A guide for the perplexed foreigner
The 1960s Australian comedy They’re a Weird Mob opens with a well-worn visual gag: the film runs upside-down.
The joke plays on the trope that the Antipodes are literally Down Under. To the first European arrivals, everything about Australia seemed upside-down: the seasons, the weird animals, even the very landscape, dotted with trees with pale trunks and dark foliage in a literal reversal of European norms.
This Topsy-Turvy Land inversion extends to Australian politics: the conservative party are the Liberals, the Labor party doesn’t have a single worker in its parliamentary ranks, and the Greens are the most urbanised humans on the planet. Even the rural Country Party long ago changed its name to the Nationals.
It puzzles even many Australians that the conservative wing of Australian politics is lead by the Liberal party. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott had to convince Republicans in the US that, as the leader of a “liberal” party which supported universal healthcare, he wasn’t some kind of raging socialist.
Opposition to socialism is in fact the key to understanding the Liberal name. In 1944, the founding Liberals were a broad coalition whose common interest was opposing the socialist policies of the Australian Labor Party. Founding leader Robert Menzies said the name was chosen deliberately for its association with the principles of 19th century liberalism: free enterprise, social equality, and the primacy of individual rights and duties. “We recognise,” Menzies said, “that men and women are … individual human beings whose individual welfare and development must be the main concern of government”.
The Libs have always been a “broad church” party which includes genuine liberals (nicknamed “Wets”) and conservatives (“Dries”), which helps explains its seeming schizophrenia. Thus the Liberals have not only been associated with Thatcherite economics, but also some of the most socially progressive legislation in Australian history. While the Liberals are usually assumed to be the party of the rich, as will be seen, the truth is very different.
The Australian Labor Party, on the other hand, claims to be “the party of the worker”. But it has long abandoned any pretense of representing working Australians, and instead become an unabashed democratic socialist party. Even the party’s ostensible connection to its past as a genuine labour party, its dominance by trade unions, scarcely represents working Australians any more, with only about 15% of Australian workers in unions. The Labor-union nexus nowadays is mostly about greasing the political careers of aspiring Labor politicians.
Almost no Federal Labor representative today has an actual working background, since John Faulkner retired in 2015. Senator Doug Cameron may be the last former worker standing in the ALP. Otherwise the Labor party belongs exclusively to professional politicians. Most of today’s Labor politicians wouldn’t know an actual worker if they called one in to fix the espresso machine.
Current Labor leader Bill Shorten is perhaps the apotheosis of this trend. Educated at one of Melbourne’s most exclusive private schools, then collecting a series of degrees at elite universities, Shorten then went straight into political career as a union organiser – where he notoriously arranged sweetheart deals that ripped off some of Australia’s lowest-paid workers in exchange for kickbacks.
Some have tried to reclaim the party for the workers, with little success. When a grassroots Labor faction ran an ad calling for the Labor party to reassert its core values instead of being taken over by “progressive” social justice politics, it was quickly slapped down.
The Labor party has not only abandoned actual working Australians, it actively despises them.
The Greens claim to represent the environment, meanwhile, but their voters couldn’t be more removed from the natural world if they tried. The Greens’ vote is almost entirely concentrated in the innermost of inner of Sydney and Melbourne. To the average Greens voter, the natural environment is something David Attenborough talks about on the telly. At best, it’s somewhere they jet to on their frequent, carbon-spewing, international holidays. Because, for a party run by old Stalinists and Marxists, with a policy platform that attacks “the production and consumption of material output”, and emphasises “reducing inequalities in income and wealth”, they are the party of the very rich. In fact, the richest voting bloc in Australia.
The rural-based Nationals were once the most straightforwardly-named party in Australian politics: the Country Party. But, besides changing their name, the Nationals also promulgate a kind of agrarian socialism which seems at odds with the deep conservatism of their farmer constituents. Until one realizes that it really means socializing the losses and privatizing the profits.
If the landscape of Australia perplexed early Europeans, the animals bewildered them more. The platypus, for instance, was so bizarre that early biologists named it Paradoxus. Current Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, is Australia’s political paradoxus.
The richest person ever to become Prime Minister, it might seem fitting that Turnbull represents the conservative Liberals. Yet Turnbull is the wettest of Wet Liberals. Turnbull’s electorate, the gentrified, ultra-white Sydney suburb of Balmain, is the Greens’ Sydney heartland. Indeed, he is so indistinguishable from the average Green, including in his wealth, that his ascension to the Prime Ministership by deposing the traditionally conservative Tony Abbott, was egged on, then swooned over by the Green-Left commentariat. Who promptly abandoned their golden boy.
In that respect, though, Australian politics is like any other. However upside-down and paradoxical Australia might otherwise be, one political truth is universal: if you want a friend in politics, get a dog.