Macmillan, 2014, 291 pages, $32.99 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
The only thing surprising about the 4% of Australians in 2013 who ‘almost always’ trusted the federal government is that the figure is that high, considering the many failures of Australian politics enumerated in The Political Bubble by an angry Mark Latham, the former national leader of the Australian Labor Party.
Now considered as standard political operating behaviour are broken election promises and post-election linguistic spin, politics packaged as a sub-genre of the entertainment industry and the triviality of personality politics, vitriolic abuse and three-word slogans, pilfering of the public purse and the feathering of politicians’ remuneration nests, and corruption and policy-for-sale through political donations.
The only thing that keeps the system going, says Latham, is compulsory preferential voting which forces everyone, including the don’t knows and don’t cares, to eventually select, however reluctantly, one of two shop-worn (Labor/Liberal) brands. The result is the “hollowing out of democratic engagement” as an apathetic public turns off politics, whilst party membership becomes “smaller, older, less representative” with a “shrinking gene pool of dedicated apparatchiks” who eye off a comfortable parliamentary tenure and the lifestyle of the top 3% of income earners which goes with it.
Politicians are thus cocooned in their own little bubble of privilege and self-importance, with career benefits also for those orbiting the bubble, including political staffers, journalists and, it could be added, increasingly-long-ago ex-politicians (Mark Latham Literary Enterprises is going strong - Political Bubble is book number nine, and counting).
Latham is not the first to observe that life inside the bubble is a world apart from the real life concerns of the public but where Latham goes off the well-evidenced rails is his argument that the grounds for divorce between the people and their representatives is less about political betrayal of popular trust than irrelevance.
Apparently, there has been a “self-reliance revolution” out in “middle-class suburbia”, in which depoliticised individuals have become bootstrap-lifting agents of their own self-improvement and prosperity, making for a society that is “affluent and satisfied”. “Contrary to Marxist theories of the radical left” (and oblivious to the voluminous research of non-Marxist economists like Thomas Picketty), “capitalism is becoming more equal, not less”. In this glorious, petit-bourgeois utopia of self-sufficiency, there is much less for government to do.
In Latham’s shill for this vast, “sensible middle”, he rejects not only the “feral right” of Liberal politicians, Murdoch’s News Corp and the “hate-fests” of right-wing radio talkback (low-hanging fruit for even a tepid social-democrat) but he also flails against the green-left “fanatical fringe”, punching out not only the most radical mainstream party (the Greens) but every street campaign and protest movement.
The substantive centrepiece of Latham’s alternative, “minimalist” politics is government by experts. Expert bodies would take charge of fiscal policy (government expenditure and revenue), climate change policy and other areas of government dereliction. Such old-hat technocratic solutions, however, would only further blow out what Latham justly deplores as Australia’s “democratic deficit”. Experts are not ideology-free and they would be government-appointed, not elected or subject to democratic accountability. The experts themselves would be elite members of the Bubble.
Latham is right to say that Australian democracy is broken but it is bourgeois democracy (economic rule by the rich, political rule by their class buddies) that doesn’t work for society. We only have nominal control over our law-making political representatives, and we have zero control over law enforcement agencies, the judiciary, public service chiefs and big media, the banks, miners and other powerful corporations. Political, economic and social decisions that affect everyone should be made by everyone, not just the Bubble People. What is needed is socialist democracy. On this, Latham has nothing to say.