With less than two weeks until polling day in Australia, we can be more certain about events after the election than its outcome.
We know that Boris Becker, now a convicted criminal, will not be attending this year’s Wimbledon. Pathos is personified in the images of Becker as the irrepressible teenager who won the tournament in 1985, 1986 and 1988 and the sullen and broken man walking to a different type of court to face incarceration.
Some create their own reasons for absence. Others have absence forced upon them. The All England and Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) has decided that neither Russian nor Belarussian players will be allowed to play at this year’s tournament. Through the largesse of the British government, players who are unvaccinated against Covid-19 will be able to play. Come back to Centre Court Novak! All is forgiven!
One of the attractions of the AELTC has been that it has been wonderfully oblivious to fashionable demands for change. Players still must wear predominantly white clothes. The AELTC’s Committee reserve the right to decide the seedings for the tournament irrespective of computer rankings. The first Sunday of the tournament is still a rest day. The heavens might fall but the Thursday of the second week is always Ladies’ semi-finals day!
These days are gone with the AELTC joining the ranks of organisations determined to display their voguish virtues. The invasion of Ukraine is monstrous. Yet Wimbledon has been played when equally ghastly events have previously affected foreign nations. When Europe and England were engulfed by world wars, Wimbledon stopped in its entirety. Why selectively ban innocent players, many of whom have publicly criticised Russia’s actions? It creates a worrying precedent.
We also know that interest rates have begun to rise in Australia and can confidently predict that they will continue to do so. The last time interest rates were raised by the Reserve Bank during an election campaign was the Melbourne Cup Day rate rise of 2007.
Was the Reserve Bank’s 2007 decision the coup de grace in the demise of the Howard government? Or had voters already become disenchanted with a government over a decade old and its failure to respond to the policy challenges presented by climate change?
If F. Scott Fitzgerald could describe Boris Becker as another hero about whom a tragedy could be written, he could also say that Australian politics has confirmed the tendency of the human experience to beat relentlessly back to the past.
The choice Australians make in a fortnight is all too familiar to the one offered to them in 2007. Can a conservative government salvage another term in office, or will Anthony Albanese successfully emulate the ‘small target’ strategy of Kevin Rudd and lead the ALP into government on a wave of disenchantment with a government who may well be perceived as delivering interest rate pain to the borrowing classes on the eve of the election?
Sadly, the scepticism about the ability of either major party to effect significant change may well determine the outcome the of the poll. In France’s recent Presidential election, albeit conducted within a voluntary voting system, 28% of eligible voters abstained from voting. The French Presidential offering was a repeat of the contest of five years ago. Voters responded with all the disdain of having to eat a stale baguette. Having sought to consolidate the centrist vote, President Macron was re-elected with a smaller margin of victory and has presided over the extreme right becoming ensconced as France’s second largest political force.
Recent polling suggests 25% of Australians may still be undecided about their vote. Polling also suggests that both major parties have primary votes marooned in the mid-30% range. Australia’s compulsory voting system, unlike France, requires the disinclined and disinterested to vote. Our full preferential voting system makes, although I suspect many voters are unaware of this, their decision about which major party gains their preferences critical.
The sad fact is that Australia’s next government will be elected without the emphatic support of a significant proportion of the electorate. My first vote in a Federal election was in 1983 when Bob Hawke led the Labor party to government. You could ‘smell’ a change of government was in the air. There were similar winds of change swirling in the atmosphere when John Howard won office in 1996, Kevin Rudd in 2007 and Tony Abbott in 2013. This year all I can detect is a collective whiff of indifference, akin to what the French would call ennui.
The campaigning of both parties has been predictably prosaic.
Anthony Albanese has been unable to have attention diverted from his embarrassing inability to recall key policy detail, first about unemployment and interest rates and, more recently, about his party’s approach to management of the nation’s National Disability Insurance Scheme. Albanese’s critics would say that his policy platform is so narrow that all Albanese can ask is that voters trust him to be a safe and fairer pair of hands.
In a similar vein, the Liberal Party offers the slogans of “better economic management,” “greater national security”- although clearly the Solomon Islands are no longer a pro-Australian citadel in the Pacific- and “stronger leadership.” Sadly, the appeal boils down to an unedifying request for voters to “stick with the devil that they know.”
Former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, often said that “good policy is good politics.” Regrettably, we have far too little policy to contemplate. Both parties seem to have accepted that the nation will be mired in eye-watering levels of debt for years to come.
There are platitudes offered about making aged-care services and the NDIS more humane, but extraordinarily little discussion about how this humanity is to be paid for occurs. Political debate focusses on sentimentality rather than sense.
Following the first Leaders’ debate the Prime Minister was forced to apologise for “any offence” he caused with a comment about “being blessed to have able bodied children” when answering a question from the mother of a disabled child. What many might have considered to be a thoughtful and genuine introduction to his answer, enraged many. Welcome to the world of modern politics: all must be catered for, no one is to be “left behind” or “upset.” Nothing is to be “unfair” or “offensive.”
Voltaire’s democratic credo of “I utterly disagree with you but defend to the death your right to say it” seems to have evaporated from Australian political discourse. The Liberal candidate for Tony Abbott’s former seat of Warringah, Katherine Deves, has had to resist calls for her party to disendorse her candidacy for expressing a belief that trans-female athletes should not be able to compete against females. The expression of an opinion does not justify calls for political ostracism. The nightmare of the self-righteous demanding inclusivity for all, except those who disagree with them, is facing us.
Political debate, once a vigorous clash of ideas, has become a competition for the emotional affection of voters. An alliance of female candidates are running against government members in safe seats. United by their common campaign colour of teal, their appeal is based not so much about their policies- who does not want a healthier environment and integrity within government?- as much as not being “like the failed major parties ” and being uniquely “committed to decency and integrity.”
Mind you, the idea that a government Integrity Commission can suddenly create universal integrity is a chimera. People know, have and practise integrity. It comes from within, not from the dictates of a government appointed body. Is there anything more unsettling than seeing corporations appoint Directors of Workplace Culture? If a publicly listed company must employ people to explain ethics and decency to its adult workforce, we are in more trouble than I thought.
Back to ‘Team Teal.’ From listening to them, you would think that by voting for them you will feel better about yourself. Politics used to be about what makes a country better. Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, whose autobiography is called “ A Bigger Picture,” has endorsed the election of ‘Team Teal’ proving that his greatest vision is the bitter aim of destroying the party that enabled him to lead the nation. The refusal of the candidates to explicitly state which political party they would support in the event of a hung parliament suggests they do not want to consider the realities of the political power they may wield. Realpolitik can not be avoided. ‘Team Teal’ would be well advised to remember former Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam’s observation, that in politics “only the impotent are pure.”
The electorate has been offered not so much policies as pallid pleasantries. Is it any wonder that the major parties have lost their allure and the electorate is perennially disappointed by the quality of its governments? Tony Abbott was often criticised for his 2013 election campaign mantra of “ Stop the boats, cut the mining tax, and end the deficit and debt emergency”. It was seen as shrill and simplistic. Could anyone recite a policy-based mantra for either of the major parties in 2022? What is offered is either the wishful or sentimental: “a stronger economy” or a “better future.”
Less than two weeks to go and the campaign is still to generate public fascination. The ALP launched its campaign in Perth last weekend, anxious to win extra representation across the Nullarbor. Has the party’s appeal traversed the continent in the week since? Well, the ALP better hope so. Even with two Leaders’ Debates still to take place, pre-poll voting commences tomorrow. It is estimated 40-50% of the electorate will seek to vote before 21st May.
For these voters, indeed for all the electorate, the unedifying choices on offer are clear. Will undecided voters make a negative choice based on which party and/or leader is least objectionable?
Many commentators are predicting Australians may return a hung parliament with neither major party being able to command a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The settled pattern of majority governments may be ending.
Is tennis again offering us a portent of the future? Tonight, 19-year-old Spanish, Carlos Alcaraz, will play in the final of the Madrid Open against the world’s No.2 ranked player, Alex Zverev. To reach the final, Alcaraz has become the first player to defeat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in the same clay court tournament. Are Alcaraz’ upset victories over two champions, for so long seen as impregnable likely victors, a metaphor for the crumbling of the sturdy pillars of Labor and Liberal political dominance in Australia?
It is often observed that “the people get the government they deserve.” If so, then a hung parliament would be a poignant reflection of Australia’s contemporary political culture. One of the world’s greatest democracies may be on the cusp of electing a parliament that, at worst, would be ineffectual and, at best, uninspiring and unconvincing. Much like the election campaign to date and very much unlike the effervescent excitement that Alcaraz offers the tennis world!