The impending victory of one middle-aged white male politician over another this Saturday raises the question of diversity in Australian politics. At a University of Melbourne Elections Masterclass on election day, I will ask: “where is the Australian Obama?”
Australia and the United States are often compared. Geographically, they are similar in scale. Historically, they are the product of indigenous displacement and British colonialism.
Politically, Australia blends a US-style federalism with a British parliamentary structure (“Washminster”). Both America and Australia are immigrant nations. We speak versions of English, enjoy the rule of law, are culturally Christian, fight the same wars, have an AFL etc.
And yet, with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, America produced what some regarded as a transformation of its politics – and Australia has not. Why is this? Should we expect an Australian Obama anytime soon?
What do I mean by an Australian Obama? I don’t mean simply a mixed-race version of Abbott or Rudd or Gillard. My inquiry involves race but much else as well. Obama’s importance can be cast in racial terms only so far.
I don’t have in mind to interrogate the leadership chances of Penny Wong and, if she becomes PM, conclude the Australian Obama has arrived. I recommend Professor Marilyn Lake’s Masterclass on gender.
Rather, I want to analyse what Barack Obama is, what he means and apply this meaning to an Australian context. I will do so more fully in the Masterclass but offer some thoughts in brief here.
There are structural impediments to an Australian Obama. Obama came almost from nowhere between 2004-2008. He earned the opprobrium of several aspiring Democrats for having a very thin resume.
Men like Mayor (now Governor) Martin O’Malley had run racially diverse cities. Obama had “organised” a few communities in Chicago – after living a charmed life at Harvard Law School.
Because in the United States the party insiders can be trumped by character and charisma, Obama – who has these in abundance – rose quickly. Getting ahead in Canberra, conversely, requires a decades-long party slog, climbing up a greasy pole. Gillard, born a month after Obama, did not come from nowhere. She was a creature of the Labor party for most of her adult life, made and destroyed by it (not by the people).
There are cultural impediments to an Australian Obama. We do not invest significant hope and expectation in the prime ministerial office. We do not see each national election as an opportunity to remake politics down under. Indeed, Australians – particularly on the left – swap PMs like playing cards.
Not so in the United States. The office of president is still revered. Its filler is invested with almost transcendental powers: to restore, to rebuild, to remake – or, in Obama’s phrase, to lead “change we can believe in”.
As a consequence, attention is paid to the charisma, or lack thereof (see Mitt Romney in 2012) of the presidential candidate. The presidency is a peculiarly personal office and privileges personality over policy – or demands that policy be refracted through the character of the holder.
Obama won in 2008 not on the basis of a rigorous platform but on who he was, what his character allowed Americans to feel about themselves. He won an open primary, decided by millions of party members not a party elite. It would be hard to imagine how Howard, Rudd, Gillard or Abbott could have been elected on the strength of their personal style alone, with no elite support and in front of the demos alone.
Would an Australian Obama have to be of mixed race? This question assumes that Obama’s race constituted part of the revolution he portended. Certainly, the election of an African American would have been a fantasy just a few decades ago. For a nation of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation to elect a black man was a stunning development, evidence of a profound shift.
Except Obama has rarely connected race to his presidential destiny. He made one very good speech on race during the 2008 campaign – where he claimed that only in America was his story even possible. Instead, he has sought to transcend race, to move America into a post-racial politics.
His contention has earned him the distrust of many black activists who see him as inauthentic, as half-white rather than black, the product of white grand-parenting (his African father and Kansan mother were largely absent), and elite education.
“All he has known culturally is white,” says Cornel West. Race and racism, for West, are central to American failure and black grievance and Obama contradicts that.
Would an Australian Obama have to be indigenous? Obama was not an American Indian. Would an Australian Obama have to be wholly non-white and female? Again, that’s not Obama. Indeed, like Rudd and Abbott, he defined himself against the dominant female politician of his era.
What would the racial characteristics of the Australian PM have to be in order for us to claim we had transformed our politics? Obama’s rise offers us only a series of road maps, none commanding a consensus.
So Obama remains a vague Laborish hope in Australia, offering some sort of ill-defined inspiration but no model. He cannot be mimicked or Xeroxed or even claimed by foreigners.
A final thought: perhaps even Obama is not an “American Obama” so searching for his Australian variant is pointless. His greatest trick was to convince the world that he is something other than an entirely conventional politician, presaging not change but more of the same.