Australia is mired in a most dreary election. It’s not Trump v. Hillary bad. We’ve only got to sit through this for five more weeks, for starters. But it’s hardly the battle for hearts, minds and souls that we deserve.
On the surface, it has a lot to do with the players. Malcolm Turnbull, the last great hope of many Australian progressives, has been successfully tamed by his backbenchers. Bill Shorten was never really liked and is largely running on a platform of not being Turnbull.
The parties themselves aren’t much better. They’ve long given up attempting to rouse their partisans with positive rhetoric or ideas. All pretence of vision and grand design is absent. Issue after issue becomes a principle-less race to the bottom, reflecting our worst, base instincts, rather than seeking to guide or tame them. And let’s not even start on the wholesale lack of ideology in our political system. The major parties are now so similar, the only real difference between them is they are, in fact, two distinct legal entities.
As with America and elsewhere, into this void comes the populists. In our case it’s former Australian Idol host James Mathison. Mathison is running in the seat of Warringah, seeking to unseat former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. Abbott has held the seat for over two decades, holding it by a large margin. But as with most safe seats in this country, he may have taken his electorate for granted.
“I don’t have any political experience, but you know, if political experience means that you deceive the public and means that you break promises and means that you never say what you mean, then maybe we need someone who doesn’t have ‘political experience’,” Mathison said.
On the whole, I am not much impressed with arguments against political experience. “Regular people” may be less corrupt than career politicians, at least initially, but there are big tradeoffs. Outsiders don’t have the benefits of institutional knowledge, connections, campaign and political machinery. Without long-term incentives of a career in politics, there is little impetus to compromise and the achievable. As we’ve seen recently in America with the rise of the tea party, a bunch of ideological rogues with an inflated sense of mission can cause a tremendous amount of harm.
Further, power and position corrupt. Just think of the Senate Cross benchers’ dummy spit over the recent voting reforms. After being voted in on minuscule first-preference votes, they somehow come away with an incredible sense of ownership over their positions. As if they had the Mandate of Heaven.
Despite all of this, I am going to be watching Mathison’s race intently. He probably won’t win, but he has sufficient fame to achieve Trumpian levels of free media. And he appears to have some genuine grievances to raise — the broken promises alluded to in the above quote. Apparently, Abbott’s electoral history is littered with the dashed hopes of the
poor burgers of Warringah. If Mathison gains even a little traction, there may be some hope that voters care about local issues, that our representatives are more than very expensive proxy votes for a party leader.
Mathison, like the few independents that have been successfully elected, may also be able to shift the discourse. I don’t mean onto certain issues — Mathison has already promised to run on issues important to younger generations. I’m looking to see if he can shift the discussion away from the focus group-zapped platitudes and slogans of the major parties, and on to the powerful messaging of the likes of Xenophon, Palmer and even Trump. If there’s anything politicians the world-over should learn from Trump, is that we all see through them. And it’s frustrating as hell.
Lastly, Abbott’s reaction will be interesting. Safe seats are some of the biggest pox on our democracy — a prime cause of our unrepresentative elections, as politicians focus most of their time, resources and promises on the small section of society who haven’t given away all their power. Someone with a profile as big as Mathison will be bound to sap some of the vote, from both parties. They will need to react. As I said, Mathison won’t win. But he is shaping up to be an interesting experiment.