My column in the Guardian:
Charisma and persuasion matter in politics. Though neither trait guarantees fair policies or outlook – think Tony Blair backing the catastrophic war against Iraq, or Malcolm Turnbull hailing himself as a free speech champion before pressuring the ABC over its robust journalism – image is apparently more captivating than ever in the 21st century.
That’s the mainstream consensus, anyway. The last 12 months have challenged this reality. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour party and Bernie Sanders as a viable US Presidential candidate proves that the general public increasingly craves potential leaders who understand economic disenfranchisement (likewise the allure of Donald Trump).
Both men’s popularity is despite them being unconventional left-wing politicians, outsiders with little love for the Labour or Democratic elites, with strong messages against the political and media establishments.
Sadly, it’s highly unlikely that anybody remotely as critical of the system will appear in Australia to lead one of the two major political parties. A relatively buoyant economy – despite a growing homeless problem and rampant wealth inequality – has insulated Australia from the worst excesses of the global financial crisis. As a result, the country is left with leaders who rarely stray from reflexive, pro-US and neo-liberal positions on the economy, foreign affairs, intelligence and spying.
Both the United States and Britain have suffered greatly in the last decades from a bi-partisan obsession with supposedly free trade, crony capitalism and privatisation. America’s infrastructure is literally falling apart. The results are clear to see with four out of every 10 households in the UK below the poverty line and 46 million Americans equally poor.
These individuals are mostly invisible in political campaigns and yet Sanders and Corbyn are articulating how this happened and what to do about it. Austerity is rejected. For example, Sanders has an economic plan that favours high spending for vital services and increasing taxation on corporations. Many young people are flocking to him.
Latest opinion polls place Corbyn’s Labour neck-and-neck with the Tories despite Corbyn being accused of turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism in his own party. His ascension doesn’t mean that the Labour party isn’t still filled with politicians, officials and former leaders who loathe any deviance from the establishment view on politics and are committed to destroying Corbyn and what he claims to represent; the promotion of equality and justice for the majority of the population.
In Australia, why is it impossible to even imagine a person such as Corbyn or Sanders rising to a leadership position? Labor is led by Bill Shorten, a man of stunning unpopularity though both the Liberal and Labor parties are, according to the latest polls, as popular as each other. Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is pandering to the far-right base of his party, men he fears could topple him. The Greens are languishing in third place.
The prospect of an election on 2 July (or whenever it may be) will bring little change to Shorten’s posture. His party’s long-term erroneous belief, despite diving membership numbers, is to differentiate itself only marginally from political opponents. Therefore, expect continued blind support for the Liberal party’s positions on foreign policy, spying for Washington through the Five Eyes network, and data retention.
There are some obvious reasons that a proudly left-wing candidate would have little chance in Australia. A reactionary Murdoch empire would aim to topple anybody pushing for, say, companies to pay more tax, asking questions about the nature of the US alliance over intelligence sharing, spying on neighbours and foreign companies. How about ending the privatisation of all prisons, public services and immigration detention centres? It would be deemed as radical, unfriendly to big business and shunning our biggest ally.
The majority of Australians oppose privatising public services, believe the government should be far more critical of Israeli actions in Palestine and want a strong and publicly-funded Medicare and university sector (the deregulated system for higher education in the US has led to massive student fees and institutions turning into corporations).
Of course there remains vital criticisms of the policies pushed by Corbyn and Sanders, including their ability to seriously challenge the might of corporate donors and big business if they made it to power. Recall the Syriza party in Greece promised to unwind harsh austerity then capitulated to even stricter economic strangulation.
But can you imagine an Australian political leader pledging to massively increase funding for schools and universities, hugely invest in sustainable energy solutions, reduce defence spending and not join every failed US misadventure in the Middle East? While much of this is the current Greens party platform, its failure to attract widespread political support is symptomatic of a political and media clique that hates genuine outsiders.
Political uniformity in Australia, with few politicians daring to vote against their party on issues of moral or social significance – sending asylum seekers to be abused on remote Pacific islands or increased surveillance powers – doesn’t create allegiance, but dogma.
What the rise of Corbyn and Sanders shows is that within the strict confines of mainstream politics it’s possible to generate huge public passion for politics. Corbyn has invigorated huge numbers of young Britons and Sanders attracts massive rallies. In Australia, Turnbull and Shorten are lucky to generate any passionate interest in themselves or their parties beyond the true believers.