Federal politics

The vision thing
So far, the federal election campaign of 2019 is a surprise return to the politics of yesteryear

AAP Image / Mick Tsikas / Lukas Coch

Many of the pieces setting the stage for this election campaign mention that Australia has had six prime ministers in the past decade. They seldom expand on this, and voters do not seem especially curious about it. It is treated as one of the most boring aspects of a boring event, as though ousting season is finally over, and better forgotten than revisited.

No one can really say why the incumbent prime minister, Scott Morrison, holds his office, not even the man himself. “The party chooses the person they want to lead to ensure that we can put the best foot forward at the next election, to ensure we are connecting with Australians all around the country,” he told parliament, offering an ouroboros of circular reasoning that goes unpicked. Always a complacent place, Australia does not seem “comfortable and relaxed” in the John Howard formulation, but voters are more wary than angry.

This is not surprising, given the alternatives. Across the world, and particularly across the West, representative democracy is undergoing a series of crises, many of them bordering on the existential. In Brexit Britain, Theresa May drifts through insoluble parliamentary dilemmas, trying to fight her way to an honourable resignation. In the United States, Donald Trump stress tests the checks and balances of the United States Constitution almost daily. In Canada, the progressive promise of Justin Trudeau is hobbled by corruption scandals. Things could be worse.

Underneath it all is a crisis of meaning: What is government for? What does it mean? Who are we? Our own leadership ructions sprang from these questions, and after 10 long years, we have come back with a definitive answer: we don’t know. The 2019 federal election may be boring, but at least it’s boring in an unexpected way. Elsewhere, the electoral stakes are the highest they have been in decades, full-blown contests between socialism and nationalism. Locally, at least on the surface, there is a resurgence of the mild, technocratic arguments that are supposed to be a thing of the past. Debates over tax rates and an ageing population, the role of government in the economy, wages, how best to reach a budget surplus, and which market mechanism is best for dealing with climate change – this is the politics of last millennium.

Absent is any clash of visions, and no wonder: few things have been punished more reliably, both by parties and voters, than any diversions from the status quo. We are only one year away from 2020, the year Kevin Rudd set as his event horizon for the future, and national symposia belong to the past. Malcolm Turnbull’s plan for a “more innovative and agile Australia”, announced in 2015, lies forgotten. Tony Abbott’s knighthoods, muscular foreign policy and austerity budget were each rejected in turn. The vision of each of these prime ministers was defeated not just by its opponents but by the cold feet of its own authors – for example, Rudd received the report from the 2020 summit, then rejected 135 of its 138 recommendations – leaving behind a sensation that government could not change much and, beyond the rhetoric, was reluctant to even try.

The Liberal Party’s economic trajectory, from Joe Hockey to Josh Frydenberg, describes a retreat from “the end of the age of entitlement” to “here are some entitlements”. Underneath the centrist posturing – delivering his budget, Frydenberg even boasted that “our tax system will remain highly progressive” – is the familiar tactic of cutting taxes, and then creating a budget crisis that “forces” the cutting of services. But in the meantime, bracket creep, money from commodities and some hopeful projections have taken the budget on the route to surplus. That will make future austerity a hard sell.

The argument is not over whether the government should redistribute wealth, but who it should redistribute wealth to. Labor sees a role for the government in supporting troubled industries and low-income workers. In his interview with Laura Tingle for The Monthly, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten articulated the view that the state could make life better, then pressed the sentiment into one of his signature uninspiring phrases: “We’re looking for a smarter role for government.” That almost sounds like Malcolm Turnbull, perhaps why Shorten paints his picture of the future in shades of beige: bold images of change don’t go down well around here.

Meanwhile, the Coalition’s wealth transfer is an intergenerational one – protecting the assets of Baby Boomers. They are “the most tax-subsidised and economically blessed generation in Australia’s history”, according to The Australian Financial Review, and the Liberals plan to keep them that way. The Nationals are to be kept happy with some agrarian socialist boondoggles, preferably awarded to friends. It’s forgotten now, but one of the subsidies Joe Hockey took aim at was that which supported what he called unsustainable agriculture, particularly surrounding water management. Perhaps he was onto something.

Richard Cooke

Richard Cooke is The Monthlys contributing editor. 


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