What is the point of elections? Given how this campaign has begun, it seems a reasonable question to ask. Recent history has not provided much of an answer. Elections in the last decade accounted for only one of the last five changes in Prime Ministers. The other two elections were so inconclusive that voters almost immediately turned on the government that hung on, leaving it to spend the rest of the term in miserable minority.
The parties would, of course, say elections are about choosing them and their policies. But parties have been undermining their own argument every time they changed leaders, they claimed, to win the next election.
Elections remain about the parties, which is why those leadership changes never had much lasting impact. The problem is that the parties are struggling to make it about them. After a decade of internal turmoil—essentially between those wanting to modernise their parties (Rudd. Turnbull) and those wanting to revert to their traditional values (Gillard and Abbott)—the conflict has been left unresolved. So we are left with two unpopular leaders emerging from the rubble to battle it out.
This election is the first contest between two parties now exhausted after a decade of internal conflict and the result is mind-numbing. The campaign so far simply cannot rise above trivia and media gaffes. No wonder a record number of voters are calling it quits to vote early and switch off.
We are being are told this election is giving us one of the most polarised choices in years. Parties claim this all the time, but some commentators are now agreeing. On paper this might seem true. On paper, Labor seems to be coming forward with the most radical attempt to redistribute wealth than it has for a long time. Yet somehow it does not seem like it.
All serious bloggers agree there is not enough discussion on policy. But what always seems to be missing from earnest policy talk is context. Political changes over the last 30 years have had a profound impact on the relationship between the political parties, policy and the programs they present at elections.
When Bob Hawke took Labor to power in 1983, it was on a program that had at its centre the accord with the unions. This was an agreement that had been forged between the union leadership and the ALP over years following the fiasco of the Whitlam government. It meant that not only did Labor have something to offer the electorate in the 1983 election, an agreement for wage restraint from organisations that made up half the workforce, but a union leadership that was willing to impose it on any sections of their membership that strayed from it. This relationship was critical for Labor to implement ‘reforms’ or, more accurately, to manage its largely ad hoc response to turbulence in the global economy. The policy strength of the Hawke Labor government was its reliant on a relationship with institutions, like the unions, that had some social weight.
When Labor returned in 2007, that social weight had largely dissipated. However much the union leadership claimed it was their campaign against Workchoices that won the 2007 election, they were generally ignored on policy. Whatever the practical result of Rudd’s 2020 Summit, the message was unmistakeable—celebrities and experts would play as much part in formulating policy of the new Labor government as the unions, even the party.
The lack of ties and obligations to the unions gave freedom to the Rudd government unprecedented for a Labor government (Fair Work Act’s anti-strike provisions would have been unacceptable in any previous Labor government) but also gave a peculiar character to policy making during the Rudd years that persist in Labor in this campaign.
There is often a tendency among wonks when talking about policy to over-estimate the ability of government to bring it about. Government’s relationship with society is not straightforward and policy generally needs the backing of social institutions with enough clout to make it happen. That is what is lacking on both sides now. The Rudd years, gave government decision-making an off-the-cuff feel, best summed up by Wayne Swan’s mining tax, the introduction of which was as timid as the tax itself, with government finding little support to withstand an advertising blitz from the mining industry.
The Coalition has also felt a similar problem of the lack of business backing twice since the 2013 election: first when Abbott and his media boosters mistook rejection of Labor chaos for his own mandate that led to the 2014 Budget sinking like a stone, and a second time when Turnbull thought he could revive the policy drive through the sheer force of his fabulousness.
The public are on to this emptiness at the heart of today’s political programs. A recent survey by the Australian Election Study suggests that voters who think government can have any sort of effect on the economy—good or bad—has plummeted. Given the centrality of the economy in the contest between the major parties it is unsurprising that party loyalty has also declined as has interest in leadership debates at election time.
The parties have responded in their own way. Having learnt from the flop of the 2014 Budget and the windy grandiosity of Turnbull’s 2016 campaign, the Coalition are offering barely anything at all this election. With no program, there is not much point talking to the media. Publicity visits to factories to announce policy have become reduced to the publicity visit itself. No wonder the media is being left on the bus while the Prime Minister takes selfies with the public. As far as the positive side of the Coalition’s campaign goes, it has been reduced to the empty vanity of a social media account of someone nobody especially likes.
However, the Coalition’s negative campaign is being saved by Labor. It would be thought that in the face of a lack of credibility from the voters, the parties might tone down their ambition. But while declining voter loyalty reflects the public’s questioning of what parties represent, the parties see it as a branding problem of what they are for. So they need to fill the gap. It is why politics has been increasingly overtaken by culture wars, issues that allow the parties and the left and right to distinguish themselves but, even if serious, often stray no further than (social) media and are therefore as transient as much as they are passionate.
There is some recognition that culture wars turn off the voters, so the election has seen the major parties reverting to traditional themes, even if the results are increasingly bizarre. The Coalition’s last Budget, for example, bemused seasoned political reporters. Instead of the usual pre-election Budget dumping a truckload of money onto voters’ front lawns, the Coalition wanted to demonstrate its traditional brand of ‘getting back into black’—but in the future, which, as one observer noted, turns forecasting into an actual achievement. In the Budget, the Coalition was essentially asking voters for an act of faith—just when voter faith in political parties is at an all-time low.
But Labor cannot resist it either. There was only one thing Labor had to do this election: shut up. The chaos of August 2018 went to the heart of the Liberals’ case for governance and has struck at the very thing its supporters would most expect from it, competence. While drawing direct lines from that to the subsequent election disaster in Victoria might be a stretch, the election result there did highlight a major fear for the Liberals, the eroding loyalty in its heartlands. The incompetence of the ousting of Turnbull is just such an issue that would crystallise it.
But in Labor something has been going on. It is summed up by the transformation of the former Treasurer and current ALP President, Wayne Swan, from right wing factional hack to firebrand fighter against inequality.
Swan’s claim that Rudd did not represent ‘Labor values’ obviously raises awkward questions given that it is only under Rudd that Labor has won an election outright in the last 26 years. So restoring ‘Labor values’ has become a mantra that has been picked up across the leadership especially at an election it looks likely to win. This election could be a vindication of the Labor brand. It is why a stalwart of the Labor right is now sounding practically left wing, and a Treasurer who could not work out how to tax a profitable mining industry is now set on addressing inequality, one of the deepest structural issues in a market economy.
Inequality has been a theme with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US, both using it to attack establishment of the centre left parties and the ‘neoliberalism’ of the Third Way modernising politics of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. Given what happened to real wages and its share of total wealth during the Hawke government, it might be felt that the ALP establishment would be vulnerable to this charge as well. Yet in Australia, the campaign against inequality has been adopted by the ALP leadership itself.
While posing as a battle of left v. right, the argument around inequality is not really, at least in the traditional sense. It is more a battle between the traditional party establishment institutions with all its social institutional ties and financial backers and compromises, and a new purer type of politics unsullied by institutional ties coming from either those who had marginal influence in their party, like Corbyn, or not even part of it, like Sanders.
But in Australia that conflict against the party’s traditional institutions has already happened with Rudd v. Gillard to no result. And the leadership non-contest between Shorten and Albanese in its immediate aftermath also showed that there is not even a left-wing critique of the Labor leadership from within the party. So inequality is a mantra that can be adopted quite easily as an assertion of Labor branding by those of the party’s right like Swan and Shorten.
This is not a program that has been painstakingly forged through years of negotiation both inside and outside the party like Labor’s in 1983. No wonder even the leader has trouble remembering some of it. It is as left wing as Wayne Swan’s Twitter stream and about as meaningful. It is being rolled out at a time when credibility that either major party can do anything about the economy is low. However, it does give the Liberals something against which to galvanise their core support.
The general media reaction to the feeling that something is not quite right with Labor’s campaign has slightly missed the point. There has been sudden recognition that Shorten may not be a sparkling campaigner. Where have they been for the last six years? Shorten is unpopular not least because of his poor media performance. It is not that Shorten looks phoney—that is in the nature of politics—he just does not do phoney very well. The idea that Shorten ever was a good campaigner probably owes more to the 2016 election where the real surprise was that Turnbull’s media savvy windbaggery did not go down as well with the voters as some media fans thought it might.
Others have raised the danger that Labor’s program could leave it similarly exposed as Hewson’s Fightback program did for the Coalition in the ‘unlosable’ 1993 election. There are some similarities between the two. There was a strong internal rationale to Fightback for a Liberal party that was desperate to recover the clothes stolen by a decade of Labor’s cautious economic management, and wage and spending restraint. But voters back then at least thought there might be a danger that Fightback would be implemented. In 2019, Shorten is unlikely to have that problem.