Strewth, Australia, you’re getting rather prissy

2013-06-17 05.23.40 pm


The Sunday Times, June 16, 2013


As a Brit looking wistfully at Australia in the early 1980s, my vote for prime minister would have gone to Bob Hawke rather than Margaret Thatcher. I encountered him fleetingly at a press conference in Brussels when, if I recall correctly, he used the word “bugger”.  It seemed the appropriate word to use when answering questions about the European Economic Community, the institution that became the European Union. Hawke’s no-nonsense rhetoric was a perfect advertisement for a nation that refused to stand on ceremony.

Thirty years later, the prissy self-righteousness Hawke eschewed has descended like a cloud over Australian politics. Prudery, moral outrage and manufactured affront are now the standard currency of debate.

With three months to go before the general election, Julia Gillard, the Labor prime minister, last week took offence at a spoof dinner menu, turning it into the political issue of the week. Prepared by a restaurant hosting an opposition party fundraiser, but never actually distributed to guests, the menu included “Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail — small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.

The menu, which was circulated on social media, was condemned by Tony Abbott, the opposition leader. But in a series of press conferences, Gillard claimed the menu followed “a pattern of behaviour” from an opposition led by a man she has repeatedly accused of misogyny.

On Tuesday, at a rally of a new campaign group, Gillard for Women, the Welsh-born prime minister painted a picture of a future Abbott government as a dystopia led by men who wanted women “banished from the centre of Australia’s political life”.

Her comment represents a departure from Australia’s refreshingly incorrect lexicon of political debate. Mark Latham, a former Labor leader, once described his opponents as “a conga line of suckholes” without bringing down the house. Gillard herself was not always such a shrinking violet, once referring to the Liberals’ portly Joe Hockey as “the fat man”.

These days, the public arena is a mirthless place. Every word, email or tweet is scrutinised in search of the tiniest indiscretion.

Last year Wayne Swan, the deputy prime minister, was attacked for attending a trade union dinner at which a comedian made a joke about the opposition leader’s sex life. Swan’s detractors claimed he should have walked out, then condemned him for taking 24 hours to apologise on behalf of the comedian.

Some see the new killjoy politics as part of a return to the censoriousness Australians call Wowserism, a term coined by a newspaper editor in the late 19th century, using the initials of a popular slogan: “We only want social evils remedied”.

They point to the heavy-handed penalty delivered to the Australian batsman David Warner, who was suspended and fined for “unbecoming behaviour” in a Birmingham sports bar last Sunday morning when he threw a punch at England’s Joe Root.

Australia’s drinking culture, once a celebrated feature of national life, is increasingly under attack from the new Wowsers, backed by professional lobby groups.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, funded partly by the Australian government, is leading a strong campaign to raise the price of alcohol, restrict its availability and ban advertising. This follows the introduction of plain-wrapper cigarette packets last year.

There are signs of resistance to the rise of the nanny state, a development many consider at odds with Australia’s pragmatic, pioneering spirit.

Causes such as preventive care and environmentalism serve as cloaks of righteousness. The implied criticism of those who make different choices is a form of old-fashioned snobbery.

As in Britain, the political class has become isolated. Politicians have lost sight of the mainstream. Instead they crave the applause of a cohort of university-educated, middle-class professionals.

The graduate class has become a new class, insulated and isolated from the educationally deprived. They are inclined to live in different suburbs, shop and socialise in different places, listen to different radio stations and read different newspapers from the class we might call middle Australia.

This year’s election, scheduled for September 14, is likely to see something of a backlash. Abbott, the conservative opposition leader, backed away from the politics of climate change more than three years ago. Many commentators thought this made him unelectable, but his stocks have soared.

Gillard introduced a carbon tax, to the delight of inner-city voters who enjoyed the feelgood symbolism, but to the anger of outer suburban and rural voters, who spend more on petrol and often have larger houses and higher energy bills.

The Labor government also softened Australia’s policy on asylum seekers. Since Labor changed the policy in 2008, some 43,000 asylum seekers have arrived.

The policy change is widely seen as the Gillard government’s biggest problem, guaranteeing its defeat at the polls. Polls suggest Gillard’s Labor party could lose up to half of its 72 lower house seats, giving an Abbott government a large majority.

If so, it will be seen not just as a repudiation of Australia’s first female prime minister, but of morality politics and the rise of the nanny state.

Nick Cater is chief opinion editor for The Australian newspaper. His book, The Lucky Culture and the Rise of the Australian Ruling Class, is published by HarperCollins Australia