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Heigh-ho, it’s time for the election show


When the Annual Show was the biggest show in town, and the animals, their owners, the axemen, scone makers, boxers and side show people, the merry go rounds and the modest showbags spruikers all came to town, the air lightened, and in school play grounds the toys of the year — yo yos, water pistols or kites sprung up everywhere. It was show time.

That is also true, though in more ponderous ways, of election time. Of course in the nineteenth century election time was show time in the vulgar sense. In the political novels of Antony Trollope and the ethical novels of George Elliot, towns became awash with cash and grog and suspicious characters as candidates pay out to secure their election. The more serious business, of course, was transacted in great halls and city clubs. 

For some weeks the first stirrings of election time have been evident in the rustle of government announcements. Attention is suddenly given to areas desolated by fire or flood. Women are treated with old fashioned courtesy. Attack dogs are locked behind the shed until needed during the campaign. Offensively cruel policies are softened by freeing a few people from detention. Polls and pollsters, a little motheaten for most of the year, now stride boldly in Persil White togas up to the Capitoline Hill, wreathed in auguries and in hidden knowledge. Everywhere to be seen are signs of inventories being taken, new merchandise being tried out, appearances changed, and the tents on social media and television erected for the big show.

Last week saw a trial run — a small election in South Australia, carefully gutted for auguries for the Federal Election. This week the Federal Budget has been brought down. This is a necessary step before the calling of an election in order to provide funds for government. It also allows the Governing party to appear at its wisest and most generous in meeting the needs of the people. It will have helped to define the issues on which the Election will be fought. The Budget delivered, all is ready for the calling of the Election. Unless the Government decides to go into full Big Top Death Defying High Rope trapeze mode by separating the elections for the Senate and the House of Representatives, we should expect a conventional election for both houses in the second half of May.


'Once we stop looking at what political parties would like us to focus on, election campaigns contain much that is interesting, admirable and thought provoking. They offer sketches of Australians who have deep needs and deserve a Government that will take them seriously.' 


For many people the question posed by the election campaign will be how to survive it. It is tempting to dismiss a campaign that sets a Government that has done very little for the last six years against an Opposition that has promised little. If our ideal form of democracy and of the place of elections within it is based on an idealised vision of Athens in which policies and positions are decided by speeches based in rational argument, then it would be reasonable to ignore the election. The fortunes of government will not be decided by public debate between different visions of the national future. The media tent in which the election campaign is played out will be dominated by commentators who are concerned primarily to embarrass politicians and discover gaffes, to further the fortunes of their own side, and to pick winners and losers. This leaves little space for hearing and weighing argument.

That said, election campaigns are worth attending to. Instead of looking at the earnest faces of those licensed to speak in the tent, however, we should turn away from politics as politics, away from those for whom this is their preferred language, away from those who prey on gaffes and snafus, and away from chest bumpings. We should turn instead to the edges of the tent and those who can be glimpsed there. 

The coverage of the election does incidentally give space to voices and faces of bystanders throughout Australia. Behind and around the men of action in their fluorescent jackets, hard helmets, akubras, baseball caps or other props that identify them as ordinary Australians, are people going about their daily business, some intrigued by what they see, others impatient, but all representing people and places in Australia for whose sake the election matters. By attending to the faces of people who are seen as props to the election campaign, and developing an interest in the often well researched background of social change in different parts of Australia and its effect on the predicaments and priorities of the people who live there, we gain a deeper understanding of Australia and its needs. At one level election campaigns are all showbiz and make believe, but at another the humanity that they can never quite stifle also punctures the images that the contesting partners project of Australia.

Election campaigns also highlight the gifts and work brought to what is sometimes contemptuously referred to as retail politics — the business that those not gifted for the real business of politics get into. We see political candidates who sought election to serve and not to rule, who will never be government ministers, who are aware of and focus on the needs of their constituents, are active in the communities they represent, and contribute to the groups that deal with serious matters of Australian life.

All in all, once we stop looking at what political parties would like us to focus on, election campaigns contain much that is interesting, admirable and thought provoking. They offer sketches of Australians who have deep needs and deserve a Government that will take them seriously. They also represent an Australia facing enormous challenges from climate change, inequality and political uncertainty, and deserving a government that will address these challenges seriously. 




Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Prime Minister Scott Morrison (L) and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese walk into the Senate at Parliament House. (Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Election, AusPol, Australia, Politics



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Existing comments

What gets me is when politicians, on either side, attempt to appear like the Second Coming. Both the Government and the Opposition are very similar in many ways. It is impossible, with the size and distances in Australia to replicate Athens in its heyday. I am not sure I'd want to. If I were transported to 19th Century England, I would be a Peelite. Sir Robert Menzies was very much in that mould, as was Harold Holt. The current Liberal Party is far to the Right of them. Labor, for the supposed 'worker's' party, has several silvertails. Richard Marles went to Geelong Grammar. Kristina Kenneally currently lives on Scotland Island. Her choice by the Party, over the heads of the local branch, for a Lower House seat was tone-deaf. Ditto the man they are attempting to parachute into Parramatta. Let's get real! My ideal for Australia is that it becomes more like the Scandinavian countries. Scandinavians realise the sort of welfare state they have is worth paying for.

Edward Fido | 31 March 2022  

As election time looms, spectacle makers (even optometrists) and make-over experts can come into their own. Unless they are of independent spirit the would-be politician must give him/herself up to a party. And not a very convivial party. Attaining leadership of a political party can be fraught, watching for pretenders from within and without. However, just as there are wry and imaginative writers (like Andy) who can interpret politics at election time so there must be some dreamers who have the necessary fortitude and humanity not to print leaflets for letterboxes but approach constituents in a real way. I hope.

Pam | 31 March 2022  

I wish I were as entertained by an election as the author is. I find the whole thing depressing because the big issues facing us won't be addressed; instead we are offered 'policies' that are intended to buy our votes. Just try not to think of where the country might be in 50 years time.

I suspect that one of the reasons we had better policies in the 50s and 60s was because of lessons learned during the great depression and WW2. But by now we've forgotten those lessons so we just want tax cuts. Maybe it was like this in Ukraine up 'till a couple of months ago. Suddenly they were forced to think of what's really important, of lasting importance, and found that were prepared to die for the kind of freedom we take for granted. Why do we need hard lessons to learn simple truths?

Russell | 01 April 2022  

Reported in today's Sydney Morning Herald that post-budget polling has Albo as preferred PM and Labor well ahead of the LNP in primary voting intentions. If the polls are correct and Albo does become PM my sincere hopes are that
1. he doesn't wear an Akubra, building site hard hat or American baseball cap to his photo shoots
2. he doesn't wear an Australian flag in his button hole
4. if he does take up wearing a mask in public it is not a mini Australian flag - embarrassing jingoism!
5. he abandons the practice of public pronouncements backed by nodding yes men or as has become the ALP habit, nodding yes women
6. he does not use a church service for photoshoots
7. he stops practising the politics of confrontation and division and governs the bloody country for all citizens not only those who will vote to maintain power and the size of his members' retirement pensions
8. that potential members of parliament are selected for their ability to govern rather than by gender or membership of largely unrepresentative trade unions (unions now represent a mere 6% of the voting public)
9. That he legislates to stop life pensions to retired politicians in light of the fact that on retirement the majority go on to bigger, better and brighter incomes than earned while failing to govern for all citizens
10. he tells the truth.

john frawley | 05 April 2022  
Show Responses

And he goes back to his missus, or is that asking too much even if man does not live by bread alone?

roy chen yee | 07 April 2022  

I like your list John F. The only change I would make would be to put 'Tell the Truth' first, then all the others would logically follow.

Ginger Meggs | 09 April 2022  

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