You knew it was coming. It’s been three years in the making. You’ve had time to prepare yourself for this moment but as much you tried to make sense of it, you never really could wrap your head around it, even as the inevitable came rushing towards you like a freight train. As much as you wanted to deny it, there was no escape from the grim reality as it embraced you with its cold, scaly hands. What was once so inconceivable that most Australians scoffed at the very suggestion has become a bitter reality. Tony Abbott has become the 28th Prime Minister of Australia.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Tony Abbott, the self proclaimed member of John Howard’s “Praetorian Guard.” The Tony Abbott who in February 2010 described the problem of Climate Change as “absolute crap” and that the most logical way of responding to it was by instructing Australian housewives to make sure they turn off their irons when they’ve done their allotted daily duties. Tony Abbott, the man who labelled abortion “as the easy way out” and homelessness as a personal choice.
It would be easy to keep recycling Abbott axioms but now it’s pointless; Abbott is Prime Minister. Most Australians would accept that Tony Abbott isn’t a particularly pleasant or likeable fellow as evidenced by the fact that his preferred PM rating consistently hovered around the mid 30s for the past four years. We know exactly what we’ve signed up for. Yet even so this bible thumping, xenophobic demagogue has cantered to a comfortable election triumph.
With Abbott now sworn in and the Liberal Party now revelling in its greatest triumph since 1996, it’s worth considering how did it all come to this.
It’s hard to see the 2013 Election as anything other than a ballot the Labor Party lost rather than an election the Liberals won. Indeed while the Liberals have achieved a crushing majority in the lower house and conservatives across the country have no doubt been basking in their victory, the 2013 Federal Election will be remembered as the moment when Labor’s four years of horrifying self destruction reached its epic climax.
The left will grumble about Abbott’s reactionary ideology, they’ll guffaw when Abbott says something particularly loathsome (usually to do with the role of women in Australian life) but in the end as Abbott marches on, the left will stare with the same glazed eyes and faraway expression that thousands of Australians had as they filed into the polling booth. Why? Because deep down the left will know. Cut away all the noise, the Abbott memes and the self-righteous fury and we’re faced with the grim realisation: What other choice did the Labor Party give the Australian people?
Although Labor’s six year reign brought many notable achievements that will have long term benefit to the nation, such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the Apology to Indigenous Australians and a deft handling of the global financial crisis that has seen Australia emerge from the turmoil in significantly stronger shape than nearly every other major economy, the Labor Government of 2007-2013 will be remembered for only one thing: chaos.
Disciplined Sloganeering has paid off for Tony Abbott.
You don’t knife a Prime Minister in the middle of the night, let alone two in three years and not expect repercussions from the electorate. As they repeatedly shot themselves in the foot and lurched from one self made crisis to another, Labor has been its own worst enemy and the best advertisement for a Liberal return. With the Labor Party disintegratinginto a pathetic hive of infighting and political power plays, Tony Abbott, a man whose temperament for leadership as been long questioned, has essentially been able to pick up the Prime Ministership by default while Labor squabbled amongst themselves.
Labor’s inability to effectively communicate a message destroyed its reelection chances. Instead of promoting their own accomplishments and plans for the future, Labor found itself in a never ending game of catch up as they helplessly chased their own tail and allowed Tony Abbott to define the political narrative. An election campaign that should have been fought on education reform, sound economic management and climate change, instead became a referendum on the alleged threat posed by refugees on the Australian way of life.
Perhaps what’s most galling about this election is that a new Prime Minister has been elected in large part due to the disciplined way in which he was able to repeatedly drone the same three word slogans and not ever have to elucidate these sound bytes into actual policy proposals. “Stop the Boats” “No more carbon tax.” “Cut the waste”
We have a vague idea about what Tony Abbott wants to do but we have absolutely no idea about how he’s actually going to do it. How exactly does he plan on stopping refugees from seeking refuge? What “waste” is he going to cut and how will it affect Australian jobs? It’s frightening to see someone gain power with such a minimal amount of policy details. Does this obvious information gap say more about the cynical approach of the Liberal Party, the poor effort of the media to do their job and hold politicians to account or the growing apathetic malaise that seems to have engulfed millions of Australians? Regardless of how you wish to interpret it, there’s no doubt that such information gaps and the lack of accountability is bad news for the state of our political discourse and without any kind of correction, we can all look forward to more sloganeering and less informed debate.
So where do we go now? Tony Abbott has become Prime Minister, his cabinet have been sworn in and the Liberal Party seem certain to enjoy the plush surrounds of government power for at least the next six years.
Even though this is undeniably a dark time for progressive minded Australians, there are still some things that can be taken out of this train wreck:
- Despite winning the election comfortably with 90 seats in the House of Reps to 54, the Liberals only managed a 2% swing in their favour. Taking a glass half full approach (because right now we have no other choice) that tells us that even in an election where the chickens of Labor innumerable cock ups finally came home to roost, Abbott still could only persuade an extra 2% of the population to support him. That’s like Collingwood beating an under 10 footy side by a kick and claiming to be happy with the result. Sure, you’re glad you won but you know it should have been a lot more. Going forward, Abbott’s ability to develop any kind of warm rapport with the electorate will be a crucial factor in determining how long his reign in the top seat lasts.
- This is Labor’s last chance to properly modernise itself for the 21st century and remain a viable political force. Labor has had an identity crisis for nearly 20 years. It claims to represent the working class and the protector of social justice, however the last two decades have seen a gradual drift away from those values towards the right. Occasionally, Labor would announce some kind of progressive policy, only to cave in to Liberal firebombing once it became too hot to handle (climate change, refugees etc). This has chipped away at Labor’s perception in the community. These days no one really knows what Labor stands for except that they will basically mimic whatever Liberal ideas seem to gain traction in opinion polls. With a brutal election defeat, Labor must reevaluate their direction and determine a set of policies that will reenergise their base. Most importantly Labor needs to draw a line through the Rudd/Gillard era by cutting out the public squabbling and establishing a credible and realistic alternative to the new Abbott Government based on Labor beliefs and values rather than a cheap facsimile of whatever the Liberals are doing. It’s time for Labor to rediscover their backbone for when things get tough and establish a distinct identity for the coming battles. Failure to do so will see Labor cast into the political wilderness for the next decade and beyond.
- The Greens remain a credible third force in Australian politics. Adam Bandt’s triumph in Melbourne was all the more remarkable considering that both major parties were united in their quest to bury the Greens via preferences arrangements. As Bandt spoke at his headquarters on election night, the one thing that stood out was the sea of young, passionate supporters surrounding him. On such a depressing night when Australian politics took a sharp turn to the right, the sight of so many enthusiastic young people committed to something greater than themselves was cause for some hope that apathy has not completely overwhelmed all Australians.
Make no mistake about it- the next few years are going to be hard for progressive, socially conscious Australians. There will be cringe worthy moments a plenty as Abbott gradually unleashes a flurry of boneheaded comments about women, homosexuals and abortion. More importantly the battles ahead will be nasty and dirty as the Liberals seek to destroy climate change initiatives, dehumanise refugees, replace the National Broadband Network with tin cans, excommunicate the working class and bury any kind of initiative or policy that does not include tax breaks for big business. There will be setbacks and there will be disappointments but in this dark time there’s one thing worth remembering: The left always wins. It takes longer than what some of us would like but history is the tale of an ongoing progressive trend that always emerges triumphant. There are bumps along the way but the future is ours as long as people are willing to work for it.
This isn’t the end. The cycle is just restarting.
Divided We Fail: How Individualism is Holding the U.S. Back
The bootstrap mentality is about as American as apple pie. But it’s destroying our already frayed social net and education system. Can we resist our individualistic roots to mobilize and enact progressive policies?
To understand the swampy depths of American individualism is also to acknowledge that we have a serious inability to comprehend looming disaster. In fact, we’re uniquely terrible at it.
Loosely defined, American individualism is the idea that prosperity and growth is overwhelmingly the result of an individual’s hard work, cleverness, grit, and all that. (It’s both hilarious and fitting that one of our most reviled and economically disastrous presidents, Herbert Hoover, was the main architect behind the notion of American individualism.)
On one hand, this belief in individualism seems empowering. It tells us we are the captains of our own ships. It tells us we don’t have to be defined by our childhood traumas or underfunded school systems. It tells us that through scrappiness and ingenuity and discipline, we can rise above our circumstances and succeed, no matter what.
The inverse, of course, is that our failures are also ours alone to bear—with little regard for the systems and circumstances that cause some people to spend lifetimes catching up to where others were simply born.
American individualism explains so much of what we get wrong as a country, even in 2019. We downplay the systemic racism and violence of our police force through tunnel vision that tells us there are only a “few bad apples” rather than a flawed, oppressive police state. We’re unable to treat things like healthcare or housing as basic human rights, positing instead that those without access to food or shelter probably just haven’t “earned” it. And higher education—often treated as the great equalizer by meritocrats—is so expensive, it’s crippling our economy as a whole. Yet too many students are blaming themselves, and too many people are blaming students.
One is the Lousiest Number
These days, it’s hard to pick what to worry about more in the U.S. The list of societal threats certainly is long—climate change, the impending retirement crisis, the ongoing student debt crisis. These problems have been worsening for decades, and they’re all the result of failures at a systematic level.
The climate crisis was ramped up by decades of poorly regulated industries that pumped carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The retirement crisis that will likely come full force when Generation X starts leaving the workforce was set into motion by a shrinking pension system and the increasingly uncertain future of Social Security. And higher education became outrageously expensive over years of unchecked soaring tuition and fee increases.
But not everyone recognizes these mass-scale problems for what they are. Instead, too many people are blaming individual choices for giant societal failures. And these arguments are distracting us from collective solutions. Realistically, no one should be arguing that student loan forgiveness is a “half-baked” idea steeped in self-interest. Or that climate change can be reasonably combatted through laudable (yet mostly insignificant) individual actions like going vegetarian.
The numbers prove just how puny our individual actions really are against these larger-than-us problems. For example, even the most generous, self-massaged estimates put a single company like ExxonMobil’s annual carbon emissions in the range of well over 100 million CO2 equivalent metric tons. The average American, through even the most radical lifestyle changes and discipline, would likely only lower their annual emissions from about 20 metric tons to 8 metric tons. It would take millions and millions of people selling their cars and going vegan to equate to just one ExxonMobil. (Spoiler alert: There are way too many companies just like it.)
As Aaron Huertas of the Union of Concerned Scientists eloquently states: “We can’t ignore individual choice and responsibility; at the same time, we also have to recognize that our individual choices are constrained by corporate practices and government laws and regulations.”
A Way Out and Up
All is not lost, though. There is hope.
While the 2020 presidential pool for the Democrats may be a bit flooded, the makeup of the pool has revealed a trend: the ideas of sweeping economic relief and safety net programs are becoming more mainstream. If the Democratic party can just avoid spending its time strategizing against democratic socialism, we could enact policies that tackle these problems at the level they’re actually at.
Party insiders and centrists aside, it looks like voters are—even if just subtly and slowly—pressuring politicians to stop blaming individual choice for societal woes. The idea of multiple presidential candidates touting competing student loan relief programs would have seemed outrageous even a few election cycles ago—and now Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julián Castro are all on board.
The point is, we’re getting there. And if we can fight against our very American instincts, we can realize—en masse—that our efforts to save our planet might be better spent organizing than remembering to recycle our empty salsa jars. We can take solace in knowing a liberal arts degree isn’t a personal failing that deserves financial punishment. We can accept that, as individuals, we may not be as powerful on our own as we thought, but we also may not be as much to blame for our struggles.
And then, we can mobilize.
Ramsay and the Rabble: Miseducation at the University of Queensland
Conservatives should not flee campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight.
For good reason, controversies in higher education are usually of short-term and limited interest to the Australian public, which is undoubtedly much more intelligent than anyone at a typical humanities faculty meeting. Examples abound, but for a measure of proof, look to Dr. Dean Aszkielowicz of Murdoch University, who recently expressed a chirpy contempt for ANZAC soldiers, or, as he called them, murderers unworthy of commemoration.
Fashionable whinging about a pervasive university rape crisis also comes to mind. The idea that Australian campuses are somehow comparable to the Congo or downtown Mogadishu cannot be believed by a thinking person, which is probably why it’s so popular among feminists of the young and mulish variety.
Such examples of academic mischief dominate the headlines and then disappear. The ongoing debate over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, however, has proven to be an interesting exception.
Put simply, Paul Ramsay, the late businessman and philanthropist, left a sizeable bag of money for any Australian university that wanted it. The funds would go toward the establishment of a Bachelor of Arts degree in Western Civilisation, the hiring of academic staff, and generous scholarships.
The centerpiece is a Great Books program in which small groups of students would read and discuss the imperishable works of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, and others. This would provide students with a real liberal education – “the best that has been thought and said,” as Matthew Arnold put it.
That all sounds great, I hear the thoughtful Reader agreeing, and yes, it does. Our universities have centers for the study of China, Islam, and the like; why not establish one devoted to our own intellectual and historical tradition? Ramsay’s goal of promoting “an interest in and awareness of Western civilization” should strike any reasonable person as sound and modest.
Against all this must be set the utterly unhinged reaction from university staff and students. Countless protests, op-eds, and social media denunciations have left the Ramsay Centre homeless and its millions of dollars unspent. To recap: the Australian National University flirted with the idea and then impolitely declined; the University of Wollongong said sure why not and is now facing legal action by the National Tertiary Education Union seeking to reverse the decision; the University of Sydney, led by the indefatigable Dr. Nick Riemer, is sure to reject the proposal. Riemer, who spends an incredible amount of time sniffing about Ramsay and organizing protest conferences, allegedly teaches students in the Linguistics department. He was the academic loon, you may recall, who argued in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Ramsay curriculum “validates the worldview” of the Christchurch terrorist who murdered innocent Muslims at prayer.
This brings me to the University of Queensland, where there is some interest in setting up Ramsay despite the fact that the humanities board has twice rejected the proposed curriculum. Of course, radical anti-Western zealots desire to be the cause of radical anti-Western zeal in others, so it’s no surprise that the lecturers have corrupted the students.
In an apparent nod to Athenian-style democracy, Student Union president Georgia Millroy organized a meeting in the Schonell theatre, where some five hundred students gathered to debate and vote on whether negotiations with Ramsay should continue, the Brisbane Times reported on May 29.
It must be said that the young toads approached the task with a combination of demagoguery and smugness. With the lecture hall stacked, they loudly asserted their opposition, which was undoubtedly what Ms. Millroy hoped to achieve. Her comrade on the student council, Priya De, described the Ramsay Centre as “racist” without bothering to back up such a claim with evidence, and then she banged on for a bit about white supremacy. Other speakers of similarly limited vocabulary proceeded in a reliably platitudinous manner and added all sorts of nonsense to the Ramsay bill of complaint. In the end, only eight students voted in favor, and the Times should really do its journalistic duty and conduct a second headcount; those brave souls may have been sent off for reeducation.
This incident at UQ and similar ones elsewhere are not mere tussles in Australian higher education, soon to be forgotten. There is much more at risk. The failure to establish the Ramsay Centre would signal the success of “the culture of repudiation”, Roger Scruton’s term for Western culture’s masochistic hatred of itself and its inheritance. One must ask: is a considered appreciation of Western philosophy and history even permissible in its own home, the university? In Australia, the debate over Ramsay will help to settle this question.
For many conservatives, however, the debate is already over, and the losers are on the run. Roger Kimball, writing recently in the New York Post, argued that the Right should give up on trying to change the universities; such institutions are unsalvageable and new ones must be set up in their place. Salvatore Babones, associate professor at the University of Sydney, recently made the same case in relation to the Ramsay Centre.
This is a tempting path to take, especially for someone like me. I graduated in – good grief, when was it? – 2013, and since then I’ve undertaken the most intellectually liberating experience of my life: the gradual relinquishment of almost all the convictions I held as a university student. This has involved deep reading in a variety of sources, especially the Great Books, and a shuffle to the Right, well ahead of schedule.
That said, I don’t think conservatives should flee the campus just yet. There are good reasons to stay and fight: first, surrendering to the likes of Georgia Millroy and her mob is intolerable to me; and second, I think a kind of victory is possible.
This may be surprising, but I sometimes notice a certain lack of resolve in the anti-Ramsay crowd, despite their vociferousness, and I wonder if their hearts are really in it. Perhaps, deep down, they might even enjoy losing this particular fight.
How so? Well, the successful establishment of the Ramsay Centre would give many lecturers and their students their favorite thing of all: it would satisfy their desire to feel aggrieved all the time. They’d get quite a kick out of carrying on whinging about their victimhood and oppression. Imagine the safe spaces they’d have to build to protect themselves from those fellow students across campus, the ones who may have a shot at a decent and truly liberal education.