I do an occasional op. ed. for newspapers, and for a pair I did for The Canberra Times early in the year I invented, as a stalking horse, a rational non-partisan voter who just happened to be a woman. I feel her presence again after an opinion poll or two last week. The last Newspoll suggested that Labor is slightly in front of the Coalition in the estimation of the electorate, while the Roy Morgan poll showed the Coalition ahead, but not by much. It would be reasonable to guess that the two parties are roughly equal. We could be in for a double dissolution election within a month or two, and in any case there must be an election later in the year if the Senate dodges double dissolution and passes the trigger bills. On what basis would my friend, the rational, non-partisan citizen, cast her vote? She has asked me for some help in this difficult question, through my putting to her the kinds of considerations that she might have in mind.
Are you one of those who worries about ‘leadership’? I ask that because there’s not a lot of it about on either side. Mr Turnbull looks the part, but if you know what the Government is for, given what he has told us about, then you are a brighter spark than Marie Curie. Mr Shorten we have seen now for the best part of three years, and he does not inspire, or so it seems to me. What do you think? It wasn’t at the top of your list, but yes, it could be important.
Because there’s a lot of talk about leadership, and you asked me to do so, I add a bit more. I doubt that most of us actually want leadership, if that means a great goal and a great leader to get us there (Paul Keating in his own estimation comes to mind). Most of us, I think, would be satisfied with competence, consistency and coherence on the part of our Government, whoever was running it. What we have is a pretty good society both in comparison with those around us, and in comparison to what we had in Australia half a century ago. It doesn’t need to be ‘run’ by governments on a daily basis. Nor does it need to be led to some kind of magic mountain. Yes, there are always bits that could work better, and we need to fix them up incrementally. For that outcome we need a competent government unfazed by the 24-hour news cycle. Oh, you agree.
What about the Budget? Does it worry you that the Secretary of the Treasury says that every month the Commonwealth’s interest bill is around one billion dollars, and climbing? It does? Well, I am afraid to say that neither side seems to think that there is any great urgency about reducing that outflow. Oh, there’s talk but no action by the Government, and as for the Opposition it seems to have in mind more spending if it were returned to office. That’s not a help, is it. (No.)
Track record? Oh, that’s a hard one. Mr Abbott has been banging on about stopping the boats and ending the carbon tax, and indeed his government did that. But for much of his time the track record seemed to be about his government’s failure to get other domestic legislation through, and his chronic inability to convey simply and sensibly what he was on about. Eventually he was displaced and replaced. Mr Turnbull started with the blessing of the media and a high standing in the polls. That’s mostly gone, as I’ve said already. Labor? Its track record in six years was, at least to me, characterised by over-hyped and ambitious plans for which there would not be the necessary funding — a problem we live with today, because these plans are largely locked in — and by constant internal sniping. Do you want a repeat of all that? You don’t. I don’t, either, but I wonder how many people remember what it was like then. You don’t think that today is much better? No, I’d have to agree.
Is ISIS a real issue for you? You’re not sure. No one is in favour of ISIS, so it is not a test to put to the parties. We do seem to have been in a more-or-less constant war with Islamic fundamentalists since 9/11, but so far there has been little action on our soil. Bali? Yes. And non-trivial deaths elsewhere, especially among our soldiers. OK, that’s not helpful.
Social Welfare? There is constant talk in the media, usually from proponents of this or that perceived new need, or from those who feel that existing funding is not nearly enough, for more money to be spent on social welfare. Where is it to come from? you’ve asked. One response would be that an increase here has to be matched by a decrease somewhere else — that’s the old Expenditure Review Committee approach to the funding of new ideas. Another is for more taxation. Another is for the needed funds to come from some bucket which the proponents say is much too full; the usual candidate is Defence. But no one wants more taxation, unless it’s of other people. No one wants cuts. As I said above, we are bleeding publicly at the rate of about a billion dollars a month just on interest payments. Who is offering the way forward? I don’t think anyone is, and you agree.
Candidates? As I understand it, both of us know and like the sitting MPs for the electorates we live in. Should we just vote for the MP we know, and let him or her sort it out? That is a tough one. Mine happens to be someone I’ve known and appreciated for the best part of twenty years. The seat is held by the ALP, but I’d have real unhappiness about voting for the ALP this time. I felt the last Labor Government was so dysfunctional that I couldn’t bear to see another such government. For three years during that time I held a post in a statutory authority that had three Ministers, none of whom appeared to have any interest in the entity at all, while the ordinary business, the boring but necessary process of government, seemed to take last place in the Government’s thinking. Yours is a Liberal MP and you feel the same way? It is a real problem, isn’t it.
That was the end of our discussion.
Uncertainty Elections are moments for choice. My guess is that the level of uncertainty about which party to vote for is really quite high. It may reduce as the election campaign gets closer, and we see how the principal actors perform in this regular Australian soap opera. But at the moment it is though we are waiting for some sort of sign, though probably not one from Heaven. I hope it comes soon.
Further reading: Ian Marsh, whom I’ve known since he was a young chap working in Minister Allen Fairhall’s private office in the 1960s, has written three good pieces on the current context to our politics for John Menadue’s website. You a can read them here.