Why the major parties fear a policy program
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, out on the campaign trail at the end of the first week, might have had a vague sense of foreboding when “Melinda”, a parent, bailed him up during a walk in Moorabbin, in Melbourne’s deathburbs. She wanted to talk about education and its declining affordability – “My son went into year 10 this year and we were told to … only go for [subjects] we could afford” – while the PM wanted to offer platitudes on parenting. “Most of my childhood my dad was a single dad. I know how tough it is, the pressure, you have to be both the mum and the dad to your boys.” Melinda cut him off sharply. “I can deal with that, that’s my problem, but giving my children the best education so that they can give back to Australia, that’s not just my problem … give them an opportunity.” Turnbull’s free advice was guff, of course: his father was a wealthy man, who sent his son to Sydney Grammar. But he appears to have a genuine belief that he’s a self-starter, and a mild resentment for people who don’t share that belief.
This was all taking place the day that Peta Credlin, in her new role as commentator, had dubbed Turnbull “Mr Harbourside Mansion”. By the next day, the press were calling it Malcolm’s “Melinda moment”. Was it the first big, revealing gaffe of the campaign?
No, was the short answer. The exchange had been telling enough, exposing two things: the shrinking provisions for everyday Australians using public systems, and Turnbull’s inability to really understand how separated he is from many Australians by a life of wealth and opportunity. It might have been iconic; instead it was simply swept along. This eight-week campaign around a series of technical tax provisions and allowances is a triumph of the dominance of the Australian political caste, and their utter separation from the broader rhythms of Australian life.
The major parties are desperate to kick the campaign into life. In the middle of the week, the campaign got interesting only because it became a car crash, with the exposure of David Feeney’s failure to declare a house he acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness quickly followed by Thursday’s revelations that Greens leader Richard Di Natale had done the same, and paid his au pairs scandalously low wages. An hour later, the AFP raided Labor offices, for leaked National Broadband Network documents. The day began with an actual car crash alongside Bill Shorten’s campaign convoy. This burst of activity rather proved the point – only chaos and pants-down embarrassment could make the thing interesting.
Still, the public is not having it. They know that the election is a bidding war between two major parties whose differences are within a narrow range, each side proposing a mix of schemes and initiatives, rather than overall programs.
Indeed Labor and the Liberals are eager to deny that they have a program of any comprehensive sort. Both parties appeal to depoliticised notions of competence – economic management, maximising national advantage – with a left or right “flavour”. And they borrow from each other’s leanings, with the Coalition offering an attack on high-income superannuation tax concessions and Labor trumpeting its budget-savings plan.
Though the Coalition has become, in its quiet way, more laissez-faire than the Abbott–Hockey government was, they are loath to advertise it, and especially unwilling to get into the notion of “lifters and leaners”. They may flirt with notions of class war and envy as a way of heading off attacks on “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, but the discourse remains that of technocratic systems management. The paid-internship scheme is presented not in punitive or moralising terms, but as a form of psychological management – to address issues of alleged low self-esteem, dependency and lack of motivation among unemployed youth.
Labor has moved recognisably leftward from past years, with its proposal to reconfigure negative gearing, but its offerings on affordable housing and education opportunity remain limited. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten opines about the benefits to accrue from Labor’s education program by 2095 – by which point many schools will be under water.
Both Labor and the Coalition are determined to avoid the impression that anything resembling a strong social philosophy guides their world view and program: the Coalition because of the disaster of the duplicitous 2013 “no cuts” campaign followed by the 2014 “horror” budget; Labor because of the memory of Kevin Rudd’s grandiose and programmatic schemes in 2007. Choosing “fairness” or “opportunity” as a theme by which to run your campaign is not the same as offering a view as to how the world works, how the elements are put together, and how it might be made better for the mass of people.
The underlying reason for this reluctance to offer a vision is the same as it has been for a decade or more: our single-member electorate system enfranchises the voters in 30 or so key seats, and excludes those sequestered in safe ones, chiefly the suburban poor and rural voters. However, understanding the voters in those electorates has become more complex as class fortunes have divided. Once dominated by a relatively uniform, working middle class of modest means – a house whose value remained in some proportion to its cost, and an expectation of state-dependency in old age – these swinging seats have divided between those in “ordinary” jobs but with substantial property and superannuation, capable of assisting their children with education or property, and those struggling beneath that line and seeing the possibility of stability fading.
Some groups, such as single middle-aged women, have done particularly badly. The first decade of the 21st century in Australia saw the rise of this new working middle class, and both parties pitched to them, though with little to say about housing affordability or the squeeze of rising costs, even for the prosperous. The second decade has seen a follow-up process in which more of the middle class falls decisively behind, even when they are relatively well-paid. This happened suddenly and has caught both parties unawares. When the campaign began, talk radio was besieged with callers rejecting the narrative of national prosperity both major parties wanted to push, telling stories of adult children who couldn’t leave home and university courses out of reach. In The Monthly, Richard Cooke wrote of the current inequality turning generational conflict into a class conflict, but it is more complicated than that, because most parents will help out their children if they can. Australian society has become one of intergenerational family fortune, winners and losers whose life paths will diverge across decades even though, a scant decade or two ago, they grew up on the same street.
The wave of discontent that has emerged has caught both Labor and the Coalition by surprise, which is why they are treading so carefully – or at least they are now, since Turnbull’s campaign warm-up gaffe, telling radio host Jon Faine that the answer for people locked out of the housing market was to be helped by their parents. That’s the sort of blitheness that lost Mitt Romney the United States presidency in 2012. Labor is far less likely to jump on it than Romney’s opponents did, though, because they know they need the votes of those intending to do as Turnbull suggests, as well as those who never can. Ditto for the Coalition.
The result is a sagging election campaign that may very well, in the middle weeks, collapse almost entirely, or else be taken over by forces and arguments that have not yet had a hearing, as desperate news editors look for something, anything, to fill the void. The major parties and the press gallery conspire to present this campaign – in which two sides argue about the degree to which inequality will increase over the next decade – as if it were some great contest. Both press and politicians have the same aims – to avoid an examination of whether we are asking the right questions of the parties, and to keep the thing running as a series of small skirmishes in which every gaffe and zinger can be totted up to say who won the day.
There would be a strong sense that people aren’t buying this campaign, even were it not the length of the First World War. Either our most pressing concerns really are adjusting rebates for housing investment and marginal tax rates – in which case the whole thing could be done in a fortnight – or there are far more challenging matters for our future and we are not talking about them. Inequality, for example, is both inside and outside the campaign. It is acknowledged as a thing to be addressed, but no one will dare say that our way of life is changing, and our national character, not simply because of a division between the very rich and the masses, but because such inequality is driving deep shafts into everyday life.
Everyone feels this happening. We, together with the rest of the West, are about to experience a tidal wave of automation in retail and service sectors that will transform employment. As Tim Dunlop observed, the $6000 toaster that Kelly O’Dwyer billed and cooed over on Q&A is designed to replace workers, not employ them, and there’s every likelihood that Turnbull’s small business tax breaks will make this situation worse. Neither major party has a real scheme to address the successive waves of technical and employment change coming towards us.
Nor is there any integrated policy on climate change, not only to mitigate its rise, but planning for the effects we will start to see from the 2080s on, such as urban inundation, water supply and the like. Cities themselves are not being addressed, since we need to build entire new ones, connected to our major capitals, if we are planning to keep immigration rates at current levels and to not end up as a sort of brick-veneer Brazil.
These are the things that parties used to project in their programs – decades-long transformation. These are exactly the things that our major parties now avoid. The proving exception is the Greens, which does have the sort of long-term policies Labor used to pride itself on, in part because it is the ruling party of the future. Doubtful? All politics to a degree is now “green” politics – that is, the politics of complex systems management with a tilt towards equality – and the old parties put forward partial versions of such. The continued exclusion of the Greens from the debates ensures the questions will remain so narrow that not even the people being targeted by them find the answers satisfying or persuasive.
Faced with this process, many in Australia have looked around the world, at the rise of figures from left and right such as Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and others, and asked why we have had nothing of the same. The answer is that we have as yet had nothing like the driving inequality and despoliation of the US and Britain. We have a politics that is simultaneously among the most rational in the world – compared with US politics, it’s a symposium at the Munich Institute of Technology – and yet the least able to pose the big questions about what is at stake. When those questions can no longer be ignored our politics will change, and fast. It will happen in the next few years. It may well happen in the next few weeks.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2016 as "Visionless quest". Subscribe here.