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Federal Government

OBSESSED: Why are we so pre-occupied with US Presidential politics?

christianlyons3 In so many aspects of Australian life, there exists a cultural cringe. An instinctive deference or need to engage in comparative analysis, ordinarily with our Anglo-American cousins usually stretches beyond useful comparison, to the point where there is a distinct need to categorise or analyse events, people or trends as they relate to extant fashions or events in London and Washington. At present, the chattering classes residing in CPOs and EOs across the country are filling their political voids they perceive exists in meaningful dialogue in the Australian polity, by substantially falling head over heels for the Junior Senator from Illinois Senator who, if elected, pledges to deliver a transitive verb.

I’m all for hacks substantially indifferent to their constituency (for Senate staffers: Webster’s dictionary defines a constituency as a body of citizens entitled to elect a representative as to a legislative or executive position, and defines a Communications budget as something you should consider actually using) staying abreast of the domestic affairs of our allies, just as I’m for the Prime Minister advocating for our interests overseas. Let’s face it, given the strange budget cuts inflicted on DFAT, somebody’s got to pass notes for Robert Hill at the UN. But the pre-occupation of politicos on most things other than events at home the minute the circus leaves town, judging by the shift in conversational focus between sitting weeks and non-sitting weeks, is astonishing. The cameras aren’t waiting outside the Reps Entrance from 7:15am waiting for reliable folk like Iron Bar to say something stupid- let’s move on to politics overseas, because our issues are, like, so boring.

An interest in American politics in particular is unsurprising, and is not something that should be discouraged- on the contrary, it should be a prerequisite for the citizenry as a whole. America is our chief ally in most things, and all but a dwindling cabal of protectionists and socialists (with the exception of the Greens who are, sadly, growing in number) in our 226-strong Parliament would be proud of. It need not be mutually exclusive of the tasks that political staffers are given, or in many cases aren’t given, with respect to serving their Lords and Masters and their constituents, in that order. But it’s not simply a case of a healthy interest in the affairs of our friends or neighbours. There is no similar interest in the political affairs of Indonesia, our closest neighbour, an emerging, interesting and vibrant democracy on our doorstep. No such interest in the rich political tapestry of multi-national, multi-lingual, polytheistic India. No extended focus on China’s National People’s Congress; no pundits analysing the reasons behind Japan’s frequently fleeting, eternally ephemeral Premierships. Granted, there are at best four states that we share a sufficient cultural heritage and governmental commonality with that warrant detailed comparison with respect to process- Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. But the fact that we ‘run home to mama’ and only show interest en bloc in the electoral processes of two latter actors at best how bored we must be with ourselves.

At a time when, notwithstanding the correct predictions of the Prime Minister, Treasurer, Governor of the Reserve Bank and the banks themselves that Australia will be substantially spared at least the direct brunt of the present global financial crisis, our political class is for the most part rather more concerned with the musings of United States Senators from Arizona, Illinois and Delaware, and a folksy provincial Governor who looks forward to Russian kids trick or treating on Halloween, even if the Bering Strait is a bit of a hike. It is an intellectual holiday that they’ve taken that paralleled the Northern Hemispheric summer and preceded Parliament’s mercifully elongated winter recess- with an unassailable lead in the delegate count, Obama became the presumptive Democrat nominee on June 3. In the past week or so, there’s been more conversation amongst the hackoisie about the most recent Rasmussen than there has been about the evaporation hundreds of billions of dollars earned, saved, and invested by their taxpayer employers in this country, let alone the economic turmoil abroad. The collective interest in the financial crisis substantially focuses on how the Australian dollar performs against the Euro and Pound, or against the US Dollar for the astonishing number of political staffers and activists either already in country for the campaign or planning on being there by way of frequent flyer points, largely amassed on flights paid for by Ministerial and Parliamentary Services, for the final fortnight. Panic is setting in as the AUD has in recent months sunk like a Kransky with Pale chaser within talon-reach of Australia’s Ambassador to the Italian Republic (On that note, a special hello ‘shout-out’ once more to Simon Troeth. We love you Simon.) As addictive as politics is to so many graduates of Arts and Law, these students of American politics would do well to consider the injunction against levity of Democrat Speaker Thomas ‘Tip’ O’Neill, successor to John. F Kennedy as Representative for the Massachussetts 11th Congressional District : “All politics is local”.

It’s like these hacks are bored of living on their estates and are awaiting summons to court at Versailles. This is particularly true of Labor types, searching for messianic meaning following the hubris and hype of the year of bespectacled heaven and Kevin07. The Tories for their part, many quite understandably liking McCain on account of his impressive personal record and achievements, prefer to follow a far more positive Conservative story of late, that of pinko and pink-shirted David Cameron. While the next UK General election is a long way off, likely to be held in 2010, and thus the US election has both more currency in addition to its tangible global impact with respect to US credibility and overseas deployments, the varying degrees of interest and passion displayed remain quite interesting.

Traditionally, the Labor Party and the Labour Party have seen a freer flow of ideas and techniques than, say the Labor Party and the Democrats. There are obvious reasons for this, chief amongst those the fact that it would be difficult to argue in a somewhat more Conservative polity than ours- one that allowed McCarthyism to prevail- that mainstream elected officials would identify as Social Democrats, much less Socialists. The Democrats, like Labor’s Labour cousins in Whitehall, are a broader Church than the ALP simply on account of lower houses with nearly four times as many representatives as ours leading to rather greater individual importance and diffuse power structures that would make Roger Price reach for a fag, or Alex Somlyay a….whatever Somlyay consumes in his cave. As well as significantly more independent upper houses (slightly less relevant in the case of the House of Lords, which remains a joke with hundreds of peers even after the removal of the overwhelming bulk of the hereditary peers)- but even within their broad caucus, identifying any more than a handful that would hold views consistent with the Socialist Left of the ALP would be difficult. The bulk of Congressional Democrats would in many respects be well to the right of their Labor moderate counterparts.

Labour’s revival saw Tony Blair emulate some of Paul Keating’s quite correct, selective embrace of traditional social democratic agendas of renewal with sensible economic reform and neo-liberal policies to provide for the economic credibility and stability, the lack of which usually proves to be the Left’s undoing. For quite some time, the Conservatives tried to import the then successful policies of the Liberal Party wholesale. That was far from a raging success, although when your last leader to contest a General election had the unfortunate distinction of having Romanian extraction and bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Transylvanian Tetrarch, it’s really not all that surprising. Like the Howard Government (as opposed the Howard-led Tories in Opposition), Blair came into power at the start of an economic ‘upturn’, a bit like inexplicably waking up and finding yourself playing full-forward for your side in an AFL grand-final, you’re fifteen goals up at three quarter time, and you’re about to win a Norm Smith medal. Their new leader, David Cameron, has interestingly been pilloried by traditionally friendly newspapers for in effect being a no-policy, all-spin zone. In a JH-esque twist of advisers assuming the leadership leading to negative commentary, his former employer during the infamous Black Wednesday scandal, one of the most spectacular economic stuffups of the 1990’s, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, called him just that- Lamont’s shadow at the time is now First Lord of the Treasury. Cameron, accused by some of being Blair-lite, seems focussed at present as was Blair at a similar stage in the cycle prior to the 1997 election, of avoiding the pre-emptive triumphalism of Neil Kinnock. While David Cameron is no Obama, many Liberals view him with a reverence not seen since that for John Howard in 2004- this was particularly the case prior to Malcolm Turnbull’s donation his spine to the Coalition leadership- a reverence so many Laborites have gladly afforded Obama.

The truth is that, just as their is no inherently greater worth in pursuing an interest or understanding of American politics over our own, the transient presence of a light the hill for the Liberals in London does naught to get the Terra Australis Tories back on the Treasury benches. The exuberance shown over an Obama debate win, a Labor by-election loss, Palin’s passable performance, or Mandelson’s return to the Cabinet appear disproportionate to a mere academic interest in the only systems where Australians can engage in genuinely structural and cultural comparative politics. Again, if it was all just about political types being interested in things that affect the world around them, China, India, Indonesia, Japan instantly spring to mind for closer examination.

I can’t remember the last time I saw articles from either the Asahi or Yoimuri Shimbun posted on the Facebook wall of a party hack, EO, or Adviser (yes, it is available in English) on the promise of Taro Aso’s thus far enlightened administration. Japan is our second largest trading partner and, after the United States, our second most important strategic ally. It’s objectively less interesting, politically speaking, than the United States or the United Kingdom, given the relative lack of Governmental change, even with the revolving door Prime Minister policy. Ask any exporter or importer of tangible goods- and most financiers, many of whom would be out of a job absent the Japanese capital that for so long has financed the second cars, holiday houses, and redraw facilities of ‘aspirational voters’, and you’ll soon realise Japan is only marginally less important to Australia than the United States is on a day-to-day basis. Yet the escapism, the political opiate of the masses, where politics is so much more noble and enlightened than the seemingly petty domestic concerns about mortgages and working families (no less a byword in the US campaign), persists.

There’s an entire generation of staffers on both sides engrossed by the highly romanticised West Wing, who were more enamoured of repeats upon repeats of Yes, Minister as kids than they were Captain Planet (save for the Greens – Greg Barber MLC excluded). This generation needs to realise there’s no silver bullet to be found on either side of the Atlantic, no sacred truth, no deeper, greater meaning than our system, which for them all too often seems to be replete with the cultural cringe long-since outgrown in so many other areas of our increasingly confident and unique society. Those in their 40s and 50s, the generation above the 20 and 30 somethings who suffer most prominently from this affliction, are often given to fondness of the US, particularly in the Labor Party, with a great affections for Civil War History, quoting JFK, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and others- and on the Liberal side, predominantly loving Ronald Reagan. But it would be rare indeed for members of that generation to more approvingly parrot Sorkin’s soliloquies than more salient, domestic political truths.

While we owe a great deal to both the UK and the US for our ‘Washminster’, hybridised political system, we must remember that our political culture, however small a pond it might seem, is no less proud, no less interesting, and is indeed the reason for so many of us drawing stipends in the first place. Our political interests and foci are not zero sum, but with a recession looming, and the prospect of an early federal election next year, you’d think that the chattering classes might concern themselves with getting their own house in order, rather than feverishly anticipating who’s going to move in down the street either at number 10, or number 1600. Imagine how much more value for money we’d get as taxpayers if staffers were even slightly more inclined to pursue their hobbies and interests on their time (absolutely nothing wrong with that, welcome it in fact)- and not on yours. Even a marginally diminished focus on looking after the average Australian voter at a time like this is poison. If hubris persists, dispense with The Age or Sydney Morning Herald, and replace with the Herald Sun or Daily Telegraph, once daily, to be taken with food.

Discussion

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  1. Zzzzzzz …. snooze. Started read – couldn’t finish. Too dense, nothing new.

    Posted by Rene Magritte | October 7, 2008, 10:08
  2. Good read Christian. At this stage in the election cycle on both sides of the Atlantic it’s difficult for party people on either side to say they’re maintaining an interest merely in transferable campaign strategies, either.

    Posted by Anonymous | October 7, 2008, 10:11
  3. Love ya work. Lifts the standard above Landeryou’s cheap and tawdry sensationalism.

    Posted by Chris Lyons fan club | October 7, 2008, 11:26
  4. I think Christopher Lyons is really former Senator Kirk. Grouper with an ego the size of AAMI stadium.

    Posted by Euphemism | October 7, 2008, 11:30
  5. I thought this was a great article. I posted it a link to it from my website, which happens to be about the eventual unification of the english-speaking world. (http://www.towardsunity.org/gu.phtml)

    Posted by Stu | October 7, 2008, 15:13
  6. change is also a transitive verb, a phrasal verb, and (as used by Obama) a noun

    Posted by james | October 8, 2008, 12:26
  7. change not more of the same, wasn’t that the Clinton slogan.

    can we look forward to an intern scandal and a pushy First Lady furore too?

    Posted by uppity | October 8, 2008, 13:01
  8. james, the way obama uses is it is as a transitive verb masquerading as a noun. good to see that even dead french surrealists are reading vex, rene.

    Posted by anon von moose | October 8, 2008, 21:03
  9. Cameron is proof positive that you can’t polish a turd- and that the politics is nothing if not cyclical.

    Posted by Anonemoose | October 9, 2008, 11:36
  10. no, in saying “change we can believe in” it’s just a noun.. were it a transitive verb, then it would have a subject and one or more objects, which it clearly doesn’t.

    Posted by james | October 10, 2008, 13:18
  11. WRONG.. WE as a nation are soo not even pre-occupied with US politics AT ALL.. Its just what they want us to watch. Note, all Obamas election promises fall easily into the same category as the ones Rudd made to us.. Politics is all smoke screens and mirrors. While we are busy convincing ourselves that we elected the right gov who will do the right thing, it actualy doesnt matter whos the boss of what, things will keep going down the same path they always have. They just realised their public relations were up the shit so changed tack….

    Posted by Me | November 9, 2008, 11:01

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