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<p>Illustration by Anton Emdin</p>

Illustration by Anton Emdin

Star-Spangled Canberra

For a generation Canberra has been taking up Washington ways, but lately Australian politics has all but abandoned bipartisanship and cranked the cynicism. Frankly, the whole thing has gone septic.


In this age of prefabricated sound-bites, rigid message management and banal political set-pieces, it is rare for the storyline coming out of an event to differ that markedly from the one going into it. One such impromptu moment occurred last August, when Julia Gillard attended a community forum in Sydney that was supposed to be devoted to bolstering support for her carbon-tax proposals. The opening question, which came from a telegenic seven-year-old, was of the kind beloved by political image-makers. Did the prime minister have the power to prevent factories from polluting the environment? If that exchange produced the most cheery pictures of the night, the headlines came from another unscripted question. It was posed by a middle-aged woman who was dismayed at the sight of Tea Party-style protests on the lawns in front of Parliament House, where opponents of the carbon tax had brandished placards reading "Ditch the Witch" and "Ju-Liar." She wondered whether the rancour hinted at a wider malaise. "It's a personal insult to you," said the woman, "but I also think it demeans the role of prime minister, demeans our democratic process and demeans the Australian people." What was the prime minister's response?

Unusually lost for words, Julia Gillard did not know how to field the question. To agree with its premise might betray weakness - a feminine weakness, doubtless it would be portrayed - and she mused openly that her critics might criticise her for being thin-skinned if she admitted to being wounded. Yet the harsh tone of the anti-carbon tax protests, and the talk of a people's revolt, had clearly troubled her. Rather than give an anodyne answer, then, she opted instead for candour: "I don't like it when I get a sense of a kind of - with all apologies to our American friends - a kind of Americanisation of our debate." The headlines the following morning almost wrote themselves: "Julia Gillard says a US influence is making Australian politics 'very harsh,'" observed The Australian. The ABC put it more simply: "Gillard decries the Americanisation of political debate."

A bitter and abusive parliament has lost voices of moderation: The Liberals’ Petro Georgiou, Judith Troeth and Bruce Baird, and Labor’s John Faulkner.

Lost in the coverage of the "Americanisation" comments was how the setting for her remarks owed more to US political culture than Australian. The community forum had the feel of a town-hall meeting, with banked seating, microphones positioned to amplify questions from the audience, and sponsorship from a media outlet, in this case the Murdoch-owned Inner West Courier. It had come at the end of a 24-hour blitz of marginal constituencies modelled on the kind of heartland swings favoured by US presidents immediately after State of the Union addresses. She even grasped the hand-held microphone like a cocktail singer, showing an appreciation for the kind of stagecraft that American politicians have perfected down the years. Julia Gillard had decried the Americanisation of Australian politics at precisely the kind of event that has helped accelerate that trend.

What made her comments even more anomalous was that Gillard has come to embrace so many American political techniques, from her "message of the day," fluoro-clad photo-opportunities to her heavy reliance on focus groups; from her permanent campaigning to her calls, more substantively, for the ALP to adopt US-style primaries as an alternative to pre-selection. Her first comments as prime minister, where she praised those "who play by the rules, set their alarms early, get their kids off to school, stand by their neighbours and love their country," ventriloquised Bill Clinton's famous formulation "that if you work hard and play by the rules, you ought to have a decent life." Likewise, her first comments on the floor of the House of Representatives, when Tony Abbott offered his hand in congratulation, were an Americanism: "Game on." In the 18 months since, she has been the victim of some nasty sloganeering and some savage personal attacks, but she herself is to blame for much of the aggressiveness and rancour. Like Abbott, she has tended to view politics as conflict.

Her analysis, however, rings true, even if she has failed to admit her own culpability. Australian political debate has indeed become far more Americanised, and the US influence is found in almost every aspect of the nation's polity. Never before has the "Wash" in the Washminster system been more in evidence. Never before has the Capital Circle so closely resembled Capitol Hill.

BY THE END OF THE 1950s, the architectural critic Robin Boyd had become so agitated by the encroachment into Australian life of various stylistic, linguistic and commercial Americanisms that it became a core theme for his opus, The Australian Ugliness. The US influence in "popular arts and superficial character" amounted to "mesmerism," he wrote, and the American dream was overtaking indigenous culture at such breakneck pace that it threatened "to transform Australia into a state which can be called Austerica." From the "matted fringe of the entertainment business" to the "muddled Americana of the clothing fashion world," Boyd saw Austerica almost everywhere.

Though it was an Illinoisan, Walter Burley Griffin, who had come up with a grand plan for the layout of Canberra, the politics of the bush capital had remained largely immune from this creeping Americanisation. True, the founding fathers had drawn inspiration from Washington in adopting some of its nomenclature - the House of Representatives and the Senate. They also fashioned federalism and the notion of judicial review on the American model. Yet the character and customs of Australian politics retained a resolutely British flavour, as one would expect from a country that had shown no great enthusiasm in forging its independence from the "Mother Country" in the first place.

Parliamentarians were accommodated on green- and red-coloured leather benches, which looked like hand-me-downs from the Palace of Westminster. At the commencement of each day's sitting, the Speaker processed into the chamber behind the Sergeant of Arms, who bore a ceremonial mace bearing the royal crown, coat of arms and cipher, a ritual that was still being observed even before Peter Slipper donned his white bowtie. Question Time saw politicians face off from behind rosewood dispatch boxes that were a gift from George V. Even after signing the ANZUS treaty with America, that arch Anglophile Sir Robert Menzies regarded the sentimental relationship with London as more important than the new security relationship with Washington. All this was not lost on American observers such as Frank Hopkins, the US Consul-General in Melbourne at the start of the Sixties. Australia was "still very much dominated by the British mind," he wrote, "and that tradition of reverence for the Mother Country is too deep-rooted to be easily shaken."

Over the course of the 1960s, however, America's political influence grew steadily. Looking back, perhaps Menzies's failure in 1963 to persuade his compatriots that their new decimalized currency should be named "the royal" rather than "the dollar" can even be viewed as an inflection point. The coming years witnessed the first presidential visit. The arrival of LBJ in 1966 was also the spur for Australia's first US-style anti-war demonstrations. Soon after, the insurgent spirit of America's "New politics" also crossed the Pacific, and with it much the same rights agenda - women's rights, Aboriginal rights, student rights and gay rights.

<p>Illustration by Anton Emdin</p>

Illustration by Anton Emdin

Politics was also becoming more professional and presidential. Whitlam's 1972 "It's Time" campaign could have been dreamt up on Madison Avenue. The slogan, which was devised by the advertising firm Hanson-Rubensohn-McCann-Erickson, was market-tested beforehand, and perfect for the short attention span of commercial television. It also lent itself to more US-style trappings, not least a catchy campaign song that sounded like a number from the hit Broadway musical Godspell.

Over the course of the Seventies and Eighties, more Americanisms followed. Whitlam's decision to rely more heavily on party professionals in the Prime Minister's office drew comparisons with the president's West Wing staff. In the 1977 and 1980 elections, Malcolm Fraser's image-makers pioneered the use of pseudo-news events, such as street walks and visits to hotels, so as to provide footage for the evening news. The 1984 election saw Bob Hawke square off against Andrew Peacock in the first televised debate. That year also saw the suffix "-gate" attached for the first time to an Australian scandal (the barely remembered Hawke "tapes-gate scandal"). The early 1980s also saw the use of direct-mail campaigns, which meant that politicians, candidates, campaign workers and volunteers no longer had to carry so much of the workload at election times. As the historian Elaine Thompson observed, campaigning became less labour-intensive and more capital-intensive, thus placing a new emphasis on fundraising. So strong had the US influence become, in fact, that Thompson even came up with a pithy phrase to describe it: "Washminster," a term that immediately entered the lexicon. Even so, she did not view Australian politics as a complete imitation of Washington and Westminster, but rather as a mutation. "The system that developed in Australia," she believed, "was its own unique species."

Not everyone agreed with her analysis. With academic debate on the question focusing as much on institutions and processes as tactics and style, scholars continued to argue that the Australian and American political systems were, at best, distant cousins. After all, were not compulsory voting, proportional representation and the primacy of the lower house as alien to the average American voter as a five-day cricket match? The Westminster influence also remained strong, from the Punch-and-Judy quality of Question Time to the Hansard stenographers who recorded it. When the British constitutional historian Alan J. Ward delivered a lecture on the subject at Parliament House in 1999, he was positively huffy: "There is almost no 'Wash' in the model, and a great deal of 'minster'."

Yet even if life inside the chamber still had a British air, John Howard's Canberra had more and more of a Beltway feel, despite the fact that the prime minister was an ardent Anglophile. Indeed the leader who railed against an Australian presidency looked progressively more presidential himself. This was especially so after September 11, 2001, when Howard presented himself as a quasi commander-in-chief. There were the appearances at military funerals, the press conferences where the Australian colours provided the backdrop and the regular evocation of the ANZAC spirit in speeches that became more overtly nationalistic and militaristic. He also fought US-style culture wars, albeit it against distinctly Australian targets, such as the ABC. With Howard's active encouragement, Australia Day became a much more patriotically charged event - kind of Fourth of July down under.

In Canberra, where the incumbency rate is close to 90 per cent … the politically deviant, which these days translates as the bipartisan-spirited, run the risk of de-selection.

Like his predecessors, Howard came to rely heavily on focus groups and US-style political consultants, including Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor, just as Labor employed the services of Bruce Hawker. "Pork-barrelling" also become more prevalent, with the Howard government skewing road-funding in particular towards Coalition-held seats, which received a disproportionately higher number of grants. The 2001 federal election campaign even saw a Wag the Dog-style military deployment, when Howard sent the SAS to board the Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa.

The Howard years also saw a creeping religiosity, as commentators thought it now was possible to identify a "Christian vote". John Howard, Peter Costello and Alexander Downer made regular appearances at Hillsong Church, the US-style mega-church. Ahead of the 2007 election, both Howard and Kevin Rudd appeared at a political leaders forum organized by the Australian Christian Lobby, a once largely insignificant group that was now being taken much more seriously.

Political culture and popular culture also were becoming more closely enmeshed, leading to the same kind of fascination with the trivial. Just as Bill Clinton was asked whether he preferred boxers or briefs on MTV, Rove McManus asked Kevin Rudd for whom he would turn gay. Just as Clinton was invited to play his saxophone on the Arsenio Hall Show, Peter Costello was almost frog-marched into dancing the Macarena with Kerri-Anne Kennerley. The modern-day requirement for politicians to become participants in popular culture also helps explain one of the more bizarre examples of American mesmerism: the morning that Kim Beazley mixed up Rove McManus with Karl Rove, a gaffe that hastened his downfall. The 2007 federal election marked a new high watermark in the Americanisation of domestic politics, with the branding of the new Labor leader as Kevin 07. Even if the skills were not so silky and the star power of the players not so magnetic - it was like watching the Brisbane Bullets shoot hoops rather than the Chicago Bulls - the attempt was to run a presidential-style campaign.

The point is amply made. Australia, in common with most western democracies, has for decades been undergoing an almost continual process of political Americanisation, in its style, stagecraft, professionalism and mechanics. Over the past 18 months, however, it has undergone changes that are qualitatively different, especially in regard to the quality and rancour of public debate, for which the term "Americanisation" seems inexact. It does not describe the mood and temper. The bellicosity. The ultra-partisanship. The relentless negativity. The spin. The exaggerated rhetoric. The claustrophobia of a capital devoted solely to politics. Surely we are talking now of Canberra's Washingtonisation.

<p>Illustration by Anton Emdin</p>

Illustration by Anton Emdin

THOUGH BOTH CAPITALS OWE their existence to acts of compromise - in Washington's case, between the north and south and in Canberra's, less momentously, between Sydney and Melbourne - there is not much evidence today of that founding spirit. Following the attacks of 9/11, America saw a cessation of political hostility that lasted pretty much until the fall of Baghdad. In the messy aftermath, however, much of the poison in evidence during Bill Clinton's impeachment and George W. Bush's disputed election once again made putrid the air. Whereas once there was a clubby camaraderie on Capitol Hill, something bordering on hatred now prevails. In the House, it is has become more rare to find moderates prepared to break from their caucus. In the Senate, the use of filibuster, a stalling tactic used to block legislation, has become routine. Once it was deployed sparingly as a last resort, in the main by southern segregationists trying to maintain the separation of the races. Now it is everyday. Bipartisanship has become a dirty word. Burning national issues, such as how to pay down the colossal national debt, defy consensus. Politicians of all stripes rush to the television "stake-out" positions outside the House and Senate chambers to denounce each other, using shrill and often hysterical language.

Even electoral mandates have been devalued to the point almost of worthlessness. The very legitimacy of the last three Presidents, Clinton, Bush and Barack Obama, has been contested. "Birthers" within the Tea Party movement have questioned even whether Obama is a bona fide American. It has brought its insurgent campaign to the lawns of the Washington Mall with members bearing placards with ugly and, in many instances, racist slogans. No wonder Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff, took to calling Washington "Fucknutsville," and then got the hell out, seeking refuge from this madhouse in Chicago, which now seemed tranquil by comparison.

Much of this behaviour also would be recognisable to modern-day Canberra watchers. Politicians are engaged in the same kind of trench warfare. Outside the realm of foreign affairs, bipartisanship is frowned upon. Obstructionism is the order of the day, even when legislative proposals come with the imprimatur of the electorate. Even though Kevin Rudd's emissions trading scheme was a central plank of his 2007 election, for instance, the Greens, allied with climate-change sceptics in the Coalition, twice blocked its passage in the Senate. When Malcolm Turnbull offered his party's support, he was booted out as leader. Compromise has proved fiendishly hard to reach, largely because there is no appetite for it. This remains true even when the political stalemate has fatal consequences, as with the unending battle over boat-borne asylum seekers.

Minority government obviously has made the atmosphere even more febrile. It is as if the whole capital is beset by the fight-or-flight response, that state of hyper-arousal and combat readiness. The delicate arithmetic of parliament also means that negative statecraft is being used to full, destructive effect. Here, a new nadir was reached when Tony Abbott suspended the normal "pairs" conventions, whereby members can absent themselves from parliament without fear that their party will be weakened numerically during divisions. The Opposition threatened even to deny a pair to the embattled MP Craig Thomson if his wife went into labour while parliament was in session.

Over the past 20 years, professional lobbying has been the ACT’s biggest growth industry. By the middle of the last decade, there were 150 lobby groups employing 1,000 professional lobbyists generating an annual turnover of $1 billion.

A bitter and abusive parliament has lost voices of moderation. The Liberals' Petro Georgiou, Judith Troeth and Bruce Baird, and Labor's John Faulkner and Lindsay Tanner. Tellingly, the upper house, which is supposed to be a more deliberative body, now is home to some of Canberra's sharpest partisans: Stephen Conroy, Doug Cameron and Penny Wong for the ALP; Cory Bernadi, Concetta Fierravanti-Wells and Eric Abetz for the Liberals; and, of course, Barnaby Joyce for the Nationals. The rise of the Greens, and the concentration of their power in the Senate, has accelerated this trend. Its three most combative parliamentarians, Bob Brown, Christine Milne and Sarah Hanson-Young, are all senators. Of course, upper-house obstructionism is hardly a new phenomenon, and in the past has had more dramatic consequences, as in the lead-up to the 1975 dismissal crisis. But has debate in the upper chamber ever been so shrill or, on occasions, so infantile?

This destructiveness is evident all over Canberra. "The doors" of Parliament House are used in much the same way as the stake-out positions on Capitol Hill: they are the spot where parliamentarians appear before a thicket of microphones to berate their political opponents with pre-packaged talking points of the day. The lawns in front of parliament have played host to the self-styled "Peoples' Revolt" protests. From the Akubra hats to the sausage sizzles, from the Southern Cross tattoos to the zinc cream, the demonstrations at least looked authentically Australian. But the anti-statist rhetoric had an American ring, and so, too, the personal vilification - even if the placards and slogans were not quite so malign. Tea Party battle cries, railing against federal encroachment and the imposition of any new taxes, also found an echo.

A common theme of these protests has also been the supposed illegitimacy of Julia Gillard's minority government. But although this line of attack is constitutionally specious, it has been taken up by the Coalition. Routinely, it been deployed by politicians like Sophie Mirabella, Bronwyn Bishop and Barnaby Joyce in addressing anti-carbon-tax rallies. The same kind of demagoguery also has come from Tony Abbott. Last year, in his prime-time response to Wayne Swan's budget, he argued that "this government lacks legitimacy" and called for the immediate dissolution of parliament.

Just as much of the behaviour in Canberra and Washington is alike, so, too, are the forces that shape it. The Australian three-year electoral cycle is working in much the same way as the two-year cycle for US congressman, for it places lawmakers on a permanent campaign-footing. Nor are they motivated merely by the fear of rejection at the polls. Often the far greater danger comes from being ousted by activists within their own party. In Washington, where the incumbency re-election rate is about 90 per cent, Congressmen are often most vulnerable from insurgent primary challengers. This puts moderates and independent-minded lawmakers especially at risk, for the party can always punish them for straying from the partisan path.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

In Canberra, where the incumbency rate is close to 90 per cent - in the past four federal elections, only 66 incumbents have lost in 600 contests - the same dynamic is at work. The politically deviant, which these days translates as the bipartisan-spirited, run the risk of de-selection. The Liberal MP Bruce Baird faced this precise dilemma ahead of the 2007 election. He decided to step down as the Member for Cook, the south Sydney constituency that includes "the Shire," rather than go through what looked set to be a vicious pre-selection challenge from the right.

Nor is it solely politicians who are aping the behaviour of their US counterparts. Players outside parliament, who are trying to influence their actions, are displaying many of the same American traits.

IN A CAPITAL OF ALPHABETICAL and numerical street names, criss-crossed by avenues bearing the names of states, K Street has become a metonym for the lobbying sector in Washington in much the same way that Hollywood describes the movie industry in Los Angeles. Canberra does not have an equivalent, although perhaps it should. Over the past 20 years, professional lobbying has been the ACT's biggest growth industry. By the middle of the last decade, there were 150 lobby groups employing 1,000 professional lobbyists generating an annual turnover of $1 billion. Compared to Washington, the numbers are still fairly small - four lobbyists per Australian lawmaker as opposed to 60 in America. But their influence has increased dramatically. Now the register of lobbyists, which was set up by the Rudd government to bring greater transparency, lists 227 separate companies. In terms of influence peddling, the register is by no means exhaustive. Nowhere near. It does not include powerful industry groups, such as the Minerals Council of Australia, professional groups, such as the Australian Medical Association, nor peak bodies, such as the Australian Industry Group.

Needless to say, much of their work is conducted in the shadows and goes unnoticed, but increasingly they have used the mass media to influence the government, deploying the same tactics used by lobby groups in America. A barrage of television advertisements financed by the mining sector not only forced the Labor government to retreat from its plans for a super profits tax, but also seriously destabilised Kevin Rudd. Clubs NSW has used the exact same media strategy to combat Andrew Wilkie's proposed pokie reforms, leading to another government U-turn. The debate over live cattle exports to Indonesia, in the shocked wake of Sarah Ferguson's Four Corners expose, demonstrated the extent to which powerful lobbies could counteract each other. The grotesque images from inside the Indonesian abattoirs that made the Four Corners film both so difficult to watch and so hard to ignore came from the pressure group Animals Australia. Months later, when the government lifted its temporary suspension of exports, it was as a result of a successful counter-campaign from the Northern Territory Cattlemen's Association. The squabbling between politicians has become so all-consuming that it is often these outside pressure groups who make the larger debating points.

Never before has the “Wash” in the Washminster system been more in evidence. Never before has the Capital Circle so closely resembled Capitol Hill.

Direct action groups, which not only have drawn inspiration from America, but have been organised by Australians with first-hand US experience, have also become vastly more influential. GetUp!, which now boasts upwards of 380,000 members - which is more than all the nation's political parties combined - was founded by two Australian Harvard graduates, Jeremy Heimans and David Madden. Both had worked at MoveOn.org, the American online advocacy group, and established GetUp! in 2005 after seeing for themselves the potential for online activism during the 2004 presidential election. EMILY's List Australia, which was set up in 1996 to boost the number of progressive female parliamentary candidates, was a virtual photostat of its American sister organisation. Likewise, the Occupy protests have been much paler imitations of their US forerunners.

On the right, Tim Andrews has been one of the driving forces behind the anti-carbon tax carbon campaign. A dual US-Australian citizen, he was an intern at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington and more recently worked at Americans for Tax Reform, an important intellectual blood bank, and the Koch Foundation, a major financial contributor to the Tea Party movement.

What also is striking, and American, is the extent to which these lobby, pressure and direct action groups have become opinion leaders - framing the debates, articulating the arguments more cogently in many instances than the politicians themselves, dominating the national discussions and in many instances winning them. This was especially true in the last months of John Howard's prime ministership. On issues that damaged Howard most severely - his failure to ratify Kyoto, WorkChoices and David Hicks's continued incarceration at Guantanamo - it was the unions, the Climate Institute of Australia, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Amnesty International and GetUp! that made much of the running. The same was true in the final weeks of Kevin Rudd's prime ministership, when the resources sector, more so than the opposition, inflicted many of the terminal wounds. More recently, during the live cattle debate, the agriculture minister, Joe Ludwig, looked almost powerless as he was buffeted by one lobby and then another, like the driver of a fairground dodgem car who had no control of the steering.

Nor is it possible to ignore those other dominant thought-leaders: the talkback radio hosts, or "shock jocks". With the media landscape more balkanised here than in the US, no Australian shock jock can boast the same nationwide following of a Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. Still, some of the most powerful political voices in the country belong to radio hosts - think Alan Jones and Ray Hadley. As in America, one of the main effects of such talk show hosts has been to coarsen debate and to delegitimise politicians through campaigns of personal vilification. Over the past 12 months, Jones has called the Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young "brain-dead", Tony Windsor a "fool", Andrew Wilkie an "idiot" and suggested that Julia Gillard should join Bob Brown in a "chaff bag" and be taken out to sea. Jones also has served as emcee and rabble-rouser at the anti-carbon tax rallies, which his radio network, 2GB, had done much to publicise in advance.

Where Australia differs from America is that the talk-back hosts have less impact on television. There is no Antipodean Foxosphere, and both continuous news channels here strive for genuine fairness and balance. Nonetheless,Sky and ABC News 24, in tandem with online news sites and Twitter, have shortened news cycles and curtailed the decision-making time for politicians, just as CNN, Fox and MSNBC have done in the States. Increasingly, there is an expectation that a policy problem which first appears in the morning papers should be dealt with in time for Chris Uhlmann's political round-up on 7:30. This incessant, media-driven demand for action was especially evident during the live exports debate, in the knee-jerk responses from the government. The end result, so often, is a short-term political fix rather than a long-term policy solution. Lawmakers could resist this pressure, of course, and follow their own timetable. But that would ignore the sine qua non of modern-day politics, both here and in America: the fight to win 24/7 news cycles. The problem is that the game has become increasingly extraneous to anyone not involved. Voters are relegated to the role of sideline spectators in a sport that many, in any case, would prefer not to watch.

All of which brings us to the final way in which Australian and US politics currently mirror each other: the high, and rising, levels of public disaffection. Lawmakers in Washington have started the new parliamentary year with their lowest approval ratings in history - just 11 per cent. A recent Pew poll also showed that 67 per cent of respondents thought their lawmakers should not be re-elected in November. Polls in Australia reveal the same rejection of politics. A survey late last year conducted by the Australian National University showed that the level of satisfaction with politicians had fallen since the 2010 federal election by 13 per cent, to its lowest level since 1998, the year of the introduction of the deeply unpopular GST. In the 2010 poll, the electorate had already delivered a contemptuous verdict by recording an informal voting rate of 5.5 per cent, the highest level in over 30 years.

The spiteful aftermath of the events in Canberra on Australia Day will have done little to improve the standing of politicians. The entire episode was indicative. A spin doctor who saw the chance to score a few cheap, partisan points at a supposedly bipartisan event (The Australian suggested he was living in some kind of "West Wing fantasyland"). A mob of angry protesters making exaggerated claims based on misinformation. A highly predictable row following the resignation of the prime minister's press aide, and the accusations of a wider cover-up - much of which was centred on that old Watergate chestnut, "What did the Prime Minister know, and when did she know it?" There were the equally unimaginative charges of "unAustralian" behaviour, a formulation appropriated from the era of McCarthyism that has now taken firm hold here. And, of course, the inevitable use of the term "Lobbygate." Even the AFP seemed to impersonate the Secret Service, responding as if the muzzle of a sniper's rifle was spotted poking out of the shrubbery. There was, it should be said, a fleeting moment of graciousness, when Julia Gillard made sure that Tony Abbott would be offered police protection, as well. "We'll just pull together," the Prime Minister told the opposition leader as protesters thumped on the windows. But the spirit of those words did not survive the day, and soon it was back to "game on" politics.

<p>Photo by Mike Bowers</p>

Photo by Mike Bowers

DELIVERING A LIGHT-HEARTED speech in the Great Hall of parliament at a reception held last November in honour Barack Obama, Tony Abbott touched on how the lingua franca of Australian politics was often at direct odds with American usage. He told his audience about a fact-finding trip he had made to Washington, where his hosts, the US Information Agency, tried to lay on a series of meetings with political fellow travellers. The USIA had apparently heard that Abbott was a "ferocious liberal and deeply anti-republican." Then came the punchline: he ended up spending the next few weeks being introduced to communists.

For all the similarities, there are differences aplenty. Big money has not had the same corrupting effect because of tighter campaign finance rules. Australia has not seen the same politicisation of the judiciary; indeed, it was a Labor government that nominated Robert French to serve as the Chief Justice of the High Court, evidently untroubled by the fact that he once stood for election as a Liberal. Neither has there been the same unhappy marriage of the political and judicial processes that have seen disputed US elections decided in the courts. Canberra has a far greater number of career politicians than Washington, partly because there is not the same expectation here that lawmakers will have enjoyed success in their political pre-life in business, law or the military. Indeed, in Canberra at present, the very idea of a political pre-life seems rather novel. Australians leaders are not expected to be charismatic or chiselled, and nor is there the same veneration of former leaders. It would be unthinkable for Americans to unveil a statue of a former president that was not mounted on a plinth or part of some grand, Olympian design, whereas the bronze sculptures erected in honour of John Curtin and Ben Chifley in Canberra were deliberately placed at pavement level. Leadership battles on Capitol Hill can be brutal, but the knives are not wielded with such savagery or frequency. Sitting presidents cannot be rolled.

Barack Obama, in his own Great Hall remarks, also acknowledged some of the cultural differences between the two nations - he spoke, for instance, of the American troops in Afghanistan who were mystified that Australian diggers kept on talking about "cheese", when in fact they were saying "cheers". But he also touched briefly, and blithely, on the shared mood of rancour in Washington and Canberra. "Ear-bashing" was an Aussie colloquialism, he said to polite laughter, which also would resonate at home. Had he stayed longer, however, my hunch is that the president would have been struck by a shared mood of malice and disruptiveness. Indeed, when he delivered his State of Union address last month, assailing the dysfunction of America's polity - "Washington is broken," he said - much of it read like a critique of Australia's as well. For "Washminster" is giving way to a political Austerica. Canberra has become "Fucknutsville."

10 comments on this story
by Jeanne

I really appreciated this article by Nick Bryant. It echoes my thoughts that Australian politics have become nastier year by year. The press gallery have contributed to it with their assumption that they are players in the process - whatever happened to straight reporting? Instead we have Opinion Pieces all over the media. This has encouraged the 'conservatives' to try any tactic they can to gain power, no matter that truth is a casualty. I look forward to more articles in Global Mail as so far the content is excellent.

February 22, 2012 @ 3:19pm
by Tom

Thank you, well thought through balanced article that hits the nail on the head. The only solution that comes to mind, is to make it compulsory for school students to study basic economics, politics and the tactics used by spin makers, marketers and sensationalist media players.

Prior to reaching voting age kids should be able to see through the "crap" as Julia Gillard so eloquently put it.

February 22, 2012 @ 3:30pm
by Joe

A very good article. Everybody knows that it is bad. What can be done? On reflection diversity of media with a limit to concentration must be part of the solution so that spurious and self serving arguments can be effectively challenged and not allowed to dominate.

February 22, 2012 @ 10:37pm
by Cam

A thoroughly enjoyable and erudite piece. Well done Nick and thank you. Clarity amidst the storm. How refreshing.

From the many takeaways this article provides, remaining circumspect of the seemingly unchecked growth of lobby groups seems somehow the most urgent task at hand.

February 23, 2012 @ 12:22am
by John

Put simply, our politicians no longer think the goal is to serve, they think the goal is to win - and we are the ones who lose.

February 24, 2012 @ 1:49am
by Josh

One positive aspect of American politics that has not transferred is the independence and ability to speak out of individual members of Congress.

Here, the expectation that individual members toe the party line is overwhelming, particularly in the Labor Party.

An American member of Congress, however, makes up their own mind on issues, puts forward policies and amendments of their own accord, and brings their own judgment to the issues before them, rather than serving merely as instruments of the party. While recently the Republicans have spurned the compromises and individual negotiations of old, it was previously an excellent means of building bipartisan consensus over time and ensuring vigorous debate.

It's a shame that we only seem to import the most negative aspects of the American experience, rather than the positive ones.

February 25, 2012 @ 12:05am
by Andrew

Thank you for such an eloquent and thoughtful article. It addresses many of the problems in politics. And that is where I hold slight issue this article. The article points out the problems with democracies on a global level. American politics are royally messed up and unfair but gridlock and the influence of a negative media culture are not exclusively tied to the star and stripes. In all of the recent history of democracy across the globe we all have problems with lobbying, political discussion and efficiency. The evils of Australian politics do not have root in a white building across the sea. It has root, as all current democracies, due in its own culture and sphere of its influence. Although, us Americans like thinking we are all powerful in reality the current most powerful force affecting democracies is globalization. A global force where across all countries media, discussion and representation will change, some for the better and some for the worse. This is not a country changing into another this is a country changing with all the other countries. This an evolution, not an Americanization. I am not saying this is a change for the better. I am saying this is change that will happen with or without "the land of the free". Instead we should be discussing the new nature of democracies instead of demonizing one.

February 27, 2012 @ 4:48am
Show previous 7 comments
by Ryan

The strong party system is one of the major benefits of Westminster, not a downside, primarily because it prevents the worst of money in politics. You can hardly lobby individual MPs here as they vote with the party, and lobbying the entire party with all of its different factions is far more difficult. This is the reason why we don't see such massive lobbying and money in politics here, not stricter laws.

The strength of our system is clearly shown by the fact that although we are going through a pretty nasty patch, the system is still functioning adequately. For what some claim as the worst Government of all time, it's still getting some important stuff done. Compare that to the current American gridlock.

That's not to say there aren't many areas where there could be improvement; another of your brilliant articles, the one about the quality of our politicians, provides a lot of food for thought here.

December 18, 2012 @ 9:10pm
by a don

i think the tole of the media has a strong influence on politicians and the public. Simple headlines and mischevious misreporting are examples. The whole AWU pursuit by The Australian and the Slipper affair are great examples.

December 24, 2012 @ 6:33pm
by Steffie

Having only just discovered this article now, at the opposite end of the year to its debut, & thus with even more fetid waters having flowed under our political bridges in the interim, I'd like to (a) echo other respondents' praise for such an incisive & insightful article, (b) agree wholeheartedly & equally bemoan our loathsome americanisation*, but also (c) point out the unfortunate irony of Nick having seamlessly deployed two of the linguistic pollutants ["septicisms"?] that are to be despised, namely "9/11" & "24/7". These really jarred, given the article's overall theme & quality. Cheers [or cheese]. Steffie.

PS: * Though it possibly warrants a separate thread as it deals more with cultural rather than political americanisation, there are equally deplorable other septicisms encroaching our media & public, one of which even otherwise respected ABC reporters are increasingly misusing, viz [phonetically] "lootenant" in lieu of "lefftenant". Yuk.

December 24, 2012 @ 7:44pm
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