Updated: Sep 26, 2019
While it is easy and important to focus on the post Hayne Royal Commission world and its ramifications on the insurance and commercial world in Australia, it is becoming harder and harder not to be captivated by events unfolding in our two closest allies. For our leaders the challenge is whether to buy into the narrative or write their own.
Battlelines drawn in brawls for political supremacy
The three years since the vote for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have produced a virulent struggle for supremacy in Western democracies. Now it's come to a head.
Jennifer Hewett - Columnist
AFR - Sep 25, 2019 — 6.00pm
It’s the revenge of the establishment over the revolt of the insurgents.
The simultaneous timing of the announcement of congressional impeachment proceedings against a US president and of a UK Supreme Court ruling that a British PM acted illegally in suspending Parliament may be weird coincidence. But it also reflects the much larger battleground now dominating Western liberal democracies.
The popular vote in favour of Brexit in mid-2016, followed a few months later by the election victory of Donald Trump, stunned conventional political theory and expectations. Suddenly, the establishment in both countries found itself on the far side of electoral momentum rather than ensconced at its centre.
The three years since have produced an unceasing and virulent struggle for supremacy – defined by increasingly angry rhetoric about elites v populists, globalists v nationalists, haves v have-nots. Thanks in part to the advent of social media and the ability for anyone and everyone to shout loudly at one another, these bitter divides are playing out in public in a way that has never happened before.
From Trump’s tweets down, the responses in the US are visceral and vicious on all sides. Trump claims to stand up for American workers ignored by those who don’t comprehend the virtue of patriotism as opposed to the corruption of globalisation or the dead end of “identity politics”.
The Democrats are now accusing him, among other sins, of an abuse of power in encouraging a foreign power – the Ukraine – to meddle in domestic elections against Democrat candidate Joe Biden. But the move to impeach this President is also just another front in a permanent battle with his opponents in Congress and millions more in the community.
For both leaders – not to mention for the future of Western democracy – the stakes could not be higher.
Trump’s is a deliberately revolutionary presidency, overturning the traditional domestic order, defying norms of behaviour, mocking his critics, crassly promoting himself. The constitutional balance of power between executive, legislature and the judiciary looks more like a dangerously unstable see-saw.
Boris Johnson may hail from the British establishment class but the brawling over Brexit also makes the UK resemble a giant street fight between marauding cockney gangs. The traditional term House of Commons has taken on new meaning after Johnson lost control of the Parliament almost immediately when he took over as PM.
But both leaders draw their political strength from the aggressive assertion of national authority and independence against outside forces seeking to weaken that power – from mass immigration to unfair international rules. Add in stagnant wages growth and the widespread belief the global financial crisis left a middle-class in crisis and elites conducting business as usual.
So Trump used his speech at the United Nations to argue that "the future doesn’t belong to globalists, it belongs to patriots ... to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens”.
And for both men – not to mention for the future of Western democracy – the stakes could not be higher. There’s no doubt, for example, the many passionate supporters of Trump in the US and of Brexit in the UK will see the attempt to remove this President or to block a popular vote as the system’s betrayal of their rights.
It’s not possible to dismiss the spectre of violent reaction in the US, despite the minimal chance of actual success in the Senate given the Republican majority. At the very least, this process will consume the agenda over the next year, entrenching the power of extremes and the political burial of any centre ground.
Brexit passions and frustrations have also overwhelmed even the more restrained British culture in a deeply instinctive and ideological confrontation over Britain’s place in the world – and the power of a "populist" PM.
The formal assault on Trump and Johnson certainly made the combined vision of the blond-haired mops close together in New York particularly striking – even if both attempted to dismiss the impact of the moves against them.
So Trump insisted that for Boris Johnson, the Supreme Court judgment was “just another day in the office”.
“It’s another day in the Parliament,” Johnson corrected him, insisting he would respect the UK’s judges even if he disagreed “profoundly” with them. Trump, typically, sounded far more sceptical of the authority of any judicial system.
Naturally, the President dismissed the decision to start impeachment proceedings as “harassment” and will use it to double down on his attacks and excite his base.
Johnson’s day of reckoning is likely to be much quicker. The Supreme Court ruling doesn’t change his stated intention to push for a Brexit deal by October 31 against the odds. But his “do or die” strategy looks more like a political death wish and the road to an election a prickly briar path.
In a unanimous judgment with much broader ramifications, the court asserted the authority of Parliament over that of executive government. The 11 justices found the impact of Johnson's decision to prorogue Parliament “extreme”, insisting the people’s elected representatives had a “right to a voice”.
It won’t be just Johnson’s closest allies in politics claiming this is the equivalent of a constitutional coup against the will of the people. (Let's not even start on Labour.)
Similarly, Trump may be despised by many but he is still the elected President. Despite allegations of his abuse of power, attempted impeachment is a difficult, protracted business just as likely to backfire politically – as it did when the Republicans tried to impeach Bill Clinton more than two decades ago.
It’s why experienced Democrat Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been resisting this until pushed by her party’s passions as much as by the President’s actions. Revenge ain't necessarily sweet.