Sean Kelly
Men of few deeds

I’m a big believer in the maxim that when it comes to elections, what you do matters a lot more than what you say.

Language does have an impact, of course, and there are better and worse ways of persuading people. But voters, while generally disengaged, and never more so than right now, are very canny. They tend to focus on what their political leaders have actually done, or are in the process of doing. Policy, in other words.

Perhaps I’m naive. I certainly know that this faith in the ability of voters to cut through the crap runs counter to the contemporary obsession with spin and media machinations. We all remember what John Howard said about deciding who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come, and it regularly gets trotted out as a formulation of political genius. But those words would have meant nothing without Howard’s brutal decision not to allow entry to the Tampa. Similarly, the unions ran a damn good campaign against WorkChoices in 2007 to defeat Howard. What tends to get forgotten is that the government ad campaign in favour of the policy wasn’t bad either. But Australians had an attitude to what was actually being done to them, and voted on it.

The tricky thing about this election is that while a lot has been said, very little has been done. At the time of writing we are almost six weeks in, and no major policies have been announced – by either side. That is especially disappointing given the fact early voting started this week, and is expected to reach record numbers. It’s true that there are significant policies on the table – the government’s company tax cuts, Labor’s negative gearing policy – but they were announced before the campaign. Others have surfaced in the campaign period – Labor had their NBN policy this week – but none that are really new, or interesting, which indicate a new way of tackling an old problem, or a fresh take on what Australia’s future should look like.

So it is not surprising that so much of what has happened in the past week has been in the realm of language, and what has been said. Or, more often, what has not been said.

The week began with news of the murders in Orlando. In his first statement responding to the attacks, the prime minister did not use the word “gay” or say anything recognising the sexuality of the victims, who died while out at a gay nightclub. It was a terrible omission. The nation’s leader rendered invisible those who society has often, over centuries, tried to pretend are invisible. Thankfully, Malcolm Turnbull fixed this in a second media appearance, where he described the killings as “a murderous attack on gay people … directed by a murderous hatred of gay people exercising their freedom to gather together”. Bill Shorten was not so slow, immediately extending his “sympathy to people in the LGBTI community who might be feeling additional pain”.

That same night Shorten appeared on the ABC’s Q&A program, where he was asked whether he would describe Australia’s colonisation as an “invasion”. He said if he were an Indigenous person he would, but personally he preferred to say “Aboriginals were dispossessed off their land”. On this Turnbull rightly went further, saying, “Well, I think it can be fairly described as that and I’ve got no doubt obviously our first Aboriginal Australians describe it as an invasion.”

There is an important distinction to be drawn here. I said at the outset I don’t believe that language matters enormously to election results. I do, however, believe that language matters in politics, and that leaders have enormous power to change the way a nation thinks about its problems and its past. That is a responsibility of significance, and we should not miss what happened here.

It was only months ago that some elements of the media entered an odd frenzy over the fact that course materials in universities encouraged use of the word “invasion” to describe white settlement in Australia. Now we have the prime minister saying the word is fine, and the opposition leader not far behind. In an underreported moment three weeks ago, both leaders agreed that Australia harboured racism. That might seem like a statement of the obvious, but very often politicians feel the rhetorical pull of patriotic blandishments and refuse to acknowledge that their country might still have some serious flaws. These are important admissions.

It is a pity, then, that when asked both leaders expressed no interest in changing the date of Australia Day. It is also a pity that Turnbull did not extend his sense of nuance to discussions of a treaty with Indigenous people. Shorten on Monday said: “Do I think we need to move beyond just constitutional recognition to talking about what a post-constitutional recognition settlement with Indigenous people looks like? Yes I do.” Asked if that might look like a treaty, he said yes.

The next day, Turnbull chose to attack, arguing that broadening discussion beyond constitutional recognition might threaten that goal. Turnbull’s point is not illegitimate – referenda are difficult to win, and complexity probably won’t help – but his decision to go in for the political point showed him up as a hypocrite. If his goal is delivering national consensus on constitutional recognition, why apply a megaphone to Shorten’s comments? Whether he was correct can be argued. He was definitely insincere.

It was also easy to doubt the prime minister’s sincerity when announcing $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef, with another telling omission when he and his environment minister failed to discuss the mass coral bleaching event that is under way. The billion dollars is a loan, by the way, and might be illegal under the act via which it is being spent.

Still, Turnbull has not once, in all of this campaign, looked as insincere as his treasurer, Scott Morrison, who this week was sent out for another ridiculous campaign stunt. The last was his overblown “black hole” press conference. This time, he warned that Greens activists had “infiltrated” the Labor Party, as though the entire election were an episode of Get Smart. It felt, for a few moments, as though Clive Palmer had made a return to federal politics, wearing a very convincing Scott Morrison suit.

This is dangerous territory for Morrison. Peter Costello and Paul Keating were adept at attack, but they were also skilled at explaining economic policy. So far, Morrison is not in their league, and when talking budgetary matters tends to fall back on simplistic analogies that bear little resemblance to anything anybody actually understands as economics. The ability to switch to vaudeville is one thing; but if vaudeville is all you have, then your act gets tired very quickly.

Speaking of things said and not said: last week Turnbull indicated he wanted a third debate to be live-streamed on Facebook and news.com.au, because it would deliver “as big an audience as possible”. What we only found out this week was that the debate would be held last night, a Friday, at 6pm, safe from the prying eyes of the vast majority of voters. When a tree falls in a forest, et cetera. On the bright side, the prime minister will be matching Shorten and appearing on Q&A on Monday night. It is a great pity they were not on together.

I hope Turnbull is pushed on the question of journalists being able to visit immigration detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island. Shorten, asked about this on the same program, said he would allow visits by journalists and independent observers. Good. It is institutionalised insanity that this is not permitted now.

Other important things happened this week that will not affect the election result in the slightest. Ziggy Switkowski, chair of the National Broadband Network, said rather too much a few weeks ago when he decided to offer strident comment on the federal police raids related to leaks about the NBN. This week, it emerged he had been warned this would breach caretaker conventions. It is bad behaviour on Switkowski’s part, but probably too hard to explain to really affect anybody’s vote.

The same thing goes for the controversy surrounding Parakeelia, a Liberal-connected software company that has received huge amounts of taxpayer money and employed government staff, and also made significant donations to the Liberal Party. The whole affair is smelly, but it is also confusing, and as such is unlikely to register much.

And so we come to the final weeks of the campaign knowing very little more about how to use our vote than we did at its outset. We know a bit more about the country we live in – that it is okay to say the land was invaded, that racism exists, that our prime minister calls himself a feminist – but that will have to suffice. The polls are about where they have been for a long time now, pointing to a narrow result, with the likelihood of a Turnbull victory. Without one of the major parties both saying and doing a lot more between now and polling day, that is unlikely to change.


Paul Bongiorno is on leave.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Men of few deeds".

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Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers.

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