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Through the Political Crystal Ball


Grapeshot asks what 2021 has in store for politics

The shit-fire that was 2020 threw many aspects of our lives into turmoil. Our health, our economy, our ability to leave our houses and lest we forget, our horrific zoom seminars. One area that truly exemplified the unrivalled fuckery that was last year was politics. On both a national and global scale it seemed like the shit well and truly hit the fan. From ScoMo being shunned by firefighters during the January bushfire crisis, to Trump’s false claims of a stolen election. There was no event, large or small, that was exempt from the wild and weird powers of 2020.

A new year has dawned upon us though, a vaccine has arrived, Biden is in the White House and ScoMo is… well… still being racist but has not as of yet made any truly spectacular gaffs. Things look like they’re on the up! But before we drank too much of the optimistic Kool-Aid, Grapeshot sat down with Dr. Jonathan Symons, Discipline Chair, Politics and International Relations at Macquarie School of Social Sciences.

What impact has COVID-19 had on the political landscape both nationally and on an international level?

Politics has been transformed – do you remember how badly the Morrison government mishandled Australia’s historic bushfires? Most of us have long forgotten. In Australia and New Zealand Covid-19 has boosted the electoral fortunes of incumbent governments. In fact, there’s evidence from many parts of the world that where governments are perceived to have handled the pandemic reasonably competently they have tended to gain increased support. By contrast, the perception that the Trump Administration mishandled the pandemic got to have played a significant role in his defeat – it’s very rare for a party to lose the Presidency after just one term.

International inequality in access to vaccines is sure to be one of the biggest issues in 2021. While the international community negotiated an instrument, the COVAX facility, that was supposed to promote greater equity in the global vaccine roll-out, rich countries have mostly sidestepped it and are securing preferential vaccine access for their own populations. This has created an opportunity for “Covid-19 Vaccine diplomacy.” In particular, China and India are competing with each other to supply vaccines to the global south.

Two other key changes that might have long-term impacts are 1) the erosion of privacy and increased acceptance of state surveillance in the name of public health, 2) changing public attitudes to science.

How did politics and our political engagement change throughout the course of 2020?

Public opinion surveys suggest that public trust in government increased dramatically in Australia. State premiers stepped forward and developed successful strategies for managing the virus – and in the early days seemed to be dragging a reluctant Morrison government toward taking the pandemic seriously. Oppositions – at state and federal level – have struggled to cut through.

What can we expect from the post-Trump era?

Continuing competition between China and the United States, but a permanent reduction in the US’s international stature. Far-right white supremacists have lost their champion in the White House, but they’ll still be a political force within the Republican Party. For Australia, one of the key changes will be that our great power ally will expect us to develop a serious climate policy. Eventually we’ll need to move beyond just thinking about renewable energy, and developing strategies to eliminate emissions from other parts of the economy and even to capture and sequester carbon. Given the Democrats’ weak position in congress, the US’s own climate efforts will be much more modest than many hoped. We’re unlikely to see anything like the proposed “Green New Deal” implemented, for example.

What do you think could move our society towards a more productive political discourse?

It depends on what you think productive political discourse is. If you compare Australia to the United States, I think we’re lucky to have a) compulsory voting, which means our politicians have an incentive win over disengaged voters, b) a national broadcaster which means we have a bit more of a sense of a shared national reality, c) a more active union movement, which means we have better working conditions and levels of inequality that are not quite as extreme as in the US, d) a political system with fewer veto points, so governments can deliver on their policy promises more easily.

Sources such as the documentary, The Social Dilemma, have shown that the rise of social media has had a significant impact on the polarisation of politics, do you anticipate that continuing unless there is significant intervention?

This is not the first time society has been polarised politically. However, polarisation is a serious problem and I agree that social media encourages news echo-chambers, conspiracy theories and the like. However, we also sometimes make progress – particularly when grassroots activism works to resolve societal divisions rather than exacerbate them. If I think over the 20 years since I was at university, there have been some issues – like Marriage Equality and establishment of the National Disability Insurance Scheme – where progress has been extraordinary. I’m hopeful that the kitchen-table conversations sparked by the Climate Strike movement and the various groups mobilising around the Uluru Statement might achieve something similar in the next decade.

Well there you have it folks, our hope for politics in 2021 is not entirely misplaced (Grapeshot does however recommend a healthy dose of cynicism and pessimism to combat the inevitable let down from Australian politicians). Remember to keep your echo chambers under control and take heart in the new possibilities of a post-Trump era.


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