Tom Nairn

The swagman he up and he jumped in the water-hole,
Drowning himself by the coolibah tree,
And his ghost may be heard as it sings by the billabong,
Who’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

‘Waltzing Matilda’, A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson (1895)

Three weeks before the American presidential vote, the political right was victorious in the Australian federal elections of 9 October. On 12 October I went to a book launch in Melbourne at which suicidal depression prevailed. The mood matched the text being launched, Boris Frankel’s Zombies, Lilliputians and Sadists, a withering condemnation of socio-political non-progress over the past decade.[1] Australia has come to be run by zombies, who as they gain in confidence turn into four-wheel-drive, roo-bar sadists (‘roo-bars’ are the Australian version of ‘bull-bars’). Footling left-wing Lilliputians have failed to contest this shift, occasionally making things worse.

Just before our gathering, the zombie chieftain John Howard had delivered a refulgent message of thanks on TV, making it plain his new government would turn first to workplace legislation. The aim would be reform in the interest of small business – boosting enterprise by making hiring and firing much simpler. Though long nurtured by the Howard Liberal Party, this policy had not been prominent in the campaign. Now, it looked like an illustration of Frankel’s thesis of the general slide into sadism. The same evening, Shaun of the Dead opened for lively business: a black comedy in which the living dead, vexed by exclusion from globalising affluence, rise up and take over North London.

There has been no let-up in the despondency since then. One hears repeatedly of the ‘Saturday Night Massacre’ (Australians vote on Saturdays), and the Labor Party has obligingly fallen apart into Lilliputian factions. Even worse, the elder statesman of the Labor Party, Gough Whitlam, appeared to counsel patience on his protégé Mark Latham, who recently became the Labor leader. The gaffer prognosticated that a full two sessions of zombiedom might have to elapse before the progressives get another chance. Had not he himself had to wait 23 years before the turnaround of the 1970s? Though not actually employing the phrase ‘There is no alternative,’ he plumply concluded that the faithful have to put up with it: two-partyism remains the best of all possible systems, its miseries made bearable by faith in the inevitable change-over to come. In the meantime, let the zombies enjoy themselves.

I fled from doom the next day down to the Southern Ocean. Near Port MacDonnell there is a strand of weirdly eroded limestone, locally known as ‘the petrified forest’. It has a look-out point, though only whales and fish-poachers can be seen this side of Antarctica, 4500 miles away. The sou-wester that bore the First Fleet past in 1788 strikes it like Thor’s hammer. Most days, ten seconds of deep breathing here is guaranteed to clear brain cells of all content, including ‘in the meantime’ depression.

Back in the Café Malibu with a latte, the staff of Antipodean life, it was easier to reflect on how limited the massacre had actually been. Final figures are not yet in (the process takes three weeks) but the overall picture was already clear on the Sunday morning. The winning Liberal Party had 40.49 per cent of votes – less than a bare majority even if one adds the 5.9 per cent of its coalition partner, the National Party (a hinterland or country party with no UK equivalent). The swing from one main contestant to the other was only 2.08 per cent. The Australian Labor Party stood at 37.63 per cent, or 350,000 votes behind in an electorate of 13,000,000. But during the election campaign the ALP had been semi-allied to the rising Green Party, which won 7.14 per cent of the vote. It can thus be estimated that an informal leftist alliance received just under 45 per cent of first preference votes. This was more than Howard’s party, though a little less than the Liberals-plus-Nationals, who got close to 46 per cent. To that figure, however, one must add a bizarre newcomer: Family First, a Christian-values outfit that achieved more than 2 per cent. As well as bringing the zombies closer to an actual majority, Family First did surprisingly well in the elections for the Australian second chamber, the Senate (part of the Senate is renewed at each general election, as well as the entire House of Representatives). It is certain that responsible conservatism will next year control the Senate as well as the House of Representatives.

Australian politics has some unique features. But others remain direly familiar: the system essentially converts a minority of the vote into a safe majority of seats. Voters place a list of candidates-plus-parties in order of preference. The overall percentages mentioned above are for ‘first preferences’, or top-of-the-list votes – approximately, the parties Australians actually voted for. What they get is something different.

Second, third and lower choices are fallen back on in descending order, supposedly to make the member for every constituency (or division) as representative as possible. This is justified as being fair, in the sense of making every vote count. So it does, but by benefiting the leading recipients of votes via a redistribution of votes for smaller parties. A ‘two party preferred result’ then emerges, which is somewhat different from the simple original preferences. In this case, it gave the Liberal-National coalition 52.71 per cent and Labor 47.29 per cent: still not a vast gap. But the coup de grâce is still to come. The Divisional seats allotted on this basis are, as I write, 85 to the coalition and a mere 57 to Labor: reasonably describable in electionese as ‘overwhelming’.

Overwhelmingness was underwritten at this election by Liberal-National success in the more proportional Senate. With its blocking powers, the second chamber has in the past often limited the actions of the House of Representatives – but will not do so between 2004 and 2007. Take the Greens: in spite of their healthy first-preference vote, the widespread popularity of their Tasmanian leader, Bob Brown, and their prominence in the electoral campaign, they are absent from the House of Representatives. So are the Democrats (equivalent to the Lib Dems). As commentators have emphasised, the results bestow absolute power on the prime minister – a straightforward illustration of the system’s Westminster origins and purpose.

Each Australian election begins with will-of-the-people rhetoric about how all are able to speak and be heard. They can hardly avoid being heard, since voting is compulsory. But the process tends to conclude with a strangled cry for help as, with prearranged duplicity, the decaying cadaver shambles back up cemetery road to claim its own. Old Westminster’s back: Whitlamesque stability and continuity (and, of course, the crown) are what count – democracy is maintained, but in a manner distinctively circumscribed by the past.

Port MacDonnell is a workaday place, downgraded early in life by posher harbours and resorts further up the Limestone Coast. It is a lobster-fishing community studded with fish-processing plants and yards, ranging from the plain to the obscene. They all depend on a nearby tourism-discourager, the shute, down which vast amounts of crustacean debris is returned daily to the ocean. It reminds me of fishing villages I knew in another hemisphere, as a child. The 19th-century poet Adam Lindsay Gordon lived in a cottage about a mile away. Responsible for ‘the first stirrings of a national school of Australian poetry’, he was especially popular for rousing ballads of the racecourse. Acute melancholia later drove him to take his own life. The shore road is lined with new or restored houses, weekend or holiday places only a few yards from the rollers. Such places (multiplied by the hundred thousand) played an important role in Howard’s election victory.

Several times a day for six weeks he told people their mortgages would only be safe with the Liberals. Labor’s track record of crazed public spending would bring inflation and higher interest rates, meaning ruination for suburbia and the beachside retreat. Neither Labor policy nor any sane economic journalism supported such doom-drenched predictions. But this was of no importance either. Over the past few years a significant section of Australia’s population has benefited modestly from the country’s part in economic expansion, and has used its gains primarily to buy property. Australian mortgages are also often used to finance other important status purchases, like cars. Now Howard was telling them the whole package was imperilled by the Labor Party. In these conditions, daily metronomic repetition of slogans – ‘Low mortgage rates!’, ‘Labor’ll raise ‘em!’ – was sufficient to ensure the small swing required under such a system. There are UK equivalents: ‘You’ve never had it so good!’ and ‘Don’t let Labour spoil it!’

It was a standard-issue scare-story. The conditions of neoliberal prosperity have somehow engendered precarious fearfulness as a normal accompaniment. The Twin-Tower atrocity should not be credited with sole responsibility for this. Naturally, there are equally large (or larger) sections of Australian society which have become worse off since the 1990s: underclassed, marginalised and resentful. But Labor had no slogans to rally such resentment, no version of ‘Get the scoundrels out!’ Even though, ironically, the scoundrel character of the Liberal regime had been several times underlined in the pre-election period, as reports and confessions showed that it had lied to voters over both immigration questions (going back to the infamous Tampa story of 2001) and the reasons for joining America’s Middle East wars.

Labor preferred, decently yet fatally, to concentrate on policy issues: it met a populist onslaught with proposals for strengthening Medicare, improving education and looking after old people better. The scoundrels of course interpreted decency as weakness, a propensity to spend which could mean high interest rates, or not being able to afford next year’s Toyota four-wheel drive, or even a fall in property values. They also consistently identified it with ‘latte-sipping’ or white wine intellos, like the stuck-up East Coast elites familiar in US conservative rhetoric.

Right after the vote, Alistair Mant wrote in the Age that ‘Australia is steadily becoming more polarised and more American . . . John Howard’s message throughout the campaign has been, this is not really a country, it is an $800 billion corporation and the CEO and board of directors are doing a first-rate job.’ One may doubt whether Australia is really becoming like the US, any more than Britain is. The point of such chameleon tendencies is that the satrapy adopts selected features of the admired dominatrix, the better to conform, or to seem to conform. But inevitably it does so in its own way, with a measure of exaggeration, or even caricature, and somehow gets it all wrong. The Australian election was a good example of this.

Australians detest politics, and politicians. Were they not compelled to vote, I suspect they would easily lead the globe in electoral abstention. In an incisive introduction to the US election, Todd Gitlin remarked on the openDemocracy website in January that ‘the roughly two-year-long campaign is evidence of a perverse American disdain for political life and government. What a peculiar thing! This grandiose nation-state with planetary (indeed, interplanetary) reach and colossal global consequence is governed by a government held in contempt by most of its citizens.’ As a result, he argued, elections tend to be dominated by pretend-outsiders, candidates posing as either above or outside ‘political government’ in the despised sense, and deploying populist or ultra-nationalist rhetoric to prove it.

America may not actually lead the West in anti-political animus. After all, it boasts the ‘greatest constitution on earth’, literally revered founding scrolls, and so on. Australian voters are restrained by no such counterweights. They have to make do with a relatively low-profile origin in the Federation of 1901, following on a penal settlement and a collection of colonies. In the referendum held in 1999 they rejected republican status (which in truth most of them wanted) because it would have bestowed more authority on their politicians. They would settle for nothing less than a republic where an anti-politician president could be directly elected – in contradiction, plainly, to the cautious spirit of the federal constitution. There was nothing dishonourable about this episode: people were just saying they couldn’t stand the meaning imposed on the proposed new start, and desired something better.

But there is undeniably a disturbingly deep implication to this odd dilemma: the constitutional problem of Australian statehood remains unanswered. I think most Australians know it in their guts. Such a turning can be made only by a comprehensive constitutional effort – a self-reform in which, incidentally, the UK crown and royal family now has a minor role. It has to extend from reform of the parliamentary system to a reconciliation with the Aboriginal population. That was the point of Germaine Greer’s recent admirable polemic Whitefella Jump Up,[2] which it was misguided of Martin Jacques to dismiss as naive and utopian in a recent Guardian review.

It is true that the existing system won’t choose that route. Helen Irving has published a survey of Australian constitutional practice, Five Things to Know about the Australian Constitution, in which the subject’s full grotesquerie is laid out on the dissecting table.[3] The five keys to the puzzle are that it almost never means what it says, rarely says what it means, says a lot without actually saying it (i.e. implied conventions), fails to say important things and constantly contradicts itself. But, she insists, it does belong to the people, and is not final. ‘If we want a new constitution we can achieve it by means of referendum. We can alter parts, or we can alter the whole thing.’

Until then, it must be acknowledged that utterly second-rate answers were foisted on the ex-colonials of 1901, whose elections more than a century later can’t help being reruns of this clapped-out British template, with fashionable twists to suit the moment, like ‘Americanisation’. It may be objected that the Australian political system is better, and fairer, than the UK model, even as amended by Blairism. I agree. And it’s clearly better than the US’s. But that doesn’t amount to justification, let alone praise. That it counts as the least preposterous of the 18th and 19th-century Old West’s apologies for modern democracy is a poor argument for clinging to it.

The International Herald Tribune noted on 10 October that ‘Bush considers Howard a good friend, and Howard’s youngest son, Richard, returned to be with his father on election night from the United States, where he has been working on Bush’s re-election campaign.’ Bush’s 2000 coup d’état has often enough been depicted as an episode in family perpetuation, masquerading as democracy. Here we glimpse something even wider: a dawning extended-family cosmocracy, where not only states but dynasties join hands to nurture one another’s pseudo-elections and campaigns of mendacious, fear-driven populism. Some creativity remains in the neoliberal stable: not only has it set the world on fire, it still finds new ways of stoking up the flames.

Had Labor won, the effects would have been global, and quite profound. One of the leading triumvirate in Iraqi occupation would have disavowed the whole adventure. Australian identity has since 1901 leaned quite heavily on external military involvement, not simply for defence but to effect a demonstration of ‘who we are’, and where Australia stands in the broader intercourse of civilisation and its alternatives. Identity in this sense isn’t an indulgence, but an indispensable feature of collectivity – the external boundary as a condition of agency and a support for individuality. Identification by dissent and withdrawal would have registered a different note, and opened new possibilities, not only across South-East Asia, but in Europe, South Africa, Canada and Latin America. On the other hand, the creeping self-colonisation implied by Howard’s links to the US, as well as his more traditional ones with Blair’s UK, now amounts to something worse than business as usual. It’s a mixture of enhanced short-range greed and aggravated long-range fearfulness – both dependent on ever more habitual subordination.

Although Australia’s federal system is a variant of Westminster, it would be wrong to see events here as echoes or repeats of UK politics. Anyone can recall analogous miseries and doldrums in the history of the British Labour Party, such as its defeats in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it is very doubtful whether the Australian misery of 2004 will be redeemed by an equivalent of Blair’s victory in 1997. Australian Labor helped inspire the British Labour Party’s reforms of the 1990s. In both Australia and New Zealand, the political left took the initiative in strategies of adaptation to what has become the neoliberal era of globalisation. Between 1991 and 1996, it was the Australian Labor Party governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating that prepared the ground for today’s seemingly unshakeable Liberal hegemony. Both the relationship of the left to neoliberal capitalism, and the trajectory of ‘Third Way’ politics, are wildly different in the Antipodes.

This is another part of the explanation for today’s excessive dejection. The Labor left has been rewarded for its earlier Herculean shifts with a regime of Frankel’s unforgiving ‘sadism’ – a right not only parasitic, but smugly and rather vindictively righteous with it. In the 2004 election it piled all this on – in effect, heaping up all its eggs in the single basket of property rights and values. A conjuncture set up by Howard’s opponents, and dependent on global forces over which Canberra has next to no influence, is honour-bound to keep his political family in power. Such is the sense of ‘absolute power’ bestowed on 9 October.

It is a drunken delusion. And here there is surely some value in recalling comparable moments in the story of the UK right. The post-Thatcher Conservative governments of the 1990s made very similar claims after winning a disconcertingly big victory in 1992. They were almost at once overtaken by Black Wednesday, forced devaluation, high interest rates, and big falls in property values – falls particularly disastrous for the newly prosperous home-buyers they had made such a pitch for in 1992. In the wake of that experience, the giddy mass euphoria of 1992-93 switched inexorably into its opposite. Among disappointed (and, often enough, bankrupted) property investors and entrepreneurs, there developed a wave of profound revulsion and even hatred that permanently altered UK political life. Once marked by rather uncritical good faith and confidence, British popular attitudes plunged very quickly towards an almost Australian detestation of politics and politicians.

In 1997, John Major’s Conservative and Unionist Party wasn’t defeated: it was annihilated. The electoral system exaggerated Blair’s victory; but there was indeed a sea-change. Much more important than Labour’s triumph was the extinction of the principal ruling party of the previous century. And with that, inevitably, the irreparable failure of a two-party system that had for so long provided stable continuity of state. Seven years on, there is no real sign of Conservative recovery – but many symptoms of alternatives in preparation, as well as once unthinkable constitutional changes such as devolution, under a New Labour hegemony that seems to have absorbed historic conservatism, rather than merely defeated it. In other words, those who live uncritically by the will of capitalism’s Great Sorcerer are likely to perish at his hands, whichever hemisphere they are in.

Remember what happened to Banjo Paterson’s swagman:

Up came the Squatter a-riding on his thoroughbred,
Up came the Policemen – one, two and three,
‘Whose is that jumbuck you’ve got in the tucker-bag?
You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda with me.’

The tramp drowns himself in the billabong to get away from them. But his shade remains, to haunt them and their nation, accusingly, for ever. In today’s version, the detested jumbuck (sheep)-owning Squatter (fat cat, entrepreneur) has arrived again on his thoroughbred (four-wheel drive) along with the policemen to take the swagman (state-dependent failure, unemployable) away, not quite to waltz with Matilda – which in 1895 meant to dance at the end of a rope – but to be a prisoner of Frankel’s sadistic regime with not much chance of parole (possibly held behind razor-wire, should he turn out to be an illegal migrant).

This haunting bit of the old Queensland ballad remains as valid as its wonderful tune and words. In a country blessed with an anthem/soul-rap like this, the swagman still has a very good chance of getting his own back with a vengeance – and, it may well be, before too long.

2 November 2004

[1] Curtin, 336 pp., $29.95, September, 1 920 73122 9.

[2] Profile, 192 pp., £7.99, June, 1 861 97739 5.

[3] Cambridge, 168 pp., £15.99, December, 0 521 60370 6.