The Politics    Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Jumping at shadows

By Sean Kelly

We still don’t know enough about what Abbott and Shorten have planned

Disillusionment is cool. There’s no use pretending it isn’t. Which politics-watcher hasn’t sat back at one point (optional prop: wine or smoking device of choice) and faux-wearily opined that the world is going to hell in a handbasket (whatever that means), that there was a time for hope and it’s long long gone, that you can tell when a politician’s lying because their lips will be moving …

And, of course, the eternal favourite: that there’s no difference between the parties any more.

I’ve been there, of course, but I tend to wake up and reproach myself. In the clear bright air of the morning, I am (he says, sounding like a politician) resiliently optimistic about these things. Politics does have an impact, and there are significant distinctions between the various politicians who want to rule over us.

But with all of this early election talk in the air I wanted to briefly consider the fact that, at this point in the electoral cycle, we haven’t really been told what those differences are.

Both Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten have recently given us their blurbs for the next election.

In Abbott’s words, a few days ago to the Liberal Party federal council:

“They’re for boats, we’re for none. They’re for a carbon tax, we’re for lower tax. They’re for taxes, we’re for jobs. They do union bidding. We stand for all of us.”

That’s a pretty sharp outline of the divide Abbott intends to prosecute in the campaign, whenever it comes. It’s punchy and readily graspable. But the binaries Abbott offers us are built on little more than Abbott’s focus-group-tested fantasies.

The PM may be able to make the boats charge stick, given Labor’s failure to stop arrivals while in government, but the likelihood is that both parties will take very similar policies to the next election. Labor’s policy on climate change remains vague. The phrase “They’re for taxes, we’re for jobs” is the most meaningless of the bunch: neither side is offering a huge amount of tax reform, unemployment has gone up under Abbott, and tax as a proportion of GDP is higher than it was under Labor. The union claim is overblown.  

But Shorten’s pitch isn’t any more grounded in tangible facts:

“If there is an early election, it will be an election fought on Labor’s turf: jobs and vital infrastructure, universal Medicare and quality hospitals, schools, skills and universities. And if they (the government) want to make it an election about workers and a fair go in the workplace, I say ‘bring it on’.”

I genuinely don’t know what the divide on infrastructure is. Certainly Labor has been more positive about health and education, but we don’t know whether it would restore the $80 billion in cuts that Abbott has delivered. We know as much about the Coalition’s IR policy as we do about Labor’s climate policy. The line about Medicare is grounded in the Coalition’s attempt to introduce GP fees last year, but of course the government has backed away from that since.

Which isn’t to call either Abbott or Shorten liars. There are grains of truth in everything they say. But only grains.

And that is because neither side has yet announced much of significance. The government made some early clumsy lunges, but quickly retreated. The opposition has made some intelligent announcements this year, but nothing to excite imaginations the way Shorten did in government with his championing of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

This is more of a problem for Labor. First, because Abbott goes into the next election with the strongest weapon: asking voters if they’re ready to have Labor back. Second, because Abbott’s strength has always been attack. An election about very little will play to that. Shorten, on the other hand, is better at explaining why a proposal should matter to voters. But for that skill to come into the equation there will need to be proposals that matter.

But mostly it’s a problem for us, the voters. I am certain that Abbott and Shorten would take the country in different directions, and I have no doubt the contrast would be stark. But it would still be nice to know precisely what those directions are before voting.

 

Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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