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Winning the battle of ideas

In many ways the opposition has already won this election by shifting the political middle ground, writes Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman 26 August 2013 2321 words

A stark choice: Kevin Rudd campaigning at the Royal Queensland Show on 14 August. FusionVision/Flickr

PAUL Keating famously said that if you change the government you change the country. In the case of the 2013 election, a cynic might remark that the changes have already taken place, and the results are likely to reflect a major shift to a meaner and more parochial country.

The vision for a social democratic society that Kevin Rudd outlined in his lengthy articles for the Monthly early in his term now seems as distant as his promise to treat asylum seekers humanely and his claim that climate change was the great moral challenge of our time. Even were Labor to win, which now seems increasingly unlikely, Tony Abbott has won the ideological battle of the past six years.

Politics in Australia has always been dominated by appeals to self-interest, with relatively minor differences on policy directions. Occasionally we have had campaigns in which bigger ideas feature: Whitlam in 1972, Howard in 1996, and even Rudd in 2007 offered a genuine shift in direction. But we have never had an election in which an incumbent government has tried so hard to disassociate itself from its own recent record and campaigned by implicitly accepting many of the opposition’s policies.

Abbott’s effectiveness in delegitimising the Gillard government was borne out by Labor’s last-minute leadership switch and Rudd’s rapid moves to either distance himself from or rebadge the achievements of the Gillard government. The constant attacks on minority government also forced two decent independents out of parliament, and may well cost the Greens their only lower house seat.

Yet the “minority government” functioned surprisingly well, despite the occasional bizarre moments, such as disgruntled Liberal Peter Slipper’s short period as speaker. Significant legislation was passed, there were no scandals that required ministers to resign, and Gillard pursued a more coherent agenda for change than she was able to articulate.

Labor would presumably claim that its attitude towards climate change and the environment is significantly different from the Coalition’s, but its vitriol towards the Greens raises questions about how great these differences really are. It seems as if there’s no potential coalmine either major party doesn’t like.

Ironically, the single clearest difference between the two leaders is in their attitude to same-sex marriage, where Rudd is a recent convert. It would be easier to believe Rudd’s statement that there is no room for racism, sexism or homophobia in modern Australia if he were prepared to address the exemption given religious institutions from anti-discrimination provisions, or to acknowledge that his “PNG solution” includes sending gay refugees to a country where they remain criminalised. But as marriage is regarded by Labor as a “conscience issue,” the prime minister can promise a bill would be introduced, not that it would be passed.

Abbott’s real triumph is to shift the ideological centre, not necessarily to where his mentor John Howard would feel most comfortable – on Indigenous issues and parental leave Abbott has clearly moved away from conservative orthodoxy – but to a position that combines some apparently progressive measures with considerable cutting back of government services and that effectively encourages greater inequality. He must regret that George W. Bush had already used the phrase “compassionate conservatism.”

The end of the social contract?

Whether or not Margaret Thatcher actually meant “there is no such thing as society,” that phrase captured the essence of neoliberal economics, which assumes the market can solve all problems and a good life is built through individual consumption rather than collective undertakings.

The current reflection of this view was captured for me in a glossy full-page advertisement for the University of Sydney’s Business School captioned, “Me, First.” Even Gordon Gecko waited until after graduation before declaring that greed is good. This slogan struck me particularly forcefully because I saw it the night after chairing a discussion between three federal politicians, all of whom made a case for supporting foreign aid as a moral responsibility. As all three agreed, this was increasingly difficult to argue in an atmosphere in which notions of the common good are too easily replaced by constant whining about cost-of-living pressures.

In the bipartisan enthusiasm for the Hawke–Keating reforms we often forget that they were accompanied by a major ideological shift that made lower taxes a first priority, ignoring the basic fact that taxation is how we pay collectively for goods we cannot buy individually. Anyone caught in the growing gridlock and deteriorating public transport systems of our big cities should understand this.

Australians are relatively undertaxed by global standards, yet with the significant exception of the national disability scheme any moves to improve services are immediately denounced as leading to “great big new taxes.” Abbott has consistently refused to acknowledge that preventing global warming might actually have a cost, a position in which he is joined by a shadow minister, Greg Hunt, who must know this is nonsense. Rudd, meanwhile, has decided to base his campaign on claims that the Liberals would raise the GST, no matter how often they insist that this is not their intention.

What both sides have in common is the extraordinary delusion that we can afford to improve health, education, environmental protection and Indigenous rights without anyone having to pay for it. Under the Rudd–Gillard governments, Labor did take cautious steps towards real improvements in both education and health, particularly through the national disability scheme, which is one of the few achievements on which there is bipartisan agreement.

But real improvements to health, education and infrastructure will demand new sources of government revenue, and the Q&A “debate” between treasurer Chris Bowen and his shadow Joe Hockey revealed how limited are the differences between the parties. In their constant bickering over surpluses and costings neither acknowledged the need to pare back the massive inequalities built into the current taxation system through negative gearing and considerable subsidies to better-off superannuants.

The economic debate, which we are told is central to the campaign, has become an exercise in finger pointing, with hard questions about how to respond to the slowing of the mining boom, and the need to reinvent much of the economy, met with empty rhetoric about trust. Although both sides insist that plans exist to deal with these challenges, there’s no sign of them.

Neither major party “deserves” to win, if by deserving we mean they offer a compelling vision of a future for Australia. “Vision” is an overused term in politics, but a start might be to stop talking about “hard choices” in general terms and explain what they actually are. One suspects that beneath the rhetoric there are real differences in the sort of country the two major parties want to build, but neither has the guts to spell this out because it would inevitably mean upsetting some potential voters.

Indeed, after the antics of the past six years it seems to me that the government that would be worth re-electing would be Julia Gillard’s much-loathed minority government, whose achievements were quite tangible. Sadly, she relied on a party machine that seems quite incapable of learning from its mistakes; if anything defines the failure of the Labor Party it was the cynicism with which two of its leading machine men – Senator David Feeney and NSW state secretary Sam Dastyari – have been moved into safe parliamentary positions, reinforcing the perception that Labor is a sheltered workshop for professional apparatchiks.

It is telling that the man Gillard appointed as her parliamentary secretary, Andrew Leigh, whose recent book Battlers and Billionaires chronicles the growing inequality within Australia, was dropped from the ministry by Kevin Rudd.

And the media

Some election analysis can be genuinely objective, such as explaining how votes are counted in the Senate, which makes the rules of Quidditch appear simple. Equally it is possible to provide informative demographic analysis of key seats – and television news editors are clearly delighted that the most marginal seat in the country, Corangamite, is deeply photogenic, featuring as it does both parts of the Great Ocean Road and some Geelong footballers.

But the great bulk of media coverage of the election seems to blur the lines between analysis and partisanship to a greater extent than ever before. This is not necessarily a bad thing; the idea that anyone can write about contemporary politics from a position of Olympian detachment is an illusion, though one the ABC is required to conform to. (Hence the need to provide voter breakdowns of the audiencesat Q&A, as if the only matters worth discussing can be measured by potential voting intentions.)

The Murdoch press, however, has now broken with even the pretence of impartiality, and has become the third arm of the Liberal campaign. Having helped destroy Gillard and restore Rudd they have now turned on him, although some of their key writers seem obsessed with the Greens, who are presented as simultaneously a crazed minority and the real power behind the last three years of government. Why it is legitimate for Abbott to rely on an alliance with the Nationals but close to treason for Labor even to enter into preference deals with the Greens, who represent a larger proportion of the electorate than the Nationals, is never explained.

At the same time, as Sally Young has pointed out, the television coverage of the election seems sparser than in previous years, perhaps because we have effectively been in a three-year campaign and there is so little left to be said. A really skilful interviewer can ask questions that are both hard and relevant, and we have some in the electronic media – Leigh Sales, Ellen Fanning, Tony Jones at his best – who have all been impressive in some of their interviews. And skilful comedy can reveal the weaknesses of all sides – and of the media itself, as in Gruen Nation or the mock leaders’ debate that featured in the last episode of Sammy J’s ABC show Wednesday Night Fever (rush to watch it before it disappears from iView).

I would like to see all political commentators declare their own positions, although in the case of most of the political experts in the Murdoch press that might now seem unnecessary. So let me declare my own position: I am a gut Labor voter who now votes Green because I see them as closer to the democratic socialism that Labor once represented. I refuse to join the leftist hatred of Tony Abbott, who I suspect would be less bad a prime minister than his enemies claim, but I would prefer Labor to be re-elected, largely because when I compare the two front benches Labor seems to me to have a clear advantage in terms of both intelligence and compassion.

After 7 September?

At this stage it seems likely that there will be a change of government, and perhaps the most honest assessment of an Abbott government came from the candidate in Sydney who was tongue-tied when asked to spell out its policies. There are a number of promises on the table, some of which will be thwarted unless the Liberals have effective control of the Senate, others of which will belong to John Howard’s category of “non-core” promises.

If he loses it seems likely that Kevin Rudd will relinquish the leadership, but that may take some time; like Gough Whitlam, he might insist on another term in opposition to vindicate what he would see as a deep injustice. Both parties have a record of changing leaders frequently in opposition, and a Labor loss will unleash a fair degree of payback and internal squabbling.

The great tragedy of Labor is that it still attracts many women and men of integrity and commitment but they seem unable collectively to create a meaningful narrative for Australia’s future in a rapidly changing global environment. Rather than importing political operatives from the Obama campaign, Labor needs to import Obama’s ability to inspire people with a sense of what is possible; in his second presidential campaign Obama succeeded by underlining his philosophical differences from the Republicans, and his belief in using the state to rectify inequalities.

The plethora of minor and single-issue parties in this election highlights the decline in strong party loyalties, and the fickleness of an electorate increasingly disillusioned with the political process; in few elections have both potential leaders been so unpopular. If the Liberals win, it will have less to do with their alternative vision and more to do with their success in persuading the electorate (and, it seems, most of the government) that Gillard’s strengths in steering policy through a fractious parliament were in fact great weaknesses.

Labor faces a stark choice: either fall back on its traditional base, which is being eroded by rapid social and economic change, or accept that it no longer has a monopoly on progressive thought and needs to initiate a real conversation with the Greens. Every time Labor politicians attack the Greens they are further alienating many voters who would like to support Labor. Even if the Greens do badly, and their representation declines, they will continue to attract energetic young supporters, and Labor will need to come to terms with this. Without the 9 to 10 per cent of progressive voters whom the Greens will probably attract, no Labor government is possible.

Much has been depressing about this election campaign, but foremost is how so many Labor people seem to see Greens and their supporters as ratbags and traitors, rather than recognising that most of us are social democrats who would like to see some accommodation sufficient to support a moderately leftist government. •

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