Mark Latham's fantasies of a middle-class 'utopia'

November 23, 2014

The Political Bubble: Why Australians Don’t Trust Politics
Mark Latham
Macmillan, 2014
291 pages, $32.99 (pb)

The only thing surprising about the 4% of Australians who a poll last year said “almost always” trusted the federal government is that the figure is that high.

Further evidence of the many failures of Australian politics comes in The Political Bubble via an angry Mark Latham, the former leader of the federal Labor Party.

Now considered as standard political operating behaviour are broken election promises and post-election linguistic spin, politics are part 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 that forces everyone 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. 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 that goes with it.

Politicians are thus cocooned in their own little bubble of privilege and self-importance. There are also benefits for those orbiting the bubble, including political staffers, journalists and, it could be added, ex-politicians. After all, the Mark Latham Literary Enterprises is going strong ― Political Bubble is book number nine.

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 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”. Here, depoliticised individuals have become bootstrap-lifting agents of their own self-improvement and prosperity, creating a society that is “affluent and satisfied”.

“Contrary to Marxist theories of the radical left” ― and oblivious to the well-researched evidence of non-Marxist economists like Thomas Picketty ― “capitalism is becoming more equal, not less”.

In this glorious utopia of self-sufficiency, there is much less for government to do.

In Latham’s case for this vast “sensible middle”, he rejects both the “feral right” of Liberal politicians and tabloid hacks as well as the green-left “fanatical fringe”.

The centrepiece of Latham’s alternative, “minimalist” politics is government by experts. Expert bodies would take charge of fiscal policy, 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 would themselves be elite members of the Bubble ― only minus any democratic accountability.

Latham is right to say the current system is broken but it is the capitalist form of democracy ― economic rule by the rich, political rule by their class buddies ― that is the problem.

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