Virtue and vexation: the policy vacuum in the 2013 election

Now that it is all said and done, what did we learn about Australian politics in the 2013 federal election campaign? AAP/Alan Porritt

I have been around for a long time and involved in some terrible campaigns, but the policy vacuum in 2013 was the worst I can recall. There was no serious debate on issues, whether simple or complex, and an obsessive emphasis on personalities, stunts and trivia.

The media coverage was demoralising, relentlessly trivialised, with newspapers not merely reporting and analysing but making the running in advocacy. I thought that News Corp might nominate its own candidates (perhaps the “Murdoch United Party”?), but it had no need for that.

September 7 produced some extraordinary results - including the success of the Palmer United Party; the low turnout of voters (only an estimated 11.4 million out of 14.7 million entitled to vote); unusually high informal voting; and the astonishing success of microparties in the Senate, where unknowns, with undetectable policies, have won in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia. Cathy McGowan’s likely victory in Indi has given a great deal of pleasure, even inside the Liberal Party.

There were some bizarre inconsistencies in the polling. The ALP secured its highest state percentage of primary votes (36.1%) in South Australia, but only elected a single senator. New South Wales, despite its appalling state election result (25.6%) in March 2011, the Obeid-Macdonald revelations at ICAC and frenzied media predictions of fundamental shifts in voting in western Sydney, came up with an aggregate percentage (34.9%), only a fraction behind Victoria. For comparison, the NSW aggregate vote for the ALP in the House of Representatives was 40% in 1966, 39.6% in 1977 and 38% in 2010.

Tony Abbott has good reason to be satisfied with the result as he pursues his mission to take the politics (that is, the serious debate about priorities, values, ideas, future directions and relationships with the world) out of politics and pursues the mantra:

Happy is the country which is more interested in sport than in politics because it shows there is a fundamental unity.

Really? Tell them that at Essendon. It sounds like a modern version of “bread and circuses”.

So, bring on the clowns. There will be some in the Senate anyway.

Toxic political culture

We can never forgive those we have injured.

Since election day, Kevin Rudd has come under sustained attack from former colleagues who removed him as prime minister in the coup of June 2010. This confirms the principle that we can never forgive those we have injured. But the coup caused ongoing collateral damage. Rudd was injured, grievously, but so was Julia Gillard, the ALP and the parliament.

The coup was a central factor in the decay of civilised discourse on policy issues, undermining of trust in people, the unleashing of non-stop attacks in media outlets and allowing preoccupation with personalities, displacing rational, serious debate about policy. The process is cruel, distasteful and pointless, and involves the politics of revenge, payback and vendetta.

The same unforgiving approach applies to asylum seekers and, to a degree, Aborigines. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison were very successful in encouraging Australian voters to see themselves as the victims of invasion, overrun by hordes of “illegals” as they persistently - and incorrectly - described them.

Asylum seekers and refugees

At first, I thought that the PNG solution might be diabolically clever, but then it just seemed diabolical.

During the 2013 election and throughout the 43rd parliament, neither side of politics was prepared to engage in a high level debate, examining history, geography, actual numbers, the nature of regional, ethnic and religious conflicts, and looking for global solutions, sharing the load and working for the long term. Instead, we had a Dutch auction in which both sides were competing to show how tough they could be.

Evidence was missing from the asylum seeker debate during the election. AAP/Made Mahardika

The ABC’s Vote Compass tool, which attracted nearly 1.4 million responses - and was then adjusted to ensure that the sample was representative of Census returns - indicated that 48% of Labor supporters disagreed with ALP policy that asylum seekers arriving by boat should be processed in Papua New Guinea and prohibited from settling in Australia.

Refugee issues can be handled humanely and proportionately only when there is bipartisan agreement – as happened with Fraser and Whitlam over Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, and Hawke and Peacock with Chinese refugees. But bipartisan support for harsh treatment represents a race to the bottom.

Australia had a long history of discrimination in immigration - dominated by the White Australia Policy - until the 1970s. At the Évian Conference in 1938, Australia took a very tough line against the boat people of the time – Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany. The language used then was almost identical with abusive terms used in 2013 – “they should get back in the queue”, “queue jumpers”, with particular hatred directed towards the people smugglers of the time.

In a rational debate, there might have been some dispassionate examination of evidence to get some sense of proportion. In terms of the numbers of refugees listed by country of destination, Australia ranks 47th, just ahead of Belgium, but well behind Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, the UK, France, Italy, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland. In Europe, none of the mainstream parties complain of being swamped, although they do feel some strain and the problem does stimulate the rise of racist parties. In the Australian election, Clive Palmer and the Greens were the least hostile to refugees.

But evidence did not feature in the election campaign – it was swamped by opinion, however misinformed.

Labor’s future

The warning from some senior ALP figures - “let’s stop talking about ourselves” - is also coded language for saying: “don’t even think about reforming the party structure so that it has some degree of community engagement and the application of democratic practice”.

Is the ALP oligarchic rather than democratic? Is it a wholly-owned subsidiary of the trade union movement? If the answer to both questions is “yes”, it condemns the party to dependence on a contracting base. To borrow the language of philosophers, the close relationship of the trade unions and the ALP is a necessary condition, but not sufficient. Labor needs six million votes to win a federal election: trade unionists (1.8 million) and their families are not enough.

If successful in the leadership ballot, is Bill Shorten the right man to take Labor forward? AAP/Lukas Coch

For nearly 60 years trade unionists have been a contracting proportion of the labour force: the high point was in 1954. Trade unionists now comprise 18% of workers – and the figure continues to fall. Factions within the party are controlled not by the workers themselves (a significant number of unionists don’t vote Labor anyway, and the number of union members who actually join ALP branches is embarrassingly small) but by trade union officials – people who often become beneficiaries of Labor’s patronage system, receiving endorsements for safe seats.

Senator Stephen Conroy’s attack on the introduction of democratic practice in electing a party leader as a “farce” is entirely understandable. Converting the ALP from an oligarchy to a democracy would damage - if not destroy - the power of the factions. If large numbers of people vote in a ballot, the capacity of a factional powerbroker to determine a preselection outcome by bringing in two or three busloads of puzzled people from an ethnic sporting club or some other special interest group is threatened.

The only direct election in which all ALP branch members have been entitled to vote so far has been for the office of national president (and the senior and junior vice presidents), a system introduced in 2003.

Curiously, although it is taken as axiomatic that the Right faction dominates National Conference and the caucus in Canberra and most, if not all states, the Right has consistently polled very badly – they have never come first in a national president contest, confirming that it has little support among branch members, even in NSW.

Oddly, this has never been picked up, to my knowledge, by the political commentariat.

The ALP is fortunate to have two strong candidates for the leadership, with complementary skills, capable of mutual trust and able to work with each other. Both are committed to ending the toxic factional and sub-factional activities which have damaged the radical cause and prevented serious examination of policy.

Climate change

It is already clear that the process of global warming, to which human activity plays an important (but not the only) role, may well be irreversible. 2013 is on track to be the hottest year since systematic global records have been kept.

In 2007, 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 8%. After the carbon pricing legislation was carried, Labor failed to keep explaining the significance of environmental issues, especially global warming.

Tony Abbott’s relentless negativity on the issue (this “toxic” tax), dismissing the science as “crap”, strongly supported by the Murdoch papers and NSW shock jocks, went essentially unquestioned, and became a default position.

Climate change was essentially absent from being an issue in the 2013 election. Street Protest TV

During the campaign, climate change was dismissed in a few passing sentences - for example by Rudd on the ABC’s Q&A, essentially as if carbon pricing or the emissions trading scheme measures were all about promoting clean air and clean energy. There were no references to the role of “greenhouse gases” in trapping and retaining heat, and their impact on climate change and extreme weather events.

Scientific method, rational analysis and the evaluation of evidence has been a central factor in defining western society and culture since the 18th century, and these skills can be or should be applied to a variety of disciplines – politics, law, economics, social sciences, health. Scientists have come under unprecedented and damaging attack arising from the climate change controversy.

It is essential to distinguish between scientific scepticism (a central element in testing evidence, for example Karl Popper’s falsifiability test) and cynicism (dismissing evidence, however compelling, to promote confusion, inaction or vested interest).

The outgoing government made no attempt to grapple with the science involved in the issue and to explain the long-term implications of a two or three degree increase in global temperatures. As one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas producers per capita, we need to lead by example internationally by changing our patterns of consumption. Planning for an economy which is less dependent on fossil fuels could create many new jobs and expand research capacity.

There was always an internal contradiction about why carbon pricing was imposed. The message was that it was intended to reduce consumption and move away from fossil fuels. Providing a compensation package seemed to repudiate the key message: “change consumption patterns”. Tony Abbott’s promise to end carbon pricing while retaining the compensation package confirms that he is no economic rationalist.

It was mystifying that the Gillard government appointed a Minister for Climate Change (Greg Combet) who represented a coal mining seat. Imagine if Tony Abbott appointed a health minister elected by sugar or tobacco-growing areas in Queensland. It is hardly surprising that Combet never confronted his constituents to say: “we have to start planning for a post-carbon future and coal must be phased out”.

It would be just as odd to have a vegetarian as Minister for Agriculture, a pacifist as Minister for Defence or a climate change sceptic as Minister for Science.


This article is drawn in part from “Virtue and Vexation – the 2013 Election Campaign”, a conversation with Archbishop Philip Freier and former Senator Judith Troeth, held at The Deakin Edge, Melbourne, September 11, 2013.

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