TUMBY BAY - I was very interested in art when I was at high school and in my final year visited an advertising agency as part of a school careers program.
It wasn’t a work experience program, just visits to places where people worked in careers that interested us. I was intent on talking to the commercial artists in the company.
Nothing came of it in the end. I had middling talent as an artist and, besides, Papua New Guinea beckoned, even at that early stage.
While talking to the advertising people and artists I heard for the first time the expression, ‘the great unwashed’.
The great unwashed is a pejorative expression and refers to people who do not have much money, or who lack a formal education.
In advertising parlance back then it referred to gullible people who could effortlessly be sold ideas and products.
This amorphous demographic is also beloved of politicians, because ‘the great unwashed’ are the people most easily conned into voting for them.
Former Australian prime minister Robert Menzies referred to them as ‘the forgotten people’. His erstwhile protégée, John Howard referred to them as ‘battlers’. Our current prime minister talks about ‘quiet Australians’.
The Labor Party equivalent was ‘hardworking families’ and ‘the working class’ but the connotation wasn’t as strident and derogatory.
In the USA, Hillary Clinton called the working class and uneducated who follow Donald Trump ‘deplorables’.
In one of her speeches, Clinton criticised Trump's campaign for using "racist lies" and "taking hate groups mainstream and helping a radical fringe take over the Republican Party”.
In Papua New Guinea an equivalent expression is probably something like ‘ol bus kanaka’.
Forgotten people, battlers, quiet Australians, hardworking families, deplorables and bus kanakas don’t really exist.
What does exist, however, are uninformed, gullible and, most of all, vulnerable and frightened people.
They are the people who gave Australian prime minister Morrison his unlikely election victory. They are the same people who gave Trump his unexpected victory. They are the same people who support Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.
They are the same people in Papua New Guinea who allow their votes to be sold for money.
Morrison, Trump, Hanson and many politicians in PNG know how to indulge these people and stoke their fears and prejudices.
When the primary focus of a politician is to get elected no matter what, the great unwashed are too good to ignore.
Unfortunately, pandering to such a demographic doesn’t make for good government.
Policy based on people’s fears and prejudices inevitably leads to bad policy.
It is the sort of policy that seeks to cement the status quo. It is the sort of policy that cannot deal with change. It is head-in-the-sand policy.
Such policy demands a reactionary government. It demands policy inertia. It demands doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different outcome. It demands institutionalised racism, xenophobia and grocery store economics.
The politicians who rely on this demographic to get them elected are the same politicians who have trashed the image and reputation of a profession that, believe it or not, was once reasonably highly regarded.
Yes, politicians were once largely admired.
Mike Seccombe, writing in The Saturday Paper, described Morrison as “belligerent in rhetoric, authoritarian in tone, divisive in intent, unimaginative in vision, deceptive and insubstantial in content”.
That description would also fit many other current and past politicians. In PNG, Peter O’Neill and Bill Skate come to mind.
Honest politicians with high ethical values and ideologies stand little chance in such an environment. At best they are labelled ‘elitist’ and at worst ‘out of touch’.
What these labels actually mean is that they are people who are not prepared to be dragged down to the base level.
The politicians who capitalise on the ignorance and gullibility of the great unwashed are unfortunately in control at the moment.
They are dragging everyone and everything to the edge of an abyss.
What to do about it?
All that can be done is hang on for a wild ride.