Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Photo by Dominic Lipinski - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Stay home, win elections

Leaders that reject grand narratives in favour of what actually matters to people are rewarded

A funny thing is happening in Australia. Although our federal government continues to make noises about opening the international borders, something is becoming increasingly clear — there are a whole lot of Australians happy to keep them closed. One poll suggests 81 per cent are happy with restrictions on not being allowed to leave the country, while another has three quarters wanting borders to remain closed until mid-2022. The real scorn is saved for Australians who didn’t take the opportunity to return before the borders slammed shut. 

On one level, this should be no surprise. Since before federation, Australia has long taken advantage of its geography to embrace isolation. Our shameful border policies around refugees have been the envy of right-wing governments around the world. But Australians might be learning something from Covid. Something conservative governments have known — and exploited — for some time. People like it here. For all its imperfections and dark history, at this particular moment in history, it’s a pretty great place to live for most people. Although Melbourne has suffered repeated outbreaks, most of Australia remains in a parallel world where Covid never happened.

The message to the left is clear — when people feel seen, they’ll vote for you in droves

This kind of nationalism typically plays into the hands of the populist right, but nations led by right-wing populists have been some of the worst hit by Covid. Australia’s right-wing government was initially able to ride on the success of largely Labor-led states in controlling outbreaks, but has slumped in the polls as the gap between federal responsibility (a disastrous record on quarantine and vaccination) and state action (successfully closing state borders and locking down) has become more obvious. The state government that took the strongest action to protect its local communities — the centre-left Western Australian Labor government — was rewarded with an unprecedented landslide that didn’t so much decimate the right as drive them to extinction. The message to the left is clear — when people feel seen, they’ll vote for you in droves.

This is a lesson the Australian left has worked hard to resist. Following the 2018 federal election, a not-dissimilar scorn to that showered on late-returnees was poured on the Australians who failed to fall into lockstep with the progressive convictions of Twitter. Despite a reasonable progressive platform being put forward by the centre-left Labor party, Australians overwhelmingly voted for a Prime Minister who, by any objective measure, is a bit shit. The most Scott Morrison had to offer was an inane catchphrase — “how good is Australia?” — which, despite its daggy-dadness, clearly resonated. 

Similar shocks have played out repeatedly across the Western world. To live on Twitter was to believe that Jeremy Corbyn was about to win in a landslide and, when he didn’t, that his was the true (moral) victory. Little surprise that, when it came time to run for office, Biden turned off Twitter, where he had long been written off as a lost cause. While Twitter may be very good at telling people what they should care about, it seems a very poor gauge of what is actually important to most people.

What did the left have to offer the electorate won over by Morrison? Accusations of bigotry and hatred. One progressive comedian recently caused a furore by wishing death on anyone who voted for Morrison. But Covid offers another explanation beyond simple bigotry — for most people, local concerns will always trump global issues. This is not necessarily a problem. As we’ve seen in Australia, local action can be the most effective way of dealing with genuinely global problems. People will do the right thing when they understand how it affects them.

Australians want action on climate change but they also want their community protected from global forces

Parochialism, like patriotism and nationalism, remains a dirty word. The left has long been internationalist in its approach (to the extent that some have argued it is deeply implicated in the globalising forces that have made life worse for working people in Western nations). And yet it is parochialism — and a quirk of geography — that has spared Australia from the worst of the pandemic. Covid gave a rare chance for (notionally) progressive leaders to take urgent action that spoke directly to their electorates. For the most part, people were willing to make sacrifices for the good of the community, because the danger to that community was obvious. Climate change presents a unique challenge precisely because its effects can be mostly overlooked at the local level. The threat seems comparatively remote compared to the immediate threats of unemployment or rising house prices — which are often blamed on global factors.

There is a degree to which the obsessive geopolitical engagement that dominates Twitter is a form of privilege — of time, of education. A lack of geopolitical engagement and literacy is not the same as bigotry or apathy. Rather than simply retweeting foreign politics, the Australian left needs to draw the dots between global issues that matter — namely, climate change — and what matters to local voters. To remember what it is about our nation that is laudable.

In her book Political Tribes, Amy Chua writes about the loss of an overarching American national identity that transcends group identities, resulting in a society that no longer knows how to talk to itself. The populist right has been able to conquer the common mythical ground abandoned by a left seemingly focused more on difference than commonality. The promises of Brexit flowered on that ground, Trump built his demagoguery, and Morrison stole an election on nothing but half-arsed platitudes and hollow spin. Asking Australians to defend their country from climate change will always prove difficult if they are being sold nothing worth protecting.

It must be possible to construct a proud national mythology that is not about conquering or bigotry, but rather celebrating unique qualities worth protecting. One of those qualities, paradoxically, may be multiculturalism. When Chua bemoans the loss of an overarching national identity, what she is mourning is the loss of the idea that where you come from — culturally or geographically — doesn’t matter as much as where you are. You are, first and foremost, Australian. To celebrate a nation is not to excuse its past and present, of course. And it is worth noting that, while Australian cities are rich in diversity, more than 83 per cent of the country is white — a figure suspiciously close to the per centage of Australians happy to stay home.

Australian voters didn’t choose Morrison because they wanted him to ignore climate change. Overwhelmingly, Australians want action, even if it comes at a cost. But they also want to belong to a good place and to have their local community protected from global forces. On an individual level, many of us learned during lockdown that life could be more satisfying on a smaller scale — stripped of commutes and functions and the endless ferrying of small children to and from school and sporting events. Maybe Covid presents a similar opportunity for us to shift our political focus away from grand geopolitical narratives towards what actually matters to our fellow citizens. Before it’s too late.

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