John Hewson
The relentless election cycle

Several developments recently have made it obvious that politics has become a most unedifying race to the bottom. Facts and evidence are usually ignored in favour of emotive, baseless assertions, and truth and morality are clear casualties. The political debate displays a certain meanness and is deliberately divisive. It’s a short-term political pointscoring game, rather than a crucial element of constructive government in the face of what are now myriad serious challenges. It is all about trying to create a pathway to win the next election.

This situation is the result of the strategies of the opposition, supported by its media mates. The tactics carry echoes of the Tony Abbott tradition of wreckers – never missing an opportunity to be negative, to undermine, with a view to bringing down the Albanese government. The focus is to weaponise any issue they can, as we’ve seen in the past month in relation to the referendum on the Indigenous Voice to Parliament, the government’s response to the Israel–Hamas war and the resulting protests, Albanese’s travel schedule – even though it has been similar to that of his two direct predecessors when they became prime minister – and, most recently, with the High Court ruling against indefinite immigration detention. A longer-term example is climate and Australia’s transition to an energy superpower. The opposition never offers viable, deliverable alternatives or any hope for the bipartisanship that is essential to an effective policy response to the toughest issues. It just takes cheap political shots.

So much of what has happened to our politics can be put down to its Americanisation, which on past performance can hardly be accepted as a winning formula. I guess some have just wanted to emulate features of what is often described as the world’s leading democracy. Others (many in the Coalition) have wanted to pick up from the United States Republican party and, in recent years, to emulate and harness its Trumpism. They have been impressed by the way the former US president has built a conservative edifice by exploiting division, attacking members seen as obstructing a more hardline-right economic and social policy agenda, with little grace or empathy.

Recall Scott Morrison’s performance as Donald Trump’s lapdog, nodding in agreement with what became a fiesta of policy thought bubbles throughout the long joint press conference during the then Australian prime minister’s visit to the White House. And we shouldn’t ignore Dutton’s more recent fascination with things Trump and Republican, even courting advisers from the US party. Perhaps the poor performance of Republicans in the recent mid-term elections, as something of a backlash against their hardline stance on abortion, may slow them up a bit.

As a consequence of this oppositional approach, major politically challenging issues have just been left to drift, especially in all the care sectors and in areas such as tax and spending reform, such that they will ultimately probably be more difficult and costly to deal with.

Of course, this couldn’t happen without a compliant media. Unfortunately, many outlets are still effectively supporting the opposition by sticking the Albanese government with responsibility for the cost of living. Instead of congratulating the prime minister on the success of his recent meetings in Washington, Beijing and the Cook Islands, he’s been called out for “globetrotting”.

Some imagine they are players in the game; the worst among them are best characterised as aspirational kingmakers, believing they can determine electoral outcomes. The pacesetters here are the “hosts” on Sky News – in the past few days, Andrew Bolt has called for the return of Scott Morrison (to the delight of the Labor Party). However, most of the media have simply failed to do their jobs, in reporting the truth and investigating the assertions made.

The so-called debate about the cost of living has mostly been driven by the opposition’s assertions that the government caused the crisis and has failed to respond adequately. The opposition’s attempt to wash its hands of any responsibility for the crisis is surreal, given the billions it injected by way of spending and liquidity initiatives in response to the feared economic consequences of the pandemic. They offer no alternatives and deliberately ignore the significant $23 billion in non-inflationary support from the Albanese government, aimed at reductions in medical, childcare and energy costs, together with the turnaround in real wages and budget restraint. Any further such support would simply add to the inflation their policies had entrenched in the system, the correction of which has been slower than hoped.

The Coalition is taking great heart from the most recent polls suggesting some loss of support for Albanese, although, on the two-party preferred and preferred prime minister surveys, respondents have still favoured Labor. The opposition feels this reflects the failure of the referendum and sustained cost-of-living pressures. But Peter Dutton, as leader, probably should not take too much pleasure too quickly from this perceived poll boost, as it seems that while he is taking credit for the Voice “No” vote winning on the day, people may rightly be questioning his honesty and transparency. Especially given his promise of a better referendum option, the recall of which straight after the vote made him look disingenuous. Australians don’t like to feel conned – this will not play out as he had hoped. We recognise polls aren’t votes and pressure will undoubtedly come on all sides to share visions for the country and policy priorities as we get closer to the next election.

The negativity of Dutton and his shadow treasurer, Angus Taylor, is just criticism, offering no detail as to what policies they would support. For example, it has been easy to criticise the electorally unpopular interest rate increases, but the Coalition needs to propose an alternative, especially given Taylor’s calls for not relying solely on the Reserve Bank of Australia. Indeed, the only positive initiative from the Coalition on the cost of living has come from the Nationals leader, David Littleproud, who has called for an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission inquiry into price gouging by supermarkets in relation to the price of meat.

The discussion of cost-of-living relief has unfortunately taken on a populist dimension, with demands the government cut the petrol excise and claims such a move would directly lower a key element of measured inflation. However, advocates are quiet on where funding would come from, except the budget surplus. This idea clearly ignores the inflationary consequences of a weaker budget and it ignores the reality that any subsequent relief is likely to be only temporary, as global petrol prices could easily increase as the war in the Middle East unfolds. The suggestion also ignores the next indexation increase that will take effect early next year. It is too much to hear some foolish journalists attack “Albonomics”, only to reveal their own economic ignorance.

Dutton will also have to settle internal party divisions over key preselections and strategies. The most challenging is the federal member for Bass, Bridget Archer, who has crossed the floor on key progressive issues. Unfortunately, Dutton’s priority has been to move the party even further to the right. Supporting a challenge to Archer’s preselection would send all the wrong messages to the electorate, given the significance to voters of the issues on which she has made a stand. The recent resignation of the long-serving Liberal member for Monash, Russell Broadbent, following his disgraceful treatment at preselection, is indicative of the party’s malfunction and of the magnitude of the internal problems that Dutton faces. The treatment of Broadbent, who remains in parliament as an independent, has definitely sent the wrong signal to the broader electorate. Broadbent was one of a group, along with fellow Liberal members Bruce Baird, Petro Georgiou and Judi Moylan, who were basically ostracised by former prime minister John Howard for being something of a progressive conscience to his regime. Dutton is yet to recognise that hardline-right positioning is unlikely to be an election-winning strategy.

Similarly, as much as Dutton might like to “set and forget” in relation to the seats lost to the independents, he really can’t afford to. Equally his chance of winning back these seats is much more difficult than he might have hoped, given the performance of the new representatives has mostly consolidated their standing in those seats – and many are seen as “Liberal lite”. Certainly, it would be very difficult even for former treasurer Josh Frydenberg to come back against his successor, Monique Ryan, in the seat of Kooyong.

The opposition’s heavy reliance on polling this far out from the next election is highly questionable, even if the election is brought forward. The Coalition is obviously yet to do any detailed policy work, as evidenced by the recent disastrous response of its climate change spokesman, Ted O’Brien, when asked on the ABC’s Q+A to provide detail of the opposition’s thinking on nuclear energy. O’Brien was demolished by Minister Chris Bowen during their appearance on the program.

Another feature of Dutton’s strategy has been to cultivate the “tough man” image, with many strong law-and-order type statements about the activities of gangs and most recently protesters over the Israel–Hamas war. It seems you can’t take the Queensland cop out of this politician. It is still an open question as to just how counterproductive his interventions have been, about the extent to which they may have encouraged some of the worst activities in the recent war-related protests. As with Trump, whose statements are said to have “legitimised” some of the poor behaviour of his extreme-right supporters.

Dutton and his current Liberal team have also reached a new low in terms of their disgraceful and disrespectful response to the recent interview on the ABC’s Insiders of Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong. Dutton described as “reckless” her reference to the desire for “steps towards a ceasefire”, ignoring her observation that such steps could not be “one-sided” as Hamas still holds hostages. Wong called on Israel to “cease the attacking of hospitals”, noting that international law protects them, and she referred to the duty of democracies such as Australia and Israel to meet higher standards.

Ironically, the so-called quiet Australians have now become the disenfranchised, headshaking, disillusioned traditional Liberal voters looking for decent, inspirational leadership to somehow slip past the gargoyles at the gate. Policy substance must re-enter the debate, which can’t continue to be reduced to superficial day-to-day political pointscoring. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "The relentless election cycle".

For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.

All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.

There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

Use your Google account to create your subscription