It’s fair to say that neither of the major parties – Labor and the Coalition (taken collectively this is sometimes a fractious prospect as we have seen demonstrated in recent days) – totally inspire confidence. But that’s democracy. You get a choice, but it is never a clear one between inexhaustible excellence on one hand and cloddish stupidity on the other.
I am by nature a Liberal voter in Australia, since I believe that while we must look after those whose life circumstances make it difficult for them to do so themselves, we should avoid mollycoddling. We should do this because taking away personal initiative breeds sloth and creates a client relationship between citizen and government. Civil society requires the reverse relationship (the religious and secular charities demonstrate this point). In general, the more the government keeps its hands out of people’s pockets the better. Labor, because of its history, its apparatchik practice, and its perception of where political advantage lies, epitomizes the oxymoronic pitch “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
But I am not a bolted-on voter. I’ve swung before, electorally speaking, generally when the non-Labor government in question has been absolutely hopeless, or venal, or simply not up to it. I voted ALP in 1972 (my first Australian election after early opportunities to vote in another of Her Majesty’s realms) not because I thought Gough was God or because of the catchy slogan, but because it really was time. I voted ALP in 1983 because Malcolm Fraser had squandered his historic opportunity and just been a pedantic patrician for seven years. I voted ALP in Queensland in 1989 because the proto-democratic post-Joh Nationals needed to go away and learn how to get quite a different sort of grip on themselves.
And it’s on that last ground, this time, that there is no contest. The demeaning and embarrassing pantomime that the Labor machine has served up since 2007 – first Kevin 07, who they knifed; then Julia 2010, who they beheaded; and now the reincarnated Captain Chaos of Kevin 13 – demonstrates in spades just how badly the federal ALP needs a spell in the paddock. It desperately needs to go on retreat to work out what it actually believes in (as a political movement) and what it really can bring to the national narrative. It needs to be sharply reminded that slapstick farce is entertainment on TV or the movies or the stage, not something requiring daily performances in the national auditorium.
It is a fact – though it has been repeated so often that it is danger of dying from aphorism – that far more binds Australians together than keeps them apart. The bulk of the policy platforms of the major parties are unremarkably – and thoroughly sensibly – similar. The real work of the parliament, an institution it has become fashionable to denigrate, is collegiate. And this is across the board, taking the Senate into account where the minor parties actually do have a role to play. This seldom gets an outing in print media, because concord is basically boring. And it is never aired on commercial radio or TV because it’s completely devoid of colour and movement and is thus wholly unsuited to the 10-second grab.
I’ll be voting in my electorate on Saturday – these days that’s in Western Australia not Queensland: something that even after eight years away remains more geographical dislocation than new start allowance – but I’ve observed the campaign from outside Australia. This has given me a distant perspective that, for me, brings the picture into sharper focus.
Australia will not be in deadly peril if Tony Abbott becomes prime minister. Labor bots please note. Ruin does not automatically await us if an electoral miracle occurs and Kevin Rudd hangs on. Coalition partisans please jot that down too. It would be better if Abbott did win, and Rudd did not, for the reasons outlined above and others to follow shortly. It would be better – this is merely a qualitative assessment – because Australia needs a circuit-breaker and some people need to go away and get a life.
Popular politics – this sounds like an oxymoron but actually isn’t – is seen by its practitioners as something demanding sharp contest. It’s meant to be a battle of ideas, after all. But this is difficult to achieve, and even more difficult to manufacture, when most of the ideas presented are sensibly middle of the road. Abbott is no Thatcherite, and Rudd is no Bevanite, to place the matter in a political context familiar to many. The light has certainly gone out on the hill, but there’s no great divide behind it over which anyone might blunder inadvertently, however much the partisans of either side seek to assert their discovery of such an entity.
Few Australians cavil with the carbon-copy principles (sic) of each side’s policy on asylum seekers who risk their lives to reach their privileged country. The disgusting nature of this bipartisan approach unsettles rather fewer coalition voters than it does latte Labor ones. But unless you’re going off with the fairies and voting Green, there’s nowhere to go. A vote for either Labor or Liberal means poor bastards are still going to drown. And voting Green won’t help them anyway.
No one is going to be seriously disadvantaged if either of the rival national broadband policies proceeds, at whatever pace and cost-blowout is available at the time. Defence and foreign policy are (sensibly) essentially bipartisan. Both cost a lot of money on which the average taxpayer would fail to discern any immediate personal return.
Policy settings on health, aged care, pensions and education are basically the same. Both sides favour cost-concessional health, disability and aged care, each is as bureaucratically mean about pensions as the other, and both understand that “private” education in a religious school system is in a functional sense public schooling.
There are differences of emphasis in employment and workplace relations. The Liberal position is better – with proper safeguards and absent Peter Reith and the other hairy-chests – because it retreats from manipulation of commercial reality.
Each side panders to and seeks to benefit from another aspect of the unpleasantly xenophobic streak in Australian public opinion. This gets an airing in pronouncements about foreign land ownership such as the latest faux-horror about owning the farm expressed by Rudd. Reality check: only miners actually dig anything up and take it away.
Neither side has an industry policy that truly recognizes the reality that subsidy is not the way to conjure up excellence and product marketability but that seed funding for cutting-edge technology, green or otherwise, is.
The killer in this election is delivery. We don’t want any more Pink Batt scandals; we can do without politically motivated grace-and-favour funding for self-serving plaques on school hall walls; we do not want any more fairground-style revolving prime ministers, or tedious Lazarus acts such as we’ve seen with the Labor and Rudd-Gillard-Rudd circuses; we need no more policies presented on a “gotta zip” basis.
We need – bottom line, both literally and figuratively – budget integrity; lean administration; true consensus (and then delivery) of policies to counter environmental challenges (including climate change); concerted proactive action to bring Australia’s first peoples fully into the mainstream of national life and opportunity; and a firm grasp by those who occupy the corridors of power of the fact that Australians will prosper better and faster and on a greater scale if official busybodies leave them alone and let them get on with it.
Labor under Hawke (and, just, Keating) did that well. The Coalition under Howard did it very well. The years since 2007 – whether or not we’re all better off on a range of arcane statistical measures, as Labor-leaning economists keep trying to tell us – have been a hiatus for common sense, applied focus, and sensible outcomes.
Oh and by the way, none of it is the fault of Rupert Murdoch, whatever you may think of him and the appalling crassness of many of his corporate products.