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Australia's shrinking moral and intellectual horizons


Satellite image of Australia in shadowLet us start with what is known.

First, it is still more likely than not that the federal election campaign that is now under way will result in the election of a Coalition government on 7 September.

Kevin Rudd's second coming as prime minister has staved off the threat of electoral catastrophe that loomed under Julia Gillard, when the ALP faced the loss of almost half of the 72 seats it holds in the House of Representatives. That prospect has now receded, and even the gloomiest predictions for Labor — those derived from betting odds rather than opinion polls — now envisage the party winning up to 65 seats. But in a 150-seat chamber that still means a clear and comfortable victory for the Opposition.

This is not to say that it is impossible for Labor to cling to office. To do so, however, it will have to win seats, not merely retain those it now has, and the last time an Australian government successfully did this was in the extraordinary circumstances of World War II. If the Rudd Government is to emulate the Curtin Government's achievement, it will probably have to do so by picking up enough seats in Queensland to compensate for those it could lose in Tasmania, Victoria and NSW, and also deliver a majority.

That Labor can even consider fighting a campaign on that basis is a measure of the difference the leadership change has made to the party's confidence and its standing in the electorate: under Gillard, Labor was expected to lose all its Queensland seats except for Rudd's. Nonetheless, the electoral momentum remains with the Coalition.

So why does Rudd apparently think he can win against the odds? It is not only an ego-driven assessment, considerable though his self-regard is. The most important indicator of voters' intentions, the two-party-preferred vote, has wavered in recent polls between a 50-50 split and 52 per cent for the Coalition and 48 per cent for Labor. Rudd, however, is relying on the indicator that has consistently differentiated him from both Gillard and Abbott: preferred prime minister.

He was usually way ahead of Gillard on this poll question and is way ahead of Abbott now. In the latest Newspoll, 47 per cent of respondents preferred Rudd as prime minister, compared with 33 per who preferred Abbott. The margin varies from poll to poll — a fortnight ago 50 per cent preferred Rudd — but Abbott has never closed the gap. Even when Rudd's fortunes were at their lowest, at the time he was deposed by his caucus colleagues in June 2010, 46 per cent of Newspoll respondents preferred him as prime minister compared with 37 per cent for Abbott.

Rudd's belief that voters will stick with him rather than install Abbott as prime minister explains the rhetoric he used when announcing the election date on Sunday. Without naming the Opposition Leader, he said Australia was too open a nation to retreat into a 'tight little ball of negativity' and declared that the election would primarily be about whom voters trust to govern. Abbott's response, that it will really be about whom they regard as 'fair dinkum', sounded lame and clunking by comparison.

So expect more of the same in the next five weeks. Rudd will do everything he can to draw his opponent into debate on his own terms, and the more Abbott seeks to avoid head-to-head clashes the more he will confirm the tight-little-ball-of-negativity image. The strategy might, just might, deliver Rudd the victory against the odds he is seeking, thereby enshrining him as a Labor saviour; though if that happens those in his party who continue to nurture hatred for him will be extremely reluctant to concede him that title.

Many members of the commentariat will lament the Rudd strategy as a further lurch towards presidential-style electioneering. They will not explain why this is a bad thing, however, since they themselves are enmeshed in such electioneering and have been ever since the emergence of television as the dominant influence on modern campaigns. Anyone old enough to remember the contrasting styles of Robert Menzies and Arthur Calwell knows 'presidential' campaigning is nothing new. And anyone who follows politicians on Twitter knows it's here to remain.

Rudd was also correct in saying that the election will be decided primarily on the question of whom voters trust to govern. That, as I've argued in an earlier article in Eureka Street, is a truism of elections, which are not typically referenda on rival sets of policies. But recognising that to be so does not imply that the policies adopted by parties and candidates are of no consequence. And if this campaign, like its mean-spirited predecessor in 2010 and the hung parliament it produced, fails to inspire many voters and drives some to disengage from the political process, it will be in large part because of where the contending parties stand or, more importantly, refuse to stand.

I am not referring only to the punitive policies that both major parties have set in place in regard to asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Those policies shame the nation, but they are only one instance of a shrinking of intellectual and moral horizons in which all parties — and not just the majors — have been complicit.

Think, for example, of the debate about revenue, which has been allowed to frame the wider debate about the economy. It is economically illiterate nonsense to equate the state of the budget with the state of the economy, yet Labor and the Coalition have acquiesced in the view that delivering a surplus is the sole indicator of responsible economic management.

That acquiescence, in turn, means Australia's relatively low level of net public debt is inevitably portrayed as a stumbling block for whoever governs, while curtailing spending invariably takes priority over investment in education, health and infrastructure even when these are required to ensure national prosperity in the longer term.

Nor is it acceptable, in this narrow neoliberal view, to raise more revenue through raising taxation rather than cutting spending. In the past month, for example, we have witnessed the astonishing spectacle of a government being lashed by its opponents for increasing the excise on the sale of a leisure drug that is a risk to health, namely tobacco in the form of cigarettes, and for insisting that fringe benefits claimed by some employees should actually be used for work-related purposes.

When the limits of what is considered acceptable to discuss are so constrained, it is no surprise that we do not even have a proper debate about how revenue should be raised and what it should be spent on, let alone an informed debate on the economy. If some other forms of revenue-raising were on the table — inheritance taxes, for example — the return of the budget to surplus might not seem such a distant prospect.

But they won't be on the table, not in this campaign nor anytime soon.


Ray Cassin headshot

Ray Cassin is a contributing editor.

Australia image from Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ray Cassin, Election 2013



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Existing comments

Particularly liked the reference to 'economically illiterate nonsense', Ray. I taught tertiary economics for about 3 decades and despair how the public seems to have been gulled into accepting the quite mad and irresponsible notion that a surplus is somehow 'good' in itself when in fact it's the worst possible policy when an economy is languishing. And you are to be commended for pointing out that there's no discussion about making the tax system more fair and more efficient. A reconsideration of capital gains tax concessions, zero tax on superannuation pensions for those over sixty, negative gearing and the absence of inheritance taxes (as you mention) would solve most of our real and imagined revenue deficiencies. And there are plenty more opportunities to be explored also. In the meantime we who live in a very rich country are stuck with a wretched standard of economic debate which can, without hyperbole, be characterised as shameful - and quite often bordering on the idiotic. I enjoyed your article. All best, Bruce B N Oakman

B N Oakman | 05 August 2013  

On this second day of the declared election contest, it is tragic that the nation's finest minds are to be found in Eureka Street, the Conversation and the Monthly. Many of us gave up long ago any hope of finding intellectual or moral horizons among the 7-second sound bite utterances of our political candidates. It's sad to be reminded of this for 5 - 6 weeks every three years!

Ian Fraser | 05 August 2013  

Thank you Ray. We need articles with information such as you give. Just one tentative suggestion; have a look at the use of the two words "who"and "whom". M.W.

Mahdi | 05 August 2013  

Spot on Ray. We received today the first letter from our Liberal candidate for the Commonwealth Parliament. In it he says he will be fighting for - 1. 'Construction of the east West Link' (a State matter). 2. 'Reducing crime'... by installing more CCTV cameras (another State matter). 3. 'Upgrading local roads' (a Local and State government matter). 4. 'Caring for the environment' by funding a local creek rejuvenation program (another Local and State government matter), and 5. 'Boosting local sporting clubs' by investing in major projects (another Local and State government matter). He also wants 'to be very clear on some important points' like (wait for it!) 'creating more jobs and improving job security' and 'securing our borders and stopping the boats'. Wow! I'm underwhelmed by his vision and obvious grasp of all those important long-term national policy issues. But I'm not holding my breath to see if the ALP candidate is any better.

Ginger Meggs | 05 August 2013  

Sorry Ray, you are quite right with your "who"s & "whom"s. M.W.

Mahdi | 06 August 2013  

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