The long term national interest was not on the agenda of either party during the election campaign. There were hints – the Liberals’ claims about economic management, Labor’s forest policy perhaps, but they were only hints. Overwhelmingly this election was about appeals to sectional self interest.
National politics is always about the interplay between sectional and national interests – and both Labor and Liberal have their own historically honed ways of balancing this interplay. The Liberals have always argued that political policies should be based on national interest rather than sectional self interest, such as one finds in the ALP, or the various minority interests of the social movements. Labor’s arguments about national interest emerge from the interaction of its labourist, working class and its social democratic traditions.
In the complex society of Australia in 2004 we are all at different positions on the generational cycle and we all fulfil a number of roles. We are parents, children, home owners or not, workers, managers or owners of small businesses, Australians, residents in our various states and localities – city and country. We belong to different ethnic communities or are bearers of different ethnic heritages; we are members of religious congregations or not, car drivers, public transport owners, are gay, heterosexual and so on. You get the picture. And we can all be appealed to in terms of the sectional interests attached to one or other of these roles.
What is interesting is the way these appeals were constructed during the campaign: how from amongst our many different roles and identities the two major parties chose to address us.
Labor – and Latham in particular – presented the nation as made up of householders sitting round the kitchen table balancing the budget and wondering how they would pay their bills. The household rather than the national budget seemed to be the imaginative centre of the campaign. Mostly it was the budget of people with children still at home, worrying about health and eduction. But they were also people with mortgages worried about interest rates. This was Howard and the Liberals’ pitch – to remind us of the damage even a small rise in interest rates could do to a tight budget.
Voters were not, on the whole, addressed as members of the productive economy. As workers, the under-employed, small or large business owners, exporters, beneficiaries of research and innovation. Perhaps one of the reasons the forest policy was so explosive in the last days of the campaign was that it was about the only time a productive economic issue grabbed the headlines. If Latham had previously been talking about issues of industrial relations, or of economic development, then the image of Howard with the timber workers would not have been so damaging.
We heard, as commentators are now pointing out, almost nothing of the issue Paul Keating worked so hard at in the 1980s – the main game of rising foreign debt, chronic current account deficit, the urgent need to diversify our export base. These are complex issues for ordinary voters, for whom the only economic indicators that really make sense are interest rates and unemployment figures, and inflation if they have savings. But never the less, political parties pitching to lead should have a go. And if the economy falters before the next election, the Liberals will have to try to explain it. We are already hearing Costello talk about petrol prices.
We were also not addressed as moral beings, as people motivated by issues other than the economic – the war in Iraq or the treatment of asylum seekers, or as concerned about intergenerational equity and responsibility “ and I’ll return to this. The patronising term Doctors’ Wives neatly sums up the position of moral issues in this campaign. Evoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, moral concerns were presented as a luxury of the well-heeled and hence not to be taken seriously. It is striking though, that it is only certain sorts of moral concerns – those of the left – that are automatically dismissed by the hard-nosed realists in both the press and the political parties. Values issues – which generally means issues to do with sexual morality and the discipline of children – are not similarly dismissed.
In the appeal to the household budget as the central drama of the nation both Labor and the Liberals marginalised their own ideological traditions and principles on the national interest. Labor marginalised its social democratic traditions, and the Liberals their old moral middle class, as well as their neo-liberal supporters who argued for the economic self-discipline of parties for the long term good of the economy. Both fought the election campaign as parties of the petit bourgeoisie and de-collectivised working class, who were invited to count the dollars in the different policy mixes as if considering a financial package.
Then, finally, there’s the question of intergenerational time. In the policy speeches in the first half of the twentieth century, the future is a major presence. Policies are nation building, argued for as contributing to future prosperity, or future opportunities. The young, the people starting out on life, will inherit what we build. There was even some of this in the 1980s, in the debates about economic reform. In this campaign, young adults, people in their 20s, scarcely rated a mention, except in the debate on higher education policy which remained marginal to the main stories. Neither party showed much interest in them. Nor contemplated the possibility that in a globalised world our talented young may not stay.
‘Deserving’ old people by contrast were courted assiduously – Medicare gold, cash handouts ‘to help with the bills’. This is despite the fact that people over sixty have on the whole benefited from the good times of the long boom and the asset rises of the past twenty years. Much of their working life was spent in the time of full employment, and most bought their homes when they were far cheaper in relation to average annual earnings than they are today. Just why they are deserving is not clear to me. True a decreasing number fought in the war, but they also were the greatest beneficiaries of the long boom. The cynical explanation is electoral weight – but here the appeal to self interest disconnected from national interest seems to me particularly dangerous, opening the way for insatiable demands.
Old people are facing death. Their worlds narrow, and they become prone to self-absorbed, persecutory anxiety. It can be hard for them to care much about a future they won’t share and easy for them to envy the young. To aggravate this with policies that single them out is to suggest politics can somehow compensate them for their inevitable decline. Of course it can’t. And of course many old people know this and are committed to their grandchildren’s futures.
But for me one of the ugliest moments of the campaign was Peter Costello, arguing for the benefits of older workers, attacking the young as irresponsible and unreliable. Perhaps the most damaging long-term impact of the election will be the consolidation of age as a major basis for sectional appeal and the marginalisation of the interests of younger people. I am thinking here of people in their 20s, with HECS debts, and facing a housing market that has doubled in price since Howard became Prime Minister. Neither party seemed to be offering them much. Apart from the debate about higher education policy, they seemed barely on either party’s radar “ unless of course they were inner urban green voters, and then they were fair game for demonisation.
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