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Hope against hope
Thoughts about the Aus election, for readers here and abroad
When the Sanders campaign tumbled out of contention for the US presidential primary a little over two years ago, I decided to drastically reshape my attitude to politics. For a lot of us, that campaign symbolised a last gasp effort to pull the world back from the brink. Even for non-Americans the stakes felt high, because what happens in American determines what happens to the rest of the world. That’s trivially true when it comes to climate policy and foreign policy, but the internal state of the country matters too: America’s dysfunctional oligopoly makes it unable to be the actor the world needs it to be. An anti-establishment social-democratic movement that would radically reshape American political life seemed like the only thing that might work.
It didn’t. When the establishment candidates coordinated together to endorse Joe Biden, the Sanders campaign suddenly found it had insufficient popular support, and lost. The most powerful social democratic movement in the Anglo world was stopped, seemingly overnight, by the incumbent powers it was trying to displace, and a similar effort in the UK had failed not long before. In Australia, too, Bill Shorten’s Labor Party, though hardly left wing, had lost to the increasingly right wing Scott Morrison after running a “big target” campaign. The entire electoral thesis of the left in those years – that we could win with bold, unembarrassed policies that appealed to the basic needs of everyday people – failed. We were wrong.
Like many former Bernie supporters, I went to work on behalf of the broader progressive movement against the Trumpian right. Anything to slow the slide into neofascism. But my relationship to politics was no longer an act of hope – it was one of damage control. So long as America’s sclerotic institutions and anti-democratic interest groups remained in place, the world could not hope for equitable policy.
The worst of the damage was prevented with Biden’s win that November, but then, despite an admirable policy agenda from the new president, nothing happened. America managed to elect its most progressive president in decades, and he has been unable to get even his own party to support the vast majority of his legislation. When it comes to climate change, in particular, we remain fucked. The Democrats will be devastated in the midterms, and the presidency looks tenuous for 2024.
So I found myself, as Australia headed to the polls two weeks ago, no longer believing that good things were possible. I figured that the world was going to continue its descent into minoritarian rule, widening class inequality, climate catastrophe, and eventual international disorder. But for people interested in reform, losing hope is heretical. Hope is, after all, the religion of the left. It breeds beautiful mantras, including better worlds are possible, and, for the sober-minded, pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. Years ago, I’d made these lines my personal motto. Then, after losing so badly, I’d looked to forget them.
Weirdly, my rational mind told me this election would go pretty well. The polls were looking good for Labor and I fully believed that Albanese would win: I even bet my friends that Labor would win 76 of 151 seats. But the truth was that I simply didn’t have it in me to get my hopes up. I’d been so beaten down by the last few years that I’d inverted Gramsci: I had optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will.
Well, Labor got their 76, and may even get 77. What I did not predict is that the incumbent conservative government would be decimated. For those of you reading from overseas, the Liberal-National Party went into this election holding 75 seats, and have come out with 57, maybe 58. In local terms this is a profound defeat, a genuine thumping. The Labor Party, for comparison, held 67 before the election.
The reality is that the political landscape of Australia has been utterly reshaped. Over the last 20 years, the LNP has dragged Australian politics to the right. Its all-powerful right wing, with views utterly out of line with the median Australian, has exercised minoritarian dominance over the country. When the party’s moderate arm attempted some form of resistance in the form of Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership, they found their right wing colleagues white-anting their agenda. Eventually the moderates were fully beaten into submission, such that the final function of the Australian LNP moderate in the 21st century has been to prop up increasingly reactionary governments. Their role has been lackey to the schoolyard bully: they knew what he did was wrong, but pinned the arms of his victims, anyway.
Not anymore. Australia’s richest suburbs, which once provided ample shelter for these moderates, finally had enough and revolted against the LNP. That revolt has broken open the two party dominance of Labor and the LNP. In this parliament, the crossbench – where members unaffiliated with the two major parties sit – will feature four Greens and ten independents. That’s 10 more than last time, and the majority of their scalps came from LNP moderates. No one, no one, anticipated the scale and direction of this swing.
Is this a problem? In a desperate attempt to avoid exactly this result, the LNP finished the campaign with a warning that a decimation of its moderate wing would leave it more radical than ever. It was blackmail of the most perverse nature. But the ideology of bothsideism is so profound in this country that others have taken up the view. Without moderates to bolster its numbers, this argument goes, the LNP is now reduced to a hard right minor party unable to mount proper opposition.
Good. The LNP may now be more densely right-wing than ever, but the parliament is not. The candidates that have replaced the LNP’s moderates are under no obligation to prop up the LNP right, and are fully empowered to constructively design – or oppose! – progressive reform with the Labor party. The newfound power of the Greens suddenly begins to reflect the progressive energy of Australia’s youth, and allows us, for the first time in over a decade, to get serious about the climate.
None of this is enough to lead me back to hope. Albanese’s government is not left wing; not identifiably social-democratic, let along democratic-socialist. Much, much more is needed if we are to ward off the worst of an impending climate crisis and democratise our economy. And yet, this outcome is better than any I had allowed myself to imagine. Most importantly, the outcome was a surprise, and a world of surprises is a world of possibility.