February 23, 2022

Of all the absurdities currently plaguing Australia’s political class, perhaps the most revealing is the recent surge in voters Googling “April Sun in Cuba”. For the uninitiated, April Sun in Cuba is a Seventies song by New Zealand band Dragon. It is also the tune Prime Minister Scott Morrison chose to play on his ukulele for the viewers of 60 Minutes during a recent interview at home with his family.

Why would the PM be playing a forgotten Seventies hit on his ukulele in the middle of a pandemic? Well, it must be election time! Australia’s next federal election has to be held in May at the latest, and Morrison’s government is trailing the opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP) by 10 points. The PM’s personal approval rating has fallen 20 points since June, although he is still ahead of his opponent, ALP leader Anthony Albanese, by 5 points.

Accordingly, Morrison has also had to contend with growing ructions within his own party over his performance. Most bizarrely, at the National Press Club, journalist and Liberal Party insider Peter Van Onselen read out private text messages allegedly exchanged between former New South Wales Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and an unnamed cabinet minister, in which the PM is described as “a horrible, horrible person” and “a complete psycho”. Van Onselen then asked the stunned Morrison for his reaction to the texts, in the process taking Australian politics to a cringeworthy new low.

In an effort to save face, Morrison has tried to win back some of his popularity by being tough on borders. This is far from surprising since Morrison first came to national prominence when, as Immigration Minister in the Tony Abbott government, he “stopped the boats” of asylum seekers arriving via Indonesia to Australia.

This time, however, Morrison’s target was somewhat different. He and current Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, a close political ally, first detained and then deported Novak Djokovic. But this did not turn out quite the political coup the PM was hoping for: a prolonged legal battle only made the government look even more incompetent than most people already thought it was.

And so, thwarted on borders, the PM and his Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, leapt on another shibboleth of political opportunism: threats to national security. At a Senate hearing earlier this month, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) chief, Mike Burgess, reported that his organisation had uncovered a plot by a rich “puppeteer”, on behalf of a foreign power, to bankroll friendly candidates for an unnamed political party in the upcoming federal election. Although Burgess provided few details, it soon became known that the alleged puppeteer was Chinese-Australian businessman Chau Chak Wing, the foreign country was China, and, perhaps most importantly, the political party was the ALP.

Conveniently forgetting that Chau Chak Wing’s identity was only made public because Labor Senator Kimberley Kitching named him under parliamentary privilege, and that similar allegations were previously made against their own side, the government pounced. Defence Minister Dutton, not renowned for his subtlety, claimed during parliamentary question time that China had picked opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, as its preferred candidate. The ALP, he said, could not be trusted to defend the nation against Chinese aggression. Not to be outdone, the PM called ALP Deputy Leader Richard Marles a “Manchurian candidate”, referencing a speech he gave in China way back in 2019, in which he called for greater cooperation between the two countries, including on defence.

Morrison forgot to mention that the defence cooperation Marles was referring to, which saw Australian troops travelling to China a few weeks before his visit, was a Coalition government initiative from 2015. Morrison was eventually forced to retract his comments, and the government was rebuked by ASIO’s Burgess, who rejected the notion that one side of politics was more compromised by China than the other. But that was not the end of the matter.

To add fuel to the fire, former diplomat Bruce Haigh wrote an article in the controversial Chinese state-run newspaper, Global Times. Haigh, who represents no one, blamed Australia’s current leadership for the sorry state of the China-Australia bilateral relationship and expressed his hopes that, if elected, Albanese could provide a reset. Cue more inflammatory comments from the government and its supporters that China wants Labor to win. Although there isn’t much to distinguish between the government and the opposition’s public statements on China, the contours of the Coalition’s scare campaign for the upcoming election campaign are already pretty clear.

The buffoonery, and worse, of the past few weeks is obviously an indication of an increasingly desperate PM, and government, trying anything and everything to stay alive. It does, however, have deeper roots in the growing void between politicians and the societies they govern.

Australia is often maligned, including by some Australian pundits, as a political backwater, faithfully copying a few years later political trends set in its bigger Anglosphere cousins, the United States and Britain. This characterisation is unfair and historically ignorant. If anything, the flow has often been in the other direction.

Australia, for instance, had the world’s first “third way” government, when the ALP, led by Bob Hawke, came to power in 1983. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, then bright-eyed newcomers, came to Australia on a study trip in 1990 to learn about the ALP’s policies, and later copied its brand of neoliberal centrism in the UK.

A key difference between the two countries is that in the UK, the union movement was defeated in open conflict by the Thatcher government in the Eighties. Australia’s historically powerful union movement was defanged by its own political representatives, via the ‘Accord’, after which unions agreed to restrict wage demands. As a result, union membership plummeted from 51% of the Australian workforce in 1976 to only 14% in 2016.

The ALP was thus untethered from its foundations in the union movement. Already in the Sixties, under the leadership of the urbane Gough Whitlam, it began to attract middle-class voters, especially among university graduates, by focusing on a wider range of social issues, such as indigenous rights. From the Eighties, because union membership was getting smaller, Labor became increasingly reliant on progressive middle-class votes to win elections, turning further away from its working-class roots.

On the other side of politics, things were changing too, and again Australia was at the forefront of developments later felt elsewhere. While Britons were astounded when Boris Johnson smashed Labour’s “Red Wall” in the 2019 elections, in Australia the conservative Liberal Party was already taking hitherto safe, working-class, ALP seats in the Nineties — a phenomenon known as “Howard’s battlers”, named after then Prime Minister John Howard. These seats, usually at the fringes of Australia’s major cities became hotly contested swing electorates, the main battleground on which most elections are fought.

In short, as society became disorganised during the shift from the industrial to the post-industrial age, political parties lost their organic connection to society. Unsurprisingly, political party membership in Australia fell from 4% of the population in the Sixties to 0.5% today. Of course, people continue to be involved in political campaigns in other ways, for example by volunteering to help independent candidates. Yet Australia’s parties and politicians have had to learn to appeal to an amorphous mass of atomised voters.

Two consequences of this underlying shift are immediately apparent in the political buffoonery dominant today. First, the personal branding of leaders has become a lot more important than before. No one exemplifies this better than Scott Morrison, a graduate of one of Australia’s most prestigious independent schools, a rugby union fan and former player, and a religious wowser. A few years ago, Morrison completely altered his persona to appeal to his party’s growing working-class constituency. He began to call himself ScoMo, parade a love for his local National Rugby League club, the Cronulla Sharks, and talk often about how much he loved to have a beer with his mates.

The authenticity of Morrison’s new persona was always on shaky grounds, but for a time it did work. He led the Coalition to a surprising win in 2019 because working-class voters often preferred him over his opponent Bill Shorten, a former union leader. But now Morrison is no longer the underdog. Facing a genuine political challenge, he appears to be floundering, so unsure what to do he has been dialling his made-up persona up to 11.

A second consequence is the growing appeal of the politics of fear as politicians desperately search for ways of finding legitimacy. Politics in Australia over the past few decades seems to have become an endless parade of scare campaigns — drugs, terrorism, climate change, Covid-19, China. The point is not that these issues do not merit our attention. It is that approaching them through the lens of fear is often no more than a mask for political ineptitude and for encroaching authoritarianism. The government’s recent attempt to smear the ALP with the “reds under the beds” tag would have been amusing if it were not for the introduction of undemocratic laws under the guise of managing foreign powers’ interference in Australia — legislation that the ALP supported.

With the election still a few months away, there is no doubt plenty more buffoonery to come. Yet Morrison knows that schmaltzy ukulele songs will only distract voters for so long. Even in Cuba, the April sun must set. And when that happens, the void between Australia’s voters and its politicians could prove insurmountable.