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Barry Jones: the 2013 election and the death of rationality

As somebody with a lifelong, but not very happy, involvement in politics, I must declare an interest, as a life member of the ALP. Nevertheless, I think I can be objective in describing the decay of our…

Former ALP politician Barry Jones says political discourse during the federal election is on ‘to be even worse’ than in previous years. AAP/Alan Porritt

As somebody with a lifelong, but not very happy, involvement in politics, I must declare an interest, as a life member of the ALP. Nevertheless, I think I can be objective in describing the decay of our political system. I was one of many who thought that the 2010 election would be the worst in our modern history for the debased quality of political discourse, but all indications are that the 2013 election is on track to be even worse.

Lindsay Tanner contends that 1993, when he was elected to the House of Representatives, was the high point of rationality in Australian politics but by 2010, when he left, it had sunk to an abyss of populism, despite our rising participation rates in education.

Party spin-doctors, on both sides of politics, work on the assumption that by this stage in the election cycle about 80% of voters have already decided how they will vote, and that short of some major event (cabinet ministers charged with felony, perhaps) nothing that is said or done in the campaign will change that. The 20% who are uncommitted, profiling suggests, are neither interested nor involved in the issues, do not much care about the outcome, are largely voting because they are obliged to do it, and will make up their minds on the day – perhaps as they stand in line waiting to receive their ballots.

Reaching these voters is not by raising serious issues, setting out a vision or challenge, by emphasising fear (“you don’t realise how bad things are…you are at risk…”) or by entertaining them, appealing to quick jokey references, as with Twitter, or offering bribes, the appeal to greed. Some elements in the media play up to this approach with trivialising gimmicks, for example interviewing a cat for his/her political opinions on Channel 9.

Geoff Kitney wrote an important article for the Australian Financial Review - Vote for Abbott, and vote against politics - describing Abbott as the anti-politics politician, who puts a heavy emphasis on appealing to those (many?) reluctant voters who say: “I can’t stand politics, and don’t even pretend to understand it”. This does not just discourage debate on complex issues, it kills it. There may be even a bonus for non-involvement, to be told: “don’t feel badly about knowing so little – celebrate it”.

Former finance minister Lindsay Tanner says political discourse had worsened badly by the time he left parliament. AAP/Alan Porritt

Despite Australia’s high formal levels of literacy, politicians are increasingly dedicated to delivering three word slogans (“stop the boats!”) – now degenerating even more to the use of one word, repeated three times (“Cut! Cut! Cut!” or “Lie! Lie! Lie!”).

There is an exaggerated emphasis on “gotcha!” moments – Tony Abbott and his suppository, Kevin Rudd and the make-up lady, moronic candidates in swinging seats. In the last months of Julia Gillard’s period as prime minister, in two separate incidents, sandwiches (vegemite and salami as it happens) were thrown at her at schools, for reasons which have never been clarified. The incidents became big news stories, so much so that they crowded out major announcements about the Gonski reforms that she was planning to make.

Often politicians acquiesce in the trivialising, for example Kevin Rudd and his availability for selfies, Tony Abbott gyrating at a boot-camp, and his “dad moments”. We should have a minute’s silence to reflect on the contribution of Julie Bishop, Warren Truss and Clive Palmer to the campaign.

The Murdoch factor will have an increasingly strong influence on political outcomes in Australia. About 65% of Australian newspaper readers already make a democratic choice to buy News Corp journals, and the figure approaches 100% in Brisbane, Adelaide and Hobart where readers have the choice of Murdoch or Murdoch, unless they can find the Financial Review. It is a dangerous area to speculate about.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard and former education minister Peter Garrett announce the Gonski education funding reforms in 2012. AAP/Alan Porritt

The Murdoch papers are no longer reporting the news, but shaping it. They no longer claim objectivity but have become players, powerful advocates on policy issues: hostile to the science of climate change, harsh on refugees, indifferent to the environment, protective of the mining industry, trashing the record of the 43rd parliament, and promoting a dichotomy of uncritical praise and contemptuous loathing. Does it affect outcomes? I am sure that it does, and obviously advertisers think so.

There should be appropriate recognition of the major achievement of the 43rd Australian House of Representatives, the much traduced “hung parliament”, which lasted its full term, and passed 580 bills, 87% of them with Opposition support, including the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the Gonski reforms. Julia Gillard deserves credit for maintaining support from independents and never facing a censure motion.

I have been involved in politics for a long time – far too long – but I have never observed such levels of loathing, personal hatred for political figures. Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Tony Windsor have been subject to unprecedentedly vindictive attacks, as has Tony Abbott to a degree and John Howard in his time. It is one of the ugliest factors in our public life.

Despite the exponential increases in public education and access to information in the past century, the quality of political debate appears to have become increasingly unsophisticated, appealing to the lowest common denominator of understanding. Does anyone’s vote change after seeing a Prime Minister or Opposition Leader in a supermarket or factory? I am open to persuasion but I doubt it.

The environment has essentially fallen off the political agenda. It was a big issue in 1983 (on the Tasmanian dams controversy) and in 2007 when Kevin Rudd referred to climate change as the “greatest moral, economic and social challenge of our time”. Morgan polls indicated that in 2008 35% of Australians nominated the environment as a major issue: by 2013 this has fallen to 7%.

Climate change is referred to during the election in a few passing sentences, essentially as if the carbon pricing or emissions trading scheme (ETS) measures were all about promoting clean air/clean energy, with no references to the role of “greenhouse gases” in trapping and retaining heat, and their impact on climate change and extreme weather events. There is no attempt to grapple with the issue and to explain the long term implications of a two or three degree increase in global temperatures. One side is feeble, the other mendacious. There is barely any reference to planning for a post-carbon economy, other than vague references to “new jobs”.

There will be no serious debate about taxation in this campaign. Australia must have more revenue, to maintain appropriate levels of education, health, infrastructure and social security for a growing, ageing population, especially measures which will keep older Australians fit, active, independent and out of institutions. The recommendations of the 2010 Henry Review should be revisited and applied, rejecting the populist argument that only cutting taxation (and expenditure) will improve quality of life. Taxation is the price we pay for civilisation.

Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey will, if elected, inherit an economy in excellent shape by global standards. AAP/Penny BRadfield

The political debate about the state of the Australian economy is an affront to rationality.

Australia has had 21 unbroken years of economic growth, has been praised by the IMF and Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz as having had the best policy response to the Global Financial Crisis, with lower unemployment than most OECD countries, with low interest rates, a AAA credit rating from all three major agencies, enjoyed by very few national economies, a low level of international debt, high levels of foreign investment, ranking next to Norway on the Human Development Index (HDI), and one of the lowest taxation rates in the OECD, ahead of the US, but well behind the UK, Germany, France, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Canada, New Zealand, and a little behind Japan. Is this good news or bad news? It looks like good news to me.

Of course, I recognise that there has been a continuity of economic policy going back through Gillard, Rudd (the first time), Howard, Keating and Hawke.

Despite Australia’s very high ranking internationally, the level of political discourse on economics is so debased that polling indicates very high levels of anxiety about the economy. Citizens can hardly believe the international comparisons – the reasons being that they are only exposed, day by day, to one economy and objective evidence from far away is not compelling psychologically.

I have watched, with some pain, election telecasts being given by the shadow treasurer, Joe Hockey, somebody who I have always had some regard for, balanced, recognisably human, and not a fanatic, with touches of self-mockery.

He could have taken a more subtle, nuanced approach in his pitch, saying, perhaps, “while it is true that Australia has had some outstanding successes, such as the AAA rating and 21 unbroken years of growth, nevertheless there are some worrying indications that…”, and go on from there.

Instead, he plays the catastrophist card, that the past six years had left the Australian economy as a smoking ruin, and the rest of the world is looking to see when Australia will turn the lights back on. Catastrophic? Disaster? Tsunami? The clear suggestion is that practically every nation, with the possible exception of Somalia, is performing better economically than Australia.

Does Joe Hockey really believe what he is saying? I hope not. He certainly would not want to be questioned, or sign an affidavit, about it. But I suspect he might say: “the rules of the game have changed. In politics, one can say anything – whatever it takes to win”. My side of politics is not spotless in this area either: Graham Richardson’s book Whatever It Takes set the standard.


This article is taken from the Samuel Alexander Lecture delivered at Wesley College on August 27, 2013.