Rebecca Huntley, Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation (Quarterly essay 73)
This Quarterly Essay confirms me in my decision to delay reading each QE until the following issue has appeared. That way I get to read the correspondence while the original essay is fresh in my mind. With this issue, it has an extra advantage. Rebecca wrote Australia Fair in the lead-up to the recent Federal election, challenging Bill Shorten and his team – who she expected to win – to be bold enough to revivify Australian social democracy. The ALP lost, emphatically, and no one expects a Scott Morrison government to be interested in social democracy. So I read the essay shorn of its immediate persuasive goal, and it turns out to be a very interesting argument about where the majority of Australians stand on a number of key issues
Rebecca Huntley is a social and market researcher, involved, as she says, ‘in the “dark arts” of focus groups, polling, surveys, and strangers who ring you in the middle of dinner’. Her husband, when asked what his wife does for a living, replies, ‘She’s an expert in the opinions of people who don’t know what they are talking about.’ She’s been at it for many years, and can speak with some authority about general community attitudes on a number of topics.
She argues in this essay that the mainstream Australian population is much more progressive than our politicians. After some pages discussing the term ‘social democracy’, and research from many sources into community understandings of the role of government in a democracy, she comes to the conclusion that fairness – both for individuals and the collective – matters more to Australians than freedom (the reverse of what we generally believe to be the case in, say, the USA):
The point of democratic government is to do things for people, not to prevent government from doing things to people(page 17)
She goes onto some detail on housing and homelessness; the environment and climate change (‘the defining issue for voters judging a prime minister’s leadership skills and character’); immigration, refugees and asylum seekers. On each of these subjects she demonstrates – though less clearly on the last mentioned than the others – that the majority of us, as in the case of the postal survey on same-sex marriage, want change for the better in ways that our political leaders simply don’t represent. And politicians are held in very low regard, seen as in thrall to their donors and not committed to the public good.
She pleads with Bill Shorten to step up boldly and restore a robust social democracy, wining back our respect for the parliament i the process. Who knows if he would have done it? On the strength of Anthony Albanese’s recent caving in on the Morrison government’s tax legislation, it seems unlikely. What emerges from the essay, then, is an optimistic view about the Australian population in general, and a deep pessimism about the current state of our democracy.
The correspondence is all dated post election. None of the correspondents takes a pot shot at the pollsters for getting it so wrong, but they all grapple with the paradox of a generally progressive population having voted in a nakedly reactionary government. They are all interesting. I’ll just mention James Walker’s final point. He cites Walter Lippmann (‘one of the pioneers of opinion research’) who warned that we should be wary of ‘the phantom public’. There is no single public out there, but any number of emergent entities, ‘continually evolving in response to political action and representation’. Walker goes on to quote one of Tony Abbott’s most striking pieces of feral poetry
Thus Tony Abbott, always ready with simplifying binaries, articulates the crucial factor in how belief around climate change was mobilised in the 2019 campaign: ‘Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. But where climate change is an economic issue the Liberals do well.’ The responses Huntley records might well be construed as answers to a normative question: ‘What should we do?’ But the actions of voters on the day can be thought of as an evaluation of economic interests. The Coalition, in successfully mobilising climate action as an economic issue, created a countervailing ‘public’ to that which Huntley and others thought representative of the zeitgeist.(Page 80)
Rebecca Huntley’s response to corespondents is elegant, a little mea-culpa-ish but unbowed. ‘The conclusion to draw,’ she writes.
is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America, or that all social research lacks credibility. The conclusion is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politicians has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by the politicians running the show …
The challenge is to take what the majority of Australians want and connect that with a government they feel comfortable electing. The alternative is a race to the bottom.
‘I remain,’ she concludes, ‘a defiant optimist. Just one who now recognises the scale of the challenge ahead.’