Opinion: The cruel sea, “bill-shock” and other harsh lessons from politics

Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash
Monday 20 May 2024

By Mark Kenny

A version of this article was originally published by The Canberra Times.

In one newsroom I worked in, the international clocks along the end wall were labelled thusly: New York – 14 hours behind, London – 9 hours behind, and Canberra – 10 years behind.

Nowadays, British politicians follow us, although, not in anything good. Mostly, this reflects the clueless funk of post-Brexit Britain, but also, the harsh example of Australia’s insensitive political culture.

Even conservative America has taken cues from Aussie populism. Recall Donald Trump’s admiring 2017 retort as Malcolm Turnbull explained why nobody who arrived by boat would ever settle here. “You are worse than I am!” an incredulous Trump had gushed.

Speaking of boats, Britain’s Tory government has gone further than mere admiration, explicitly adopting an “Australian solution” to sea-borne asylum seekers in a last desperate bid to leverage fear.

Of those “illegals” crossing the English Channel in “small boats”, some will be flown to the African nation of Rwanda for involuntary resettlement – ie to one of the world’s poorer and least stable countries. Sounds depressingly familiar, doesn’t it?

The actual numbers to be transferred are miniscule compared to the epic workarounds of British and international law. And compared to the Pounds sterling paid to an impoverished nation most known for its genocide.

The catchy three-word slogan to sell this monstrous theatre? Stop the boats. Cartoon governments like cartoon captions.

Presumably, the ex-Howard and Abbott-era Australians advising Number 10 on strategy and communications figured, why not? Demonisation worked in Oz nearly two dozen years ago and again in 2013.

And it worked in 2019 when Boris Johnson campaigned on another three-worder, Get Brexit Done, although to be fair, that came from fed-up focus groups.

Eventually they did “get Brexit done” although, really, it was Britain that was “done” most royally by those peddling the xenophobic entreaty to “take back control”.

Brexit was a nativist attack on globalism, European integration, multiculturalism, and most decisively, on British prosperity.

Britain has now dropped out of the top 10 nations for standards of governance and leadership, according to the Chandler Good Government Index released on Friday. It came in 20th for “leadership and foresight” and 27th for “financial stewardship”.

The London-based Elizabeth Ames is chair of the Menzies Australia Institute at Kings College, London. An astute observer of politics both here and in the UK, she says life for Britons has got harder, too. “You’ve seen standards of living in the UK really fall in real terms and seen that pain particularly wash through people in their 20s and 30s and early 40s who have kids, who have mortgages, who are trying to get on in their careers,” she said.

Even on the progressive side of Westminster politics, Australian electoral behaviour is proving an important driver of party strategies.

Labour leader Keir Starmer – that’s Sir Keir to you and me – is consistently ahead in the polls by double figures but remains defiantly “small target” in his disposition. Thus, he is refusing to go anywhere near the Europe question despite a rising tide of “leavers” now experiencing something called “Regrexit”. One poll released by the survey firm Statista last week found 55 per cent of voters think Britain was wrong to leave the European Union and just 31 per cent say it was the right decision. A clear majority of voters now see the “leave” campaign for what it was: a deceitful triumph of simplicity over substance – the very essence of illusory populism.

The high profile political scientist, Sir John Curtice puts the anti-Brexit figure even higher at 57 or 58 per cent, noting that a significant number of “leave” voters in the 2016 referendum who also went on to vote Tory in 2019, now recognize Brexit was a bad decision.

Yet still, Starmer won’t budge. Why? Because he’s been told that this would turn an election he is set to win, into a de facto second referendum on Brexit.

Just as Albanese Labor embraced AUKUS in opposition like it was an article of faith, Starmer has ceded much of the fight on Europe and on immigration, listing among his top three priorities on Friday, his plan to “launch a new border security command”.

His take-out from Australia, reinforced by a procession of visiting ALP figures, is this: don’t be like the ALP in 2019, be like the ALP in 2022. In other words, do not give a dying government anything to fight against.

Such rope-a-dope politics might chart the straightest line to power but it is, by design, a weaker version of power, marked by truncated ambition, and a narrower mandate.

Besides, it has its own perils. In a voluntary voting system which is first-past-the-post rather than preferential, failing to enthuse supporters by instead offering the bare minimum risks a low voter turn-out, particularly among the young. This is the new-voter cohort which is traditionally most progressive, least xenophobic, and yet easily disengaged.

Ames agrees that Rishi Sunak’s Tories appear headed for the exit, but says it is still possible for Starmer Labour to fall short of a majority in its own right. That, in these circumstances would be a recipe for suboptimal government and probably, internal instability.

However, Ames also counsels Albanese Labor to heed a British lesson pertinent to the $300 energy bill rebate announced by Treasurer Jim Chalmers last week.

“The UK applied that last British winter to peoples’ bills so everybody got credits against their bills,” she told me.

“What’s really interesting is that no one recognised that the government had done this, the government comms roll-out for that was really poor.”

The result was the complete absence of any “political dividend” for Sunak from that household assistance.

Ideas, whether good or bad, can flow in both directions.

Mark Kenny is the Director of the ANU Australian Studies Institute and host of the Democracy Sausage podcast.

Updated:  21 May 2024/Responsible Officer:  Institute Director/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications