first Britain, then America, in the big bad world.
We are now a mid-ranking power of 25 million, located in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region, the fastest growing part of the world. Our trillion-dollar economy sees us ranked 14th in economic power and ninth in “soft power” influence.
But those with long memories recall that this seemingly-parlous state of affairs was not always the case.
After the somnolescent Menzies decades, there was a sense of excitement around Australian politics with the arrival and departure, (one drowned) of four conservative Prime Ministers in six years before Gough Whitlam’s “It’s Time” election in 1972. This ushered in a tumult of political revolution and social change — ending conscription, an independent foreign policy, scandals, hyper-inflation, the 1973 oil crisis, and the eventual sacking of the government by the Governor-General, all in under three years.
The seven-and-a-half-year Government of Malcolm Fraser promised to “send politics to the back-page,” no matter that’s where the sport normally is… but managed few major policy changes other than a series of increasingly bitter in-fights and sackings before being dumped in March 1983 by the Hawke/Keating Government.
This began an era of unparalleled serious economic reform that transformed Australia. Floating the exchange rate, decoupling growth from wage inflation, opening-up the Australian economy to competition, establishing the compulsory superannuation system, helping establish international forums like AIPAC and the G10, Australia was a different country from 1983 to the Government’s eventual defeat in 1996
Even John Howard, one of the most beige and uninspiring politicians to ever lead a large country, led a Government of conservative activism whose 11 years included tax reform (the GST, superannuation) removing semi-automatic firearms from Australian society, and serious industrial relations reform.
And so, we then had the embarrassing turnstile decade between 2007–2018 with Howard replaced by Rudd, Gillard, Rudd, Abbott, Turnbull, and, finally, Scott Morrison. It was in these years perhaps; so full of drama but with so little real policy achievements or political courage, that we came to no longer care about our polity.
Paul Keating once observed in his own uniquely-blunt fashion that a Prime Minister had to keep the restless flocks of backbenchers in Government busy with full legislative programs, otherwise they became bored and restless and started agitating for leadership change. Maybe it’s the same for voters, they want a sense of purpose and direction, not drift and lethargy, from their politicians.
Perhaps after all that turmoil with precious little policy to show for it; we are all tad bit happier with boring-old PR flack, Scott Morrison who, with his steel-rimmed glasses and earnest manner, reminds one of a McDonald’s Regional Manager from Milwaukee.
Perhaps the problem is that, as an American political expert visiting our blessed shores years ago, observed: Australian politics has too much energy for the amount of actual importance that it represents. That is, it generates a lot of heat but not much light.
In reality, our Parliament sits so few days that being an MP could barely be described as a full-time job. Question Time, once so full of drama and fractious battles for political supremacy, is now a cynical joke for those who don’t have to sit through its interminable irrelevancy.
I suppose this is what a democracy looks like where there are no major wars to fight, pressing economic emergencies, and little major policy differences between the major parties. Yes, climate change is bad, and we all love inclusiveness and the indomitable Australian spirit, blah, blah, blah.
“May you live in interesting times,” is an ironic saying often referred to as “The Chinese Curse,” which has the implied meaning, of course, that peaceful and happy periods of history are boring and uneventful.
If that’s the case, then Australians must be one of the most contented peoples on earth…