OPINION

The loudest voices in politics

It is ironic that Senator Matt Canavan, the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia, should complain that regional voices are being drowned out in Australian politics because it is the job of his party, the Nationals, to represent regional Australia.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan. Picture: Attila Csaszar

Resources Minister Matt Canavan. Picture: Attila Csaszar

They are now entering their third consecutive term in government and their leader, Michael McCormack, based in Wagga, is Deputy Prime Minister. Canavan himself is based in Rockhampton. If regional voices are not being heard by the federal government then they are not doing their job. But, in fact, as he himself points out, rural and regional voices won the last election. The metropolitan areas of the country preferred the Labor Opposition, but their urban voices did not prevail.

The message of Canavan's speech to the Sydney Institute last week was that regional voices are being drowned out by the "din of loud Australians". The loud Australians he identified were those represented by the Stop Adani caravan and by activists like former Greens leader, Bob Brown. He describes them as busybodies, interfering in the business of others.

Canavan is a skilled provocateur who likes nothing more than antagonising those on the other side of politics. He is from the in-your-face school of politics.

For that reason it is hard to know whether he is just getting his frustrations off his chest because he is irritated by his opponents or whether he really believes that the regional voices he and his party represent are not being heard. He is clearly contrasting so-called loud Australians with Scott Morrison's term 'quiet Australians'. But it is a false dichotomy. It is no more convincing that the long-established idea of the silent majority, a phrase coined by those defending conservative values in the USA.

He makes some good points deserving of wider consideration, however, and the question of whose voices are heard most in Australian politics is a crucial one.

There is an unhealthy divide between urban and rural areas. Whether or not it is growing is a moot point, but it is possible that the drought has made rural and regional people more concerned that their well-being is not appreciated by urban Australians (though the latter have been enthusiastic about offering help to their rural cousins). But he also makes many contestable assertions.

Students participate in a climate protest at the ANU last week. Public activism may be louder, but it is not necessarily more effective than other methods. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Students participate in a climate protest at the ANU last week. Public activism may be louder, but it is not necessarily more effective than other methods. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

Regional and rural Australians, despite being in a minority by population, are well-represented, despite having fewer seats than once was the case in federal and state parliaments. As well as having a political party of their own, which is in government more often than not, they are also represented by several powerful lobby groups.

The Minerals Council of Australia, for instance, represents companies which generate most of Australia's mining output (its own description) and most of those mines are in rural and regional areas.

Another example is the National Farmers Federation which is the peak body representing farmers and agriculture across Australia (its own description) and by definition most farming and agriculture occurs outside of urban areas.

Together these peak bodies are among the top 10 lobby groups in the country. They are enormously well-connected and influential within the federal government. If they are not representing regional Australians then they are failing in their duty to their members and constituents.

They would deny this. Their lobbying work in the corridors of power is more often quiet and stealthy as they lobby ministers, MPs and bureaucrats. It is political work by insiders, making submissions, dealing with committees and making sure their interests are central to government policy.

Canavan is a smart operator and his message is an appealing one to many people who believe they are stranded on the periphery of politics.

Public activism may be louder, but it is not necessarily more effective than other methods. In fact, public activism - marches, demonstrations and similar collective action - is often the method of choice of those citizens who are not especially powerful. They are outsiders trying to make their voices heard.

These political movements are often resorting to public activism because they don't have the financial resources or political contacts to adopt other means of lobbying. Think Palm Sunday marches and citizens rallies on issues like climate action and refugees.

By contrast the operations of peak bodies based in Canberra may not be especially loud but it does not mean they are ineffective. They are the stealth bombers of politics, with paid access to the corridors of power and influential friends in high places, while environmentalists and citizen action groups are the infantry.

The other major criticism that Canavan makes about his political opponents being busybodies who interfere in the lives of others unjustifiably is also special pleading. It is a claim which can be directed at just about anyone, conservative or progressive, who gets involved in politics because most issues impact on a wide range of people.

Political issues by their nature can't be left to the small range of people directly impacted because they are justifiably of interest to the wider community. That is true of tree-clearing or coal mines in regional areas, a special interest of Canavan, just as it is true of intrusive developments in urban areas like tower blocks and large apartment buildings.

Canavan is a smart operator and his message is an appealing one to many people who believe they are stranded on the periphery of politics. In some ways it is the traditional appeal which justified the emergence of the Country Party a century ago. It is also behind the attraction of parties like Pauline Hanson's One Nation.

But it is a superficial view of whose voices really prevail in Australian politics today. It confuses the loud hurley burley of social movement politics with the quieter achievement of real economic and political power.

  • John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University
This story The loudest voices in politics first appeared on The Canberra Times.

Comments