Unanimity on political issues is rare in Australia’s media landscape. But as Australians nursed sore heads after a well celebrated national holiday, they could not open a newspaper, turn on the television or flick through their Facebook feed without being reminded that their revered and righteous leader Tony Abbott had an Australia Day that no amount of barbequed meat could fix – in fact, it had been a “Knightmare,” as all major mastheads so eagerly dubbed.
Bad mistakes are certainly not remarkable in the Abbott government, but what is beyond belief is that this decision could not be mitigated by the usual excuses. It wasn’t a spontaneous brain-fart like Joe Hockey’s “poor people don’t drive cars,” for which a reluctant apology could be issued. It wasn’t a miscalculated right-wing policy like the GP co-payment, for which they could at least claim to be addressing the budget deficit. It was a pre-planned decision which Abbott and his close advisers must have known had little to no electoral appeal. So why do it? As Australian columnist Chris Kenny bluntly put it, “Is there no one in the office capable of uttering the simple phrase: ‘This is a dumb idea that is all pain and no gain?’”
For some, it was a brazen statement of Abbott’s commitment to a constitutional monarchy. For others like Tim Dunlop, regular contributor to the ABC’s The Drum, it is more than that. His recent article argued that Abbott’s “captain’s calls” are symptoms of a wider disempowerment of politicians by the globalized free market. Since significant power normally reserved for the Prime Minister has been usurped by the global economy since Hawke’s trade liberalisation, modern leaders have little control over domestic issues and are forced to implement unpopular policies such as privatisation, deregulation and cuts to services. This makes voters lose faith in the political class which in turn leads to endless leadership speculation. Nervous leaders, firmly in the pressure cooker, make endless gaffes. This further reinforces the public’s hatred of our politicians and entrenches a vicious cycle, making everything seem an inescapable “Knightmare,” lurching from inadequacy to idiocy. Richard Cooke of The Monthly similarly contended that politicians are “weak in the face of a modern, globalised economy, but suffer intense media scrutiny at just this moment of impotence.”
Dunlop and Cooke’s simplified narrative is unconvincing for many reasons. In the case of Abbott’s knighthood folly, the global economy clearly had nothing to do with the error, so politicians are clearly capable of doing stupid stuff without transnational corporations pressuring them. However blaming globalisation for all faults in domestic politics is also foolish. Global market forces did not force the creation of the GP co-payment, spending cuts to health, education or the ABC. The Liberal party room chose these policies because they want to pursue an ultra-conservative American model, not because globalisation is somehow forcing it upon them.
It is true that the global financial crisis (a product of globalisation) and Labor’s fiscal response have compounded the budget deficit, which the Coalition uses to justify its current policies. However Australia’s success in maintaining economic growth throughout the GFC illustrates that governments do still have significant economic power in the global economy. It becomes a matter of whether or not they choose to use it, and to what end. In this light, Abbott is not a weak leader cowering before the hulking behemoth of global trade as Dunlop suggests, but a leader whose policies are influenced, but not dictated, by global trade forces. And the bad news for Abbott is that the people don’t like them.
Dunlop’s narrative is perhaps more applicable to progressive governments, who face a steeper uphill battle to pass reform which puts global players’ noses out of joint. The watering down of Gillard’s carbon and mining taxes due to lobbying by BHP and Rio Tinto exemplifies a loss of power over domestic issues to global forces. The increased economic power of TNCs in the globalised economy can give them greater power than governments, which perverts democracy. However Labor still had the legislative power to impose taxes on these companies despite their economic power, they just needed to convince the electorate. Sure advertising campaigns by the mining industry may have contributed to some electoral doubt, but ultimately what struck down these policies was poor selling by Gillard and brutally effective opposition by Abbott. The carbon and mining taxes stood a chance against vested interest if communicated effectively, but they weren’t.
Dunlop also cites the rise of social media as having a “direct relationship” with the weakening of modern leaders, again throwing all eggs in the globalisation basket. Leaders “like Abbott” (i.e. conservatives perceived as backward) do have much to fear from social media as it gives voice to the young, a group often left voiceless in the traditional media sphere and who are often hostile to conservatives. Social media has vast capacity to drive progressive change. However, as it currently stands, to shift public opinion across the whole of society one must still shift the familiar pillars of the media landscape. Gillard was not voted out because of internet trolls, in fact she had some success online with her “misogyny speech” going viral on YouTube. It was the constant attacks from News Corp and talkback radio which set the tone for her prime-ministership, characterized by perceived weakness and other gendered condemnations, and her inability to counter these attacks with a coherent narrative or public image put the nail in her political coffin.
Which brings us back to Abbott waking up on 27th January to a complete “Knightmare” across all media platforms. “Why are they all against me?” he must wonder. Even his traditional cheerleader News Corp is highlighting his stupidity on their covers. Perhaps, despite the pressures of the global market and a changing political and media landscape, Richard Cooke’s assertion that the Australian political class can “comprehensively discard” public opinion is incorrect. Perhaps the extraordinary weight of public disquiet with the Abbott government’s performance is simply too much for tabloid newspapers (whose primary readership is lower-middle class citizens) to ignore. And it is surely only a matter of time before the Liberals can no longer ignore Abbott’s stench with voters. The sands are shifting for Abbott and the Liberals, and if he can’t find a more suitable candidate for our highest national honour than a British monarch or, more importantly, find policies which resonate with the people, then the “electronic graffiti” of social media and the detriments of the global market are the least of his worries. The greatest power in democracies still resides with the people. Abbott ought to be afraid.