Three weeks in and they’re voting. There’s less of the campaign to come than already done.
An over-interpreted poll suggests a narrowing between the major parties. Everyone is more cautious now. You’re ahead until you’re not. It’s a familiar pattern as the election plot plays out. Put money on a ‘late surge’ by one side or the other.
A few hours on a pre-poll booth servicing Casey and Aston yesterday brings home the reality. Media takes on the election mean little here. But there’s a continuous flow of voters, some refusing all how-to-vote cards, some looking for their party of choice, but others looking to gather the set. A seat with nine candidates needs some care to get it right.
Young booth workers for Labor are in tension with old hands worrying about voters escaping into the booth without the ALP card. The Liberal helpers are active, a mix of young and older, comfortable and dishevelled. The older ones swap campaign stories with the Labor people.
There are jovial conversations about who to put last on the ballot. A young man in a United Australia Party t-shirt hovers. The assembled workers wonder if he’s being paid to hand out cards. ‘All that money must buy some votes,’ someone says.
The sense is that voters do take it seriously. They’re happy to get it over with, but they do think about what they’re doing. The cynical remarks still come but they always do. That’s what we are.
A former MP says she was recently asked about the virtues of joining Fraser Anning’s party. We look askance but the young man in question was at least thinking and seeking confirmation.
We know many are seeking an alternative. Australian voters are unsentimental. Given the right circumstances, they can ditch a century of voting for the conservatives in Wentworth. Water means the independent Mayor of Albury looks on track to take down another Liberal woman in Farrer. An Olympic skier-turned-lawyer is hunting Tony Abbott in Warringah.
A broader question arises: what are voters looking for when they cast around for an alternative to the usual suspects? In this week of One Nation crassness, how do voters reconcile the search for ‘other’ with the craziness of the others who are here already?
Governing is hard. It isn’t for everyone. Every first-year politics student knows the Max Weber quote: ‘Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’ Expertise and experience help. Flexibility is essential, compromise unavoidable. ‘It takes both passion and perspective,’ Weber said. We rarely see both in the independents and micro-parties.
The search for others is often dressed up as a reaction to partisanship. It’s a cry for consensus, but consensus is often code for ‘we’ and ‘us’ against ‘them’.
A colleague used to ask, ‘Why can’t they just do what’s best for the country?’ The patient reply: Because we don’t agree on what’s best.
The parliamentary process is systemic partisanship in action. Consensus often breaks down. Consider the historic issues that have divided us, be it the conscription debates, what to do about the Depression, Chifley’s bank nationalisation, Vietnam, Medicare, climate change.
Industrial relations have been a perennial site of partisanship, bringing down two governments in the first decade of Federation. It threw Stanley Bruce out of parliament in 1929 and contributed to John Howard’s demise in 2007. It hovers over the 2019 election too.
Elections have often settled these issues. Sometimes the electorate is ahead of the parties. Bank nationalisation was lost but Chifley couldn’t let go. Medicare was entrenched long before the coalition surrendered, although guerrilla fighters still carry on the battle. Most recently, the electorate decisively settled the same-sex marriage debate.
Partisanship has legitimacy. We should not hide from it. Unlike a Trump, a Bolsonaro, or a Duterte, our partisanship still exists within a framework of acceptance of political processes, fair elections and the rule of law. Like the United Kingdom and Brexit, paralysis has crept into the system, especially in the Senate. But that is not cured by more minor parties and independents.
The result in Indi on May 18 may indicate how the electorate is responding to independent representation. The Cathy McGowan forces like to say they’re not a political party but a movement. Fine words, but perhaps naïve. If Helen Haines can replace McGowan, she will achieve a rare succession from one independent to another. Andrew Wilkie has argued every parliament needs a group of independents to provide an alternative voice and the voters may agree. They may equally decide they need a member who is part of the main game.
That was the unanswered question at the pre-poll centre. Were those voters attracted to yet more oddities, to people difficult to regard as serious, let alone informed?
Scott Morrison says the voters focus not on politics but on the footy and the races. They certainly pay on results. We saw that in Victoria’s landslide election last year. Whether it was level crossing removals, road construction, rebuilding the ambulance service, or new and renovated schools, the electorate saw a government getting on with its core responsibilities. The rest of the media noise didn’t matter.
So it undoubtedly is with the broader attitude to politics. If the move to the others continues, it will be because the electorate doesn’t see the parties of government duopoly as up to the task. They will continue to react to the pre-packaged lines and the risk-averse campaigning. They will turn to people who relish the pull of political fame but wouldn’t know the first thing about running a government department or negotiating a policy outcome.
The old Labor veteran Fred Daly once said that none of the party’s candidates mattered in the 1943 landslide victory. ‘They were voting for Mr Curtin.’ Leadership, competence and unity trumped any alternative.
An ABC study published this week showed 76% of voters decided who to vote for before the campaign began. If true, the judgement most likely won’t help the government. Partisanship isn’t the problem, but it has to be done right.
Malcolm Farnsworth is the publisher of australianpolitics.com