Politics is a complex beast. The vast majority of Australians don’t want to even think about how complex it is, let alone read articles about this complexity. Which I assume is why the vast majority of political journalists and commentators in this country make it their mission to tame this complex beast into black and white, easily accessible and ultimately lazy generalisations.
An example of this sort of lazy writing aimed at perpetuating the simplistic idea that ‘major parties are just the same, rotten to the core, as bad as each other and can’t be trusted’ was predictably contributed yesterday by Waleed Aly. Aly uses this theme as the frame from which he makes most observations about politics. Before you say ‘I can already see where this is going. Victoria is hell bent on defending the Labor Party so of course she is going to be annoyed by Aly’s article saying Labor and Liberal are both corrupt’, please read on, because I hope I’m not as predictable as Aly is.
I was mortified by the Labor Party’s decision to put Joe Bollock at the top of their WA Senate ticket. Bollock is a dinosaur who doesn’t belong in the Labor Party. I don’t care what apparently amazing work this dinosaur has done in the union movement. His views on abortion, his homophobia, his treatment of his Labor Party colleagues and his fondness for his Catholic buddy Tony Abbott should disqualify him from being president of a local branch of the Labor Party, let alone the number one candidate on a Labor Senate ticket (the easiest way to become a highly paid politician with a very generous pension).
I am sick of seeing unqualified union parachuted Labor candidates selected by a few Labor executive members with no consultation from the community. But (and you will find complex politics requires a lot of ‘buts’) that is not to say that all union candidates are bad (as that would be a simplistic analysis) and it’s also not to say that all Labor politicians are ex-union officials because clearly these politicians are in the minority in the party. In saying that, there is no reason why the union movement can’t provide an array of highly qualified and fantastic Labor candidates as it has previously (think Greg Combet, Bill Shorten (improvement needed) and of course Bob Hawke). Union leaders work every day to better the working, safety and wage conditions of the workers they represent. For this reason, I would prefer a politician with a union background any day of the week over a lawyer (even a union lawyer like Julia Gillard), a self-interested business owner or, as is the case for Liberals like Tony Abbott and John Howard, someone who tried other careers and was no good at any of them.
So as you can see, the issue of union involvement in the Labor Party is a complex one. Community preselections should improve the quality of the candidate, as those who have been put forward by the union or by the community would be subject to scrutiny before they are chosen to represent the party. I don’t count Craig Thomson and Joe Bullock as ex-union officials who I admire, and nor do I count Kathy Jackson, ex-union official and wife of Tony Abbott’s mate Michael Lawler as a reputable human being. So just like in the private sector and the public sector, and in any large community or social group, unions have good people in them, corrupt people, hardworking and passionately committed people, people with a sense of entitlement, and mixtures of all these traits. Like any large cross section of the community, the union movement can’t be generalised. Neither can union candidates to the Labor Party, and neither can all members of the Labor Party. Major parties are by their very nature full of a range of different people and the behaviour of one, two or even a handful amongst hundreds should not simplistically dictate how the entire population are framed in the media. Complex, but not that hard to explain. Are you still with me Aly?
I wrote this week about the way that bad behaviour, or even alleged bad behaviour, within the Labor Party is portrayed by the media as a ‘whole of party’ problem, which I’ve even heard called a ‘disease’. Yet the exact same bad or allegedly bad behaviour in the Liberal Party is treated as unfortunate incidents in the careers of otherwise upstanding members of the free market loving community. When commenting on bad behaviour in the Liberal Party, just as I predicted, writers like Aly do their best to make the behaviour of the likes of O’Farrell, Sinodinos and Tony Abbott who stands by these men, a problem for the Liberal AND Labor Party. In the same breath, Aly explains that this problem is why minor parties like the Greens and Palmer United Party are seen as better options to the electorate. And this is where the simplistic ‘major parties are bad, minor parties are good’ frame becomes absurd.
You only have to interrogate the values of Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party for three seconds to see that the party exists to further the interests of billionaire Clive Palmer for the benefit of Clive Palmer. Palmer doesn’t want to pay the Carbon Price. Palmer doesn’t want to pay the mining tax on super profits. Palmer wants coal to be dug out of the ground forever, and wants everyone to believe Greg Hunt when he says the magic pudding of coal will never end. Palmer wants a coal port on the Great Barrier Reef. Palmer wants the power to reduce the influence the government can have on limiting his greed. But rather than interrogate Palmer’s self-interested, anti-community values, the mainstream media heaps Palmer in with the Greens using the simple frame that they must be good and pure because they are ‘not a major party and therefore pure just for the very fact they’re not a major party’. Palmer gets called a ‘larrikin’ politician, a ‘anti-politician’, a ‘colourful character’, which might work for the simplistic sideshow, but doesn’t really help the public to understand the policy ambitions of a man who has an incredible amount of money to help sell his image to the public, and is set to make an incredible amount of money by influencing government policy in his favour.
You would think the Greens would dislike being put in the same bucket as Clive Palmer. Yet I see a lot of evidence on Twitter that Greens supporters are happy that Palmer is growing his political influence. The number of Greens supporters I saw enthusiastically celebrating the WA Senate election result because there was a swing away from both major parties towards the Greens, and to a larger extent towards Clive Palmer, was scary. I thought Greens were progressives? I thought Greens wanted to save the environment and stop mining coal? I thought Greens wanted to keep the Carbon Price and wanted the Mining Tax rate raised? I understand Palmer might have said something positive about the Greens stance on asylum seeker policy once. Is this enough to make Clive Palmer best friends with the Greens? Has the world gone mad or has the ‘minor parties are by their definition pure because major parties aren’t’ attitude become a ‘disease’ infecting otherwise intelligent people through reading too many articles by the likes of Waleed Aly? But wait, it gets even more complex. The Greens did a preference deal with the Palmer United Party in the September election, preferencing PUP ahead of Labor in South Australia in order to save Sarah Hanson-Young’s Senate seat. For a party who paints themselves as pure, surely the Greens have just added a complex layer to their brand of identity politics that is about as coal-loving politically grubby as you can get?
Next time you hear someone simplifying politics down to ‘big parties are bad and small parties are good’, think about the complexity of what is really going on. Think about how many hard working, passionate, intelligent, talented and committed progressive politicians in the Labor Party are smeared by the ‘Labor is corrupt’ frame that the media reports every political news story from. Time and time again, I ask progressives to unite to beat Tony Abbott, and then I see Greens supporting Clive Palmer and I realise to many, asking progressives to unite is far too simplistic a plea in what is clearly a much more complex situation than I can grasp.