The Lost Tribe

Moir, SMH 4 Apr 2012

There’s a group of Australians that I’m beginning to think of as the lost tribe.

They’re average people in most ways. They earn average incomes and have vanilla tastes. They worry about servicing their mortgages, getting their kids through school, and funding their retirement. They do their bit for the environment by getting a smaller car, installing a rainwater tank or using re-usable shopping bags.

The focus of this tribe is home and hearth; while they might be active in their own communities, they don’t have the time or inclination to focus on the big issues that loom beyond their back fence. They generally are well-meaning, hard-working and kind-hearted, but right now they feel disenfranchised, abandoned and lost. This is because they’ve been alienated, even demonised and cast adrift by contemporary politics.

The tribe are the people variously called Howard’s battlers, middle Australia and working families. They embody a grab-bag of political philosophies. They support capitalism to the extent that it guarantees food on the table and a secure future for their children. They support socialism to the extent that it provides universal health care, free education and a safety net for the disadvantaged. Their inner libertarian supports the right to have a drink, a smoke and punt. Their inner egalitarian wants their wives and daughters to be treated with equality and respect.

But these people no longer feel an allegiance to any one political party because their values have become fragmented in a way that does not match what is being offered. It is because of their lack of tribalism that I see these people as a tribe; a tribe that is lost in the wilderness, anxiously looking for a political home.

This tribe bears no allegiance to any one party, because they believe every party has let them down. While Howard made them feel secure for a decade, he pulled the rug from underneath them with WorkChoices. While Rudd assured them he’d be a better version of Howard, he lost their faith when he lacked Howard’s knack of reflecting the tribe’s views back to them. Despite their antipathy towards Rudd, the brutal nature of Gillard’s ascendancy led them to see her as untrustworthy and illegitimate.

The tribe now feel they’ve been cut adrift by the major parties and are wary of what the minors have to offer. They’re searching for security and certainty, but encounter only negativity and uncertainty. Most importantly, they hold the next federal election outcome in their hands.

Successive governments have courted the tribe and benefited from them feeling relaxed and comfortable. In doing so, both parties have actively demonised the other side as the harbingers of doom – higher living costs, soaring unemployment and increased social dislocation. Now the majors are reaping what they have sown; their negative messages have been so successful that the tribe simply doesn’t trust either of them any more.

Nor do they trust the minor parties who tell them they’ve never had it so good and now is the time to for sacrifice.

This is a difficult message for the tribe to accept. Having worked hard to get and maintain their comfortable lifestyle, they’re resentful of political efforts to make them feel guilty for it. Even if these efforts are for the greater good.

Equally difficult are the epithets that the tribe have to endure in the name of political discourse. They’re called racist when in fact they fear what is foreign to them; ignorant because they do not participate in scholarly debate; and selfish because they’re protective of the middle-class lifestyle they’ve worked so hard to achieve.

Future elections will not be won convincingly, nor broad public agendas be progressed successfully, without the support and participation of the tribe. Their current alienation and non-alignment are the main reasons why the next federal election is still up for grabs. It is the tribe that is dissatisfied with both party leaders, who have tentatively parked their protest vote with the Liberals, and who are shunning the Greens.

The tribe’s loyalty may be hard to win, but it will be well worth it. The party who succeeds in winning back the lost tribe will be the one that makes them feel secure again, and the one who will next enjoy the spoils of government.

This piece first appeared in The Kings’ Tribune. It also appeared at ABC’s The Drum.

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