Death of a Salesman?
“The only thing you've got in this world is what you can sell.”
― Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
I’m not promising anything.
There are no predictions here.
I’m wallowing in exhaustion at the end of this vile campaign, and I don’t just want it to be over: I want change. I want to keep faith with my country. I want some respite from what it has become. From what they have made it.
They the political class. They the media. They this government in particular. They all the other sources of power and influence in a society shaped for their convenience.
Whatever happens, we go on, but dear god…
We know what another term of a Morrison Government will mean for the country because they have already shown us.
We have been through a pandemic (are still in it) and have seen the devastation of climate-related fires and floods. We have, in other words, experienced, and are experiencing, the sort of catastrophes for which the very idea of government was developed, the coming together of a people in the name of self-protection and the management of risk.
Fire, flood and plague are the precise events against which collective action and the pooling of resources—built into the institutions of the state—are meant to protect us. They are the moments in which we understand the paradox that if we truly want to protect and enhance our individual freedom, we must act in concert.
As each one of these hurdles has presented itself to us over the last three years, the Morrison Government has not just failed, they have actively refused to do what any other government in Australian history would have done automatically.
There has always been an argument, a legitimate argument, within Australian politics about the correct role for government in the life of the nation, about how taxes are raised and spent, and it has been akin to a fight between vegetarians and meat-eaters as to what is good for us.
But Scott Morrison is not engaging in that argument. He doesn’t accept the premise the discussion.
In the argument between the vegetarians and the meat-eaters, at least both sides agreed that we should all be eating food. What Scott Morrison is doing is the political equivalent of serving up a meal of metal scraps doused in oil.
I have made this case before, that he and his acolytes do not believe in a government by, of and for the people and are instead trying to instigate a form of rule in which the resources of the state are distributed on some other basis, largely to those they consider worthy.
Morrison himself keeps telling us this.
He argued the other day, in the context of rejecting a Federal ICAC, that public servants should have no role in deciding where national resources go, or have any sort of oversight of what politicians should do with public funds:
“If we are going to so disempower our elected representatives to do things about what is needed in their communities, then what is the point?”
“We can’t just hand government over to faceless officials to make decisions that impact the lives of Australians from one end of the country to the other. I actually think there’s a great danger in that,” Morrison told the papers.
“It wouldn’t be Australia any more if that was the case, it would be some kind of public autocracy.”
Let that sink in.
This is the prime minister defining the normal operation of the democratic state as a “public autocracy”, arguing that all spending decisions should be taken, unencumbered, by individual members, which, you know, is the normal definition of autocracy (rule by an individual).
As an argument, it is incoherent, but it serves the purpose of redefining democratic practice as autocratic and autocracy as legitimate.
He truly seems to think that being elected to office gives him carte blanche, with no oversight and no consequences until the next election.
He needs to learn the wrongness of this presumption the hard way.
The sort of society implicit in everything he says and does is patriarchal, hierarchical, authoritarian, individualistic, and anti-democratic. It’s not just that the strong are rewarded and the weak are punished, as we saw with massive JobKeeper overpayments to the wealthy and the prosecution of those on welfare during the robodebt fiasco.
It is also that he sees strength and weakness themselves as indicators of goodness and just desserts. You are weak (poor, disadvantaged) because you are bad or have failed in some way. You are strong (rich, materially successful) because you are good and deserving.
It is a philosophy of bullies and the self-serving.
It is not just profoundly anti-democratic, it is anti-Christian, something I only mention because he so often hides behind the faux Christianity of his prosperity-gospel Pentecostalism.
It is a lie, and for such a man, lying is second nature, as we have seen over and over.
We should recognise, though—so we are under no illusion that he will change—that for him, lying is not lying.
It is a righteous assertion of power against those whom he thinks it is his place to rule. Authoritarian leaders have always believed in their right to rearrange reality to suit their purposes—it is why they were “chosen”—and Morrison’s shameless, easily-provable lies are just a manifestation of a tendency all such leaders share.
Which brings us to the other aspect of this dreadful election.
Ideally, the role of the media is to work from this premise of the existence of political lies and be a check on the way in which those with political power distort the truth. They are the trusted witness reporting back to us on the gap between what is said and what is true, and their whole social license—the permission we give them as democratic citizens to probe power on our behalf—is predicated on them faithfully fulfilling this role.
We are so far from that ideal I could weep.
This election, more than anything else, has been a revelation about just how corrupt and corrupting our failed political media are. We got a taste of the ill-conceived way in which the sausage is made during the press conferences of the pandemic, but the media pack following the leaders during this election have shown us this bullying, bias, and manufacture of controversy is the rule not the exception.
From the gaffe of day one to the childish bleating as I write this—that Albanese has “banished” the press pack—we have been subjected to the most shallow and unhelpful coverage of an election I can remember.
It has been a disgrace, nothing less.
And no amount of reasoning, of pointing out our concerns, of arguing at careful length about what is going wrong elicits the slightest attempt to correct course, to improve, or even to acknowledge that there is a problem.
Instead, audiences are treated to abuse and contempt from some of the biggest names in journalism, and most of the rest of the pack either goes silent or, at best, acknowledges some problems at the margins.
Hannah Arendt has said, “There always comes the point beyond which lying becomes counterproductive,” and, well, I guess we will see if we have reached that point with Scott Morrison, as we did with John Howard.
Here’s the thing.
The awfulness of the Morrison Government cannot be separated from the supine support it receives from most of the media, but at least we can vote the government out.
Even if Morrison loses, we will still have the same media in place and they will continue to eat away at the foundations of our democracy, putting their own interests ahead of the greater good, and failing to properly distinguish between truth and lie.
Fixing that should be high on our list of priorities once this election is over.
As this awful six-week campaign nears its end, and the possibility of a change of government seems likely (usual caveats), it might seem perverse to start talking about the next election, but folks, we must do it.
Even if there is a change of government…
Even if the crossbench is infused with Green and Teal…
Whether Labor rules alone or in some loose coalition…
Whether Scott Morrison is returned and rules alone or in some supercharged cCoaliton…
we still will not know if anything fundamental has changed in our politics until we see what happens at the election after this, whether some of the positive trends in evidence now will be sustained.
What is at stake—what is always at stake—is the prospect of genuine self-rule, of a democracy that reflects community interests, not one that reflects party interests.
There are reasons for optimism.
With both major parties polling below 40% of the primary vote, people are realising the limitations of a so-called two-party system and are asking, more loudly than ever, by what right should those parties govern alone?
This is at the heart of the appeal of the Voices of independents, the “teals” as some call them.
They have tapped into the power that accrues when you point out that a Liberal candidate, no matter what he or she says to voters in their electorate, will inevitably side with their party when it comes to a vote on the floor of the House.
How is this democracy? the independent candidates quite rightly ask.
Party discipline actively works against the public interest, and as French philosopher, Simone Weil, wrote in a 1957 pamphlet:
Political parties are a marvellous mechanism which, on the national scale, ensures that not a single mind can attend to the effort of perceiving, in public affairs, what is good, what is just, what is true.
…If one were to entrust the organisation of public life to the devil, he could not invent a more clever device.
You don’t need to reject, as Weil does, the concept of parties all together, but you still need within a system of governance that “single mind” she talks of, to have some alternative points of view in the system, detached from party loyalty.
My political views and those of the “Voices of” candidates don’t line up on some key issues, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that I can recognise what a talented bunch they are and why I have been willing to go and speak at various “Voices of” events over the last few years, events centred in community participation.
The views of twenty-five million individuals don’t neatly divide into our so-called two-party system and our system of governance is likely to work better with members free of all party ties, and this is what we stand on the verge of achieving in the election on May 21, the possibility of a crossbench more full than usual of independents and smaller parties.
But let’s not set ourselves up for disappointment and failure. We need to recognise that something more than a handful of independents in rich seats is going to save us.
Factor in race and the Voices of movement doesn’t look that impressive.
Same with class.
Mostly, it is a movement of the well-to-do and the white, and I think, contra Weil, we also need parties that bring together their own version of diverse voices, filling in these gaps.
Is there a bottom line here?
Mine is that democracy is an endless experiment in balancing the needs of individuals against some sense of a greater good, the values and advantages that accrue from a life in common to people being their own best self. It is a bottom line that says individual rights are sacrosanct, but that they only arise from a set of social relations, that no-one is an island complete unto themselves, and that we need each other and that our government should reflect this basic value.
It is a bottom line that recognises an irreducible diversity across every aspect of life—from gender to sexuality to nationally and religion—and rewards it rather than punishes it.
All this is a logic completely and utterly rejected by Scott Morrison and his government and if they get back in at the next election, I will fight against them again.
There is decency aplenty out there in the communities and the suburbs and the city streets and, despite the best efforts of our ratty political system and the media that is meant to report on it, it has managed to remerge in a reinvigorated form.
It’s worth remembering that people will be supportive of each other, that they will make rational decisions in the interest of the greater good, if the system allows them.
Democracy is not a market.
Society is not an economy.
Our institutions must be designed to reflect the common good, not self-interest, and this, more than anything, is why we need not just a change of government, but a reinvention of the parliament itself with as many voices as possible governing on our behalf.
Make no mistake, a returned Morrison Government will take victory as an endorsement of every corrupt and corrupting thing they have done, and they will double down.
Fill these Houses with people who believe in more than their own right to govern.
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