Don't despair of election 'race to the bottom'

So dismayed are many people at the performance of the leading politicians and the parties that numbers of people are saying that for the first time in their lives they do not know for whom to vote. These people are looking to make a protest vote in some form.

Commentators have termed this election a 'race to the bottom', especially in relation to policies on immigration, population and asylum seekers, as well as the critical areas of climate change and the environment. Some of the great global issues and Australia's role in tackling global hunger and poverty rate barely a mention. While both parties support an increase in Australia's overseas aid, the Coalition intends to cut $300 million from our climate adjustment aid to pacific countries.

Other major concerns in Australia, notably Indigenous issues, have receded into the background.

Where are the considered debates about economic policy, and how Australia can expand its productivity in a time of rapid technological and social change? The Rudd Government safely steered Australia through the global financial crisis, but we are lagging in infrastructure spending, preferring instead to give tax advantages to middle and higher income groups. Business groups must be deeply perturbed at the rhetoric emphasising the urgency for debt reduction when others are warning of deepening recession.

The electorate is volatile and distrustful of political leaders. Many are disappointed that the Labor government fell well short of its promised aims. Yet despite then Prime Minister Rudd's sometimes overblown rhetoric, he had vision and inspired this nation to engage with current problems more generously and intelligently.

The election so far has been plagued by trivial spats about leaks and personality conflicts. It is being conducted as if we live in a bubble, remote from the rest of the world, with timid, myopic views of social and foreign policies.

What of our engagement with PNG and other Pacific countries, not to mention Asia? In the light of the very urgent environmental issues, how are we to reduce carbon emissions? Where is the debate about our housing policies and the design of our cities? What of our health policies, education and social services and particularly mental health? And when will we undertake more equitable reform of tax policies?

Many groups are particularly concerned about the positions of both major parties on asylum seekers and refugees. Far from implementing more humane policies on asylum seekers, both appear to be pandering to the anxieties of voters in marginal seats in the western suburbs of Sydney, where the election could be decided.

It appears that the focus groups in these areas indicated that resentment and stress at the lack of infrastructure and services, crowding in public transport and lack of affordable housing, as well as competition for jobs, have found a scapegoat in asylum seekers arriving in unauthorised boats, despite the fact that they number only about 5000 people from July 2009 to the end of May 2010, and make up about 3 per cent of the migrant intake.

Worse was to follow, with both major parties pushing for offshore processing, Labor opting for war-torn East Timor, the poorest country in South-East Asia; and the Coalition favouring Nauru yet again.

Anyone who has seen the harm suffered by asylum seekers under the Howard Government would be shocked by this cynical pandering to populism and prejudice. Previous policies were cruel and inhumane, undermining detainees' mental health and driving many, even children, to attempt suicide or self-harm.

What we need is genuine leadership by both major parties, leadership that refuses to punish asylum seekers harshly, and is prepared to challenge the shock jocks, prejudice and media misrepresentation.

Yes, we need to rethink how we live in this country and manage its resources in a sustainable way. But it is likely our population will continue to grow strongly. The facts of geography are real, and our population is tiny in comparison with that of other countries nearby. Some cities have populations greater than all of Australia.

We cannot isolate ourselves, and must do our part to help resettle migrants and refugees, and not simply leave poorer countries to carry the load.

We can do better than the election debates so far indicate. We need policies firmly based on the values of equity and social justice for everyone, though it is not easy to resist the power of special interests and the populist manipulation of public opinion.

All this reinforces the importance of church and community groups concerned about our future being more active in their social advocacy, not just in the short term, but on an ongoing basis.

Bruce DuncanDr Bruce Duncan CSsR is one of the founders of Social Policy Connections, an ecumenical social advocacy organisation, and is the Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy at Box Hill in Melbourne.

Topic tags: election, labor, liberal, rudd, gillard, howard, refugees, asylum seekers, leaks, nauru, timor, indigenous



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