In 1995, former Prime Minister John Howard delivered one of his famous ‘Headland’ speeches, a series of appeals to a disaffected Australian public that contributed to his political success.
Earlier this month, The Australian published the results of a survey to identify the best prime minister for the past four decades. Howard was the clear winner. Revisiting his words is a reminder as to why:
“There is a frustrated mainstream in Australia today which sees government decisions increasingly driven by the noisy, self-interested clamour of powerful vested interests with scant regard for the national interest.”
These words were delivered almost 20 years ago. Howard’s government was not yet in power and he was clearly looking to capture the public imagination for the upcoming election against the abrasive Keating.
By tapping into a sense of national frustration – feelings that he sought to outline and define in the speech quoted above – Howard was able to crest the wave of popular discontent and ride it into office.
Today, only six months into a new term, similar feelings of public dissatisfaction with the sitting Federal government have been given vent to by a series of protests across the country.
From Canberra to Sydney, Melbourne to Hobart, cities and towns have played host to marches with a diverse selection of participants.
What is interesting is no single political figure has stepped up to the plate as Howard did in 1995.
The events have largely been organised by and through social media channels, such as a mushrooming collection of ‘March in March’ Facebook pages.
Espousing an appeal to ‘people power’ and a broad political disenchantment that objects to represented parties – either in power or in opposition – there was, in the run-up to the weekend of March 15, a sense that this movement was simply too diffuse to achieve much of anything.
Indeed the lack of mainstream media coverage of the upcoming marches from the print media, was taken by participants online as confirmation that their action was being censored. Typically, this gave rise to dismissive comments on Facebook by the page admin regarding Rupert Murdoch – described as a ‘puppeteer’ of the current government and media.
There is an evident amateurishness to how this grassroots movement has used social media to organise. For example, the events are stated to take place in 2104 – which is an impressive piece of forward planning!
However, given the lead-in to the March in March, the months of discussion on a publically viewable site, some media coverage should have been expected.
Even in Monday’s The Age, following a highly visible presence on the streets of Melbourne the day before with an estimated 50,000 attendees (official police figures are reportedly unavailable, so the only source is the organisers themselves) the occasion warranted a single column within a broader discussion of Nielsen polls.
Instead, discussion of March in March has been located almost exclusively online, with the Sydney Morning Herald, News.com.au and The Australian featuring comment digitally but not in print. In particular The Australian headline ‘Man collapses in anti-Abbott Qld march’ was more suggestive of an implied danger in this public protest than the political import of such a large gathering of voters.
Amusingly The Weekend Australian ran a story on page 3 on coffee-table philosopher Alain de Botton’s quest to fix the issue of media bias in his new book The News: A User’s Manual.
Criticism of the March in March protest has focused on the essential aimlessness of the movement, the protesting of dozens of issues with no unified goal. This criticism has a feeling of spin about it.
The voters who assembled in capitals and regional areas across the country were not confused about their anger. The many items listed on placards and t-shirts – the environment, social justice, cuts to social entitlements, abuse of asylum seekers, the rights of women – represented a shopping list of demands.
Yes there was abusive language directed at Tony Abbott, as well as Gina Rinehart and Rupert Murdoch, that lowered the tone of the peaceful gatherings. Enough to warrant the same comment in print and television media that followed then Opposition Leader Tony Abbott appearing on stage with Bronwyn Bishop and Sophie Mirabella in front of placards reading ‘Ditch the Witch’ and ‘Juliar…Bob Browns B&*(%’.
Despite this, very little comment has arisen, precisely because it would draw attention to the larger issue of what these people were protesting about. The nature of these protests are not so much incoherent as inchoate – the continuing gestation of a mass expression of dissatisfaction with a democratically elected government.
That no political figure channelled this criticism suggests there is a large sector of the voting public that has no representative voice in Parliament. Six months of the current prime ministership have yielded up a quick decline in ratings for Abbott, the sharpest in 40 years of Nielsen polls (Financial Review, 17 March 2014).
Should an opposing leader step forward to take advantage of this broad unrest, much like Howard did in 1996, they could easily claim Abbott’s scalp. None has, nor is it likely any will, as March in March represents something far more unpredictable.
What is being expressed is far bigger than a brief emotional outburst of a mob, to borrow Howard’s phrase, ready to be deployed against a sitting government.
This is a movement that cannot be assimilated by the oppositional politics of recent years, despite the recent surge in popularity for the WA Greens senator Scott Ludlam on social media. To describe it as left-wing, or partisan is specious. March in March is an expression of a long-brewing rejection of the current schema of politics in its entirety. Its bill of goods is a list of outstanding complaints dating across the two most recent administrations.
It is notable that even as Abbott’s ratings drop, a royal commission is set to drag Kevin Rudd’s government over hot coals as part of its home insulation scheme inquiry.
This is why media coverage of March in March was so sparing.
The popular protests represent a wide-ranging rejection of the political system itself. It is an undirected mainstream frustration that applies equally to both compromised parties.
In the absence of any representation from the political sphere, perhaps this is an opportunity for the religious community to provide moral authority on these issues?