Australian Election: Soap Opera Politics of Oz
By Germaine Greer
Australia's most outspoken expat Germaine Greer casts
her withering gaze on soap opera politics Down Under

Julia Gillard is a childless 48-year-old unmarried atheist redhead who lives in sin with her hairdresser. She is also the first woman to become prime minister of Australia. Just in case you thought that might mean a new era had dawned, be assured that it is probably just about over. Not that Gillard had radical intentions, or radical policies, or any policies. Her slogan was “moving forward” — to nowhere in particular. The election, which took place this weekend [2010-08-22], was hers to lose and she has all but lost it.

The opposition had fallen in a heap after the Liberal Party “spilt” its ablest and most charismatic politician, Malcolm Turnbull, for insisting that the party recognise climate change. Into the breach to lead the Liberal-National coalition stepped the Mad Monk, Tony Abbott, ears akimbo, wide mouth agape, who refuses to believe that anything needs to be done about climate change. He set about building an image as one of the boys, a strategy that misfired when photographed during a triathlon wearing bathing trunks that Australians call “budgie-smugglers’. (His budgie was actually more like a “wren”, as unkind observers pointed out.)

We have yet to see Gillard in a thong. The election wasn’t fought on policies or issues or ideologies, but on sound-bites and gossip — and sex. Not the kind you do, but the kind you are. If there was something new about it, it was that women voted for a woman just because she was a woman. The tabloids did their best to represent Gillard as a treacherous Jezebel, who stabbed her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, otherwise known as the Milky Bar Kid, in the back. Mr Rudd was, of course, not stabbed, but dumped in June by the Labour Party which is run, not by Mr Rudd or Ms Gillard, but by a junta of faceless male powerbrokers who prefer to remain anonymous.

Mr Rudd had been getting on everybody’s nerves, not just because he was a control freak who threw tantrums if he didn’t get what he wanted the instant he wanted it, but also because one minute he was jumping all over people telling them that global warming was “the greatest moral challenge of our time” and the next minute, when his proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme began to look like an electoral liability, blithely postponed its introduction to 2013.

Rudd had also made a serious tactical error. He’d gone off on a junket and left his deputy, Gillard, running the country. Gillard is as likeable as Rudd is charmless. She is self-deprecating; he is ludicrously vainglorious. She is a mistress of understatement; he is a ranter. Ms Gillard was then fresh from a debacle known as Building the Education Revolution, for which she was largely responsible, but she was so sensible about everything, so smiley and unhurried, that Australians blinking at her on breakfast TV decided they could do with more of her. So did the Labour junta. The opinion polls were showing that the nation had had a bellyful of Rudd, and so the party dumped him and crowned Gillard. The junta then decided that their girl would go to the people for a mandate before the novelty of having a female at the helm had worn off. This turned out to be a mistake.

Anyone who thought Australia had a woman PM because of some fundamental change in the nation’s psyche was immediately reassured. Gillard was pilloried for her “deliberate” childlessness, her clothes, her morals, her looks, her undeniably unimpressive boyfriend, and her betrayal of Rudd. In any grown-up country her opponent, Tony Abbott, would have been unelectable. He looks and sounds like a clown. There is not an issue that Abbott will fail to reduce to a fatuous mantra. “Stop the waste. Stop the boats,” he would intone.

Everyone wants to stop waste. Stopping the the leaky bottoms in which desperate people are struggling across the Indian Ocean towards Australia, is a different matter, and Abbott has no more idea of how to do it, short of scuttling them, than anyone else. No politician has the cojones to tell the voters that boat people are not a problem. They are all convinced that the Australian people rejoice to see boat people persecuted and tormented. Abbott supplied the requisite savagery at intervals between displaying his athletic prowess and trotting out his wife and daughters in presidential fashion. Gillard responded by wheeling on the boyfriend who could never manage to look anything but gormless, particularly when she was holding his hand.

What Abbott turned out to be surprisingly good at was nasty one-liners. The worst was his response to a suggestion that Gillard had changed her mind and was ready to take part in a second TV debate, this time on the economy, Abbott’s weak point. Abbott refused, asking, “Are you suggesting that when it comes from Julia 'no' doesn’t mean 'no'?” The recoil was immediate. Abbott played dumb. And yet, it may be that Abbott’s repartee is what hung the result. Women had already decided that they didn’t like Abbott; what Abbott’s brutal insensitivity just might have done is consolidate the Ocker vote.

To hold a clear majority a political party must hold 76 seats. The coalition won 70, Labour 72, and at last count four were undecided. Of the others one (Melbourne) had been won by a Green (Adam Bandt) and there were three Independents, all of them erstwhile members of the National Party, previously known as the Country Party. The Green will probably support Labour; the three Independents are — well — independent.

The media have dubbed them the “Haystack amigos” after the 1986 comedy film Three Amigos, with Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Martin Short. “Haystack” is a citified way of reminding us that all three come from rural constituencies and are therefore “bushies” or hillbillies. One of them, Bob Katter, who wears a hat nearly as big as the sombreros of the three amigos and calls himself “Your Force from the North”, hates the leader of the National Party, Warren Truss, more than poison, and this may keep him from joining the coalition, though he has much in common with his fellow Catholic, Tony Abbott, including opposition to same sex marriage.

If anyone deserves to be in a commanding position it is Katter. He will be negotiating for his constituents in the huge rural seat of Kennedy, which he has won time after time, this time with 75 per cent of the votes. For years he has fought a losing battle to represent the farmers who were sold out by the Nationals, hence his implacable loathing of their leader. Now he has the power to drive a hard bargain, to demand the protective tariffs his farmers need and prohibition of the import of cheap bananas, mangoes, tomatoes and citrus. Katter has grown up with Aboriginal people, describes himself as “not quite white”, and has been regarded with amused condescension by political careerists.

However the stalemate is resolved, Australia will still be a global polluter, exporting coal as fast as anyone can be got to buy it, vying with Canada to dig up the most uranium, and failing to make even a minimal effort to control the largest per capita energy consumption in the world. Gillard may yet get to keep her executive jet, but the power-brokers will never let her pursue any policy that would cost votes.

Australia’s future looks grim enough with Gillard but with Abbott it would look terrifying.

This article first appeared on 24 August 2010 in the online edition of the UK Telegraph.

© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2010

From Middle East Reality Check:

Ross Gittins, the Sydney Morning Herald's economics editor on
Julia (Desperately Seeking Government) Gillard:

"Voters work on instincts and impressions, not rational analysis. They can smell a politician who puts self-preservation ahead of the national interest. They can smell it even when they're not sure they fancy the measures needed to advance the national interest. And they're never impressed. But Labor's loss of principles extends beyond its loss of core belief in the need for reform. It also involves standards of acceptable behaviour in public life. It's now clear many voters were repelled by Labor's ruthless treatment of Rudd, and by Gillard's part in it despite all her protestations of loyalty. No policy reform principles and no personal principles turned out to be a deadly combination. Gillard stands revealed as little more than a careerist. Such people never endear themselves to the electorate." (Voters censure Labor's lack of principles, 23/8/10)

"No matter who wins, the people lose."

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