COLUMN: Culture wars hurt us and make us more stupid

UNITERS: Most lists of our best-loved PMs usually include Curtin, Chifley, Hawke, Menzies and Deakin who at the height of their popularity won middle Australia - not just the extreme lunatic fringe of their own party's base.
UNITERS: Most lists of our best-loved PMs usually include Curtin, Chifley, Hawke, Menzies and Deakin who at the height of their popularity won middle Australia - not just the extreme lunatic fringe of their own party's base.

Will the next great Prime Minister of Australia unite the left or the right?

Neither, I hope.

Given the snarling, polarised times we live in, I reckon the next trulygreat PM needs to unite the middle.

You know, the 60-70 per cent of Aussies who fall somewhere on the moderate right or moderate left, often swinging between both, depending on the topic.

The sort of Aussies who, say, don't want our coal industry and its workers sacked tomorrow ... but would love to see world-leading wind, solar and other renewable technology embraced as well - not mocked.

They want strong borders - but don't like racist pollies.

They mostly support marriage equality - but don't need to be endlessly lectured by the PC brigade. And so on.

Unfortunately, that middle ground is disappearing as the culture wars try to force us all into giant right/left silos, spitting venom at each other. And, as a result, we end up with a revolving door of creepy culture warriors as our, um, leaders.

I reckon thats why when Bob Hawke died there was a genuine groundswell of nostalgia because he was remembered as a very fallible human who nonetheless won over the middle ground (Mr 73 per cent), and sought to unite Australians with his policies - not divide them. He even convinced rusted-on right-wing voters to embrace a piece of socialism that we now all love: Medicare.

John Curtin and Ben Chifley both came from the radical left but, as PMs, united Australia in its darkest decade and they remain perhaps our two best-loved PMs.

Menzies was a "British to the Bootstraps" conservative but became our longest-serving PM and very deliberately named his party the Liberals (look up the word in a dictionary) - not the Conservatives. The party's modern leaders think otherwise.

Alfred Deakin was a right-wing Protectionist but, after Federation, he worked hand in hand with Labor to bring in many of the social justice safety nets that created the Land of the Fair Go.

Even John Howard united the middle ground (gun laws, "Howard's battlers", etc) and only lost popularity when he turned up the partisan snarl and tried to bust the unions.

There is a lesson there.

But uniting Aussies takes hard work and vision; driving them apart is easier, with more gloating opportunities.

So this week, as we had our brave volunteers across NSW fighting firestorms, we had ScoMo in Canberra playing his petty culture wars: trying to castrate the unions, and abolishing a Department of the Arts - Up yours, lefties.

The aim of modern PMs is no longer to unite the 60-70 per cent in the middle, but to divide it into two big silos and score cheap points with the 20 per cent that makes up a party's "base" - a polite word for lunatic fringe.

And that is what makes the culture wars so important.

If you're a PM who is, say, hoping to give tax cuts to your wealthy backers while stripping away penalty rates for hard-working families, it is clearly the sort of policy that most (decent) Aussies wouldn't support. So that's why you instead whip them up into a frenzy over, say, "Stop the boats", or a Captain Cook statue, or Israel Folau, forcing middle Australia into left or right silos ... which then helps you win the election so you can bring in the penalty rate cuts to hurt the very Aussies you herded into the silos. It's a mug's game.

After reporting on politics for 35 years, I've come to the conclusion the only hope we have is a true leader (I can't see any) who targets middle Australia, not the "base".

The first job is pulling down the silos. Until then, we should all try not to enter them. They make us stupid.

We should be more complex

Sometimes I've had one or two readers from Camden or Wollondilly accuse this column of being "pro-Labor".

I can understand that because Camden and Wollondilly have only been reading my columns for four years - and, in that time, I have been rather hard on the Libs.

That's because in the past four years we've had wall-to-wall Liberal governments calling the shots and breaking local promises.

Campbelltown people, on the other hand, have been reading my opinion columns for 15 years, and remember when I also slammed the wall-to-wall Labor governments we once endured, as they called the shots and broke local promises.

We should all be more complex than "left" or "right". That's why I hate silos. Like most of you, I like to swing.

I love small business but am appalled by big business. When it comes the economy or environment I'm definitely left of centre, but when it comes to notions of personal responsibility or law and order I can go right (particularly when I heard a driver was fined just $1320 by police for throwing a lit cigarette out his driver's window on Appin Road - as bushfires raged around Sydney. Should have had at least another 0 added to that figure.)

I think most of you feel the same in many respects.

Swinging from branch to branch in a common middle ground seems a lot better than being locked away in one hate-filled silo.