An edited version of this piece first appeared in The Age
Last month the Leader of the House, Anthony Albanese, was seen bouncing around at The Pogues gig in Sydney. The Pogues, a filthy and soulful Celtic-punk group, are led by the legendary misfit Shane MacGowan, a sort of toothless angel who’s seen his fair share of pain and pubs and happened to write some of the most memorable music of the past quarter century in them.
So here was the Leader of the House, a political brawler and potential king-maker, dressed in a Pixies t-shirt—another legendary band possessing a giant, deranged soul—swaying with other sweaty fans and wondering how it was that MacGowan, after a lifetime of creative self-destruction, could still stand, let alone perform as well as he was.
So why am I telling you this? Albanese has been one of the few to negotiate the grotesque vaudeville of our capital with any sense of dignity, consistency and loyalty. It’s because Albo has a soul and a sense of tragic-comedy. That’s why he was at The Pogues. Growing up poor, Albanese’s sense of justice and sorrow was sharpened early, a perfect fit for the professed values of the Labor Party.
That party doesn’t exist anymore. If it’s to be exhumed, it’ll take soulfully combative figures like Albanese to do it. John Faulkner is another figure of decency, dignity and exceptional intelligence, but it doesn’t matter while he’s pressed “mute” on himself. The rot is already in, John. Loose yourself.
Dignity is not a word you’ll read much in these pages. It’s too earnest, opposed to the unimaginative solemnity of political professionals. The vocabulary of political analysis is as barren as the game it describes—an endless, bloodless appraisal of polls and the collation of de riguer terms like “momentum” and “circuit breaker”.
This cycle of ineptitude and gaffes—and the breathless reporting of them—not only moves us all away from discussions of policy, it moves us very far away from the respect of voters. Their apathy isn’t stupidity, it’s disgust.
But as much as dignity and passion has been scrubbed from our politics and reporting, they’re qualities still profoundly recognisable to Australians, and not just to punk fans. It may not win you an election, but it will win you respect and keep the soul of your party humming.
The problem is, dignity and passion can’t be counterfeited by the raw ambition of professional politicians. That’s a big part of the problem. The current ALP is a distressingly homogenous culture, constituted almost entirely by former staffers and unionists. Aside from status, what the hell have you fought for? The pool of talented, passionate, dignified MPs has been drying up for some time now as the once-myriad pipelines into parliament are shut off in favour of the few pipelines of patronage.
There have been times when the caucus of each major party comprised of more nurses, doctors, fire-fighters, teachers, soldiers, academics. Each member was someone who had excelled in an area other than advising politicians in corridors.
It’s been said that Tony Abbott is been our most effective opposition leader ever. Okay. He’s got graft, aggression. He’s seen off a sitting Prime Minister. But Australians don’t really want him either, and this may be one of the many sad and strange legacies of this government—gifting the Prime Ministership to a man few voters want.
What choice do voters have? “Better the devil you know” is an uninspiring epithet, barely enough to move people to properly mark their ballots, let alone attracting a new generation of parliamentarians. When I voted blank at the last election, some friends were incensed, and shouted at me: “Anyone but Abbott!” But is that the best we have? To accept the moral hazard we create when we just vote the least worst guys in?
No. The majority of Australians—which is to say the living, breathing stuff of democracy—don’t think the sky will fall if Abbott becomes Prime Minister. They just wish to register their distaste.
The fetid irony here is that their pitiful public standing isn’t the result of fighting sincerely, tirelessly, and eloquently. Miraculously, they’ve managed to alienate both sides of each battle they’ve gone into. Some of this is sheeted home to the natural constraints of a minority government—but much of it is because of shabby political cleverness, compromise and the dull inarticulacy that follows when you don’t quite know where the soul of the party is anymore.
Columnist Joe Hildebrand’s recent profane and impassioned judgement of the Labor party isn’t the sound of a snide observer—it’s the sound of heartbreak. Joe can’t see the soul anymore. None of us can. Albanese and Faulkner can and should give what the other ghosts of the party can’t: the reason why any young and talented person should join the party. Otherwise they might find a painful resonance with The Pogues lyric: “Bury me at sea boys/Where no murdered ghosts can haunt me/If I rock upon the waves/Then no corpse can lie above me”.