Looking at Australia from Europe


Sometimes you just don’t know what to blog about.

But you can still blog about not knowing what to blog about, which seems like the digital age’s version of Epimenides’s logical paradox: If a Cretan tells you that all Cretans are liars, is he lying or telling the truth?).

I’m nearly two weeks into my European sojourn and I’m typing these words on a train from The Hague, via Utrecht, to Maastricht, the southernmost city in the Netherlands, and the capital of a region called Limburg, which hangs down off Holland like a geriatric’s scrotum, squeezed very tightly between Belgium and Germany, which is not a comfortable place for a ball sack of any age to be in, though I’m told that Maastricht is a lovely old city, if perhaps now somewhat cursed by being forever – and almost exclusively – associated in public mind with the Maastricht Treaty. I will most likely post this blog in the evening of my local time to pop up on the Australian screens on Tuesday morning, from Aachen, a short drive from Maastricht across the German border. Aachen was briefly Charlemagne’s capital as he resurrected the Holy Roman Empire around the year 800, following which not much has happened there until 1945, when it became the first, and for a short time the only, major German city to be taken by the American troops. Thus, due to the accident of its geographic location it had become the first experiment in both the art of the modern occupation and subsequently the efforts to reintegrate Germany into the family of civilised European nations.

But anyway, back to not knowing what to blog about.

Despite being distracted by my journey, I try to keep track of what’s happening in Australia, through (God help me) a regular scan of News.com.au as well as (not a case of God help me) seeing what outrages my Facebook friends back home.

Watching Australian politics from the distance of another hemisphere is in some senses even more depressing than watching it from up close. The only consolation is that you can easily and quickly forget about the Aussie political horror by looking out the window and seeing another stunning Dutch woman pedalling past on a bike.

Why more depressing? Because the mix of the big issues that have dominated the Australian political debate for the past few months – the same-sex marriage, dual nationality in parliament, the attempts to resurrect the republic – seem even more trifling against the wide range of real and important issues facing our country, as well as against the wide range of real and important issues occupying the world as a whole at the moment.

The United States is tearing itself apart over some genuine policy debates between the nationalists and the globalists over the size, role and direction of the government, immigration and the nature of the society, and about the role, influence and actions of America in the world. Constant string of natural disasters, from Texas to Bangladesh, focuses our minds on the continuing vulnerability of our societies to the forces of nature, at once more affected because of the growing population and infrastructure levels and less affected because greater prosperity brings greater preparedness and ability to deal with the consequences of disasters. Australians should certainly feel lucky to live on the most geologically stable piece of real estate on the planet; free from devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and only marginally within reach of tropical cyclones. Our droughts and floods, however tragic for those affected, pale in comparison with those elsewhere in the world, again because in a large part we are able to cope with them so much better at our stage of economic development. Last but not least, let us not forget the spectre of conflict haunting the world, from the Russian shadow hanging over Ukraine and the rest of the Eastern Europe, the wars of terror in Syria and throughout the rest of the Islamic umma, and Kim Jong Kardashian in North Korea with a finger on not just a nuclear but a hydrogen trigger. Who knows, maybe he will soon have missiles large enough to reach Darwin, but if you were Kim why would you want to waste it on Darwin (no offence to Darwin) rather than Seoul, Tokyo or Hawaii? Those of us who remember the ever-present and pervasive nuclear fear of the Cold War days might recall how the patterns of wind circulation around the globe would largely keep the nuclear fallout confined to the northern hemisphere. We are indeed a very lucky country, partly on the account of the good fortune of our geography and geology, but also partly because we have made our own prosperity and successful society.

Maybe that would be a good excuse and explanation for why Australia is spending its time mired in political and social trivia – as if the whole country has suddenly become a doctor’s wife (in which case who’s your doctor daddy? The Unites States? China? Both?) – while others around the world are preoccupied with more existential matters. We – or rather our political class and our intelligencia – obsess about the non-issues because we are far enough from trouble and far beyond and above the mundane. We pass our time on bullshit because we can, literally, afford it.

If only that were so. The problem is that as a country we continue to debate the same-sex marriage (however important the issue is to a tiny section of the society it directly impacts on, and whatever the rights and wrongs of it are) at the expense of issues that do affect, and will continue to affect, everyone. I’m talking here mainly about the matters like the health of the national finances, the levels of taxation, and the size and the scope of the government. We do slightly better when talking about matters like the energy policy, or immigration and multiculturalism, but these too tend to be sidelined by other, more colourful controversies de jour. If only we could muster the same energy and the same passion to debate the size of our national debt and what it means for the future generations as we do about the gender of the figurines on top of a wedding cake.

One of the benefits of having a vibrant multi-party system is that various parties – even if like in most English-speaking democracies (and unlike, say, the Netherlands) there are for all practical purposes just two – is that different parties will strongly argue for different and opposite positions on a whole range of issues. This – the debate – is good; it gives the electorate the variety of options to choose from, and listening to the public exchange of arguments allows it to form at least partially informed personal opinions. The tacit or explicit consensus amongst the parties and the political class is not a good thing; it’s not a sign of success – of having arrived at some sort of a political end-point nirvana where all the issues have been debated out and final answers found – but of failure; of laziness on the part of at least some sections of the party spectrum and of their abrogation of the political duty to put forward principled positions and argue for them in the public sphere.

This is, sadly, now taking place in Australia, and it’s a further sign of the social democratisation of Australian politics taking place for the past ten or so years, where, to paraphrase Mark Steyn, centre-left-right and centre-right-left vie for the centre-left political ground. This is a dangerous phenomenon because in the longer term it breeds public resentment, disconnect and anger, which in turn fuel a populist counter-reaction. The people change their political sentiments and beliefs a lot slower than those who govern them. While the elites might arrive at a happy consensus, they leave large parts of the society behind, now feeling ignored and unrepresented. This has been evident throughout the last few decades of the Western European political history, where public debates on issues such as the size of the government, immigration, or the European integration have been largely suppressed by the consensus-seeking elites of both “the right” and “the left” – and with often dangerous consequences. The same people who seem most concerned about the spectre of fascism (or what they consider to be fascism, or populism, including everything they don’t like) are the ones who do the most to create fascism. Because when the people feel their interests are not properly represented by the mainstream parties and their grievances, whether genuine or imagined or anything in between, are not being addressed by those they vote for, the people ditch the mainstream and seek solace in those who say they listen, no matter how outlandish those anti-politician politicians are.

We will be seeing more and more of that happening in Australia, as the Liberal Party seems to have made an unspoken decision to surrender to the centre-left on economic issues, primarily the size of the government, the level of taxation, and the extent of the government debt. It seems too difficult and too exhausting to argue for sensible public finances and for what in effect is generational theft as today’s politicians keep borrowing money to finance today’s lifestyles as the expense of the future generations of taxpayers who will be forced to sacrifice their lifestyles to service the debt bequeathed to them. In today’s democracy, no one speaks for the citizens of tomorrow, which is sad but perhaps not surprising in our short-term-obsessed political culture, but increasingly no one speaks for the large section of today’s citizenry who are outraged at the fiscal promiscuity of our governments.

Increasingly trendy and “moderate”, the Liberal Party also finds it more and more difficult to engage on a whole range of social and cultural issues to do with what sort of society we want to live in and leave to our children. This “consensus of virtue” will also come to bite our politicians on their taxpayer-fattened asses.

All this seems pretty obvious to an increasing number of intelligent people in Australia, but it seems even more evident when observed from Europe, which has been undergoing the same travails for years now. This…

Oh look, there goes another Dutch Amazon on her bicycle!

Anyway, what was I blogging about?

Oh, I know, I was blogging about having nothing to blog about.