The Null Device
The rumours coming from Australia recently have been of preparations for an early federal election; Tory MPs have been sent offers to get updated photos with Team Australia Captain Tony Abbott, and the tragicomically misnamed Liberal Party have launched attack ads against the Labor leader, Bill Shorten, whilst insisting that an early election is not on the cards. Of course, it could well be that these are merely contingency plans, and the election is still over a year away.
But whenever it happens, it's probably safe to call the outcome: Abbott will secure a second term, quite probably with an increased majority. He will do so comfortably, even if Lynton Crosby declines to lend his election-winning campaigning genius, instead opting to spend more time swimming, Scrooge McDuck-style, in his massive underground pool full of hard-won pounds sterling. Even if Rupert Murdoch suffers (heaven forfend!) a massive coronary beyond the abilities of the best in American private health care, and his editors, bereft of their helmsman's guiding hand, phone their election coverage in. Even if the Silent Majority Of Suburban Battlers stop being scared shitless of Islamic State jihadis arriving on waves of refugee boats to slaughter them in their beds, aided and abetted by lefty traitors in the ABC, with only Captain Abbott to protect them. Abbott will win, because the ALP, in its current form, has abandoned being an actual opposition, and there is no reason to vote for them other than a vague hope that they may, at some point, be a perceptibly lesser evil. Because the one thing more shit than voting for a bully is voting for the nonentity who hides in his shadow and cheers him on.
Somewhere along the way, the ALP seems to have accepted the Murdochian mantra that it is unfit to govern. As such, its present role in parliament is not so much in opposition to the Tories as in apprenticeship; following the leader, rubberstamping his decisions, putting the boot into the Greens and the remaining small-L liberals, and mastering the art of downward-punching, dog-whistling and general neoliberal authoritarianism, seemingly in the hope of proving itself to be worthy of one day graduating and taking the master's place; by then, “ALP” having changed to standing for “Alternative Liberal Party”. Over the past week, the ALP has voted with the government to implement an extrajudicial internet censorship system (ostensibly for blocking pirate web sites, though once the infrastructure's in place, a sufficiently authoritarian government can find its own uses for it), to criminalise the reporting of child sexual abuse which is endemic in the refugee detention camps (guess what, fellow Australians? There are rape camps run in your name to deter brown/Islamic people from even thinking about coming over), gutted the renewable energy target (and allowed the felling and burning of native forests to count as renewable energy, alongside solar and wind power) and joined in calls for an inquiry into the ABC being insufficiently loyal. Earlier, the ALP had rubberstamped the government's internet surveillance regime and draconian national security censorship laws. And if the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes up for a vote, the government can undoubtedly count on the ALP's loyalty, but we all knew that already. These days, the ALP is most reminiscent of one of those pseudo-opposition parties that exist in places like Singapore and Russia to give the illusion of multiparty democracy; a bunch of clowns who know what their job is, and are aware, in no uncertain terms, that should they ever cross the boundaries of what is expected of them and start posing an actual challenge to the government, they will get smacked down, hard. The tragedy is that they do not actually live in a one-party “managed democracy” where going for the throat would result in them being sent to the gulag; it's pure learned helplessness.
And so, the actual Liberal Party will almost certainly form the next government, and resume ruling with an iron fist and a mandate to reshape Australia in its own image. We have seen a preview of this: policies based on dogmatic neoliberal ideology (austerity economics as a moral imperative, attempts to phase out universal health care, and an opposition, in principle, to public transport, seemingly inherited from from US free-market ideologues intent on ruling out the very possibility of a common good, lest it inexorably lead down Hayek's Road To Serfdom) and a fetishisation of fossil fuels, all book-ended with disturbingly authoritarian rhetoric, not least of which is Abbott's reframing of Australia as “Team Australia”, a body moving in a unified direction under the leadership of its captain, and a contrast with actual liberal ideas of a pluralist society; there is, after all, no room for dissent or difference in a team. Beyond that, we have seen the government aggressively politicise formerly impartial sectors, gutting an independent arts fund and diverting the money to a new government-controlled one, and most recently, calling for sackings in the ABC, and, tellingly, referring to it as a “state broadcaster” (which implies a duty to present an official government line) rather than a “public broadcaster” (a more liberal institution). Abbott's vision for the country is an authoritarian one, and it is likely that in his second term, he will ease further into the role of an Erdoğan-style strongman, and the memory of the old liberal Australia will recede further into the past.
Electorally speaking, this victory will be at the expense of the Labor Party, whose support will crumble as voters start asking themselves what the point of it actually is. In electoral terms, at least the Greens (who are emerging as the actual opposition) will do well, though whether an opposition party under an authoritarian system can be said to have “done well” is an open question. In the longer term, perhaps it will make sense for the ALP and the National Party to trade places. The National Party, a largely rural socially conservative party, has been in coalition with the Liberal Party since time immemorial (and the two parties even merged in Queensland), though is starting to shed rural voters to the Greens in some areas, as the Liberals' monomaniacal support for mining and fracking alienates some in its (hitherto captive) traditional base (a problem the rightward-triangulating ALP has had in inner cities); a post-coalition National Party (or offshoot thereof) could be a right-of-centre ally to the Greens on some issues. Meanwhile, given that the current ALP is intent on brown-nosing its way into the Coalition, perhaps that is its natural place after all?