The surreal election


During almost every election campaign in Australia, the politicians say that the choice between the major parties is starker and more important than ever before, and the media says that the campaign has been the most uninspiring that anyone can recall. In 2004 we have heard these sorts of comments again.

The truth, this time, as always, is somewhere in between. There are some substantive policy differences between the Coalition and the ALP, but the significance of those differences is probably exaggerated by true believers on both sides. Australia’s almost unique system of compulsory preferential voting ensures that the least disliked candidates will be elected. This is a great leveller. Unlike, say, in the United States or Britain, neither major party has to worry about ‘firing up’ its base to ensure that they vote at all. Even disenchanted supporters, if they flirt with the Greens or One Nation or Family First, must ultimately choose between the major parties, at least in the House of Representatives.

In terms of the economy, it is hard to believe that a change of government would make much difference either way. The phony ‘issue’ of interest rates is a case in point. The modern world money market, of which Australia is now unavoidably a part, seems to be driven by forces largely beyond the control of any Australian government.

Where the Australian government can make a real difference for its own citizens is in social areas: education, health, the environment, civil liberties, the arts.

And, of course, in the decision whether to commit Australia to a foreign war, and to truthfully explain the arguments for and against.

What has set this election apart is the almost surreally poor quality of much public discourse. It seems to me noticeably worse than it used to be, even as recently as 2001. Utter cynicism on the part of the Prime Minister in everything he now does and says, the dearth of any true ‘liberals’ in the parliamentary Liberal Party to provide reasoned dissent, a grimly pragmatic approach by Labor, the ever-increasing reliance on polling, the limitations of commercial television news as a medium for the serious discussion of any political issue – all of these things have ensured that, this time more than ever before, most of the attention of the parties is focussed on the wallets of a narrow range of voters in marginal seats. Most of the electorate feels ignored or alienated and will make its decision on the basis of a general impression.

Certain things are especially telling.

It is nothing less than a farce, an insult to every Australian, that the one and only televised debate between the two leaders was conducted a month ago, before the so-called ‘policy launch’ of each of the major parties. Indeed, the parties have been releasing new policies only days before the election. Such strategies seem to have been deliberately calculated to ensure that detailed scrutiny and informed public discussion is kept to a minimum.

Regrettably, most Australians do not read broadsheet newspapers, in which the coverage of the election has been reasonably good. Consequently, the televised debate between Howard and Latham, for all its limitations, was still by far the best opportunity for most of the general public to assess the two leaders and their policies. It would be a great advance if, as in the United States, an independent commission were put in charge of conducting a series of compulsory televised debates.

In the absence of such a system, the parties set the agenda, and the issues are trivialised. In this election the ‘issues’ have been selected from day to day in no logical order and with no apparant regard for their intrinsic importance. In the debate, there was, quite rightly, a large amount of time devoted to the government’s decision to participate in the invasion of Iraq and to national security issues. These crucial issues seem to have been largely ignored by the parties and the electronic media ever since: Latham was perceived as having neutralised the government’s supposed (and completely undeserved) advantage and, for whatever reason, both parties have decided not to press them further.

The issue that dominated the 2001 election – immigration – has barely rated a mention, for similar reasons.

The whole, long campaign has been surreal. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the outcome of the election on Saturday, while undoubedly important, will be more the conclusion of a weird sort of game than a sober judgment on the issues.

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