BY BEN HABIB.
Like many people, I have been intrigued by this federal election campaign and like many others, I will be pleased when the spectacle is over. As we move into the last two days before the poll on August 21st, I would like to offer my thoughts on the election campaign and what it says about Australian society…
Observation #1: This campaign has been dominated by the politics of fear.
Whatever the issue, whatever the party, fear has been the dominant theme of this election campaign. Indeed, the Coalition wins the fear-mongering contest hands down; its entire election strategy has centred on the perceived failings, accurate or otherwise, of the ALP. The most obvious example is Tony Abbott’s shameless race politics in claiming an ability to “stop the boats”, closely followed by its accusations about runaway government spending and public debt (cue visuals of two steam trains smashing together).
Any psychologist will tell you that beyond fight-or-flight situations, people make poor decisions when motivated by fear. Our voting decisions are no exception to this rule. Fear politics works when the voting public is politically naïve and uninformed. Most people have learnt to take what politicians say with a grain of salt. However, many people do not understand that the major political parties are actively manipulating their darkest fears and prejudices to influence their voting behaviour.
Observation #2: The despicable politics of race is alive and well in Australia.
The Coalition is again playing the race card and again, Labor have joined them at the poker table. Most sensible analysts agree that a punitive policy against asylum seekers will have some deterrent effect on the activities of people smugglers and the number of illegal vessels setting sail for Australia from the Indonesian archipelago. But to claim that these boats can be stopped altogether totally disregards the events occurring in refugee source countries that displace people in the first place. As long as there are people displaced by war, natural disasters or dictatorial regimes, there will be boats coming to Australia.
Tony Abbott is a smart man and he surely knows his claim is rubbish, which exposes his claim as a blatant dog whistle to the xenophobic prejudices of certain sections of the Australian public. That Labor insists on joining in this dangerous game of race politics is an indication of just how pervasive racial prejudice remains across the Australian community. If we really were all tolerant, decent people, race politics would have no electoral payoff and no party would indulge in it.
The sad thing is, there are other issues of far greater impact and importance that have not raised a yelp during this campaign, such as climate change, energy security, and until this week, health.
Observation #3: Did the Coalition forget the GFC really happened?
Let’s clarify two things: (a) if in government, the Coalition would have reacted to the global financial crisis in exactly the same manner as Labor, whose response mirrored that of industrialised countries around the world. And (b), the Coalition would have administered its own stimulus plan using exactly the same public servants as the ALP, who are subject to exactly the same bureaucratic inefficiencies regardless of which party is in power. To suggest that the Coalition would have “done it smarter” is like a drunken fan chastising a footballer about his kicking action from the back row.
Observation #4: Labor is playing the game like its 2007.
The ALP has been at pains to paint Tony Abbott as reckless and a danger to the wellbeing of the country. See Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan’s repeated assertions that Tony Abbott is scared to debate them on economic matters because he is at worst an ideological extremist and at best an economic naïf.
To this end, the ALP has painted Tony Abbott as an economic extremist who is hell-bent on bringing back the Workchoices legislation at his earliest possible convenience. The ALP is backing a loser by dredging up a dead issue from 2007. Workchoices was only possible in the first place because the Coalition had a rare senate majority, something which it is unlikely to have again for many electoral cycles. Even if the Coalition wins government, I can’t see any portion of Workchoices mark two getting past Labor and the Greens in the senate. In 2007 there was widespread, genuine fear and anger over the Coalition’s industrial relations agenda. Not so this time round, that anger has dissipated.
Observation #5: Whatever you do, don’t mention the war (or climate change).
It is quite extraordinary that both major parties have been torn apart by leadership turmoil during this parliamentary term. Equally extraordinary, but less surprising, is that climate change has been the root cause of the instability in both camps. The Coalition nearly imploded over its response to the government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme legislation. On the other side of the bench, Kevin Rudd’s popularity went into freefall after he announced that reintroduction of the CPRS legislation would be delayed by three years. Rarely has a leader and a party exhausted such a large bank of political capital having achieved so little.
So is it any wonder that neither side wants to discuss climate change? Neither the ALP nor the Coalition has a credible climate change policy. Both camps pay lip service to the issue because at heart, they are committed to relationships with powerful industrial sectors that limit their policy flexibility to the positions they have already taken. How does the ALP hope to put a price on carbon if they can’t legislate a relatively simple resource rent tax? How can any Coalition climate change policy be taken seriously when their ranks are swollen with climate change deniers?
As I’ve said in previous postings, climate change is becoming the foundation upon which the contest of politics is being fought. This issue is not going away and is becoming more important with time. This election is our first case study in the degree to which Australia’s political parties understand this development.
Observation # 6: The campaign has been one of triviality over substance.
The isolation of Australia’s political class from ordinary people was illustrated plainly early in the campaign, when the media whipped itself into a frenzy over leaks emanating from the Labor Party that were seemingly calculated to undermine the position of Julia Gillard from within. This was gripping soap opera for those obsessed with the contest of politics, but for those outside of the Canberra bubble this was an irrelevant distraction. Our political system may be inherently adversarial but it exists to serve a purpose; the contest of the political process should never be more important than its outcomes.
Are Julia Gillard’s future relationship plans with her partner a matter of public interest? Of course not. Does it matter that Tony Abbott doesn’t know the name of the petrol commissioner? Don’t be ridiculous. Is it vital to the national economy that politicians can recite bland economic figures on cue from journalists? You get my point.
Observation #7: National media coverage of the campaign has been abysmal.
The mainstream media is the filter through which the public acquires information about and communicates with the political process. Unfortunately, that filter is smeared with the scum of sensationalism, sound bites and a vacuous emphasis on personality over policy detail.
Politicians blame the cult of the 24-hour news cycle shaping the political discourse this way. The 24-hour news cycle is itself a product of the preferences of media consumers—that is us, the audience. In a way, we can only blame ourselves for accepting such a shabby performance from the fourth estate.
After all, the primary purpose of the commercial media is to provide a captive audience to corporate advertisers. We—the audience—need to realise that we can exercise tremendous power over the media by simply tuning out and accessing information from alternative sources.
Observation #8: A non-performing media is bad for democracy.
If we are to make wise, informed choices at the ballot box, the media must provide us with access to a diverse range of views as well as information about rival parties and their policies. True democracy only exists if the voters can make a legitimate choice; it’s one thing to have voting options, i.e. more than one candidate, but quite another to make an informed choice about which candidate best reflects ones interests.
If a person doesn’t know the difference between competing candidates, if they base their choice on trivialities instead of an informed understanding of the policies of competing candidates, their vote is essentially an informal one. An uninformed vote is essentially arbitrary.
Observation #9: The Mark Latham donkey vote strategy is a dud.
Mark Latham is tapping into a simmering zeitgeist of dissatisfaction with the major parties. Unfortunately, his suggested voting tactic—handing in a blank ballot paper—is unlikely to send the political message to the major parties that he intends. Like many people, Latham seems to think that the ALP and the Coalition are the only parties in the game. Rather than send a message of protest, Latham’s strategy legitimises the two-party status quo and disenfranchises anyone foolish enough to vote in that manner. Any votes lost here are effectively thrown away because they don’t go to any rival candidates.
We legitimise mediocre performance from the main parties if we continue to vacillate in our voting decisions between them continuously, even if we are dissatisfied with both. An intelligent alternative voting tactic would be to vote for an alternative party or an independent candidate. In order to recover voting blocs lost to alternative candidates, the main parties must adjust their policies accordingly or risk a further haemorrhage of support in the future.
Observation #10: Will there be a swing away from the major parties?
For me, the big question approaching the poll is the degree to which such a swing away from the major parties does indeed eventuate. I know of people disgusted with the ALP over their feeble climate change policy. I know of other people disenchanted with the Liberal Party because of its disgusting manipulation of ethnic tension through the asylum seeker issue.
Where do these votes go? Obviously the ALP will lose much of the swing that swept it to power in 2007, but it is not given that this swing will return to the Coalition. I will be very interested to see if there is an overall shift in the primary vote away from the major parties in the House of Representatives. The composition of the Senate will also change, with the Greens predicted to pick up seats and therefore the balance of power.
Observation #11: People get the governments they deserve.
Ultimately, whoever wins the election, the Australian people will get the government that we deserve. Our society, as a collective, will get a government reflective of our political nous. We’ll get a government that mirrors our social intelligence and our attitudes to each other. We’ll get a government that echoes how we view our relationship with the other peoples of the Earth. We’ll get a government in tune with how we perceive the natural world that supports us.
And whatever happens, we have to live with the consequences of our democratic decision.
Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.