In sum, we’re seeing a moment of compromise, and largely evidence-led politics, mostly uncorrupted by powerful lobby groups, and where politicians are prepared to change their position when the situation demands it. And that is exactly how you wouldn’t describe the politics we’ve endured over at least the last decade.
If, as polling seems to suggest right now, people are more content with the leadership they’re getting than they have been for a long time, it’s worth reflecting on the fact that it might be because politics is the opposite of itself right now. It’s working because it’s breaking its every habit.
That’s relatively easy at the moment because every position being adopted is a short-term, emergency posture. You can make peace with sworn enemies more easily if it’s only for a brief period and involves no serious admissions of defeat. But that only goes to show that of all the things we’re witnessing, an abandonment of ideology is not really one of them.
The unions still believe the rapid spread of casual work is a problem that needs to be addressed, and the Liberal party still believes in the free market when it isn’t being artificially shuttered by government for reasons that have nothing to do with economics. Those crowing about the Liberal Party’s sudden embrace of communism should probably reflect on the fact that the enormous government spending program we’re seeing now is designed not to remake our economy, but to preserve it.
Scott Morrison’s language of “snapping back” and “hibernation” imagines a world that returns to its previous arrangements after a hiatus. It questions no fundamental assumptions about how the economy should generally work. Once this is over, the old ideological contests will probably remain and resume, albeit on altered terrain.
It’s that altered terrain that interests me. Specifically, what is different about it if not ideology. My working theory is that we’re primarily seeing a difference of political culture characterised by two things that have been scarce until now: honesty and sacrifice.
Think about it. This is the first time in forever that we’ve heard leaders quite prepared to give us bad news; to tell us that bad things will happen and that we will have to give up certain things and be worse off in various ways for the benefit of society generally. True, some of those sacrifices will be temporary, such as our freedom to move and socialise. But many will inflict long-lasting damage: businesses will be lost, mental health will suffer probably for years. We’re being asked to accept that and sacrifice anyway.
This is a whole new language for our politics, which has proceeded on condition that no policy should ever produce losers if it is going to win elections. Anything that does – a carbon tax, superannuation reforms, providing less government funding for, say, Catholic schools than they’d like – dies a merciless death on the spike of a scare campaign. Ours has been mostly a politics of childish fantasy that pretends trade-offs don’t exist, and that the only people who should sacrifice anything are other people. In practical terms that meant people with no clout or power, like the unemployed.
Well, we’re in the mother of all trade-offs now: our economy as we know it for our survival. It’s the kind of trade-off to which we’ve proven gallingly hostile when it comes to climate change, for example, even though the economic costs might have been easier to bear and the dangers to be avoided are even greater in the long run. But now, faced with something so swiftly deadly, and with the subordination of lobby groups to the public interest, we’ve been forced into it.
I’m not one for predicting sweeping political changes after the pandemic is done. Sure, there might be, but the possibility that people simply retreat to their pre-COVID-19 positions seems just as likely to me. But we might, if we’re lucky, emerge with some new political habits.
My cautious hope is for politics that can accept the existence of problems as a starting point for debate, rather than politics that profit from denialism. And I hope it finds an electorate more practised in the art of sacrifice for each other, that might be honoured with more mature and less cynical political debates about who should give up what for whom. Given how shabby the usual offering looks compared to the current one, we could do without politics merely hibernating and snapping back.
Waleed Aly is a regular columnist.
Waleed Aly is co-host of Ten’s The Project and is a lecturer in politics at Monash University.