Personality politics, democracy and a multi-polar world

by Chris Zappone

A short article about the Australian Labor Party’s internal woes, but the headline caught my eye: Closing the chapter on personality politics.

As I’ve contended elsewhere, personality politics seems to thrive when the democracy sees itself in a relative vacuum, with no great pressing issue other than who prevails in the domestic realm. This was true in the 1990s in the US, following the end of the Cold War. This has been true in Australia in recent years, with the non-stop catfight between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard occupying center space in Labor and federal politics.

A rough entry for the current Liberal government headed by Tony Abbott may ensure that the era of personality politics draws to a close sooner, rather than later. It’s not that Abbott and gang are above the fray, either. Rather, the issue of geopolitical order is reasserting itself as a primary concern. Not only have Abbott’s kind words for Japan raised eyebrows in China and domestically (China, Australia’s biggest two-way trade partner, has a long memory for slights) but now the fracas with Indonesia about turning back refugees has emerged. That stand-off, which has ended with Australia, not Indonesia, blinking, comes only months after the Liberals came to power. It also comes before a presidential election in Indonesia. But what has really stirred the pot are the disclosures of Australia’s involvement in snooping on Indonesian affairs in conjunction with the US, through the Five Eyes intelligence agreement.

In other words, issues much bigger than personality politics.

In its own way, Snowden’s legacy may be to help refocus the world’s attention on who is allied with whom, creating embarrassment and tension among neighbors, particularly at a point when the geopolitical order is being upset by the rise of Asia.