Key issues at heart of political divide

Jeremy Sammut

31 August 2018 | Ideas@TheCentre

While it is impossible to separate the political events not only of last week but of the last 10 years from the personalities involved, it is a mistake to ignore what these events also suggest about the bigger political picture.

The two most important books on contemporary politics and political disruption in the early 21st century have already ready been written.

These are Charles Murray’s Coming Apart and David Goodheart’s The Road to Somewhere.

Both books discuss, in the US and UK respectively, the growing divide in world-views, aspirations, values and attitudes toward key issues between what is variously termed the elites — or the metropolitan sophisticates or sometimes the political class — and ordinary suburban voters.

The Australian version of these books — examining what we might call the Wentworth versus the Warringah view of the world — is yet to be written. But let me give a potted preliminary version based on the issues at the heart of the political divide in Australia: energy and immigration.

The political class treats these issues in abstract status terms: what will the international community – i.e. my elite peers in a handful of western nations – think about Australia/ME, if emissions aren’t cut and the immigration program isn’t large.

This is not the way that ordinary people feel about these issues. For them, the issue is whether they can affordably heat or cool their homes — and whether the lights stay on. It’s about whether they can find and afford a home, and about how difficult it is to start a family without the security of home ownership. It’s about how long and crowded the journey is to work — and about the family time that is lost on the commute.

The key issues for these people are very ordinary ones, but they are also the issues that are crucial to both the meaning and purpose of life: work, home, and family. And whether we like it or not, the perception and reality is that on these key issues, government policy actions and failures are making life harder — harder by distorting the social equation between effort and reward, not only in monetary terms, but in terms of the ultimate quality of life.

And when the response by the political class to these legitimate issues amounts to saying “Just shut your eyes, and think of headline GDP growth” is it any wonder that we get political disruption, and support for populist alternatives that empathise with the grievances, but have no real answers.

Many commentators also a render popular concerns about issues such as immigration, and the political dynamics they inspire, in abstract terms as a nativist backlash, as reactionary, or as a revolt by the so-called unrepresentative conservative base.

The problem with this kind of tin-eared, pejorative analysis is that it ignores both the ordinariness — and the crucial importance — of what is behind the present political discontents in countries like Australia, the US and the UK.

And those commentators that prefer to shoot the messengers who speak about these issues — rather than deal with the substance of the issues — not only do a disservice to their fellow citizen, but they are also helping to fuel the disruption and polarisation they otherwise lament.

This is based on a vote of thanks given by Dr Jeremy Sammut at the Tony Abbott lunch held at the CIS on Monday.

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