By Shaun Lambert
In marked contrast to the two and a half years of Rudd Labor and its obsession with the more inane policy details, we find ourselves in the midst of an election campaign that is thoroughly lacking in policy, let alone vision, in either practical or rhetorical terms.
Australia may no longer be trying to figure out the meaning of such terms as ‘programmatic specificity’ or ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’ or even if Kev (was it big Kev?) invented either phrase, but are we poorer for the loss of such a policy warrior? The culture of detail in debates, even if much of it in parliament, was simply a means to dodge questions and is certainly lacking in our current campaign.
Whilst this is partly a case of the media thinking about then chasing its own tail, there is a lot of substance to such a narrative. The case for this assertion has been made by a wide range of commentators and media outlets across the spectrum. In terms of fiscal policy (ie government spending and debt), John Hewson summarises the situation aptly: “the government and the opposition are locked in to fiscal and monetary orthodoxy, the only difference is a matter of degrees”.
As a former Liberal opposition leader famous for one of the most wide ranging policy proposals from opposition and having lost the ‘un-losable election’, he would be wary of both the dangers of over-ambitious policies but also the cowardice of deception. Deception such as the Coalition message on debt and waste, rebuffed by the RBA Governor Glenn Stevens as well as Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. On climate change policy, the headline for Waleed Aly’s piece in The Age divulges the inertia of the government or the opposition: ‘Major parties merge in a climate haze’.
An analysis of the major parties’ climate policies by the Climate Institute and their projected impact on emissions levels in 2020 vis-à-vis the year 2000 speak for themselves about the level of spin and the fear of meaningful policy within both the Labor Party and the Coalition.
Labor and Coalition policies are projected to increase emissions by approximately 21% and 7% respectively whilst the Greens policies are projected to decrease emissions by 26%, all of which between 2000 and 2020. The Climate Institute also gave a star rating to each party, with Labor scoring 1 star, the Coalition with ½ a star and the Greens with 4 stars, despite the higher emissions reductions planned by the Coalition, a lack of international engagement lowered their score.
The key here is not that Labor and the Coalition’s policies differ in the detail, but that they rely on the same method, picking winners instead of the economically efficient and environmentally more effective price on carbon.
On immigration and population policy, a ‘hot-button’ issue in the electorates (that count), a similar narrative also emerges, one of policy convergence and a differentiation increasingly based upon sloganeering, perception, marketing and language. All three parties are afraid to break through on the debate, the Greens as a result of internal consternation from the grass-roots through to representative level on the issue, preferring to frame the issue in such terms as the population’s impact or our ‘carrying capacity’.
Labor and the Coalition are doing little more than shuffling around and across the issue, as announced targets from the Coalition and forecasts of the government’s numbers by BIS Shrapnel show little or no difference, in the words of Julia Gillard from Sunday’s debate, “it is a trick, it is a con”.
The myopia and simplicity is most evident on tax policy. The opportunity for wide-ranging reforms that would tackle the complexities, inefficiencies and inequities from the ground up that was offered by the Henry Tax Review, has been lost in favour of an all-out brawl over a ‘great big new tax on mining’. Michael Janda, business editor of ABC online puts it thus: “A problem with government, and most of the media coverage of it, is that it's more focused on political power plays than the business of governing”.
Only on a few issues do the Coalition and Labor truly differ, such as Health (e-health, mental health), the NBN and internet filtering and mining tax. On other policy areas such as and the newfound Federal responsibility for Law and Order (note: apart from the AFP and national security, almost all law and order issues are the domain of the states), there are little or no differences, merely the pretence of them.
The lack of vision may be attributed to a handful of factors; the way in which controversial and complex policy was handled by previous leaders that led to their downfall and systemic problems faced by political parties seeking power in a Westminster system of parliament and elections. It is also due to the susceptibility of all but the most knowledgeable and perceptive of us to the ability of politics and politicians to spin the web of illusion over us, to prey on our short-term fears and concerns at the expense of our long-term ambitions.
Not all of us are economists, climate change scientists or experts in a myriad of fields. This is why we should be able to rely on journalists to pull together such information from a variety of sources and politicians to balance the needs of society and make the decisions that will benefit us all.
The first factor is important in that it facilitated the current crisis of confidence in our two dominant political parties, but is only the immediate cause, not the underlying reason. This is a crisis of confidence not just from the press gallery’s point of view, but more importantly from the people’s perspective.
A recent poll gives this undercurrent of feeling that is lacing our news stories weight where only 40% of surveyed voters thought Labor ‘deserved’ to win and 30% for the Coalition, a pox on both your houses. The second factor is more important, as it points to a flaw in the way we directly elect our representatives in the lower house of not only Federal Parliament but in many State Parliaments around Australia.
The system is skewed and flawed as a result of the geo-demographic nature of the seats that matter, the so-called ‘marginals’. The marginals matter because they are the winnable seats where a change in relatively few people’s votes could alter the outcome not just in that seat but for the whole election.
Just as parliaments with voting systems such as proportional representation are decried for over-representing and giving undue influence to the interests of minor parties and their small proportions of voters, so too does our single-member seat system lead us to/result in a similar outcome.
By virtue of their importance, the marginal seats hold undue power over the policy platform of any government or alternative government. With only a small proportion of the seats and votes being contested, the result is the same. The politics become targeted and tailored to the people of these marginal seats.
This realisation means that the accusation of widespread racism or racist views over immigration or refugees in our community do not carry so much weight. It is simply that the concerns about such policy areas held by these voters that matter, those that live in the ‘marginal’ seats. The third factor is not something unique to Australia or something that is so easily moderated, as it is easily translatable into soundbite politics such as phrases as “great big new tax” and pushes our buttons.
The influence of the marginal seats is also evident in the policy debate, in both its quality and its content. It is heavily focused on the hot-button issues as outlined above, those that provoke an immediate and instinctive response, like debt and deficit, or ‘waste and mismanagement’. These issues are easily translated into soundbite politics yet when picked apart and carefully assessed, they are found to be demonstrably false or at least misleading claims.
The quality of the debate over the last 10 months in particular has been down to the government fighting what has been a rearguard action on the policy front, for the large part as a result of the radical about-turn in the opposition’s style and attitude with the deposition of Malcolm Turnbull for Tony Abbott.
Abbott has been highly successful in lowering the policy debate down to his level and effectively dictating terms to a government on the back foot. The prime example is of climate change policy. The government, despite backed by an arsenal of prepared advertising, a double-dissolution trigger and support of 72% of the populace for some action on climate change did not choose to wrestle leadership from the naysayers in a climate policy election campaign.
As Mike Steketee blogs: “[the government] not only lacked the courage of its convictions but was spooked by a small minority”. Perhaps that ‘small minority’ was located in those minority seats? Instead, the mantra of a ‘great big new tax’ (on everything) scared the government into retreat, becoming an open festering wound to which Kevin Rudd fell victim to.
The influence of the marginals can be seen in that the cost of living and economic concerns convinced the government that a delay in action on climate change was not as risky and would leak fewer votes than a non-policy. This is all despite economic data to the contrary that showed the projected impact of the CPRS to be up to 3 times less than the impact of the GST, not to mention most households would have been fully if not overcompensated for any price rises.
Shaun Lambert writes exclusively for HomepageDAILY, examining our upcoming election and attempting to delve through an absurd time in Australian political history. Part two shall soon follow with potential solutions and greater discussion of the issues at hand