It’s an exquisitely portentous cliché, the one that is always trotted out at each Australian election: this is the most important election in a generation, or since World War Two, or the advent of television, or the fall of communism, or whatever.
In truth, each election is merely the most important election since the last one. What else could it be, given how short our election cycle is? We have so many elections in Australia and it seems politics now is little more than an endless campaign.
We can frame the 2013 election as a personal battle between leaders, in which case we can say that is three-and-a-half years late: the belated contest with Tony Abbott that Kevin Rudd shied away from in the late summer of 2010, setting off a cascade of events that led to Julia Gillard’s rise, her ill-judged rush to the polls in August 2010 and the hung parliament.
But this election will be about much more than the leaders. They will be central to the campaign, of course. Indeed, with an easily distracted and discomfited national electorate, a fractious media that’s seeing its established ways of reporting and making profits collapsing, and only a laughably minuscule proportion of voters belonging to the parties, increased levels of personalisation seem to be inevitable. After all, it’s the easiest way to understand the choice that we’ll have to make on September 7.
But something bigger than the careers of two ambitious men will be at stake when the people cast their votes. The Australian political system itself is as much a candidate at this election as anybody whose name will be on the ballot paper. The system is under very heavy strain. The 2010 election campaign was a dreadful experience. The Labor government had shocked itself and the community with its defenestration of Rudd. Was Gillard running against the memory of Rudd as well as Abbott? At times the whole thing seemed absurd. Gillard and Abbott voluntarily placed themselves in rhetorical straitjackets all the way to election day.
Faced with superficial lines, tricked up public appearances, advertising that would insult the intelligence of an eight-year old and wild deviations by both sides on what was then a central issue - how to deal with climate change - they responded in kind. They refused to reward either Labor or the Coalition with a lower house majority. In turn, many voters very quickly became appalled at their handiwork. Having created a hung parliament, they almost reflexively despised the very concept of a minority government.
Perhaps reflecting the very human trait of optimism, the 2010 contest has been seen as an outlier, a glitch, an extreme example of political dysfunction that will lead to a sensible recalibration by the leaders, their advisers, the parties, the big pressure groups and the media.
In other words, we’ll all wake up to ourselves and do it right this time. Well, maybe.
The parties’ focus group research turns up a strong desire among many voters for a better politics. Clearly, Rudd has sought to play to this sensibility with his calls for Abbott to desert his “relentlessly negative, personalised approach”. But focus groups produce a plethora of responses and sentiments, including a desire among a substantial proportion of voters to draw a line under the Labor government of 2007-2013, to be done with the whole soap opera, and for the nation to start anew. Armed with this knowledge, Abbott has not dropped his hard negativity at all. He does not feel that he needs to. It has been his engine ever since he took over as leader in December 2009.
This election campaign begins with the public knowing little more about the Coalition’s policy plans than it did three years ago. Many of its key policy planks are built around what it won’t do. It used to oppose the National Broadband Network but now it will accept it, just not in the expansive form Labor intends. It will support the Fair Work system, with some tweaks, but it won’t reintroduce WorkChoices. Having for months derided Labor’s schools spending plan as a con, it decided late last week that it would not overturn Labor’s funding agreements with the states.
The entire thrust of the Coalition’s approach is that it is the safe pair of hands because that’s how a majority of voters came to see the Howard government. It is a message less of hope than of comfort, not so much a harnessing of the imagination than a retreat to a more stable time.
This is a powerful message in a system that has so few Australians directly engaged in political activity. The national electorate appears to be highly suggestible. For much of the time that Gillard faced off against Abbott, opinion polls regularly showed that voters would prefer to have Rudd opposing Malcolm Turnbull.
But in 2008-09, that’s what they had until they turned first on Turnbull over his misjudgement in the Utegate affair and then, in the first half of 2010, against Rudd over his decision to defer an emissions trading scheme. Having helped to dispatch both leaders, voters switched to wanting them back.
Another example: A majority of voters favoured action on climate change for a considerable period, but once the hard work of fashioning a policy in the parliament got difficult, support fell away. As we know, the carbon price was the policy arsenic that ultimately killed Gillard’s standing with voters.
How can this happen? In a relatively short period, a range of supporting mechanisms within our system have started to dissolve. Party membership is, increasingly, an unappealing prospect. The mass media no longer sees the explanation of policies and ideas as a central part of its charter. As it finds itself having to chase eyeballs in order to keep its financial head above water, it becomes more sensational, more attracted to portraying conflict and dealing with what public figures say rather than what they believe or do. The parties go along with this new model by ramping up the hyperbole.
At the same time, what we now call “stakeholders” are finding it easier to assert greater direct influence on political outcomes and the public mind. The ACTU’s Your Rights At Work campaign against WorkChoices in 2006-07 was one example. The big mining companies’ mid-2010 attack on Labor’s resource rent tax was another. That advertising campaign was so effective that it helped to end Rudd’s first prime ministership and cruelled any chance Gillard had of fashioning an effective policy. Both of these campaigns attracted considerable public sympathy, if not outright support.
This is politics in contemporary Australia – a system that values announcements and pronouncements, denunciation and stark oppositionism, eschewing almost entirely sensible discussion and consideration of ideas on their merits.
It is in this environment that the 2013 election, definitely the most important election until the next one, is being contested.