Labor Has Big Plans, Why Are We Talking About Drab Preference Deals?

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With the frenzy over how parties will allocate their preferences reaching its peak, bigger questions of policy have been buried. That’s good news for Malcolm Turnbull, writes Ben Eltham.

My social media feed over the past few days has been awash with people debating the various parties’ preference deals.

Preference deals? We’re in the middle of an election campaign to decide who runs the country. The new government will be chosen ultimately by voters, who are the ones, after all, who must write down the numbers in each box.

And yet to examine the media coverage of recent days, it would seem many journalists are more interested in who’s preferencing who than in what policies the various parties are taking to the election.

Experienced observers are starting to notice the superficiality of the policy debate. Guy Rundle in Crikey today has christened it the “Mogadon election.” Margo Kingston, on Twitter, has pointed to the strange lack of passion from either major party.

The election campaign has been going so long, it feels like politics-as-usual. Maybe this was Malcolm Turnbull’s intention all along: to bore us into re-electing him.

Three weeks out, we have a strong sense of what each major party stands for, but little in the way of genuine national debate. The Coalition’s “jobs and growth” is so anodyne it is almost meaningless (as Mark Dreyfus joked during the arts debate, “have you ever heard a politician campaigning on unemployment and economic contraction?”). Labor’s “putting people first” is only marginally better.

Maybe this is why we’re still talking about preference deals even now that polls have opened. Both major parties have been unable to win and keep the attention of the broader electorate.

The strange lack of passion (let alone substantive policy debate) has allowed marginal issues to dominate, like the increasingly arcane interest of many rank and file political supporters in the issue of preference deals.

Animus over preferencing has been a major source of Greens-Labor disagreement in recent weeks. For instance, Labor ran prominent advertisements with a little green hand shaking a Liberal one, warning that the Greens were preparing to do a preference deal with the Liberal Party.

But as we now know, the Liberals have in fact preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens. “This is a call that I have made in the national interest,” the Prime Minster intoned, no doubt to the cheers of the Liberal Party’s right.

Liberal preferences may now save the political career of Labor’s struggling Batman MP David Feeney, and shore up the sandbags in Labor’s inner-city Sydney seats. If the Coalition loses government by a seat or two on July 2, it may well come to rue its decision.

Meanwhile, Labor has announced it will preference the Greens in all lower-house seats, and the Greens will reciprocate in all but eleven seats. This is a logical carve-up: it is politically advantageous for Labor to harvest all the Greens preferences it can, and the reality is that most Greens voters will preference Labor anyway.

The strange thing about the flap over preferencing is that it will play a minor role in the overall outcome of the election.

In the end, it is the primary votes that matter. Even when preferences do make the difference between victory and defeat, the biggest component of any two-party preferred vote comes from those little number ‘1’s.

Even where parties try to do preference deals, the truth is that preferences are ultimately allocated by voters, so preference flows can only really be distributed by trusting voters to follow how-to-vote cards. Only 42 per cent of voters did this last election, according to the Australian Electoral Study, and the figure would be lower for Greens voters. In the end, the final two candidates have to be close enough together for the preference flows from other candidates to make a difference. Let’s remember that there will be plenty of minor parties in many lower house seats.

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A sign used to encourage voters during the 2013 election. (IMAGE: Simon Yeo, flickr)

Whatever the arcana of preferencing, time spent discussing them means we’re not talking about policy, let alone big picture reasons to keep or change the government.

The government’s monotonous mantra of jobs and growth may not be keeping anyone awake, but the slow attrition of the campaign seems to be paying dividends for the Turnbull government.

There are a number of reasons for this, not least of them media disinterest. But Labor’s wandering focus must also share some of the blame.

Labor had a bad week last week, after pivoting back to fiscal policy. The opposition announced a series of hypothetical spending cuts and budget repair measures that only served to dull the distinction between it and the government on economic policy.

Critically, Labor started talking about budget surpluses again, conceding the territory of the debate to the old bogey of debt and deficit. Chris Bowen talking about when the ALP will deliver a surplus reminded a lot of people about the increasingly desperate surplus promises of Wayne Swan.

The government was delighted, revelling in Labor’s failure of nerve. Scott Morrison heaped scorn on Labor’s diligent efforts to paint itself as a responsible fiscal manager. Perhaps the only saving grace for the opposition was that voters weren’t really paying attention. But this also means that Labor has not been able to keep the debate focused on why voters should kick Malcolm Turnbull out.

When we all start to pay attention to this election?

The supposedly drab nature of this campaign is misleading. There are fundamental differences between the policy stances of the two major parties.

Like all elections, this federal poll is important. The re-election of a Turnbull government will cement a second term of Coalition rule. It is a government committed to favouring big business and the wealthy, and to cutting back on many aspects of Australia’s welfare state.

A Turnbull victory will have major consequences for Australian universities, for renewable energy, for low-income families, for those living in aged care, for mental health and for the homeless, just to name a few affected constituencies. A second term Coalition government means the continuation of the assault on Australia’s remnant social safety net: further cuts to Medicare, to decent funding for government schools, to aged care and the pension, to family benefits, and potentially to penalty rates. A Coalition government will continue to undermine key aspects of Australia’s public sphere. The fate of the CSIRO, of SBS, and the Australia Council may all be at stake.

In contrast, a Labor government would mean a significant shift against the power of big business, and towards a more redistributive and more equal society. There is every sign a Shorten government would attempt to mend some of the holes in the safety net, shore up support for hospitals and universities, and restore the independence of the ABC and the Australia Council. A Labor government would move the country towards renewables. It would do much better on infrastructure projects like the NBN.

None of these are small outcomes. All of them are significant for the future of this country. So, in fact, it is possible to sketch a view of this campaign as something that matters an awful lot.

But most voters are clearly not seeing it that way. The best description for the 2016 election so far is disengaged, with both the media and much of the public tuning out.

And this is why Labor is losing.

If the election campaign goes along as it is now, Labor is probably going to fall short of victory.By definition, Shorten and his party need to make the case for change. Some voters are receptive: Labor seems to have won over its base on the centre-left of politics. But the ALP needs more undecided voters to break its way.

Unless something big happens in the final three weeks of the campaign, that looks unlikely. It may be Labor’s agony to fall just a few seats short of victory.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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