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Obama and Australian politics

I’ve been thinking over this post for the best part of a month now… one of those posts I want to write, but I’m worried I’m going to screw up, because I just don’t know if I fully grasp what I want to say.

Just before I went to China, I went to a talk to a pub in Balmain hosted by the US Studies Centre.  It was titled “Obama and Australian Politics” and it offered the opportunity to “Get an inside view of the Obama campaign and discuss what it will mean for Australian politics”

Several people spoke… a professor from University of Sydney who was pretty good, and a local politician who went to volunteer for the Obama campaign.  She was dreadful- I counted no less than four factual errors in what she said about Obama- and pretty significant factual errors too.

But what most struck me from the event was the manner in which a mythology has sprung up around Obama in Australia that is quite separate from the mythology within the US.  Many of the people at this event, and other I have spoken to, are convinced that Obama will dramatically shift US foreign policy in some dramatic and revolutionary way, and that, by doing so, he will dramatically change the way the world works and the way we relate to the US.  They seemed to have this strange notion that we will become closer to the US as a result, and that Obama’s victory is significant because it will herald a new era in US-Australian relations.

In reality, though, it’s hard to imagine Obama being as close to Kevin Rudd as John Howard was to George W. Bush, as we were recently (embarassingly) reminded.  It’s also embarassing that so many figure us to be such significant players on the world stage: we simply are not.

So the question of what Obama’s victory could mean for Australia politics was addressed only in the most superficial and perfunctory of manners.   And this is frustrating, because there really is much for Australia to learn and gain from Obama’s election, but most of that comes from the way his campaign was run.  What was remarkable about Obama’s campaign was the organisation… the way new constituancies were energised and engaged with the political process for the first time.  Maybe thinking about the way he decentralised campaign donations will get us thinking about our incredibly poor campaign finance laws. Maybe our politicians could communicate their positions with the clarity and transparancy that Obama did, right from the start, rather than hiding behind party rhetoric.  Perhaps a netroots-type movement in Australia (and I know that the netroots movementnfar predated Obama’s candidacy, but Australians are paying more attention to it now because of the interet in Obama) could lead to improved representative accountability, particularly in a country with astonishingly poor political journalism and broadsheets that are quickly becomming little more than tabloids (nb: Sydney Morning Herald).

On this particular evening, there was a recurring notion that night of Obama as a saviour, of Australia as well as the rest of the world.  We have this pressing desire to look outside for our salvation.  But instead, we should learn a lesson from 2008 in the US: it is possible for politics to be interesting and inspiring.  We just need to learn to communicate and organise better.  And that, in my opinion, is Obama’s great lesson for Australian politics so far.

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