A lovely day in the neighbourhood
One week after the election that changed the country
On May 21, federal election day in the Year 2022, I stood in a line outside my local polling booth at the Victorian College of Arts Secondary School (VCASS), a school my son had attended from Year 9 until Year 12, and it was a beautiful sunny day, maybe 17 degrees, the inner-city air strangely crisp, with the sense of us being balanced precisely on the edge of a change of season.
There was a little buzz in the air, and people chatted with each other, and chatted with the workers representing the various parties and independents, and everyone was calm and polite, even the those from the United Australia Party.
It is, of course, compulsory in our country to enrol to vote and to show up on election day (or at a pre-poll or to fill out a postal vote) but no-one in this queue was there under sufferance. People may have been fitting the task in between shopping and lunch, or between weekend sports and dinner, but there was no sense at all that they resented this mild, democratic obligation.
How different it seemed to the image portrayed in the media of an angry, divided nation disengaged from politics.
What we were disengaged from, I realised on that glorious day—with more certainty than I generally allow—is the political class itself, the politicians and the media, the journalists and the commentators, the business “leaders” and all the other wielders of power in our island nation. We were disengaged from the mindless media coverage of the election, which, during the previous six weeks, had descended into farce, dominated as it was by performative journalists looking to trip up the leader of the opposition to feed their narrative that he was unprepared for office and gaffe prone.
Journalists like to fall back on arguments about their need to hold politicians accountable, to be neutral, balanced, fair—objective, if they are feeling particularly philosophical—and it doesn’t matter how often this ideal is breached in practice, they will dredge it up as the standard, and I think on some deep level they believe it to be true.
As former New York Times executive editor, Bill Keller has said, ‘I believe that in most cases [impartiality] gets you closer to the truth, because it imposes a discipline of testing all assumptions, very much including your own. That discipline does not come naturally. I believe journalism that starts from a publicly declared predisposition is less likely to get to the truth, and less likely to be convincing to those who are not already convinced.’
I don’t want to get into the depths of this complex argument, but I do wonder if once you convince yourself that your job is to be dispassionate around issues that are often quite literally matters of life and death—if not for you personally, then at least for the people on whom you are reporting—that once you assume the mindset that you will not engage on the rights and wrongs of a given matter, once you do all that, then I wonder if the only emotion left that is safe for you to express is cynicism.
As we stood queuing to vote last Saturday, we didn’t know, but we sensed, that the country was about to transform itself.
And forget all the usual cliches about the lucky country, the irony of that phrase, or any other interpretations that has been put upon it over the years: what we did to ourselves on Saturday 21 May 2022 we did on purpose. It was change that had built over at least a decade, and it was founded on the deliberate and deliberative actions of band of outsiders, and there was little luck involved.
After three years of Scott Morrison, or nine years of LNP rule, or the interminable period of the Howard years—wherever you want to mark the starting point—the country had decided to reset.
We will see how that works out, but I am quietly confident.
And let us give Scott Morrison his due.
In three short-long years, he managed to embody every unease people had felt about the direction the country had taken, to distil into his persona a model of politics that we had all come to hate, and he did it so well that support for the Liberal Party—the most powerful and successful vehicle of Australian political practice in the history of the Commonwealth—collapsed, and that collapse of support happened within his own party, and in the vast middle-ground of Australian politics.
As I said on Twitter, how lovely was it to wake up on Sunday morning and know we no longer had that man standing in front of us every day and lying to our face, calling black white, up down, telling us the Australian people understand, and that he doesn't accept the premise of our question.
That the media largely missed what was happening, and that many of them continued to carry Scotty from Marketing on their shoulders right up the moment that he lost, only pausing long enough to bend down and allow Peter Dutton to climb aboard, suggests that they intend to continue as they have been, with no self-reflection, let alone a mea culpa, and that our public culture, the way our politics is reported and mediated will remain completely out touch with the mainstream they purport to represent.
So be it.
They have been exposed, clotheless and clueless, and we know that the only people who take their nonsense seriously are those within the bubble of the political class itself.
This is a good thing for a democracy to know, and we the people most definitely know it.
I hope Anthony Albanese knows it. I hope the new crossbench knows it.
Even as I write this, a week after the election, the exact shape of the new parliament is not known and that is a good thing, and we should get used to it. This is not uncertainty, it is deliberation on a grand scale, and we should accept it as the new normal, that our parliament should look more like the country, and that it should never again be dominated by one of the “two” “major” parties. Twenty-five million doesn’t go into two; it never did.
After maybe twenty-minutes, we got to the end of the voting queue that wound through the corridors of VCASS, and we cast our vote in the main performance space of the school, an arena where my son had trained as a professional dancer, and I felt like doing a little dance myself.
There is still a lot wrong with our system and our country, and a lot more could yet go wrong, but for the first time in a long time it feels like, not just that we have a parliament that might rise to the many challenges before us, but a nation that is willing to take a risk on fundamental change, that has found confidence in its own ability to do what needs to be done.
Hold onto that feeling.
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UPDATE: There will be a follow-up to this piece looking at the extraordinary role woman have played—as organisers, candidates, and voters—in the 21 May result. This is the essential element of how we ended up with the change we have seen.