This week saw the semantic death, after a thousand unkind cuts, of the Left/Right dichotomy in Australian politics.
Today was a day of historic import for the political life of the Australian nation, and yet it nearly slipped past unnoticed. The context is one of high rhetoric. For some time rancour has been building once again between the two ‘sides’ in Australia’s parliament and cultural life beyond, who were formerly pleased to call themselves the Left and the Right.
As Australia reached the inglorious milestone of 12 months of Hung Parliament a shift of mood began towards the intemperate. A grim humourlessness settled over many topics of discussion, so that levity is frowned upon and often met with straight-faced literalism.
In Parliament and among the commentariat verbal attacks between those of disparate affiliation have intensified, grown uglier. In the stalls and stands the public have abandoned light-hearted contempt for the entire political class in favour of rapid polarisation and clarification of point of view. It is again popular to rail against either the Prime Minister or the Opposition Leader, rather than both at once.
As quickly as possible people at all levels of involvement are taking up firm positions in opposition to certain things and kinds of people and rusting themselves back on.
One forum where this new atmosphere manifests with particular bitterness and incoherence is Twitter, a popular refuge for the disconsolate and otherwise abandoned. @strangemans opines:
Of course he is right: it is essential we gag all those who try to censor us, abolish biased media espousing the wrong points of view. And this tweet is an inoffensive example, in that it only contradicts itself, rather than an entire ideology such as Capitalism or socialism.
The prickly @Journo_realdeal referred to a
LABOR/GREENS AXIS OF EVIL.
@Bibibabedream asserted that we should
Fight the Socialist Fascist that are taking over our Country!
The (self-proclaimed) Left also accuse the Right, and especially Tony Abbott, of all manner of evil, hypocrisy, and cant.
But then accusations of evil, hypocrisy and cant in this day and age are usually reasonable: naive to say otherwise. Abbott had of late been on a well-publicised binge of naysayage, opposing anything the Government said without question. Faced with a Government hard line on asylum seekers, he said no to the hard line, although this is clearly the reverse of much that he has previously stood for.
Tony Abbott usually appears to be in general a supporter of the hard line. It’s not so much that he advocates a hard line on this or that specifically – more that he likes hard lines. Given this prior form, a 180 degree reversal from the Opposition Leader has brought national discourse to the brink of absurdity in recent days by opening up a new human rights debate on refugees.
Two weeks ago the once upstanding Greg Combet sat on the QandA panel and defended the Government’s Malaysia solution for the processing of asylum seekers on pragmatic grounds. Combet was battling a cold. But asked directly about the policy’s morality and was evasive in a no-nonsense and forthright way, addressing the practicality of the solution once again.
The Opposition Leader has spotted this chink in the Government’s – well, can’t really call what’s left armour. Without a thought for Coalition-style conservatism past or future he leapt into the breach with a peculiar rush of concern for humanity in general. Over the course of 48 hours, with careless talk of Human Rights, with an appearance of personal worry over asylum seekers’ conditions and protection, he has reversed the polarity of his party and Australian politics, upsetting the nation’s moral compass as a result.
This morning, in the early hours, the Left/Right dichotomy suffered a fatal blow, when it was finally rendered entirely meaningless by a tweet posted to the nefarious #auspol hashtag, a site for the fevered rantings and pointless reason of the politically impotent. The tweet, sent by one @Correllio, and innocuous enough in and of itself, read:
A simple proposition;the Left will sell Australia.
It was camel-back-straw. The last shreds of semantic relation between the term Left and any particular concept fell away. The elastic connexion betwixt word and meaning fled the stage, severed or snapped after months or years of mistreatment. Twin towers of ideology came crashing down, leaving the muddled left/right dichotomy entirely without meaning.
It might be fair to claim that the Government wants to sell Australia (presumably in bits). This does not suggest that the sale of the country is a Left-wing thing to do but that the Government is No Longer of the Left. Nationalisation is left wing. State-owned monopolies, overalls, cheerful songs about hard work and being industrious, placards, – these sorts of things are of the Left, whether the Government believes them or not. Leftness should not be contingent on the character of the Government. The character of the Government should – in a right-side-up world – follow the tenets of Leftity.
Correllio may say that all of this is Fine. The Left is bankrupt, and lacks any moral centre. That of course Julia Gillard is without sincere belief. Conservative politicking is the only politicking of conviction, while socialist values are a matter of expedience. All of this may be half-true.
But if Correllio is sanguine then it is a tranquility that fails to take account of the value of the long-standing Left-Right dichotomy to the self-proclaimed Right. The Left and Right have always been mutually dependent. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the two share a common interest in the preservation of the system and the State (by virtue of this reason alone their interests overlap far more than they diverge). The second is that Left and Right cannot be defined alone, but only in terms of one another. Their vestigial ideologies were already in this sense entwined. The bullish epithets of the Right have little meaning unless the Liberals are a bukwark against a tide of the irrational and unwashed. Likewise powerful ideologically working-class left-wing Party depends utterly on financial overlords, moguls, magnates and the threat or reality of exploitative, capitalist totalitarianism from the Right. Without these it risks exposure as the ruling class it long ago swore eternally to oppose.
At this point anything at all that was once by definition a Conservative, right-wing sort of thing, may also be attributed to the Left. Fox-hunting is not a good example in Australia, where anyone who cares to remove foxes from the landscape should have the blessing of the populace. But the wedding, for example, of the Labor movement and the financial sector is a marriage between sometime serfs and overlords: it can’t work if the Thing About The Left is a basically oppositional relationship between these two institutions. Immigration is another example, because the Left long ago embraced humanism as part of an atheist doctrine. Labor ideology properly demands a moral component and justification to policy on disenfranchised persons. Australian Liberal ideology, on the other hand, long ago cut its ties with any Enlightenment ideals as to the protection of individuals’ rights against institutional oppression (Senator Brandis, possibly Amanda Vanstone excepted). It’s return at this point makes this seem topsy-turvy at the least.
Conservatives have undergone an overnight liberal renaissance, and begun to pronounce once again on the Rights of Man. Meanwhile the Labor Government (formerly of the left) has ceased making any sort of moral argument at all on the issue of asylum seekers and instead produces legislation that would make arch-Conservative (old-school) Philip Ruddock proud. In the style of fairly far-right politicians around the world, the former ‘Left’ has entirely embraced the doctrine of deterrence and incarceration it questioned for so long when it was the policy of Howard’s conservatives.
The Government has today redoubled its efforts to emulate the best of Man’s Inhumanity to Man, with the release of amendments to legislation that will allow its Malaysia solution for asylum seekers, rejected under the current legislation, to proceed. A new category of people has been invented – those who may be sent overseas for processing. A complementary new category of countries has been invented – those where asylum seekers may be sent.
Perusing the document containing amendments to immigration legislation the process of writing laws appears far simpler than one might have imagined. The ease with which new kinds of things, people, imaginary lines can be brought into existence facilitates all sorts of wizardry with respect to the reasonable and legitimate and presumably morally sound conduct of the State.
As a result the Opposition and its supporters continue to speak in an alien tongue of ‘Human Rights’, ‘Natural Justice’ and so on, as though they had never lost touch with their small-l ancestry. This is odd in part because the mandates that constrain behaviour flow from international law and the United Nations, usually not considered a friend by the Right. It’s also odd because it requires a more saccharine tone than the Right are accustomed to forming: mouths are twisted in unusual ways as the spokesmouths of the Coalition’s parties adjust.
Tweets that last week could only have from ‘far left’ refugee advocacy groups are this week presented by the most fervent animals of the Conservative Inertia. Meanwhile from supporters of the Government there comes a rash of pragmatic opinions about the sensible way to prevent boats from arriving and the benefits of offshore processing for the victims.
The future will not be allright.
All this does not mean the terms Left and Right will have no use in future discourse – far from it. It is that the set of concepts that once grounded two great ideologies have now become irreparably separated from their moorings. The ship of State sails on, without anchor in belief or meaning, the two large Parties aboard at liberty to take any position on any issue so long as there is some pretence at binary opposition. Even keel as long as we remember which is Port and which is Starboard.
Given what is at stake, then, the permanent negation on the lip of the Opposition leader is more constructive than it appears: a desperate effort to keep two brands from colliding. At all costs the dichotomy must be maintained, between two distinct – if not dissimilar – entities. It matters not how this dichotomy is drawn up, what the points of difference are: Labor Prime Minister and Coalition Opposition Leader, Walrus and Carpenter, it’s much of a muchness at this point. But the Westminster system demands Dichotomy. And Australian political culture cannot abandon dichotomy in favour of more parties OR less parties without substantial cultural upheaval.
While the maddened savages of these two tribes continue to dance and jabber indistinguishably on Twitter, Qanda, in Question Time, there are suggestions that party uniforms (in relatively sober team colours) be introduced, together with bells of differing pitch in order that they can be separated in the minds of onlookers. Other mechanisms are also being considered for distinguishing the brands – or at least logos – of the ALP and the Coalition, now that there is no set of words or concepts remaining by which a true distinction might be drawn.
The awareness of the great and common purpose now before the two major political parties of the Australian System has begun to filter through to some commentators online and in the media proper. Oddly, it has become apparent that the second-best supporters of the Left are the Right themselves. Likewise, the Left, dependent on the Right as their foil and point of critique, certainly prefer a Conservative viewpoint to one that cannot be placed within the Dichotomy at all. The common distaste for anyone that does not fit properly into one or another camp is something else that the ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have in common. If one or the other of the major parties were to fall, what replaces it might be dangerously public minded, idealistic, relevant, and so on.
Such is the confused desperation of some supporters of the Abbott team that they have begun to offer advice to their opponents, as though worried that rivalry may have gone too far. Get rid of Gillard, even bring back Rudd.. this is the cry from the commons. Clearly the best option at the moment for Abbott and team is to have Gillard at the helm at the next election. Advice as to how to weather the coming storm is counterproductive, and inexplicable, really, unless it stems from an abiding concern from one side of politics about the possibility of a future without the other.
do the right thing & stand down Julia!
On a melancholy note, the concept of Irony has also expired during the week as a result of abuses from within the Australian politicial milieu of the language of contradiction.