For as long as I can remember I have thought of myself as a political person. To say as much is not to essentialise oneself, but rather to cast one’s eye back and make sense of symptoms, expressions, moments that would otherwise be fleeting and random. It is to re-cognise the actions and interventions one has made on behalf of causes and dreams greater than oneself; to bring them into a more accessible frame, arc, narrative; to bring them into one’s life now.
When one says one is political, one participates in a language game about what one is as an identity and what counts as a politics. To me, ‘I’ is a bodily fact. As Michel Foucault has suggested it is the body that is the prison of the soul, not the other way around. In an activist tradition this has been re-stated by Black American Civil Rights groups who said, quite simply, ‘I am a man’ and also by second wave feminists who articulated what it is to be oppressed, marginalised, discriminated against on account of their bodies. There is, of course, a longer lineage to this and not only in the West. One need only cite negritude as one example.
My politics starts in my body, and that means thinking of, with, through myself as a part of ‘Australia’. The waters we drink, swim, bathe in and the air that passes through us might travel in global currents, but the crunchy yellow grass of suburban Perth are what my foot remembers touching in my youthful summers. That earth, just like the karri loam and granite outcrops of the south-west forests and the white-gold sand from all along the Indian Ocean coast, tell me that I am from a place that seems to be part of ‘Australia’. And if this need not apply to the nation as a legislative ‘thing’ it matters for the body and the causes I first was involved in.
My ‘Australianness’ is a material fact, or rather ‘nation’ considered here as part of country, stands in for a lengthier explanation when one is in the world. At home though to explain where one is from means explaining, more likely, what home is like and what it means. There is no always already at hand even if the nation, or postcode or suburb or city or state, makes it appear so. It is as if the shorthand – ‘Australia’ – were better than story, rather than its beginning.
The earliest political dream I was part of was stopping old growth logging in the south-west of Western Australia. With my parents and thousands of other people we marched along the Swan River foreshore, holding banners, wearing green, making our voices heard. This was a family project. But we were by no means political outsiders bonding in a shared criticism of the Richard Court state government and doing so only from the street. My family has been political people for as long as I can remember – my grandparents on both sides had been anti-colonialists and flirted with Communism. My father had political aspirations from a young age and we had glimpsed power in its older definition.
Indeed, prior to marching to ‘save the forests’ I had met Bob Hawke at the Old Parliament House in the late 1980s. At the time he was prime minister and my father, who had been a Labour Party member for years, was one of his economics speechwriters. I remember being small enough to sit in a small chair on the back of dad’s bike as we rode from our house to parliament. I then, quite simply, sat in the lap of power. I remember Hawkey only vaguely – he was laughing and smelled of smoke. But he was the first prime minister I met.
Since then I have met every Australian prime minister from Whitlam on. As a boy I shook Paul Keating’s limp hand at an intimate family breakfast at Geoff and Bev Gallop’s in Victoria Park. He was distant and tall. After high school I shared a birthday lunch with Gough Whitlam who charmed my first girlfriend in Italian while we ate dumplings and noodles in Sydney’s Chinatown. Never have I felt so small and adolescent. Not much later I was briefly introduced to John Howard at Government House when he presented John Monash Awards. All I could think was ‘not much chop, not much chop at all’. Subsequently I met Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard at union conferences. With each passing prime minister the meeting has become less personal and more professional, less intimidating and impressive, more deflating and boring.
But I recognise that something changed along the way. I have changed; Australia has changed; politics has changed. The Labour Party after Howard has made us disillusioned as a family and as a people. And I know we are not alone. Capitalism continues apace around the world and that is generational.
My sisters and I are not post political, but all three of us have an inclination to culture over the material, superstructure over base. Notwithstanding my days as a trade unionist or the fact that I remain a card-carrying member of a political party, I am a writer first and foremost before I am anything else. That is idealistic at its core; naïve too to think that words stop bombs.
My parents though have engaged with the mechanics of politics in much the same way as their parents before them were activists. That they were both from the first generation in their families to go to university suggests to me the ways in which institutions in general were more open to their kind of people overall. And that includes politics – less rallies and marches, more meetings and speeches.
Something shifted though with refugees and climate change, something shifted at that ‘save the forest’ rally, deaths in custody, the Iraq War. It feels like we stayed true to ourselves while the Labour Party lost its way. It reified itself, if ever there was something else there. But that is also a change Australia went through. A globalised, diversified, professionalised class has replaced the working class bonhomie, the white, sunburnt drunken, blokey, matey sureness. One of the paradoxes is that as the Labour Party politicians have lost their common touch, the institutional breeding grounds for the political class (law faculties) have become more open to ‘common people’. Paradoxically too, unions, where one could get a dose of the real, have become more professional. Commonness, if one could ever actually find it, started to hide somewhere recently. And what we have been left with is a husk.
What I cite could be re-expressed as the lack of charisma in professional politics. One witnesses this in the difference between the Keating Interviews and The Killing Season. Both were compelling television, but Keating was because of Keating as a person. The camera is static, there is no production; it is a monologue that lasts for hours. The only way it could be dramatic and engaging is because of Keating’s performance. In contrast The Killing Season is finessed with file footage, jump cuts, changes in focus, great music and a revolving cast of characters. When Rudd and Gillard are on camera one winces, one wants to look away and it is a relief when we switch scenes. They are both an anti-Keating of sorts.
To be sure there were glimpses of charisma in The Killing Season, most obviously by Greg Combet. Sam Dastayari’s charm in the show was on account of his third person self referencing. But overall, this era is one of politicians imitating bureaucrats.
Central to this is the use of language. Political language nowadays is functional, unembellished, flat. When it attempts to be poetic it fails. Witness these turgid, confused phrases from The Killing Season:
– the corridors were boiling (Simon Crean)
– soul ticking (Rudd)
– wedge of hope (Gillard)
– frozen arteries (Chris Bowen)
Perhaps the decline of language is something we can attribute to the early onset of specialisation. People now, particularly politically ambitious people, begin their training and insularity from a younger age. Who has the time to be interested in antique clocks, the opera, the art of language?
Mark Latham might be said to have charisma, except for the fact that he is mad and angry. If we have lost lyricism, we have also lost straight up ball crushing, slap down swearing. When speaking about the 2004 election I recall Bob McMullen saying in private that being on television to witness the carnage was ‘like eating a shit sandwich’. Why not say that publically? Combet’s sincerity that he had ‘the shits’ with the Rudd/Gillard infighting cuts through in the best possible way. It is thugh not though all pane e tulipani for the linguistic mavericks. Witness the curbing of Barnaby Joyce’s colourful turns of phrase and the decline of Clive Palmer’s poetry.
But one fights against this organisation. The animus now, for me, is in self-organising communities, in the small ‘p’ political acts of kindness that might better be thought of as the ethics of daily life. That is, of course, not to forsake the structural but to hope against hope that what one does as a citizen registers where people feel life the most – face to face, heart to heart.
If that sounds optimistic, it is. But unless one submit to the machinations of a Political project one has no other way to be effective. Not for profits, lobbying, acting locally all constitute a way in the world that avoids, perhaps irresponsibly, the rules of a game that is rigged, unfair and untrue to the best iteration of ourselves. But perhaps that is the best we can hope for if we want to avoid the mud and the shit and the plastic that dominate our politics today.