What sort of election campaign can we look forward to?

The trouble with a website is that before long you are writing to a length, one that seems right for the site and the readership. And that means that you can’t say everything that you want to say. That’s not unusual for any writer. I started writing for the public in 1967 as the Monday morning leader-writer for The Canberra Times, and the editor and I would agree on the right length for the piece in or discussion late on Friday. When I moved to a weekly column in that paper and later in The National Times there was, again, an agreed length. You write to it, or the sub-editor cuts you to fit the space that has been allocated to you. This website seemed from beginning to want about 800 words and, a creature of habit, I have learned how to write to that length.

In yesterday’s essay about the coming year in politics I didn’t get a chance to talk about the appeals that would be made to us by the parties, but I can repair that omission at once! Of course, each side will go on blackening the other and its leader. I find that stuff incredibly boring. I have worked for Ministers on both sides of politics, and didn’t find much difference. Any examination of the history of Australian politics over the last hundred years will find that long-lasting policies have been put in place by each side, and adapted later by the other when it returned to power. There is a lot of common ground in our system, but you don’t notice it at election times.

An example is the credit that is given by Labor supporters to the initiatives of the Whitlam Government in all sorts of areas, like Aboriginal affairs, the arts and the environment. Look hard, and you will find that the real initiatives took place during the Holt and Gorton periods. What Whitlam did was to give them a strong push. When Fraser took over he maintained those initiatives. He promised to fix the economy and to control profligate spending. Actually, the rest of the world was also having trouble with its economies, because of the OPEC oil price increases, and Fraser was no more successful than Whitlam in grappling with it. For that reason alone, government spending did not decrease.

The Howard government was supposed to reduce public spending. It didn’t, mostly because it had enough income, through prosperity, both to pay off debt and to appeal to new sets of voters with particular needs. The Rudd and Gillard governments not only followed Howard’s style in power, but they have moved even further into trying to nabble one group of disaffected voters after another by designing schemes that bring them into the welfare net. It’s one of the new realities of our politics, and there is little doubt that an Abbott government would continue to do it.

Once upon a time it was easy enough to see our politics as about broad questions of ideology and economics. Free trade versus protection was the first great divide, then came the politics of class, prompted by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, followed by how to deal with the economic depression of the 1930s. The Second World War still had its politics — about lesser or greater degrees of regulation, then came the cold war and the menace of communism, followed by Vietnam. Here we are in 2013, a wealthy, well-educated, well-travelled, creative society of 23 million people, but the key question seems to be ‘entitlements’, and the only ideological issue of any consequence is ‘climate change’! There are still ‘have-nots’, and they clamour to be ‘haves’ — but many of the haves want to have more. It is as though Australia really does have a cut-and-come-again magic pudding. And the parties cater to this delusion.

So they go on responding to short-term demands by others to be treated ‘fairly’, and miss the long-term infrastructural issues that require planning, commitment and real money. Our big cities don’t work. We just don’t deal with the recurrence of floods, droughts and fires. We can’t make sense of the mass migration of people around the world, and act as though Australia is somehow in peril from it. Our education and health systems don’t work well. We criminalise ‘drugs’, and then moan about gangs, guns and shootings. We acknowledge that many indigenous people live in what seems to us abominable conditions, but don’t seem to have any idea of what to do about it.

OK, I sound like a Grumpy Old Man. But I do long for a political leader who tells us how it really is, and has some suggestions for what we might all do about it. I don’t see one on any horizon. We take too much for granted of what Australia offers us. With voters like us, why would we expect the political parties to be inspirational?

The answer to the question I posed in the heading above, then, is: more of the same. Oh, and for those who wonder: this post consists of 847 words.


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