A play­book for the cul­ture wars

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Mal­colm Turn­bull is in­tent on launch­ing the gov­ern­ment into a se­ries of Howard-era cul­ture wars. The prob­lem is he’s not very good at it. Mike Sec­combe re­ports.

Jobs and growth, as Mal­colm Turn­bull is wont to re­mind us, is no longer just a Lib­eral Party elec­tion slo­gan. It’s an out­come. The econ­omy is hum­ming along. More than 400,000 new jobs were cre­ated in the 2017 cal­en­dar year.

So why, then, does the gov­ern­ment con­tinue to lan­guish in the polls? It’s a ques­tion that puz­zles many. But not Ian McAllister, pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, and di­rec­tor since 1987 of the Aus­tralian Elec­tion Study, the most com­pre­hen­sive sur­vey of Aus­tralians’ evolv­ing po­lit­i­cal opin­ions.

It’s not just that the eco­nomic gains are shared un­equally and that at the house­hold level most peo­ple are not see­ing their in­comes rise, even as their bills get big­ger, he says. It goes deeper than that.

Most peo­ple just don’t be­lieve that gov­ern­ment has much ca­pac­ity to in­flu­ence the econ­omy any­more.

McAllister points to a chart on page 51 of the 2016 elec­tion study, which records vot­ers’ re­sponses when they were asked to pre­dict the ef­fect of gov­ern­ment ac­tions on the econ­omy.

Just 13 per cent of re­spon­dents thought gov­ern­ment would make things bet­ter in the com­ing year. An­other 20 per cent thought the gov­ern­ment would make things worse. And a whop­ping 67 per cent thought the ac­tions of the gov­ern­ment would have no ef­fect on the econ­omy at all.

“It was the low­est fig­ure we’ve ever recorded,” McAllister says. “Even Coali­tion vot­ers in the 2016 elec­tion mostly didn’t think a Coali­tion gov­ern­ment would be able to do much for them.”

The re­sult, he and other po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists and so­cial re­searchers sug­gest, re­flects an un­der­stand­ing in the elec­torate of the huge in­flu­ence on the econ­omy of global forces, sub­stan­tially be­yond the con­trol of gov­ern­ment.

It’s a prob­lem for both sides of pol­i­tics, and part of the rea­son for the de­cline in the vote for ma­jor par­ties. But it is a big­ger prob­lem for con­ser­va­tive par­ties, be­cause the claim to su­pe­rior man­age­ment of the econ­omy has tra­di­tion­ally been core to their elec­toral ap­peal.

And it’s a big­ger prob­lem given ev­i­dence, found in the elec­tion study and else­where, that vot­ers in­creas­ingly favour stronger gov­ern­ment ac­tion to re­dis­tribute in­come. Thus the per­sis­tent lead in the polls for La­bor, which voices

those con­cerns about eco­nomic in­equal­ity. What to do?

The time-hon­oured re­sponse, says Carol John­son, pro­fes­sor of pol­i­tics at Ade­laide Uni­ver­sity, is “to use cul­ture war ar­gu­ments to wedge off a sec­tion of La­bor’s tra­di­tional sup­port base, to split off so­cially con­ser­va­tive mem­bers of the work­ing class”.

She says, “It’s an old tech­nique that John Howard used very suc­cess­fully.”

In con­trast to the ef­fec­tive war­rior Howard, says John­son, Tony Ab­bott was an en­thu­si­as­tic but clumsy one. And Mal­colm Turn­bull wasn’t re­ally one at all dur­ing the early part of his lead­er­ship. Then he had the near-death ex­pe­ri­ence of the 2016 elec­tion.

“And since then,” she says, “we see these cul­ture war is­sues ris­ing again.”

Last year, par­tic­u­larly in the lat­ter half of the year, they dom­i­nated pol­i­tics. This year is start­ing out the same way. Be­fore 2018 was a week old, Turn­bull got him­self tan­gled in the is­sue of an Aus­tralian re­pub­lic, sug­gest­ing a postal plebiscite, à la the same sex-mar­riage vote, but only af­ter the cur­rent queen ex­pires.

In short or­der af­ter that, he launched a de­fence of the Aus­tralian flag – ironic, given he once sup­ported chang­ing it, just as he once sup­ported the re­pub­lic. Then he de­clared he would not be “bul­lied” by a “tiny mi­nor­ity” into chang­ing the date of Aus­tralia Day, not­with­stand­ing the fact many Indige­nous Aus­tralians see it as mark­ing the start of their dis­pos­ses­sion by white set­tlers.

And then, in re­sponse to the rev­e­la­tion that for­mer im­mi­gra­tion min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son had di­rected ASIO to de­lay the se­cu­rity clear­ances of refugees so as to deny their le­git­i­mate claims to per­ma­nent pro­tec­tion in Aus­tralia, Turn­bull vir­tu­ally chan­nelled John Howard: he made “no apolo­gies”, he said, for “se­cur­ing” Aus­tralia’s borders.

If Turn­bull’s per­for­mance in the po­lit­i­cal silly sea­son is any guide, we could be in for a com­bat­ive year in the cul­ture wars. And pos­si­bly a turn­ing point in the cul­ture wars, af­ter two decades of dom­i­nance by po­lit­i­cal con­ser­va­tives.

Be­fore we get to the rea­sons for that, though, let’s give some con­sid­er­a­tion to what “cul­ture wars” ac­tu­ally are, for they are far more of­ten al­luded to than de­fined.

On one in­ter­pre­ta­tion, says

Ben Oquist, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the pro­gres­sive The Aus­tralia In­sti­tute, all po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic po­si­tions are ul­ti­mately an ex­pres­sion of cul­tural con­sid­er­a­tions.

An­other take on cul­ture wars comes from Toby Ralph, self-de­scribed hatchet man, mar­ket­ing bloke and some­time pro­pa­gan­dist, who has worked on scores of elec­tions around the world, in­clud­ing all of John Howard’s cam­paigns.

His view is more cyn­i­cal: they are a means to keep a party’s base ac­ti­vated by pro­vid­ing “po­lit­i­cal al­ter­na­tives to the te­dium and pre­dictabil­ity of ma­jor party poli­cies and nar­ra­tives”, which are oth­er­wise “as bor­ing as bat­shit”.

It is char­ac­ter­is­tic of cul­ture war is­sues that they gen­er­ate more heat than light and tend to be steeped in “vit­riol” and “sanc­ti­mo­nious ou­trage”. They serve as a pop­ulist proxy for broader po­lit­i­cal de­bate, says Ralph, and can have “a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact at the polling booths”.

As the em­i­nent pub­lic in­tel­lec­tual Robert Manne noted a few years back, cul­tural war­fare tends to be a tool of the po­lit­i­cal right, adopted from the United States Repub­li­can play­book, that plays to con­ser­va­tive val­ues of “a proud na­tional his­tory, the Western canon, the tra­di­tional fam­ily, Chris­tian virtues, pa­tri­o­tism, a uni­fied na­tional cul­ture”.

In re­al­ity, any­one of any po­lit­i­cal stripe can play at cul­tural war­fare, al­though it’s easier to make an emo­tional plea for the sta­tus quo than a ra­tio­nal case for change. It is easier to ap­peal to fear for what might be lost than hope for what might be gained from change.

A bit of po­lit­i­cal his­tory makes the point. So­cial re­searcher Re­becca Hunt­ley, of Es­sen­tial Me­dia, harks back to the end of the Keat­ing La­bor gov­ern­ment.

Hav­ing en­gi­neered big eco­nomic changes, Keat­ing had moved on to cham­pi­oning ma­jor cul­tural changes, but failed to bring the elec­torate with him.

“The so­cial re­search from the tail end of the Keat­ing era sug­gested that Aus­tralians by then had had a gut­ful of eco­nomic re­form and en­gage­ment with Asia and re­pub­li­can­ism and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and Indige­nous rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, and there was a kind of fa­tigue,” Hunt­ley says.

John Howard recog­nised this fa­tigue and won big by of­fer­ing a small vi­sion, lim­ited to sober eco­nomic man­age­ment and cul­tural sta­sis.

Aside from “a brief mo­ment un­der Rudd, who dared talk about big is­sues like cli­mate change and the apol­ogy to the Stolen Gen­er­a­tion and en­gage­ment with China”, ma­jor party pol­i­tics has barely touched these big­ger cul­tural is­sues since, she says.

ANU po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Dr Jill Shep­pard agrees. “The last­ing im­pact of the ’96 elec­tion,” she says, “was that every­one re­treated into their shells and didn’t want to talk about whole­sale so­cial re­form.”

The Lib­eral Party was re­made in the im­age of John Howard, over­taken by so­cial con­ser­va­tives. In re­sponse, La­bor has been wary of at­tack from the con­ser­va­tives and their right-wing sur­ro­gates in the me­dia.

The re­sult, ac­cord­ing to the var­i­ous sources spo­ken to for this story, from Oquist on the left to Ralph on the right, and the data-in­formed aca­demics and re­searchers in be­tween, is that the cul­tural at­ti­tudes of the pub­lic have moved way ahead of the politi­cians.

The ev­i­dence is there in the graphs of the Aus­tralian Elec­tion

Study. Ever since Howard was elected in 1996, Aus­tralia has been mov­ing con­sis­tently left­ward on the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, and the rate of that move has sped up con­sid­er­ably since the cur­rent gov­ern­ment lucked into of­fice on the back of La­bor Party dis­unity in 2013.

Elec­tors are in­creas­ingly dis­sat­is­fied with the na­ture of our democ­racy, in­creas­ingly in­clined to see no real choice be­tween the ma­jor par­ties and to be­lieve that pow­er­ful vested in­ter­ests have too much sway.

Once Aus­tralia over­whelm­ing pre­ferred tax cuts to in­creases in gov­ern­ment spend­ing. We no longer do. We are far more pro­gres­sive on a whole range of so­cial is­sues, from abor­tion to drug laws to crime and pun­ish­ment in gen­eral. We are far more in favour of gov­ern­ment sup­port for Indige­nous Aus­tralians and land rights, less hos­tile to asy­lum seek­ers, and vastly more in­clined to see cli­mate change as a se­ri­ous threat.

“A lot of things are hap­pen­ing in par­al­lel,” says Shep­pard, who works with McAllister on the elec­tion study and who also is pri­mary au­thor of the ANU poll of so­cial at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours.

“We are at a weird junc­ture in which we are in­creas­ingly scep­ti­cal of gov­ern­ments’ eco­nomic im­pact, where we are in­creas­ingly lib­eral on so­cial is­sues, but where most of us still are vot­ing for our par­ties of habit.”

But that will change, and the change will be seis­mic.

“That elec­tor pas­siv­ity that par­ties have re­lied on for so long is break­ing down and the younger gen­er­a­tions in Aus­tralia are driv­ing so­cial change so much faster than any­thing we’ve seen for decades,” Shep­pard says.

“All signs seem to point to­wards so­cial is­sues be­com­ing much more im­por­tant in po­lit­i­cal choice.

Re­becca Hunt­ley de­tects the same thing in the fo­cus groups she con­ducts, and sees last year’s same-sex mar­riage sur­vey as a “mas­sive loss” for the con­ser­va­tive cul­ture war­riors, with ram­i­fi­ca­tions far be­yond that sin­gle is­sue.

“Peo­ple have a new ap­petite for larger is­sues,” she says, and the postal sur­vey showed them they could ef­fect change from out­side the es­tab­lished po­lit­i­cal process.

“We’ve got a cul­ture war led by ac­tivists, through new me­dia chan­nels, which is dif­fer­ent. The role of or­gan­i­sa­tions like GetUp! has no prece­dent.”

The old cul­ture war­riors are des­per­ately scared of the cam­paign­ing power of these new ac­tivists, she says, which ex­plains their re­cent rush to change elec­toral laws, to “squash the model that GetUp! rep­re­sents”.

This mood for change will not be lim­ited by sly do­na­tion laws, how­ever. Hunt­ley cites the de­bate over Aus­tralia Day, on which she did sig­nif­i­cant fo­cus group re­search.

Far from be­ing a “tiny mi­nor­ity”, as Turn­bull said, the mood for change is strong.

“What we found was that roughly one third of peo­ple thought Aus­tralia Day cel­e­bra­tions on Jan­uary 26 were shame­ful. An­other, slightly smaller co­hort … had lit­tle em­pa­thy for Indige­nous pain or thought it was a to­ken is­sue which ob­scured the real is­sues of Abo­rig­i­nal dis­ad­van­tage. Then there was an­other dis­en­gaged but prag­matic third, whose at­ti­tude was ‘as long as there’s a day where I can have a hol­i­day and a beer with my mates, I don’t care what day. Change the date if it up­sets you.’

“I think the mood is there to have con­ver­sa­tions about a range of is­sues: about rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, Uluru, the re­pub­lic, other things. There is def­i­nitely a greater en­ergy about these ques­tions that re­late not to the econ­omy or what we im­port or ex­port, but who we are as Aus­tralians.

“I wouldn’t be at all sur­prised if some of these is­sues be­come quite crit­i­cal in the next elec­tion.”

Ian McAllister, like­wise, sees a new mood abroad in the wake of the same-sex mar­riage de­bate. “It sug­gests to me that in the next five years or so there will be a lot more dis­cus­sion of these moral is­sues, un­less the econ­omy re­ally goes south. I think ed­u­ca­tion, re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion, fund­ing for re­li­gious schools, the whole role of re­li­gion, per­haps.”

Cer­tainly, Oquist says, the pro­gres­sive forces are at last as­cen­dant in the cul­ture wars.

“The de­feat of the con­ser­va­tive forces on same-sex mar­riage and eu­thana­sia, along with the tarnishing of or­gan­ised re­li­gion as a moral force as a re­sult of the child abuse royal com­mis­sion, has put the cul­tural right very much on the back foot,” he says.

And it’s hard to ar­gue with that.

The old is­sues so deftly ex­ploited by

John Howard just don’t seem to cut through the way they did. The big­gest of them his­tor­i­cally – the al­leged threat to na­tional sovereignty posed by asy­lum seek­ers – has re­ceded in the pub­lic mind, iron­i­cally be­cause the gov­ern­ment suc­ceeded in stop­ping the boats.

De­spite the gov­ern­ment’s best ef­forts to de­hu­man­ise the peo­ple left bunged up on Manus and Nauru, pub­lic at­ti­tudes have soft­ened, even among those who would not see a change in pol­icy.

Pe­ter Dut­ton’s at­tempts to pick a fight with New Zealand over its of­fer to take some of the de­tainees are in­creas­ingly per­ceived as a des­per­ate ef­fort to gin up a fad­ing is­sue.

So what else have they got? The long cam­paign to make an is­sue of the Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act qui­etly ex­pired with­out much change. Safe Schools?

It’s hard to see any great mileage left in that one, par­tic­u­larly as the re­li­gious right’s ef­forts to con­flate it with same-sex mar­riage fell so com­pre­hen­sively flat.

As we noted at the top of the story, Turn­bull’s re­cent for­ays into the is­sues of the re­pub­lic, the flag and Aus­tralia Day got lit­tle trac­tion. In­deed, they served to un­der­line the con­tra­dic­tions be­tween the old Mal­colm Turn­bull, of whom vot­ers ini­tially ap­proved, and the new one, who is be­holden to the hard right of the Lib­eral Party.

“At least,” says Carol John­son, “vot­ers knew where they were with John Howard, knew that he was con­sis­tent in his con­vic­tions, whereas they don’t see Turn­bull as com­pletely sin­cere on these things.”

There re­mains, of course, the is­sue of cli­mate change and en­ergy pol­icy, but the polls in­di­cate the gov­ern­ment is los­ing that one as well.

Mean­while, on Thurs­day, Turn­bull de­liv­ered what was billed as an “agenda set­ting” speech in Toowoomba, spruik­ing the cre­ation of those 403,100 new jobs last year. He claimed it was the re­sult of his gov­ern­ment’s trickle-down com­pany tax cuts.

In the ab­sence of real wage growth, though, there’s Buck­ley’s chance he’ll get any real poll bounce out of it. Ian McAllister speaks with the au­thor­ity of 30 years of elec­toral sur­veys: “Jobs haven’t been an is­sue since the 1990s re­ces­sion.”

What’s left is cul­ture war. But as much as he tries, Mal­colm Turn­bull is not

• much good at it.


Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull at Bondi Beach.

MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Sat­ur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Sat­ur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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