Friday, January 7, 2011

2010: The Year in Australian Politics

What a year it was in Australian politics!

Really, it had everything; sex, violence, hit tunes... well, maybe it didn't have those things, but this isn't America. Even so, we had elections, changes of Government, a deposed Prime Minister, a deposed Prime Minister resurfacing as foreign minister, our first female PM, scandals, angry debate, boat people, cowboy hats and more budgie smugglers than anyone would've thought possible:

And so I wonder why, thinking back over the year that was, that I'm not filled with a sense of excitement, but mostly with a sense of disappointment... disillusionment... even self loathing. It almost reminds me of the time I went to see a Russ Meyer film at ACMI here in Melbourne; yeah it was great fun and I cackled like a goon at the camp hilarity of it all, but afterwards I felt like I needed a wash or, at least, two tickets to a Noel Coward play with some Proust to read afterward (this didn't stop me going and seeing another Russ Meyer film the following week, of course).

For rarely, if ever, have we had a year where there was so much political activity, so much political noise (to call it 'sound and fury' would be to imbue it with undeserved lofty qualities), that cost so much money (tax payers money for the most part), that lead to so little in the way of identifiable outcomes that would be of benefit to anyone.

2010 was truly the year of 'Nobody': Those who talk loud, saying nothing.

The major political event of the year was, of course, the Federal election.

And you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who didn't get a bit of a jolt out of that one. I mean, it was so action packed that even people with no interest in politics - i.e. most people - were forced to pay attention as the leaks, backstabbing and vitriol mounted up. And that was just members of the ALP turning on each other! To say nothing of the result, which saw the two major parties effectively shadow box each other into a coma, leaving the outcome to be decided by a handful of Parliamentary independents in the House of Representatives; the nutjob in the hat, the crusty old timer, the serial candidate trying his luck in Hobart and the boyishly enthusiastic windbag who no one seemed to like very much.

To understand the election outcome it is instructive to look at the opposite trajectories of two of the major players in it; Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott. The Ruddbot started the year miles ahead in the polls and appeared certain to stroll into a second term whenever he decided to call the election. But a strange kind of paralysis seemed to overcome his programming as the year progressed and he began to malfunction so badly that his party decided to disconnect him and destroy his CPU before he could even get back to the polls, making him the first Prime Minister to be kyboshed before facing re-election. This stands in stark contrast to the trajectory of the Opposition Leader, Tony 'Action Man' Abbott, who started the year as a Speedo wearing national joke, but came so close to becoming Prime Minister that many of my facebook friends posted status updates about leaving the country. Abbott lost the election but somehow seemed to convey the impression that he'd actually won it, or, that he'd rather be a respectable Opposition leader than Prime Minister of a coalition of misfits and weirdos.

This left the person who actually won the election, Julia 'Wavy Hands' Gillard, trailing badly behind Abbott and Rudd, in both interest and nickname stakes. To be as fair as possible to Gillard, she certainly tried hard once Labor's backroom head kickers had installed her in place of Rudd. But her efforts on the campaign trail were seriously handicapped by a hatful of factors, chief among them the fact that Labor's backroom headkickers had installed her in place of Rudd. It's quite hard to go to the electorate pledging yourself as trustworthy and safe when you've just conspired to overthrow your boss after a few bad polls.

Gillard also handicapped herself with a largely policy free election platform. I mean, what was she pledging again? Her vision for Australia? An unfunded promise to build a rail line in Western Sydney and an unbuildable refugee processing centre in East Timor. And something about broadband internet, coming to a suburb near you in 2035. Not that she was alone in the policy-lite stakes, as the Action Man took up the do-nothing-shout-loudly style of politics with gusto. He really seemed to enjoy it too, rushing around the country like the Loony Tunes devil in rolled up shirtsleeves, only pausing to yell 'Stop the Boats!' at any country fair, primary school, CWA meeting, small business, gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse that would have him:

The Action Man was rewarded for his shrill, one note, intelligence insulting campaign with truckloads of votes from all corners of the country, proving that people in the suburbs are just as easy to convince that darkies are about to invade the country and drive up electricity prices as they were when John Howard was in charge. Sadly, you can bet we'll hear more about this issue, in the same overblown fashion, in 2011.

The Federal election was also good for at least one minor party, with the Greens obtaining their first lower house seat won at a general election, when they took Melbourne from the Labor Party (Michael Organ won the Federal seat of Cunningham at a by election in 2002, only to lose it back to Labor at the 2004 poll). There were a variety of factors behind this result, chief among them the retirement of popular Labor sitting member Lindsay Tanner and the decision of the Liberals to preference the Greens ahead of Labor. But it also shouldn't be forgotten that the Greens selected a well known local candidate - Melbourne based lawyer Adam Bandt - and had him run on a progressive program choc full of fresh ideas. Hopefully Labor and Liberal alike will take notice of these radical initiatives.

2010 also brought a State election to Victoria, with an even more surprising outcome than that of the federal poll.

Boosted by landslide victories in 2002 and 2006, the John Brumby lead Labor Government appeared to have an impossibly safe and intractable buffer to prevent them from losing at the November poll. That they managed to do so, coughing up a dozen seats and suffering a swing against of above 6% state wide, is more a tribute to some bizarrely inept campaigning and a stubborn refusal to address any of Victoria's problems than anything that Opposition leader 'Big Ted' Baillieu and the Liberal Party came up with.

Based on the Labor campaign, you'd have thought that the chief priorities of the outgoing Government were making sure everyone knew that Brumby sheared sheep occasionally in his spare time:

That, and the fact that he wanted to spend about a squillion dollars forcing every Year 9 student in the state to go to some kind of combination karate/army fantasy camp. And all while the demountable classrooms at the states public schools remained unairconditioned and slowly fell apart, and the trains running to the schools and everywhere else regularly broke down on hot days while the Transport Minister expressed amazement that it was hot in summer time. I mean, again? Geez, that seems to happen every year.

Coming to the rescue of Victorians, then, was Big Ted, with his well documented plan to fix the state's problems by... doing things exactly the same. Which is certainly a radical idea, if not very inspiring. Well, 'doing things exactly the same' may not be exactly correct. Victoria's new government will buy a massive 8 - 8!!!!!!!!! - new trains over the next four years, so there'll be a handful more to break down on hot days. And they're going to give us a new state slogan too, to replace the old one that has been the bane of everyone's life for sooo long. What was it again? The old slogan? 'Victoria: Something something.' Man, am I ever tired of that thing. It's good to see that Big Ted has got his priorities straight.

2010 was also a rare year, in that an Australian managed to make a mark on the world political stage. We're talking, of course, about 'WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange, who caused such a stir worldwide and was so widely discussed that he probably should've been 'Time' magazine's 'Person of the Tear.' I mean, Mark Zuckerberg? They know that he founded facebook about 8 years ago, right? All that happened to Zuck this year was that a film got made about him.

Anyways, Assange's website published thousands of secret diplomatic cables that had been leaked to it, managing to embarrass pretty much everyone with any association to politics in the process. He also found himself threatened, broke, jailed and facing sexual assault charges and so had pretty effortlessly acquired all the trappings of a major modern celebrity. We'll know that the transformation is complete if he releases his own line of underwear this year, or starts talking about his 'brand.'

And so 2010 came to an end, with neither a bang nor a whimper, but a kind of unsettled feeling, a bit like indigestion. And for all the disappointment and disillusionment and self loathing that comes from following the political debate in this country (and I smashed things several times listening to our leaders speak), there's no doubt that I'll do it all over again this year. After all, I need something to fill the gaps in the week and year when there's no footy or cricket on.

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