Paul Howes reports on the unappetising prelude to Australia’s general election campaign
‘An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry,’ wrote George Eliot in 1866.
2013 might be an election year in Australia, but there are no signs of universal peace, and the foxes are certainly not holding back.
In fact, Australian politics remains mired in an ugly cycle of smear and nastiness.
Polls are consistently showing an unprecedented level of disengagement with politics as voters have tuned out – disgusted and let down by the failure of the national parliament, and the people who report on it, to deliver anything resembling a grown-up discussion on important civic matters.
Instead, Australians have been the reluctant audience to a cheap political pantomime featuring all the requisite slapstick, buffoonery, sexual innuendo and a seemingly never-ending cast of villains.
The conditions that have allowed for this degradation of political discourse arose from the hung parliament delivered by the previous federal election in 2010.
After a long period of negotiation, the Australian Labor party, led by the country’s first female prime minister, Julia Gillard, struck deals with the Green party and three of the four lower house independents to form a government.
Hailed at first as a ‘new paradigm’ in government by parliament, the minority administration soon came under intense pressure from the aggressive tactics of the conservative opposition leader, Tony Abbott.
Abbott has played the role of wrecker and thug, systematically targeting perceived weak links in Labor’s parliamentary coalition in a desperate drive to force an early election.
The focus on personalities and trumped-up scandals has created a perpetual sense of crisis for the government.
Abbott disingenuously says that the only way to ‘stop the soap opera’ is to change the government, but his politics-as-blood-sport approach has proven to be very effective.
The attacks on personalities, combined with a relentlessly negative election pitch based on the things an Abbott government would supposedly stop (such as asylum-seeker boats and any meaningful action on climate change) have given the Liberal-National coalition a consistent election-winning lead in all polls.
But the tide is starting to turn. The government is racking up an impressive list of achievements, and the national economy has continued to grow despite the global economic turmoil. Meanwhile, Abbott’s scaremongering is starting to look silly – especially as his predictions of chaos fail to eventuate. Voters know what Abbott would stop, but now they want to know what he would do. So far he has failed to provide answers. And the polls are starting to narrow. Whether or not the ALP has enough time to bridge the gap remains to be seen, but the key will be to re-engage with a disillusioned electorate.
There are real issues that need to be addressed – the future of the country’s manufacturing industries, boosting national productivity, building a post-resources boom economy, and tackling the growth of insecure work to name just a few.
Australian voters have given up on universal peace, and they do not expect the foxes to stop hunting chickens, but they do expect their politicians to present a plan for the future.
The challenge for both sides of politics is to communicate a vision for the country – to stop annoying voters and to start inspiring them.
Paul Howes is national secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union
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