Game on for Saturday 21st August

Suddenly, amidst a winter of some considerable political discontent, we have an election date. The circumstances are a bit ironic for me. I tuned into the Sky election coverage of the Australian election from London just under three years ago in November 2007 (a frabjous day!), and it seems that once again, I will be tuning in from the other side of the world to see who will lead Australia for the next three years. Just a week or so ago I registered to vote overseas, and am in the throes of organising personal matters and packing up my life in Melbourne. Just as I was fronting up to the reality that I would need to disengage from political events for a little while at least, Julia Gillard has called in for a cup of morning tea at Yarralumla, and despite the touch of malaise that has been creeping into recent debate, it is going to be hard to tune out.

Even considering the disorganised thrashings of the last few weeks in Labor Party circles, Tony Abbott and the Coalition will head towards this election as clear underdogs. Centrebet has Labor at an almost unbackable $1.22, with the Coalition not looking like a bad bet at $4.10, to be quite frank. This is not an election campaign much like that waged in 2007. This is not going to be an election campaign with a distinct choice, or clear water between the Government and the Opposition on a number of issues. Given recent events, most Australians would harbor some fairly strong negative thoughts about both major parties. It is only natural under the circumstances to be feeling a bit confused and uncertain about who to vote for. On the one hand we have a Labor Government which promised the world, has delivered on some levels and failed notably or reneged on some others, and still has a reasonable proportion of its original to-do list outstanding. On the other hand, we have an Opposition defined almost exclusively by what it does not stand for, as opposed for what it does, lead by a politically divisive figure in Tony Abbott.

In her noon press conference announcing the election date, Julia Gillard was organised, precise in her language, and confident. She looked and acted like a Prime Minister. She was convincing, but her mindless re-iteration of Labor’s election mantra du jour, “moving forward”, felt forced and was truly grating. The new Labor leadership team has made it clear over the past few weeks of their intent to distance themselves from the failings of Kevin Rudd; they really should be wise by now to the fact that people are sick of simplistic election slogans like this one. It should be possible to be direct and straight-forward without reducing your communication with the public to the level of a glorified infomercial.

The Prime Minister declined to make any new policy announcements, only promising that any new measures announced during the election campaign would be offset by savings in other areas. Politically speaking, this is a smart move, and pushes Tony Abbott into a very small space in which to operate. It mimics the “I’m an economic conservative” promises made by Kevin Rudd heading into the election campaign in 2007. Abbott’s natural instinct as a blue-blood is to either conserve the public dollar or to transform it into a private dollar, but to differentiate himself from the government, it might well be that he needs to fight that instinct and put some sizable spending measures on the table.

Tony Abbott’s response was mixed. For starters, it was made in a somewhat off-the-cuff fashion in an anonymous hotel in Brisbane, leaving him looking a bit like a hotel management trainee who stumbled into the wrong function room. He should have known given all the media speculation that an election date announcement was imminent and stayed in Canberra over the weekend. This was a mistake, right off the bat. His delivery was mostly quite assured, if seemingly not well orchestrated, and he actually did make a few good points that will resonate with voters, namely:

  • Why should we trust Julia Gillard if even Kevin Rudd evidently could not trust Julia Gillard?
  • Why should we trust Federal Labor if we have no idea who will fill the key ministerial portfolios in the government until after the election?
  • Why should we treat Julia Gillard and her team as being any different to the team lead by Kevin Rudd, given Gillard’s senior role in the Rudd Government?

These are all fair, thoughtful, and credible points. Unfortunately, the Opposition Leader did not deign to back them up with any positive policy announcements of note, or any real measure of what the Coalition’s agenda would actually look like if elected.

For the moment at least, the Australian people face a real conundrum. We have a decidedly second-order, tactical election on our hands. There are no grand visions, there are no inspirational plans. It seems certain that who people dislike more as a leader will largely dictate who they vote for on Saturday August 21st. Meanwhile, the Greens look set to win the balance of power in the Senate, and will likely pick up 1 (Melbourne) if not more seats in the House of Representatives. What does this mean for federal politics? I am not sure it is going to mean very much at all, at least beyond the symbolic.

It is difficult to see any future Gillard Government or Abbott Government wheeling and dealing very much with the Greens, particularly given that party’s staunch unwillingness to give some ground in order to gain some ground in terms of negotiation. Despite the likelihood of a record vote for the Greens at the election, I am more convinced than ever that the major parties, presiding somewhat slothfully over the middle ground of Australia, are going to be dictating the policy agenda over the coming parliamentary term. The marginalisation of the environmental left that took grip after the failure of Labor to deliver an ETS and the failure of the world to reach a meaningful deal in Copenhagen looks set to continue.

Given the recent performance of both majors, and the over-reliance of the Greens on Bob Brown as a credible mouthpiece, it’s hard to look forward with an enormous amount of optimism about the health of politics in Australia. Federal politics, arguably, has never looked more like state politics than it does at this very moment.

And if that’s not a put-down, I’m not sure what is.

ELSEWHERE: Mark’s views on the opening gambits over at Larvatus Prodeo are well worth a read.

Peter Brent echoes my thoughts on the odds being offered for a Coalition victory over at Mumble.