It’s strange watching American politics at work from Australia. We have a lot in common, but we’re about as far from the action as it’s possible to be. We both have strong if flawed democracies, both have newish centre-left governments clearing up the mess/heroic achievements left by a decade of right wing governments led by men of minimal political stature. We’re both involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to no apparent end. We’re both nations built by immigrants on land wrested from an aboriginal population.
But it’s the differences that are truly enlightening. Australia’s hard-right, paranoid, racist numbskulls have very few members in any political chamber. They have far fewer guns and media demagogues to whip them into a frenzy over ‘death panels’ and the evils of social health policy. In part it’s because many of the ‘big government = big brother’ arguments have long since been settled. That and the Australian trait of not taking patent nonsense and scare mongering for anything other than bullshit. A term much used and much loved by Australians to the extent that it’s almost a national epithet of first resort. That term, and its cohorts ‘bull-shitter’, ‘dickhead’, and ‘wanker’ are genuinely threatening weapons in our national debate.
Our current Opposition Leader, Malcolm Turnbull, his own name perilously close to euphony, would be doomed if a significant number of voters decided that this former ‘merchant banker’ was indeed a wanker, and said so publicly. Turnbull is a centre-right populist without any discernible political flavour, so much so that the hard-right end of his own caucus staged a protest walkout in parliament recently, humiliating him in the process with notes being passed furiously back and forth across the benches like the ‘B’ form at a low-end grammar school.
Watching his political emasculation was one of the best and most entertaining times I’ve ever spent in the gallery of the House of Representatives. But it wasn’t enough to kill his career, nor his leadership, despite a previous catastrophic attempt to bring down the government with a pseudo-scandal based on falsified evidence.
True, the right are in disarray; true, they are short of talent, ideas and luck. The Prime Minister, Labor’s Kevin Rudd - knick-named ‘Harry Potter’ for his charisma-less schoolboy earnestness – has had the astonishing good fortune to have prevented Australia from the lemming-like rush into the oblivion of the Global Financial Crisis by spending both wisely and well a $40 billion budget surplus that he inherited from his predecessors (a sizeable chunk of change with a population of only 22 million).
His first move, sure to have been applauded by Republicans, was to give every taxpayer $950 cash to boost the retail sector. It worked. His second move was to do it again. It worked again. The right here gnashed their teeth and harrumphed about fiscal responsibility. Now he’s spending $24 billion on school buildings and maintenance. It’s employing thousands in the building industry. There is no recession in Australia. It’s driving poor Malcolm Turnbull crazy.
The current big ‘socialist’ changes planned by the wicked Labor government for Australia’s national public health system are to extend it to cover dentistry and eyeglasses. The only quibble from the right about the ‘creeping dead hand of evil socialism’ was, once again, to gnash their teeth and harrumph about fiscal responsibility. The principle that the health of the citizenry is the business of its government is just too obvious for it to be a matter of debate here. Only a fool would argue the point. Only a complete lunatic.
That’s why the hysteria, gun-toting closet racism, and mindless hate of the Republican right’s anti-health care legislation follies in the USA are astonishing for Australians. It makes America look like a superpower succumbing to senile dementia, post-Reagan, post-moral leadership of the free world. Can we out here in The Rest Of the World ever have faith in America after this ghastly spectacle? If the USA can’t even hold a civil town-hall meeting, what is there left to believe in?
It’s scarily reminiscent of the political chaos that presaged the breakup of the Soviet Union. Will Carolina breakaway from the Union? Will Georgia see tanks roll in to keep the KKK in line? Will a black President cause Rush Limbaugh to explode in a splatter of body parts, hype and vengeful hyperbole? Will middle America keep its panties and its powder dry?
Here in the Land of Oz, the struggling Tory Turnbull struggles on. He keeps plugging gamely away, trying to look like a Prime Minister and hoping this will somehow enable him to fall into the job, perhaps in a case of mistaken identity.
But if he ever used the kind of lunatic rhetoric of the American Right, as in ‘death panels’, ‘haters of America’, ‘communistic socialists’, ‘liberal Nazis’ etc, he would soon be called a dickhead, then a wanker, and then, the ultimate and terminal term, a ‘no-hoper’. He would be one, and that would be that.