Time to choose

It was an election set piece dreamed up by the most earnest of Labor strategists. Bowman Hall, Blacktown. Where 47 years ago, Gough Whitlam delivered his landmark “It’s Time” speech.

“Women and men of Australia,” Bill Shorten began, quoting Whitlam’s own opening lines. A nod to history, of course. A worthy attempt to conjure a sense of grandeur in a campaign that’s been mired in mundanity, on both sides.

Though it wasn’t without irony – the reanimation of a speech made nearly half a century earlier by a former prime minister, framed as a progressive call-to-arms. A vision of the future built around someone else’s view from the past.

Both leaders have attempted to cloak themselves in the charisma of their predecessors in this campaign. Scott Morrison with Menzies, then Howard. Shorten first with Keating, now Whitlam.

Neither has managed to breathe life into the public imagination in the way these leaders did. The way Bob Hawke, who passed away on Thursday, was able to do so effortlessly – with his extroversion and his boundless energy.

Hawke was able to draw Australia out of its political cynicism. At times during this election campaign, it seemed as though that defining characteristic of our democracy had reached new depths.

It may well be that the public’s trust in Canberra has so atrophied only the passing of time will open the door to a leader whose vision for Australia extends beyond the already focus-grouped.

But there are signs the voting public wants more from our politics. That Australians have a sense of urgency, and opportunity, about the choices we face.

With his prediction this week that Australia could become “the superpower of the post-carbon world economy”, Professor Ross Garnaut was able to tap into this more potently than any political hopeful during the 2019 campaign.

Garnaut understands, perhaps better than most, that Australians aren’t afraid of big new ideas. As a senior economic adviser to Bob Hawke, he was there when the late prime minister floated the Australian dollar – a controversial decision that transformed the country. He was there when Hawke announced Medicare and saved Tasmania’s Franklin River. He was there when Hawke founded APEC and ushered through the Sex Discrimination Act, outlawing workplace discrimination.

There is a belief, held by many political strategists, that Australia is a small, fearful country. This limits our politics. In moments when a genuine vision for something better has been offered, the public has been able to clearly see the choice before them.

“Fellow Australians. Never in peace-time has Australia’s future depended so much on a single decision,” Hawke began his own campaign speech in 1987.

“Never have you, the Australian people, been called upon to make a more fundamental decision for yourselves, your families – your children – about the way you want your country to go; about what kind of a country you want Australia to be.

“It is a decision about what kind of a people we are. It is a decision about what kind of a nation we are going to be.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 18, 2019 as "Time to choose".

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