Deficiences in political science through the prism of Australia’s (2010) elections

22 Aug

Politics is hardly a science if we compare the discipline to the natural sciences, such as physics, which has generated predictable and quantifiable mathematical laws. Scholars have mainly argued that the self-reflexivity and complex variables within societies make any plausible and probable predictions extremely unlikely. In this sense, are the latest Australian election results merely an episode showcasing the non-predictability in politics?

One could argue that the signs were in place prior to and leading up to the elections. It could be summed up in one short sentence- the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was not delivering its 2007 election promises. Think about the federal government’s failure to produce a credible climate change policy or its intention to censor internet freedom amongst others. Logically speaking and trusting that the institutional and cultural democratic practices work ‘rationally’ and as it is supposed to be, people would naturally ‘vote’ against the incumbent government. This means  a protest vote which is likely to go to the Greens, Independents and the Coalition.

On the other hand, it could also be argued that the Coalition (comprising of the Australian Liberal Party and Nationals) is not an attractive alternative either. Think about its changing leadership and a Tony Abbott who, up till the final days of the campaign, is still being portrayed as adopting unclear stances on major policies. For instance, he remains a climate change sceptic.

Yet all these debates are perhaps beside the point. Mainstream and some left of centre political journalism, due to the nature of the beast inherent within the contemporary capitalist system, tends to ignore other less visible situational/ structural factors, and have equated election results as the sole arbiter of a democratic process.

Certainly, the superstructure was already in place when the Labor Hawk- Keating governments that embraced neoliberal policies marks the demise of a political party that was  then generally identified with the working class. Cut forward to 2010. Some political pundits are quite right to point out that the two main political parties have nothing substantially different to offer the electorate even though their own internal PR campaigners were hyping up the non-differences. Again, the climate change issue shows the sore lack of leadership from either camps. Alternatively, the debate on refugees/ boat people shows how undifferentiated ALP and the Coalition are.

But that is not the premise of this article. To explain how and why people vote because of these policy non- similarities. Rather, it is to highlight that the ideologically-influenced  neoliberal policies  dished out by both major parties have created a situation whereby Australian democracy is increasingly endangered, if not, already compromised. Most mainstream, including left-of-centre commentators are afraid to tell it as it is for many possible reasons.  But what is indisputable is the crude trusim – that the ALP is no longer the ‘working class’  or even ‘left’ party anymore. In its race to the bottom with the Coalition, it has sacrificed its own moral and working class foundations. It is not altogether unpredictable that the Howard government was able to rule for more than a decade. ALP was able to catch a break in 2007 not because the superstructure had changed (despite Kevin Rudd’s lengthy tirade on the demise of neoliberalism in the Monthly after he became Prime Minister) or because the ALP was offering any radically different promises, but simply because the electorate was sick and tired of a government that has been in power for too long and irresponsive to their demands.

In 1975, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed Mr Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister. It did not matter that his government was holding a majority in the House of Representatives. 35 years later, Rudd, who led the Labor Party to a decisive victory in the elections, was ungraciously dumped by its own party as PM, all within a period of less than 3 years.

What linked the coup of both Rudd and Whitlam was the extensive and large-scale reforms that both had tried to carry out. Again, mainstream discourse glossed over the superstructure as though it didn’t matter or exist. Whitlam’s reforms were disliked by the American administration while Rudd incurred the wrath of the mining corporations with his proposed mining tax. In both instances,  the ideological apparatus in place, was crucial in explaining their downfall.

In this sense, the loss of ALP seats in this election, to likely result in a hung parliament, was not just voters’ dissatisfaction with either major political parties. Rather, it cracks open a window and exposes the less visible elements in the Australian democratic system. The under-stated influence of the mining corporations which generated a crisis in Rudd’s leadership, leading to his loss of leadership, mirrors the crisis of confidence in the democratic system.

Conversely, critics might argue that Rudd’s demeanor and his failed policies (such as climate change) were the result of his own doing. This is however to miss the core of  this article’s argument. To put it another way, despite his ‘half-hearted’ measures to push through those reforms that he had promised, the neoliberal structures in place, simply, would not tolerate these deviations.

At the end of the day, whatever the outcome of the election results, it should be more insightful to claim that this is a matter bigger than whether Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott becomes the Prime Minister. The neoliberal structures will equally devour either if they fail to toe the line. There is a contest going on but it would be too easy to claim that as a fight between democracy and neoliberalism or people and corporations. If after all, the system has internalised those values of neoliberalism and incorporated them into our living and breathing structures, then, how does society even begin to identify, separate (or tame some of the undesirable parts) of these intertwined elements?

Going back to the opening of this article, there is a reason why political scientists have always played catch up with the physical sciences. Though it has within its disposal, a huge arsenal of advanced statistical techniques to predict outcomes of political events, the community is  embedded and blind to its own ideological framework. It is always asking questions such as which political party will win and why, but not, explore the neoliberal structures in place. No wonder political scientists are condemned to a life of envy when they look at the natural sciences.


2 Responses to “Deficiences in political science through the prism of Australia’s (2010) elections”

  1. Miglo August 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    Good post Charles.

    I agree that Labor didn’t meet all its 2007 election promises, however let us not underestimate the obstructionism of the opposition.

    Labor, in my opinion, gave it its best shot, only to be brickwalled by an opposition who was quite happy to see the country go nowhere.

    A government going nowhere is al;ways good for the opposition, but I believe this was always stage managed by the mean spirited Abbott.

  2. nasking August 22, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Good points Charles…but I don’t think the role of the corporate media should be discounted.

    Nor the Labor states such as NSW & Qld that have “privatised” & neo-liberal copy-catted themselves into low popularity…effecting to a degree this election. Which actually fits into your premise.

    Agree wholheartedly on the mining companies’ role.

    And my predictions on Cafe Whispers were more out of hope. And trying to pump people up. 🙂 Yes, far too many variables involved to come up w/ a “certain”.

    Good stuff.


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