Forty eight hours to go!
Some days you remember more than others. 21st August 1983 is one of those days. In peaceful, democratic Australia, the newly elected Labor government led by Bob Hawke was enjoying honeymoon popularity. The High Court had upheld its legislation to conserve the Franklin River in July. Drought breaking rains had arrived in winter. I vividly remember walking out of Melbourne University’s Baillieu Library with fellow students to watch a drenching downpour in early August after a year of unprecedented dust storms and tragic bushfires.
21st August, 1983 was a Sunday. After dishwashing duties at a local hotel on Saturday night, my day was committed to intensive study in the glorious Reading Room of Melbourne’s State Library. The radio news that morning led with an item about the return of Benigno Aquino Jr. to the Philippines. Aquino was the long-term political rival of the country’s despotic leader, Ferdinand Marcos. Respected for his advocacy of democracy, Aquino’s return was seen as a watershed moment for the country’s history. It was the equivalent of Mandela’s release from prison in South Africa.
I returned home in the evening. Living in a world unaffected by mobile phones, I was oblivious to the day’s events. The television was turned on for the evening’s news. The lead story was the assassination of Aquino on the tarmac of Manila International Airport only hours earlier. There was chilling footage of a smiling Aquino sitting in his seat before leaving the plane. The brazenness of the political killing, orchestrated by Marcos’ militia, was beyond comprehension. It was a convulsive day.
Aquino’s legacy was not extinguished by his assassination: both his widow, Corazon, and son, Benigno, served terms as President of the Philippines.
Politics has these convulsive moments, as recent elections around the world have confirmed.
Around the globe we go.
First, Lebanon. A country, formerly lauded as the ‘Paris of the East,’ now has three-quarters of its population in poverty. Its government, formerly comprising a Shi’ite, Hezbollah majority has been defeated by a right-wing Christian party. Can the country recover as its politics move from one end of the religious spectrum to the other?
Secondly, Northern Ireland. For the first time in its history the Sinn Fein party has a majority in the Northern Irish parliament. As someone who grew up when Sinn Fein were synonymous with terrorism, this is a remarkable transformation. Convulsions have followed their victory. 2023 is the centenary of Irish independence from England. Sinn Fein’s victory has reignited talk of Irish unification. How remarkable it would be if the economic decline of Northern Ireland, primarily caused by England’s Brexit withdrawal from the European Union, proved to be a far greater catalyst for reunification than centuries of political insurgence. The unintended consequences of a policy are often far greater than the intended ones.
Finally, we return to the Philippines where the son of Ferdinand Marcos, Ferdinand ‘Bong Bong’ Marcos Jr. has been elected the country’s President. In a nation where more than half of the voters were either not born or too young to remember the first Marcos regime, the sins of the father have clearly been forgotten.
America has mid-term elections in November. One senses that America’s political and cultural schisms are becoming more convulsive, edging closer to being irreparable. A recent racially motivated shooting in a supermarket in Buffalo, New York has confirmed that for many Americans Black lives do not matter. For all the singular achievements of African Americans- think Oscar wins, Kamala Harris, and the most recent appointment to the country’s Supreme Court-racial divides clearly run deep. The possible overturning by the Supreme Court of a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion, which would leave the American States free to legislate independently on abortion, looms as another political flashpoint.
As Australians, excluding those who have cast pre-poll votes in record numbers, head to the polls on Saturday, we know that our electoral outcome will not be convulsive in a Lebanese, Northern Irish or Filipino sense.
Our election, however, may well have a confusing, inconclusive, and challenging outcome.
If an opinion poll published yesterday is accurate, neither major party may be able to win enough seats to form a majority government. The poll has the ALP’s primary vote at 31% and the LNP’s coalition at 34%. A third of voters are predicted to vote for other than major parties. The poll had the ALP with a 51%-49% lead over the coalition in two-party preferred terms, which is a significant narrowing from the consistent Labor lead of 6-8% in earlier polls. Preferences will be more critical than ever.
The record number of pre-poll votes will ensure that some results in marginal seats may not be known for over a week. Any late swing in voter sentiment to the incumbent government increases the chance of a hung parliament.
Let us not forget that the main draw of the French Open commences next Monday. If Novak Djokovic wins his third French and 21st Grand Slam title, the debate about who is the Greatest Player of All Time will reignite.
Or will a win for the 'Alcaraz express' see people focus on who might be the next greatest?
Following Djokovic’s victory in last week’s Italian Open, a tennis fan posted the following summary of the Grand Slam, End of Year Playoff, Olympic and Masters 1000 titles for each of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer:
Djokovic: 20 + 5 + 0 + 38 = 63
Nadal: 21 + 0 + 1 + 36 = 58
Federer: 20 + 6 + 0 + 28 = 54
Of course, there are several other objective criteria that could be used: Number of tournaments won: Federer 103, Nadal 91, Djokovic, 87; Number of matches won: Federer 1251, Nadal 1051, Djokovic 1000; Davis Cup victories: Nadal 5, Djokovic 1, Federer 1; and most singles matches won at Grand Slam tournaments: Federer 369, Djokovic 323, and Nadal 298. Fittingly, Federer and Nadal have each won 105 matches at their favourite venues: Nadal at Roland Garros and Federer at Wimbledon. Djokovic has a remarkably even record of having won 82 matches at the Australian Open, 81 at Roland Garros and New York and 79 at Wimbledon. Throw in intangible criteria such as sportsmanship, personality, and legacy and, in truth, the debate will never end!
If Iga Swiatek, unbeaten in her last five tournaments, sweeps to her second French Open title, she will match Venus Williams’ run of 35 successive victories in 2000. Still a long way behind Martina Navratilova’s run of 74 victories in 1984!
Australian elections, however, are decided by the unarguable criterion of seats won. Yet the factors that determine the outcome of individual seats are a mysterious mix of the tangible and unmeasurable.
More than ever, predicting Saturday’s result is curiously difficult.
There are objective reasons why the ALP should win a clear majority: the coalition is seeking an historically unlikely fourth term, interest rates and inflation are rising, its leader whilst often unconvincing is not seen as a diabolical risk and if the government loses any seats, it loses its parliamentary majority.
So, why could the LNP win another unexpected victory to add to its ‘miracle’ victory of 2019? Incumbency still has its advantages. Australians rarely change their governments. Scott Morrison has remained the preferred Prime Minister in all polls. The Opposition Leader’s campaign has been unimpressive. Anthony Albanese has campaigned with a visible frustration that what should be a stroll to The Lodge has become a struggle. His declaration that he would form a two-person government before next Monday to enable him to travel to Japan to attend a summit was a curious mix of presumption and self-promotion, suggesting he has not convinced enough people that he could be an effective leader.
Paradoxically, as economic clouds mass, so too may doubts about a Labor government’s ability to manage a fiscal storm. Will enough voters be convinced that the present government remains best placed to provide greater certainty on quintessential economic concerns- home ownership, petrol prices, taxation levels and management of debt? Will these issues eclipse concerns about the government’s longevity, its episodes of questionable integrity and administration, and what many see as its ineffectual response to climate change?
Bob Hawke, our Prime Minister in August 1983, often commented that “the Australian people always got it right on election days.” No doubt they will again when exercising their democratic rights on Saturday. When observing the ongoing tragedy in Ukraine and the unravelling of Sri Lanka, how can one dispute the blessings of our safe, peaceful, and remarkably uncontentious democratic process?
Nevertheless, there is a chance that in exercising their collective judgement the Australian people may elect one of the most contentious and chaotic parliaments in our Federal history. Convulsions, albeit Canberra style, may follow!