At Australian Ballot Boxes, the Left’s Empathy Deficit Came Home to Roost

written by Claire Lehmann

The result of Saturday’s federal election in Australia is being treated as the most staggering political shocker in my country since World War II. Scott Morrison, leading the Liberal Party, looks to have won a majority government—a result that defies three years of opinion pollingbookie’s odds and media commentary.

In the aftermath, analysts on both sides are trying to explain what went wrong for the centre-left Australian Labor Party, and what went right for the centre-right Liberals. Some attribute the result to Morrison’s personal likeability, and his successful targeting of the “quiet Australian” demographic—the silent majority whose members feel they rarely have a voice, except at the ballot box. Others cast the result as Australia’s Hilary-Clinton moment: Bill Shorten, who resignedfollowing Saturday’s loss, was, like Clinton, an unpopular political insider who generated little enthusiasm among his party’s traditional constituencies. In 2010 and again in 2013, he roiled the Labor Party by supporting two separate internal coups, machinations that cast him as a self-promoter instead of a team player.

The swing against Labor was particularly pronounced in the northeastern state of Queensland—which is more rural and socially conservative than the rest of Australia. Many of Queensland’s working-class voters opposed Labor’s greener-than-thou climate-change policies, not a surprise given that the state generates half of all the metallurgical coal burned in the world’s blast furnaces. Queensland’s rejection of Labor carried a particularly painful symbolic sting for Shorten, given that this is the part of Australia where his party was founded by 19th century sheep shearers meeting under a ghost gum tree. In 1899, the world’s first Labor government was sworn into the Queensland parliament. Shorten’s “wipe-out” in Queensland demonstrates what has become of the party’s brand among working-class people 120 years later.

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Picture a dinner party where half the guests are university graduates with prestigious white-collar jobs, with the other half consisting of people who are trade workers, barmaids, cleaners and labourers. While one side of the table trades racy jokes and uninhibited banter, the other half tut-tuts this “problematic” discourse.

These two groups both represent traditional constituencies of mainstream centre-left parties—including the Labour Party in the UK, the Democrats in the United States, and the NDP in Canada. Yet they have increasingly divergent attitudes and interests—even if champagne socialists paper over these differences with airy slogans about allyship and solidarity.

Progressive politicians like to assume that, on election day at least, blue-collar workers and urban progressives will bridge their differences, and make common cause to support leftist economic policies. This assumption might once have been warranted. But it certainly isn’t now—in large part because the intellectuals, activists and media pundits who present the most visible face of modern leftism are the same people openly attacking the values and cultural tastes of working and middle-class voters. And thanks to social media (and the caustic news-media culture that social media has encouraged and normalized), these attacks are no longer confined to dinner-party titterings and university lecture halls. Brigid Delaney, a senior writer for Guardian Australia, responded to Saturday’s election result with a column about how Australia has shown itself to be “rotten.” One well-known Australian feminist and op-ed writer, Clementine Ford, has been fond of Tweeting sentiments such as “All men are scum and must die.” Former Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, who also has served as a high-profile newspaper columnist, argues that even many mainstream political positions—such as expressing concern about the Chinese government’s rising regional influence—are a smokescreen for racism.

In an interview conducted on Sunday morning, Deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek opined that if only her party had more time to explain to the various groups how much they’d all benefit from Labor’s plans, Australians would have realized how fortunate they’d be with a Labor government, and Shorten would’ve become Prime Minister. Such attitudes are patronizing, for they implicitly serve to place blame at the feet of voters, who apparently are too ignorant to know what’s good for them.

What the election actually shows us is that the so-called quiet Australians, whether they are tradies (to use the Australian term) in Penrith, retirees in Bundaberg, or small business owners in Newcastle, are tired of incessant scolding from their purported superiors. Condescension isn’t a good look for a political movement.

Taking stock of real voters’ needs would require elites to exhibit a spirit of empathic understanding—such as by way of acknowledging that blue-collar workers have good reason to vote down parties whose policies would destroy blue-collar jobs; or that legal immigrants might oppose opening up a nation’s border to migrants who arrive illegally. More broadly, the modern progressive left has lost touch with the fact that what ordinary people want from their government is a spirit of respect, dignity and hope for the future. While the fetish for hectoring and moral puritanism has become popular in rarefied corners of arts and academia, it is deeply off-putting to voters whose sense of self extends beyond cultish ideological tribalism.

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