The Stupid Party

Julia Gillard PerplexedI spent most of yesterday watching the results of the Australian federal election. Some may wonder why such a remote contest would be of interest: my reply is straightforward. The Australians use the Alternative Vote system in electing MPs: their election could be very instructive for countries like Britain which may adopt this method. Furthermore, the election was another opportunity to see the way the wind is blowing through Western democracies.

Neither Australia’s Labor Party nor the Liberal / National Coalition has emerged triumphant: it looks like the result is going to be a mess regardless of who ends up with the largest number of seats. Either Labor or the Liberals will rely upon an awkward squad of 3 to 4 Independent MPs in order to sustain themselves in power. How troublesome these mavericks will be is difficult to say. I saw a campaign ad for the Independent MP for Kennedy, Bob Katter: apart from fixing dangling corks from the brim of his hat, he appeared to be playing at being an Australian stereotype to the hilt. This was not at all comforting. Indeed, the only real bright spot was the triumph of the brilliant Adam Bandt for the Greens in the Division of Melbourne, and the Greens upping their numbers in the Australian Senate from 5 to 9.

Overall, Australia’s electorate seems to have blown a raspberry at their political elites. This follows a series of inconclusive results in a number of important elections: Britain voted in a hung parliament in May, Canada has been operating with minority governments since 2004. America is likely to choose gridlock in its own way: polls indicate that the Republicans are going to win control of one or both of the legislative branches this coming November. Nor is this phenomenon confined to the “Anglo-Saxon” world: Germany’s recent regional election in North Rhine Westphalia was just as inconclusive. We can ascribe this phenomenon to a number of factors: discredited governments earning a good swift kick from the electorate, people wanting change but not sure about the options, disillusionment with the power of politics to change lives. As important as these reasons may be, the word “stupidity” is seldom used. It’s not a word that rolls off an academic’s tongue nor often makes its way to a respectable newspaper column. However, perhaps it is something to be confronted: many political elites, particularly those of the centre-left, are blindly, irretrievably stupid.

Australia’s Labor Party perhaps provides the most pungent example, if only because the stench of its incompetence is the freshest. Let’s review: the Rudd Government was elected with a strong mandate in 2007. Prime Minister Rudd faced up honestly to the economic problems confronting Australia: he confessed early on that the government was going to find it tough going. This contrasted favourably to Gordon Brown who did not want to be so forthcoming. What is more, through Rudd’s stewardship, Australia managed to avoid the worst of the troubles. Furthermore, Rudd managed to re-cast the often-fraught relationship with China, facilitated by his ability to speak Mandarin fluently. Yes, his poll ratings were slipping due to some awful television appearances; however, the Labor leadership’s response was perplexing to say the least. Rather than roll with the punches and run on a record that Britain’s Labour Party would have shed blood to obtain, they decided to dump Rudd in a very uncerimonious manner. His replacement, Julia Gillard, was selected because she was deemed to be popular. Obviously, she wasn’t sufficiently well-liked to override the sense of injustice Australians felt due to Rudd’s removal: indeed, I accuse Australia’s Labor party of being so stupid that they simply didn’t understand the concept of “a fair go” which underpins Australian society. For those who are unfamiliar with this idea: perhaps due to the nation’s troubled origins, it is a commonly-held value that everyone should get a decent chance to prove themselves. Rudd did not get an opportunity to defend his record and that of his government in an election: this sounds unfair even to non-Australians. What Labor did was perceived as a con-trick merely done to stave off disaster, and it destroyed them in places like Queensland, Rudd’s home state.

This should have been obvious. It does not take years of experience to discern this. Yet, as I watched some of Australia Labor’s luminaries struggle to answer questions from journalists, I couldn’t help but think they resembled refugees from some inept marketing department; Senator Penny Wong struck me as being remarkably dreadful in this respect. Other examples of Labor being purely dumb abound: for example, I dug deeper into the altogether wonderful Melbourne result. The contrast between the articulate and lively Adam Bandt and the lacklustre Cath Bowtell couldn’t have been more stark. I am happy about that result, but it’s necessary to be mindful of the overall picture. Labor was running against Tony Abbott, one of the most right wing politicians in the history of Australia, a man who denies climate change and torments the electorate by appearing in Speedos in public. Up until this year, he was something of a joke. Yet, he stands on the verge of becoming Prime Minister. Reflecting upon this, I feel like asking, “Labor, what were you thinking?” and indeed, “Were you thinking?” All in all, from the defenestration of Kevin Rudd, to the selection of Cath Bowtell, to the over-catered victory party at their election night rally, 2010 is a year I am sure most Labor people would rather forget assuming they have the memory capacity to retain it.

However, Australia’s Labor Party is by no means the only stupid party. Britain’s Labour Party seems to be an orchestra in search of a theme: none of the potential conductors has given them a popular tune to play, certainly nothing that sufficiently contrasts the Coalition’s Big Society jazz. In America, Democrats pass behemoth bills, each in excess of 2000 pages, to reform both the finance and health care industries: years will be spent arguing over their meaning, and mostly by lawyers seeking to increase their billable hours. The only argument the Democrats seem to have left is “Don’t vote for the Republicans, they would be worse”, though people tend to vote for the party that promises better. Canada’s Liberal Party does not appear to be faring all that well with Michael Ignatieff in charge; his botched attempt to bring down the Conservative minority government has set them adrift. Overall, the centre-left seems to be dropping IQ points, unable to articulate a coherent programme, formulate wholesome laws, nor is it able to manage a decent campaign. However, help is on the way. The Green parties in Australia, Britain and Canada are on the rise; nevertheless, the rate of progress is slow. In an era of fiscal retrenchment, political idiocy is a luxury that can no longer be afforded: too many will be disadvantaged by the neo-liberal agenda of spending and job cuts. This is the point where bemusement with stupidity should turn to anger and an urgent desire to reform.

Will it happen? The omens are not encouraging; the best option at this point remains building an ever stronger Green movement. Again, Australia has much to teach: like Britain’s Green Party, they matched a candidate to a location and triumphed. There is no doubt that the Australian Green Party has emerged from 2010’s results a strengthened force, definitely the 3rd largest party and certainly one that inspires genuine enthusiasm. It is a long uphill struggle, but the stupid parties can no longer be relied upon to provide even a modicum of protection for progressive interests. As nice as it would be to say otherwise, it may be time to recognise that as they now stand for little, they have little upon which to stand. Time to bid them farewell.

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