What sort of election campaign are we having?

I was a young (in fact the youngest) member of the political science department when I was invited to join a senior colleague in commenting on the ABC’s 1966 election night extravaganza; James Dibble was the anchorman. I had not appeared on television before, and it was all new and somewhat forbidding. Once it started, though, I forgot about the cameras. I did know a lot about elections and vote counting, where seats were, who the candidates were, and so on. There were a couple of politicians on our panel, but I can no longer remember clearly who they were. Perhaps the late Gordon Bryant (Labor) was one. What interested me was their response to the counting during the evening. They relied on telephone calls and messages from party stalwarts in particular electorates. They knew where the parcels of votes had come from, and what the distribution in that parcel meant for the final result. They were usually right, too.

That was the beginning of my television career, which lasted about fifteen years and consisted mostly of election nights, a regular spot for a time with Steve Liebmann’s 11 AM program on Channel 7 in the 1970s, and appearances on TDT, Four Corners, Monday Conference and other shows, always as a political talking-head. By the early 1980s I was too involved in other things to devote the right amount of time to the media, and bowed out. But election campaigns continue to fascinate me, and this one is a doozy.

I wrote a piece three years ago on character and style in politics, though my focus then was on Kevin Rudd. I thought Tony Abbott did not have style, but that he might have character. I now think he has that attribute, and he has shown it. A bit more style would have helped. But what about our two current champions?  I’ve watched  Bill Shorten now for several years, and my judgment is that he has some style, though not a lot of it. I’m not sure that I’ve seen much sign of character. Malcolm Turnbull? He has lots of style, but again, I’m not at all sure about character.

What do I mean about character? I long for one of them to say something like ‘This is what I think our country needs at this time, and that is what I’ll do if we are returned. Yes, I know some of you don’t like it, and I accept that. This is why it has to be done — and I’ll do it.’ Something like that — a bid that is unlikely to please everyone, and could get people offside, but which a leader feels just has to be said whatever the cost. That is what I think the real job of leaders is. What I hear, and I guess I will go on hearing it for the next several weeks, is more inducements to attract the support of this interest group, that electorate or another single-issue constituency. More promises, but always about gifts — today, swimming lessons for every kid. I can put up with some of that — Harold Holt and Arthur Calwell were doing it in 1966 — but I want someone to be talking toughly to us, reminding us that our country is not a kind of holiday resort, but a work in progress. I’m probably old-fashioned.

I’ve seen a few signs and posters reminding us that the right to vote in a democratic and free election is an immense privilege, and, again, I want our leaders to tell us that most people on earth don’t have that privilege, or have only a faint shadow of it, and that election time is not just another football match, but an important moment in our nation’s history. Above all,  it is (or ought to be) a time of judgment, hope and foresight, for all of us.

It may be just the accident of what I happened to hear and see on television, but the Prime Minister seemed to be doing little more than smiling, waving and pressing flesh, wherever he was. Mr Shorten said something like this — that he was the son of teachers and was the father of teachers, and that he would not rest until every child in Australia had the best education possible — my summary, but I think that was the gist of what I heard on radio. I thought to myself that I too was the son of teachers and the father of teachers, but I knew very well that throwing money at education did not and would not provide the outcome that Mr Shorten was talking about. I wrote an essay about this issue in recognition of the work that Phillip Hughes did in Australian education, and I’ll present it here in due course. The essence of it was simple: if you want every child to have the best education possible, you have to start with the child, not with the school, university or TAFE institute. And that instantly lifts the costs of it into astronomical heights. Education institutions, no matter how good they are, have to provide a ‘one size fits all’  educational garment, and  some young people miss out. They always have done, and they do today.

I need to be fair. I only heard a tiny sentence of what Mr Shorten will have said in his address, in Brisbane (I think). He may have gone much further. But what I heard was rhetoric — quite good rhetoric, but rhetoric just the same. I asked myself where the money was going to come from, and remembered that that was just the question always asked of Dr Evatt back in the 1950s, when he had grand plans for Australia. Nonetheless, given our enormous public debt, talking about how much one wants to spend on education or anything else has to come with an explanation of how one is going to pay for it. And isn’t reducing the debt just as important, if not more important, than other public expenditure policies, no matter how worthy they are?

The campaign has only started, and there will be new incidents and events along the way. But after a week of it, I felt that the real issues had hardly been mentioned. What are they? For me, attention to the size of the public debt, reducing the involvement of government in family and daily life, and a certain modesty in talking about ourselves and what we can do, they would be starters.

I noticed that Mr Di Natale, the leader of the Greens, said he was disappointed that neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition had talked about ‘climate change’ in their addresses in the first public debate. I thought, on the contrary, that Mr Shorten and Mr Turnbull had showed great good sense in avoiding that issue. I should probably say something about the Greens and their policies, and will leave that to another occasion.


Join the discussion 9 Comments

  • BB says:

    Thanks Don I would like to see a statesman someone who had a definite idea of what the nation needs and put it forward as policy without fear or favour. I would like to see someone that can speak well with confidence to sway the nation I don’t see that anymore. Margaret Thatcher was as I have read a terrible speaker then she had training from Sir John Gould Gielgud a sensible thing to do. Public discussion is at a very low ebb we are headed down the track politically that no one will say anything it might offend someone!

    For me John Howard was one of the best prime ministers I have known but I was greatly disappointed at the end of his time. He was facing defeat over Work Choices but instead of sticking with it and toughing it out. He caved in to lots of things related to green thinking. It seems someone thought this would bring the electorate around. Why is it there is little effort put in to explaining why a government wants something? Instead we get lollies like children.

    I was a labor supporter I voted for Howard because he and his party opposed the madness of AGW. Julia Gillard and the Royal commission showed to me that I was deluded all along. I now see labor as the political arm of the unions and those unions to be corrupt. These are organisations that have little interest in their workers and are in cooperation with big business to extract money from the community. These same unions are the source of a very large percentage of labor parliamentarians. In Menzies time this was also a factor which he used very effectively to keep labor out. It is an election campaign this is what should be being said. I doubt it will rate a mention why not? Is it that the coalition is just as corrupt?

    I see a future where labor and the Greens will form a coalition and take government. One side of this will be run by organisations that use the same techniques as organised crime. The other side simply wants all to die. They are against civilisation and it should be noted that anything that improves the lot of mankind they are against.

  • Alan Gould says:

    On Education,
    Don I recall a class whilst doing my Dip Ed at your old manor, CCAE as it was called in 1974, where our tutor, a most likeable man called David(?) O’Sullivan, asked each of us what we intended to teach. English said some, Maths said others, History said others, and so on around the dozen of us. “Well, I am very disappointed in you,” he replied eventually, “I had hoped you would tell me you wanted to teach children.”
    It was a strong, and very good point, though just a little unfair. Any teacher who has reflected on their vocation will recognise that, in having expertise in a certain subject, they also have views on how they would like the intellect of that child to form by exposure to the subject, which is to say, how it might modify and moderate character.
    One problem for Education is the delayed-action time fuse. I could not have understood the benefit of learning Latin as I churned through the declensions and conjugations for 5 years at a boarding school. That understanding was itself, also slow-release. By my late 20’s I was noting its usefulness in picking up romance languages like Italian or Spanish as well as the grounding it gave me in the grammar and a portion of the vocabulary of my own. It was only in my 50’s I recognised how, like Maths, it gave a basis for the orderly organising of material in the mind. Imagine Bill Shorten on this…”My government will re-introduce Latin as a compulsory subject for the first five years in High School so that students can have a lucid model for mental organisation and know it in five decades time.”
    The attribute you identify as ‘character’ above, and taken up by BB, is what I would call Good Nerve. I come at this topic as a novelist, of course, but my own sense of character is “that which makes each distinct, and which at death becomes irrecoverable. Naturally I welcome the idea of aspirant political leaders having ‘good nerve’, and defend Tony Abbott against his detractors for his.

  • Neville says:

    When I was young I did sometimes vote for the Labor party, but soon decided that their politically correct extremism was not for me. So obviously I could never vote for Labor or the Greens at this election.
    I will probably vote for the Coalition in my electorate unless a good conservative alternative is available, but my vote will return via preferences to the Coalition. Labor/ Greens will come second last and last on my ballot paper. In the senate I will vote below the line and choose 12 parties or groupings that have a conservative or liberal leaning. Once again the Coalition will be high on my list.
    I don’t have much time for Turnbull, but he shines like a beacon when compared to the Shorten or Di Natale fantasists.

    Their fantasy about “fighting climate change” is a joke and a lie, just have a look at the May 2016 EIA co2 projections to 2040. This is the Obama govt’s own forecast for the next 25 years and shows that energy related co2 emissions will rise by 34% over that period. ( page 3) Most of the increase will come from non OECD countries. Note most of the Renewable energy is hydro power.

    Key findings in the IEO2016 Reference case (continued)

    Among the fossil fuels, natural gas grows the fastest. Coal use plateaus in the mid-term as China shifts from energy-intensive industries to services and worldwide policies to limit coal use intensify. By 2030, natural gas surpasses coal as the world’s second largest energy source.

    In 2012, coal provided 40% of the world’s total net electricity generation. By 2040, coal, natural gas, and renewable energy sources provide roughly equal shares (28-29%) of world generation.

    With current policies and regulations, worldwide energy-related carbon dioxide emissions rise from about 32 billion metric tons in 2012 to 36 billion metric tons in 2020 and then to 43 billion metric tons in 2040, a 34% increase.


    • BB says:

      Neville in the USA natural gas is about to become used more than oil. It is a result of the new technology so-called fracking. Fracking has been practised for a very long time 60 years or more so why the controversy? What has changed is efficiency you can now take a drill head and pretty much direct it in any direction you like. Before if you had a gas field you would have to establish a pattern of drill holes across the entire field. With this new technology you drill a small group of holes and then you can tap gas up to 4 km away from the base. This technology means cheaper energy less disturbance of the surface and half the amount of CO2 you get from oil. It is deep enough to be under the water table. When we had to drill a large number of holes across the field to extract what we wanted we would then frack at the bottom. This was okay, it was only when the miners became more efficient that the ugly head of fracking was introduced. The environmental movement opposes anything that advances the welfare of mankind. I think I have a fairly good understanding of why that is but for me they can go and get fracked.

  • bryan roberts says:

    Gough Whitlam was the Joan Sutherland of politics. With all its flaws and failings, Labor under Whitlam had a vision of a better Australia.
    Howard was lucky, not able. No matter how badly he managed the resources boom, but for the stupidity of WorkChoices, he would have saved us billions from the migrant flood, which is still a bleeding sore.
    Turnbull sees Australia as a gymnasium in which we all become more ‘agile’, Shorten and Plibersek see it as a welfare state for the disappointed and dispossessed.
    I enjoyed living in Australia, but I will not be sorry to leave it.

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks. Most interesting. Yes, Tony Abbott’s hesitant delivery hampered his excellent character. Nevertheless, he did precisely what you call for. He is a leader. He has taken a great blow, has seen his vision smashed, yet, just as Kipling proposed, he has begun again to build it up. Last week he was photographed alone on the streets of his electorate handing out election materials. On the weekend a fellow driving along saw a car that had broken down, causing a bottleneck. Amid the heedless stream of traffic, two men alone had stopped to help the driver push the vehicle out of the way into a side street. One of these men was Tony Abbott, who had driven past, circled back, parked behind the vehicle to provide a safety margin and hopped out anonymously to give a helping hand. This guy is a hero and a hell of a lot of Australians know it. Andrew Bolt has a piece today about how Shorten’s stance on boat turn-backs is being undermined by several of his colleagues who want a ‘softer’ approach. Bolt points to, and quotes from, another individual who over the years took a similar ‘softer’ stance – none other than the present PM. Support and vote for character wherever you may find it. Remember: ‘If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run, yours is the earth and all that’s in it, and, which is more, you’ll be a man my son.’

  • John says:

    I enjoy your reading your most erudite blog but given the content, I doubt that you will receive an invitation to appear on the ABC election night panel in 2016. I’m sorry if this has come as a shock.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    Thanks, John! Alas, I am persona not very grata at the ABC. Pity, since I generally approve of what it does outside the areas of news and current affairs.

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