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The prime minister and the dung beetle

Feb 3, 2020 • 14m 18s

Don Watson on why Scott Morrison is not really a politician, and how meaning left politics.

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The prime minister and the dung beetle

154 • Feb 3, 2020

The prime minister and the dung beetle

[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
As the differences between the major political parties appear to be dissolving, they are fighting more viciously, but over things that matter less.
On today’s episode, Don Watson explains the decay in political leadership in Australia, and what can be done about it.

[Theme music ends]

RUBY:

Don, I was wondering if you could tell me what you feel when you look at Australian politics?

DON:

Oh. On a good day, bemusement. On other days, irritation, frustration, perplexity. I feel like we are imprisoned in some kind of lunacy.

RUBY:

Don Watson is an author and former speechwriter to Paul Keating, his most recent column on politics is in the current edition of The Monthly.

DON:

I mean, I think in politics worldwide, in democracies, we've walked into this sort of, this prison of nonsense, of cliche, where we're actually nothing really any longer means anything. They’re the days when I feel depressed by it all. I don't think it's hopeless, but a few things would have to sort of dramatically change.

RUBY:

You make a point in your recent column for The Monthly that the differences between the two major parties have collapsed. When do you think that happened?

DON:

A long while ago. I think it's been a gradual process. I think probably in the 1980s with the Hawke/Keating model, when we began to deregulate the economy. Even as Labour did it with the social safety net and the social wage, that sort of held it up for a while. And large parts of the social wage have remained intact and made this, you know, not a bad place to live at all.
In fact, we should say at the beginning that it's not really to say that the politics make you despair, doesn't mean that you don't think this is a good place to live. It's the missed opportunity more than anything else. And the horrible nonsense you have to put up with everyday, unless you just turn off completely.

Deregulating the economy was all very fine to me. The basic idea was, government gets out of the way of the markets at the point of production, and government reinsert itself at points of distribution. The trouble with the argument was that, over time, the market inserted itself where the government had been.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #1:

“BUPA gets nearly half a billion dollars from the Australian taxpayer, as well as the money you receive from elderly Australians…”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“The Home Care waitlist in Australia was a running sore and an abject failure.”

DON:

The government became more and more, culturally speaking, like a private sector organisation. So those things which deal intimately with people's lives became less and less like government, like the notion of the commons faded away.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Woman #2:

“Government authorities, whose job it is to manage our water, are wasting millions and millions of litres of it. Corporate speculators trading in water are swimming in profits.”

DON:

So once you took out that essential point, the differences between the parties did begin to collapse and it became a question of who would distribute it most fairly.

RUBY:

So the fight now is over who’s the best financial manager, essentially? It's not about ideology.

DON:

No, no, it's not. Because you've had a generation of people growing up with this kind of economy. You have a generation of people who have no roots in any deep political ideology or any firm attachment to the parties either.
So the parties run around waving flags from yesteryear, as it were, of the liberals saying, oh, it's class war because Labour wants to do this. And the Labour saying, you know, this is the top end of town speaking, when neither of those places exist in the ways that they used to.

RUBY:

I wanted to ask you about the quote you use of David Hume: “The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst”...

DON:

Well, I think, you know, I'm using it loosely. But once you start to strip away a government's responsibility to the collective amenity, its function as a sort of unifying force, as an imaginative visionary force, as an organizing force, once you base a public service on a corporate model, once you base a university on a corporate model, you begin to undermine probably its best aspects. You know, it's a bit like facadism. You know, you have the facade of a fine art deco building. But behind it, you have a travesty.
And the belief is that this is the way of the future. You know, that this is the only way open to governments to work. I think because there is so much general agreement about the degree of government participation in the economy, but it's more the case that the culture wars reverberate and there's an awful lot of loud noise and slogans throwing because there is so much agreement. There's a sort of over-deployment of the forces to compensate for the fact that there's not much to fight about.

RUBY:

So you're saying that politics looks vicious because the parties have nothing real to argue about.

DON:

If you asked Andrew Bolt what he stood for, I doubt he could tell you in less than a day. He'd have to think about it hard. But what he stands for is sticking it up whoever he imagines is on the left and should have stuck up them. There's nothing really going on there. And occasionally you'll hit a note and it will reverberate. A lot of the time it's just brawling.

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“I don’t know why you’re yelling so much. This is helping all country communities, maybe it’s time for you to come to the table…!”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #2:

“Member for Hunter…”

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“...and just behaved yourself occasionally! The country folk are doing it tough, and you won’t ever stop yelling out at them! You should behave yourself! You’re a disgrace!”

DON:

And that is really the tenor of politics now. It is a kind of endless brawl over very little.

RUBY:

We’ll be back in a moment

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RUBY:

Don, we’re talking about changes in politics, the ways in which political parties are becoming more similar, and a generation of people who are disconnected from traditional political ideologies - where do you think that Scott Morrison sits amongst all of this?

DON:

See, I think the prime minister is a perfect expression of the age, of what's gone on over the last several decades. Where politics has become really a marketing exercise, which is expressed in various ways, including the fact that so many politicians now seem to see politics as a sort of 10-year occupation, which serves as a stepping stone into the riches of the private sector or into some gig in America or somewhere.

See, I don't think Morrison is really a politician. You know, I think he is primarily a person who came out of marketing into politics and thought he could have an interesting life there for a while. It's very hard to think of any sort of idea that Morrison has outside the mantras of aspirationalism. I think the fires demonstrated the limits of his political reach.

RUBY:

In your piece for The Monthly, you describe the ad man as a man who is not looking to find or confront meaning, but to invent it.

DON:

Yeah, I think that his first response. How can I find some way of presenting this in a way that will sell? That was his instinct.
Listening to Mr Morrison talk does remind me of films I've seen of dung beetles...

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“We're 1.23 per cent of the world's global emissions, so…”

DON:

..starting with virtually nothing and then pushing them over what looked like through mountain ranges, but they’re just pebbles...

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“So I think we need to understand that global emissions don't have an accent.”

DON:

...putting their backs into them as they lift them over a stick or something, and then through thickets...

Archival Tape -- Unidentified Man #1:

“Don’t we need to encourage other bigger emitters like China, like the US, like India?”

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“And that's why you should meet and beat your targets.”

DON:

And that's really the way Morrison presents himself to the public so that by the end of the day, when he's done 14, you know, pressers and so on. He's got this huge mound of bullshit. And that's what we’re left with.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“The cabinet and the government will continue to evolve our policies to meet our targets and to beat them. That's what I’m saying.”

DON:

And you think, well it's sort of miraculous. But I have absolutely no idea what he was saying in all that time.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:

“I'm going to achieve it in the way we've met our Kyoto 2020 targets. Meet and beat, and we've done that through better technology, through the policies we put through the emissions reduction...”

DON:

He's really sort of trying to drown you in words of virtually no consequence.

Archival Tape — Scott Morrison:

“What I'm saying is we want to reduce emissions and do the best job we possibly can and get better and better and better at it. And I want to do that within a balanced policy which represents-- which recognises Australia's broader national economic interests and social interest.

DON:

That, I suppose, is like the endpoint of the managerialism which infected both parties in the 1980s. You couldn't take on this corporate philosophy, the neoliberal philosophy, without taking on their schtick. Morrison’s doesn’t come across as managerial, but it has, in common with managerial language, vacuity.

RUBY:

Don, I was hoping you could take me back and tell me what you think we used to expect from government and how that's changed.

DON:

Well, I think we used to expect, we used to hope for at least, arguments about policy. The whole point of government is policy, to actually work out the best ways of doing things to advance the national cause and the lives of people. We’re never really conscious of that in the national debate. Politics has become so much more of a horse race. Who wins the news each day, those sorts of things. And I think we used to watch the battle between the combatants with some interest. Even if you go back to Everton and Menzies, Calwell and Menzies, Keating and Hewson, Keating and Howard. These were struggles over big ideas. Not so anymore. But there's a huge temptation to leave that and try and address the issues where the ducks are. I think it would be quite easy to say, do you want to have 12 submarines or do you want to have 10? Do you want to spend the 12 billion that each one costs or do you want to spend 24 billion again on saving the landscape that we presume to love? I think a lot of Australians would say, well, okay, we'll have 11 submarines.

RUBY:

I think we're kind of talking around this now. But do you think that the absence of meaning in politics is a concern to people who are actually working in our political system? And do you think there is an answer or that people are even looking for one?

DON:

I think it's very hard now. It felt hard when I was working in politics more than 20 years ago. I think advisers and politicians wear out quickly. They become cynical, I think, more quickly than they used to. They become reflexive rather than reflective. All those things create problems for the way the political system works and makes it harder and harder for people of deep intelligence and goodwill to get anywhere.

RUBY:

So what do we do?

DON:

We hope. We don't fall into sort of pits of pessimism, or shallow optimism, but we hope. I think it's unarguable, democracy is in crisis. I don't know how you slow it down, that’s the thing. I really don't. We're in the sort of cultivate our own garden moment. And I think we still probably have a political culture that is reclaimable if decent options are put before it.

Somehow, you have to sort of recognize that unless one of the political parties grabs hold of the narrative and begins to believe in it, I don't think much is going to change. So I guess you just don't give up

RUBY:

Don, thank you so much for coming in today. I've really enjoyed talking to you.

DON:

Thanks Ruby

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[Theme music starts]

RUBY:

Elsewhere in the news:

The government has announced foreign nationals travelling from China will be banned from entering Australia, due to the coronavirus outbreak. Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate families will be exempt from the travel ban. The new policy is expected to impact tens of thousands of Chinese international students due to arrive in Australia for the new semester, as well as tourists and business travellers.

And the ACT remains in a state of emergency as a 55,000 hectare bushfire continues to burn. The bushfire was downgraded from emergency to "watch and act", but residents are being urged by the government to remain vigilant. Meanwhile, the NSW Health Department is warning residents across that state that smoke and dust could pose health risks.

I’m Ruby Jones, see you tomorrow.

[Theme music ends]

Don Watson on why Scott Morrison is not really a politician, and how the collapse in difference between the major parties has created a vacuum of meaning.

Guest: Author and speechwriter Don Watson.

Background reading:

Leaders and dung beetles in The Monthly
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Ruby Jones. The show is produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, Elle Marsh and Michelle Macklem. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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154: The prime minister and the dung beetle