As I wrote last year, the Australian political economy has splintered into discrete “identity” groups that replicate the machinery of the old nation state:
In Australia the phenomenon of identity politics has gone much further. The fragmentation of national consciousness into vertical market identities has formed its own self-sustaining political economy structure. The Guardian is the media arm of the “champagne left” identity. It is fully integrated with sympathetic policy engines in think tanks like the Grattan Institute. It has its own political party in The Greens. This is a niche recreation of the nation state, a mini ‘identity state’ if you will, inside which circular logic and ideology swirl uninterrupted by criticism or dialectic.The “champagne left” identity state is not about the truth of an independent centre. It is about the promulgation of a narrow set of values within a chosen worldview: global warming, favouring immigration, championing social justice and Trump-bashing as reality.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not picking on The Guardian. The point is much, much larger. The same ‘identity states’ have now spread across the entire political economy. There is a business ‘identity state’ now. It has its own sympathetic think tanks, its own political party in the Coalition and its own media echo chamber in the The Australian as well as, increasingly, the AFR. There is a real estate ‘identity state’ which has multiple think tanks, a political party in the Coalition, and a media echo chamber in Domainfax.
None of this has anything to do with traditional Left versus Right politics and, therefore, even the notion of the independent center is nonsensical. “Australia” itself does not exist in this emerging construct. Replaced by a cluster of ‘identity states’ which battle to impose their own perverse world view on everybody else. The ultimate irony is that it means the various vertical markets often end up in furious agreement while wasting 99% of their energy on pretending that they disagree.
We’ve seen this phenomenon on display for the Coalition in the past few days. Since the beginning of the year, L-plate Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, has been struggling to gain traction with a narrative of a “high taxing” Labor. We also had Labor launch what looks like reasonable welfare reforms yesterday when Tony Abbott pounced:
People on unemployment benefits are supposed to be looking for work. Applying for one job a day is hardly unreasonable. These proposed changes show Labor is now the welfare class party not the working class one.
— Tony Abbott (@TonyAbbottMHR) January 8, 2019
Both sets of motherhood statements are reflective of the old school John Howard “aspirational” Coalition. They ought to be attractive to classic liberals.
The problem is the other identity silos in the media and broader discussion barely even covered them. These exist outside such principle now with their own dedicated voices, as well as levers of power. They can ignore such culture war drivel, especially so when the substance of others fights like climate change are completely beyond the government. The Coalition and its alumni at The Australian are basically just talking to themselves.
Kevin Rudd kind of touched upon this in a Domain piece this week but not in the way he thinks:
In the US, Murdoch’s Fox News has been the great enabler of Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the modern Republican Party. This has been a long project in the making. But because Fox has been the self-reinforcing echo-chamber of the American far right for 30 years, it has become the principal medium through which each generation of conservatives have outflanked each other by going further and further to the right.
…Then there’s Murdoch’s political handiwork in Britain. First he campaigned in support of Scottish separation from the rest of Britain, coming close to destroying the United Kingdom that had prevailed as a strong, unified state for over 300 years. But then he deployed his formidable media arsenal in full-throttled support of Britain leaving Europe during the 2016 referendum before finally hitting the Jackpot with Nigel Farage’s UKIP, the ever-opportunistic Boris Johnson and Brexit.
As for Australia, where Murdoch owns 70% of the country’s print media, unsurprisingly we read very little of the impact of Citizen Murdoch’s singular contribution to the political disembowelling of the American and British democracies. That’s because his Australian mastheads, by and large run by a sycophantic “broederbund” of editors always seeking to out-compete one another for their master’s affections, will rarely cover any news story, foreign or domestic, that might give offence to Rupert Central.
To my mind, this argument is much more dangerous for the Coalition than it is Labor because it is so dated. Murdoch led the fragmentation charge but he is now being eaten by it as identity states multiply. The assumption that the Murdoch values of yesteryear, daily repeated in facsimile media coverage, is the secret to gaining and managing power is now the problem not solution. The values expressed are too narrow, too tin-eared, too discredited and cynical. No doubt that is one reason why he sold the empire.
I’m not sure what the answer is for the Coalition. But it sure isn’t more of the same repetitious whining about yesteryear’s ideological battles. Messages and policy today must reach out to specific interest groups – their hopes, dreams and grievances – each positioned within a larger narrative of a looser notion of “Australia” than that which the Coalition has inherited.
Labor has nicely tackled this new zeitgeist with its “fairness” dictum. That is in step with all disparate identity states, equally aggrieved, as well as gesturing vaguely at a diminished Australiana. It will have its own problems in power, given fairness will be very hard to come by as wages fall, but its working very nicely in opposition.
Scummo tried something similar with his ludicrous “good bloke” roadshow. But that had no ballast. “Aspirational” might well be one way reconnect with a disaffected polity in the long run but not if it means serving the interests of a coterie of wealthy folks and corporations. Labor has a whole raft of reforms that target different and much broader identity states, and each delivers real change that can be argued as nation building as well.
When it loses later this year, the Coalition is going to have to look well beyond its current animus to find a way back into a political economy environment that has escaped the Murdoch echo chamber and today sees it as little more than troglodyte curiosity.