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Michelle Grattan in conversation: Australian voters disengaged and disillusioned

Michelle Grattan In Conversation with Politics + Society Editor Amanda Dunn. Todd Shilton/The Conversation, CC BY-SA

More than 500 people packed a free public event in Melbourne last night to hear The Conversation’s Political Correspondent Michelle Grattan discuss the federal election and take questions from the floor.

Despite a full house at the Deakin Edge in Melbourne’s Federation square, a major talking point was disengagement and disillusionment with Australian politics.

The event was co-hosted by Deakin University to launch The Conversation’s Ideas for Australia: 10 Big Issues for Election 2016 and Beyond, published by Future Leaders. Grattan discussed the election with The Conversation’s Politics + Society editor Amanda Dunn before taking questions from the audience.

Dunn started by asking how this election was different from others. “People aren’t engaged with this contest,” said Grattan. “People have lost faith and trust” and, as such, are “opting out of the election”.

Another discussion point was leadership, with Dunn asking whether Malcolm Turnbull was different as Prime Minister from the man Grattan had come to know.

“Expectations were inflated,” said Grattan. But a radical change of policy or style was never on the cards, so a reality check was inevitable.

“I think of Malcolm as a political venture capitalist,” Grattan said. “He tries to see if a policy will fly and, if it doesn’t work, moves on”.

One audience member asked how “liars can possibly survive as politicians”. “Surely, there must be some charter of honesty?”

“If that’s the case,” Grattan responded, “it must be written in secret ink.”

There’s a sort of line that’s been crossed here because it’s always been accepted that not every promise will be kept and we’ve always thought that in the past. There was a level of tolerance of back-flips and so forth. But somehow it’s crossed a line and now people have just said ‘this is unacceptable behaviour’.

It’s a bit like politician’s general behaviour. I’m always quite amazed that everyone hates the way politicians behave in Question Time. The politicians all know this. And yet they somehow do not respond to the signals that are sent to them. They don’t behave any better. It seems almost that they can’t behave any better. It’s quite extraordinary that they do not accept the messages that are coming from the electorate that this behaviour is just turning absolutely everyone off.

But at some stage that that sort of recognition will — must, surely penetrate.

Another audience member questioned Grattan on whether voters had an appetite for visionary leadership and whether any of the major parties were capable of delivering it.

“I think the electorate would like visionary leadership but I don’t know that it expects it,” Grattan said. But there were powerful forces that made such leadership hard to deliver.

We all live in a very short-term time frame, whether it’s the politicians, whether it’s the media. We’ve all looked to the moment. It’s hard for leaders to say ‘Well, we need to be thinking in longer time frames’.

I think that the lack of trust is a problem. I think that the fact that the media in particular — and the community and interest groups in general — are always tending to highlight the negatives of things is, again, another difficulty for getting forward thinking and visionary leadership. We’re always seeing the problems, we’re not seeing the opportunities.

Other issues discussed included refugee policy, climate, minor parties and the powerful appeal of Nick Xenophon, whom Grattan said had a knack for relating to the concerns of voters.

On climate policy, Grattan suggested there was potential for a more collaborative approach.

It’s possible if the Turnbull government were reelected and Malcolm Turnbull felt free enough to follow his own inclinations that you could move to a fairly bipartisan policy. That’s possible. It would depend on both what he did and whether Labor wanted to push harder on the edges. But there could be more consensus with a reelected Turnbull government.

Grattan was also optimistic about the potential to find a solution for people currently in offshore detention.

I do think that whichever party wins, there will be an effort in the next term to try and find some solution to those people there. Because, behind the scenes, I think that there’s recognition in the Government and there’s pressure in the Opposition to accept that something needs to be done, that you can’t just have people detained indefinitely for a decade.

After and hour and a half of discussion there were still people wanting to ask questions but, unfortunately, time ran out. For all the talk of disengagement, people are still willing to engage when presented with the opportunity.

Tweets from the night