So the race is on. My local newspaper tells me that the crucial question is which party can the nation trust most. That didn’t resonate with me, because I don’t trust politicians very much — they say what they say, and do what they do,  to gain or retain power. Graham Richardson, the Labor heavy in the Hawke and Keating periods entitled his autobiography Whatever it Takes.

The Conversation (the blog owned apparently by the universities, but not given to dispassionate analysis in some areas) popped this one up: ‘So is this the most important election ever? Here at The Conversation the answer is yes. After all, it’s our first. But it could also be one of the most important for Australian politics. Think of where we stand on the eve of the poll. The world is in an economic mess. OK, Australia has avoided recession, but for how long? Then there’s the geo-political and the mess in Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe, and an estimated 42 million forcibly displaced people…’ [and more in this vein].

Now of course this has to be the most important election ever, because we don’t know the outcome, and we do know the outcome of all the others that have been held. But there is a delusion (which probably has a name) that ‘now’ is the most important time of all — as though all history leads up to this great, decisive, critical moment. Also, we are alive in it, and we are supremely important, so it must be true.

But go back to The Conversation’s opening lines, and bypass the quip about the election’s being the most important for them, because it’s their first. Fair enough. But the rest is thoughtless. The world is in an economic mess, they say. How different is that? The world usually is. What you could say is that after the best part of two decades of good times, we Australians seem likely to be entering less enjoyable times. Booms, we should remember, tend to be followed by busts. What is causing the downturn? Well, we’re a trading nation, and our trading partners are not so well, and are not buying our stuff quite as enthusiastically as they were a few years ago.

And because we’ve done so well selling them our raw materials our dollar has become unusually expensive, so our manufacturing and service sectors are correspondingly sick — our finished goods and our services are too expensive. Tourists and students find us a high-cost country. And so on. That isn’t exactly a mess. It’s just that we are a relatively small player in the big world, and get buffeted easily by economic winds. Is our situation unusually dire? No. Things economic were tough in the 1940s and 1950s because we couldn’t buy or produce a lot of what our society needed. Then we had about fifteen good years, to 1975, then about ten awkward years of stagflation, then a bit of boom and bust as we floated the dollar and had the recession that we had to have. Then China started its expansionist time, and we may be at the end of this phase of it.

On the face of it, this time doesn’t seem especially important economically. That doesn’t mean that Mr Rudd can point to his good record as an economic manager, partly because Prime Ministers and governments don’t in fact ‘manage’ the economy, and partly because, as I just wrote, we are a trading nation, and have to put up with global winds.

What is the choice on September 7th? Too bad about the local government referendum, but it was never going to be carried, so some of the money there is saved. It’s a choice between the Ins and the Outs. The Ins have been in for two terms and three governments in what have been politically turbulent times. The Ins’ PMs were twice displaced in internal coups, and the dissension with the Ins’ party has been manifest. It is subdued at the moment because its members are all concentrating on staying in there, or winning a seat.

The Outs have been that way for two terms, have had one leadership spill in that time, and have been consistently critical of the Ins, who complain of negativity. The Outs could respond, as I wrote recently, that there has been a lot be negative about: the Ins are much better at talk than at getting things done (and passing legislation is not a necessary or sufficient sign of good government).

The Outs have their problems. Their leader is neither fast on his feet nor a good salesman, and most of their senior members do not shine either in Parliament or on television, while the Ins do have a good salesman. It is easy, then, for electors to worry about the choice, and wonder if this is really the time.

My own views will be evident to anyone who has been reading this website regularly. But my guess about the electorate is that as the weeks go on, it will come to the view, in crucial seats and in crucial numbers, that it’s time to get rid of the Ins, despite (or maybe because of) the herculean efforts of the Ins’ leader to reduce all the issues to just one thing — him or the other one.

After all, those voters will say, if we don’t like what the Outs do, once they’re in power, we can kick them out in three years’ time. We’ve done before, on many occasions.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    The “poverty level” was a discussion topic with a good friend visiting over the last weekend. She is a hard working, experienced, balanced and well educated social worker. The poverty level, she told me, is generally defined by welfare professionals most of whom enjoy careful but comfortable living standards, where some money for discretionary expenses can generally be found. Typical of the young single mothers she works with, is a grandmother who has the stability of a pension, a roof over her head, and three meals a day. Her living expenses are covered week to week by her pension. There is practically no discretionary spending. She is defined as being at the poverty level.

    And now to one of Don’s key points: the “delusion . . . that ‘now’ is the most important time of all”. The six parents of our friend and ourselves lived through the Depression of the 30s. My Dad was an Anglican clergyman, so my parents saw plenty of hardship around them, and certainly still lived frugally throughout my childhood. What we define as a poverty level, where the TV and the mobile phone are seen as necessities (those young single mothers all have them), would seem more than a little curious to our parents back in the 30s. I suspect they’d say with a wry smile that they must have been at the poverty level also. Consider these perceptions within the global context of poverty, to recognise how narrow and self-focussed our judgments can be.

    For a university-supported site, I think “The Conversation” is quite disappointing. It reflects a narrowness from many contributors and feeds what may in many cases be a narrow readership. There is an opinion piece by Nick Cater in “The Australian” today, where he discusses the media and current politics. He defines the Chatter Zone as comprising 13 Australian electorates, where 9 seats are held by the Coalition, and the balance by Labor and the Greens. In these electorates:
    20% vote green

    • marcellous says:

      I’m late to the party here, I know, but I can’t resist commenting in answer to PK’s quotation of Cater that in my experience the people who get most hot under the collar about “the depravities of the Catholic church” (and in particular, the inadequacy of the Catholic church’s response to the depravities of some of its clergy, which is the current concern) are Catholics or former Catholics themselves. They can’t forget their continuing or vestigial high expectations of clergy and respect for their position and hence hurt at abuse of that.

      The so-called “chatter set” (Cater isn’t a chatterer?) might have a reflex attitude about RC-clerical depravity (long a mainstay of protestant anti-catholicism) in the background, but their expectations are lower and they mostly don’t get so worked up about it.

  • Walter Starck says:

    While I agree that the human condition is always in a mess it does seem we do face some unprecedented difficulties. We have accumulated far more government than we can afford to support and our productive sector is increasingly constrained by an ever increasing morass of government imposed fees, taxes, restrictions and delays. Australia is now among the most expensive countries in the world to conduct business. Housing, food and energy prices also make us at or close to the highest costs of living. Our manufacturing sector is the smallest in the developed world and we are dependent on imports for most manufactured goods and an increasing portion of our food.

    The prosperity we have enjoyed has been more a matter of a mild climate, small population and wealth of minerals than of superior management. or exceptional productivity.

    The decline in demand and price for our minerals is having a serious effect on our income and this will be compounded by the accompanying decline in our dollar. In the absence of some miraculous global recovery we we may well be facing the most serious economic difficulties since the Great Depression except that then much of the population was rural and could with difficulty get by outside the money economy. Now we are overwhelmingly urban and depend upon a constant flow of money for everything. If a need develops to support large numbers of urban unemployed in a depressed economy the challenge will indeed be a most serious one.

    Unfortunately, you are probably correct in questioning the importance of this election over any other ones. However, this is not because the difficulties we face are no different bur rather because neither side of politics seems able or willing to even recognise them.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Walter and Peter,

    Thank you for two most thoughtful comments. Yes, Australia is over-governed, but that has been true almost since 1788. Walter, at the end you agree that in historical context the election on September 7th is just another election. I agree with you that we are facing difficulties that many of the young voters won’t have past experience of, but again, you can see that phenomenon at 1975 and other polls. Peter’s point about ‘poverty’ is well found. Poverty is a relative concept, not an absolute one. I haven’t seen the Cater piece, but I’m not surprised in what he found.

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