It’s been called the beige election.

The K-Mart election, for its array of pick and choose policies.

Renowned historian Niall Ferguson told Radio National that  the bickering and petulance reminded him of council politics in Scotland.

So what’s wrong with Gillard v Abbott 2010?

Is it a lack of leadership?

By almost all accounts, this is an election short on major themes. The kind of narratives that grab you by the lapels and demand you to get off your (mortgage-belt?) picket fence.

2007 was surely what they call a ‘change’ election. More of the suffocating conservatism that had held sway for over a decade, or Kevin Rudd’s brand of progress?

In the other Anglo-Saxon dominated democracies we so often look to for inspiration, the UK’s last election was a thriller. As for the US, well, no hyperbole here, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone totally disinterested in that one.

But in this election, the defining feature so far is the mud that is being slung. And it is being slung relentlessly. Particularly, it has to be said, by the Coalition.  There’s a perfectly good reason for that. The lack of cohesion in the Labor camp is, to say the very least, highly unusual. Abbott could be on to a winner.

To say that Gillard has been presented with hurdles is an understatement. The shadow of Rudd, not to mention Mark Latham, perhaps the most bitter politician in the country, are obstacles that the Coalition is more than happy to talk about.

This is because, according to some commentators, partisan, and less partisan, they are low on policies. We’re told this is a boring election. A ruthless (foolish?) Labor machine held hostage by dark union forces, up against a Coalition with a leader who snuck into the job by one vote, in order to get rid of a man who wanted Labor’s emissions trading scheme enacted.

With the political execution of Kevin Rudd (ignoring the tragi-comic resurrection), and the fall of Malcolm Turnbull, we were denied an election which surely would have had more of an eye on the macro than the micro. But maybe I’m kidding myself.

It is to see a man who has called himself John Howard’s ideological offspring leading in the polls, three years after Howard-era politics was said to be dead and buried.

As such, Abbott and his minders are keeping a fair bit under wraps. Part of the charm, for want of a better term, of Tony Abbott, was always his forthrightness. His ‘fair dinkumness’, perhaps. He is likely to the right of most Australians on a range of issues. We’ve known this for a while. And it is in Labor’s interest to highlight this, but at the moment, they don’t look to be doing to good a job of it, so entrenched as they currently are in their own civil strife.

When it comes to policies, it’s perhaps easier for the incumbent to present, in a timely fashion, policies to the electorate before the election date. And the Coalition has been slow bringing policies on a number of issues to the table.

The election was branded ‘beige’ due to an apparent lack substance, and little differentiation, between the major parties. No policies on the things that mattered, apparently.

But is it true? The fact of the matter is that despite the fact that issues which, according to pollsters, people want discussed missing from the agenca- and the elephant in the room is of course climate change – the media and the campaign trails are almost one.

And so there is a lack of questioning.

Seen through the media, a modern Australian election is a cacophony of gaffes, leaks, sloganeering, polarised personalities, he-said she-said tit for tat, and photo opportunities. Just count the baby-hugs.

Of course, the commercial networks and tabloid newspapers play their part. But, unfortunately, the ‘quality’ papers (shrinking in number, and quality) and state-funded broadcasters are at the same game.

In an interesting post, Laura Tingle goes someway to outlining how this happened throughout the nineties.

Politics, not policy, now rule in Canberra, she points out.

In particular, the media has become fascinated with the Kevin Rudd issue. Watching the Canberra press pack on the campaign trail, it is hard not, in some strange way, to feel sorry for the actual politicians.  They come with their new policy, focus-grouped to the teeth to swing those swing voters in those swing seats into their grasp, and the journalist wants to know about Kevin Rudd. Why Abbott won’t debate Gillard for a second time. Why Abbott used the term ‘no means no.’  About Gillard being an atheist. Whether Mark Latham is annoying the hell out of Gillard. And it goes on.

This is partly down to the fact that the big-dog journalists are often not on the trail.

These older guys are more experienced in combing through policy documents, looking at the detail and running costings themselves.

But they’re also, it has to be said, given more of the freedom and liberty to get away from the constant churn and sit down and read the pages of announcements and detail that pour into any journalists email account during a campaign.  I’ve tried to read what I think are the major announcements – but leave your desk for twenty minutes and you’re inundated on your return.

There are policies coming out on a daily basis, and they’re hardly being tested when there is the chance at the press conference, where there is also the chance to ask about the issues which are not even being debated.

As well as climate change, there is the question as to whether we want to remain, and grow in our role as, the world’s quarry. Surely we cannot be serious about acting on climate change when we do not consider the coal that we sell to be burnt overseas as something we’re responsible for?

There is a war in Afghanistan which Australia troops are dying in, but the term ‘Afghan’ only makes the agenda when it is a refugee fleeing that same war. There is a looming agricultural challenge over whether to lease fertile Australian land to overseas companies, which the Nationals are keen on discussing but, one can be fairly sure, won’t become a big issue in the next fortnight.  There is a potential to join an Asian trade bloc, to actually consider where we want to look, and be, in an increasingly globalised world.  There is a debate over population growth focusing on relatively small amounts of arrivals by boat, but barely any mention about Australia’s ailing transport network, beset in the cities by chronic overcrowding, and, if the Greens are to be believed, held back at the interstate level due to the interests of the trucking lobby. There are pledges of money for the tourism industry, made on the Barrier Reef, but no action on what we are doing to destroy the reef with silting, and of course, rising sea temperatures. If it aint there, tourists won’t come.  And closing the gap with indigenous Australians? Ha! 2007 seems like decades ago.

All of these issues come down to where Australia wants to be in twenty, thirty, forty years time.

But strangely, parents have been targeted in this election. Families, and communities, those two old catchphrases. The cynics say (that would be us journalists) that this is to convince the breeders in the mortgage belt (disclaimer – I’m a parent, but mortgage-free) that $500 here or there means one major party is better than the other.

But surely parents of all people have an eye on what they would like this still-fairly lucky country to be like in forty years time?

There is no doubting that to get there, to get anywhere, we need leaders.

Rudd seemed to have an idea. Little Johnny too. But it’s hard to know what the real Julia and Tony want. If she’s a puppet, and he’s been gagged, we’re not going to find out.

Sadly, this election has shown a failure of leadership in the mainstream media, as much as from the leaders of the main political parties.

Take it as a devastating critique of democracy.

In 2010, our leaders are failing us,

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Comments
  1. Celina says:

    It would be depressing if it turned out that a campaign that actually addressed compassion and the future (ie. K07) proved to be the biggest won failure in Australian politics for the last five decades.

    But I would never characterise you as cynical.

  2. Matt says:

    Nice post. Did you catch Q&A tonight? Gillard would have been feeling she’d done a good job providing credible, sincere-seeming responses to the issues (both personal and policy) discussed in this campaign until the last two questions. On those two questions – about instituting legal recognition for gay marriage and on the absence of policies or even discussion about giving Aboriginal people a ‘fair go’ (from Lowitja O’Donoghue) – a discernible grimace preceded a thoroughly unconvincing response.

    On the first question she at least had a prepared response (that began: ‘You won’t get the answer you want…’), albeit one that failed to provide a substantive personal position on the most popular social justice issue of the day. While frustrating, the political reasoning for this position is obvious (although it would be less obvious at the beginning of a second term).

    On the second question she had no response; it was clear that she’d not prepared for it and as a result garbled something about her time as Education Minister. (E commented to me tonight that she turns her own personal worm well into the negative every time Gillard mentions action taken as Education Minister). Gillard also dined out again on KRudd’s apology, an achievement in my mind slightly diminished by the lack of a strong policy follow up. Gillard’s lack of a response shows not only that is no-one talking about Aboriginal issues, but that the Labor Party has no plan itself. There’s no political reason for inaction; leadership on this issue would not draw political fire from the opposition, and would arguably gain public and media support. But given the party doesn’t need to respond to political pressure or engage in public appeasement, there is no policy. I couldn’t watch while she squirmed though her response; it was (is) shameful.

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