John Hewson
Battle for the centre

As an average, generally unengaged voter, where would you go to get a balanced understanding of the issues and policy choices to be made at the next election?

Yes, it’s late in the day to be asking this question, given that we are only about 90 days from the last realistic date for a joint house–senate election, but this is the situation in which many people will find themselves.

More than usual, this question is a difficult one to answer. The media is saturated with innumerable agendas: exaggerated claims and assertions by parties and candidates; scare campaigns in what are very challenging circumstances, both here and overseas; advertising that ranges from less than informative through to subliminal.

Facts and policy substance are giving way to emotion and sentiment. Our national interests are either ignored or compromised by almost every utterance. So many people have been forgotten. Many of our politicians seem to have lost touch with their communities and constituencies, placing their personal career objectives above those they were elected to represent.

Some would suggest that you look to the national broadcaster, but unfortunately the publicly funded ABC has been dragged into the mire as a result of government politicisation, funding cuts or concerted attacks by competing media outlets, accusing them of being either apologists for the government or of running a “left-wing” agenda.

There is an underlying current in the public discourse that tries to classify all issues and candidates as “right” or “left” – meaningless as that is. For example, some who would declare themselves to be of the right try to dispense with the climate challenge as a left-wing issue when it is clearly a dominant and urgent global and domestic challenge, with fundamental moral, social, environmental and economic dimensions that should not be dismissed by any responsible side of politics.

The very idea of being either right or left wing is a wholly American thing and an anathema to the generation in which I grew up. I consider this to be un-Australian. People have always made decisions regarding who they vote for in the lead-up to an election based on the evidence presented to them. Importantly, this decision never defined us, our friendships, or social groups.

It is most unlikely that parties of the extreme left or right will ever win an Australian election, although some fear the emergence of a charismatic hard-right candidate promising to “make Australia great”. People for whom this might be attractive have learnt nothing from the United States’ experience with Donald Trump. Sky News is a good example. Having distinguished itself throughout the US election and its aftermath with sycophantic support of Trump, it is seeking to create an “Australian champion”.

In reality, our electoral contest is for the centre ground. Scott Morrison has been seen to have lost the centre of our political contest, especially on issues of integrity, trust and accountability, as well as in key policy areas such as climate and aged care. Nevertheless, the Liberal–National Coalition and its mates within the media are going all out to tag Anthony Albanese as potentially the most extreme left-wing prime ministerial candidate, leading the most extreme left-wing government ever in our country.

Sections of the press, picking up the government’s line, say Albanese cannot be trusted to manage our economy or national security. They are making these claims at almost every opportunity, without hard argument or evidence to back them up. Sky News in particular has become simply a 24-hour advertisement for the Liberal Party. It has resorted to subliminal messaging, running a ticker across the bottom of the screen proclaiming “Each Way Albo” and referring to anything that doesn’t fit their agenda as “crazy left wing”. This is under the dubious auspice of “The last line of defence for common sense”, among other incredible claims.

On top of this, there is no restriction on the claims that can be made in political messaging. There are important questions as to whether there is a need for further regulation of election campaign advertising. Suggestions include a formal, legal requirement for truth in political advertising and putting formal dollar limits on the total political advertising spending in a campaign, as is done in Britain. Surely, we should be doing both.

The overarching issue at the next election will be integrity and accountability in government. Morrison failed to deliver his promised Integrity Commission Bill through the parliament. Then there is the Coalition’s history of rorts – sports, golf courses, car parks, regional initiatives – all with no accountability, with no heads rolling, meaning the Coalition is starting well behind on the issue. Albanese has committed to a national integrity commission, although the details are yet to be specified. The host of independents running in seats across Australia are all in favour of such a commission and are committed to ensuring whoever is in government delivers one.

The focus of recent political dialogue has been Morrison’s attempt to make national security a key issue by arguing Albanese and the opposition are weak on the issue and likely to sell out to China. This is a ludicrous strategy by the government, arguing without foundation that Albanese is really a “puppet” of the Chinese. Both the current and an important past head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation have warned the government of the dangers of this strategy, which is clearly against our national interests. More broadly, Defence Minister Peter Dutton has been warmongering again, warning without evidence of the threat of a war with China. This is nothing more than a scare campaign, with unfortunate echoes of John Howard’s children overboard creation.

The attempt by Morrison to wedge Albanese on national security reeks of hypocrisy, too, given that climate change is the most important and urgent national and international security issue and the government has an inadequate policy response and undefined pathway to a low-emissions Australia.

Despite Morrison’s attempt to call differences between the Coalition and Labor on China, there is actually little difference and significant bipartisanship on many issues with the Chinese  as we saw with the recent incident of the Chinese ship aiming a laser at one of our surveillance aircraft. Both sides agreed on the nature of our response.

Common sense would suggest that Australia needs an effective working relationship with China but the government and their media mates go all out with accusations of Albanese being an “appeaser”. How counterproductive.

By comparison, a mere few are prepared to draw attention to what has been the “Americanisation of our politics” – particularly in terms of money, divisive attitudes and character assassinations that carry sustained echoes of Trump.

Beyond this, Morrison is attempting to build on his government’s poll perception as a “better economic manager” – again by simply asserting that Albanese and Labor cannot be trusted to run the economy. Morrison is likely to offer another suite of personal tax cuts, even though these would seriously add to inequality, are not affordable, will not trickle down and ignore that there are more cost-effective means of stimulating the economy, as we have seen with the coronavirus supplement and affordable housing.

With Labor having led in the polls on a two-party-preferred basis fairly consistently since the last election, Morrison is desperate to paint himself and his government as the underdogs going into this one. However, his main problem is the “It’s Time” factor, after nine years and three terms. Voters will be tempted to say “enough is enough” and give the other side a go.

The Coalition is showing signs of being tired in the job, with some disunity and the collapse of discipline. There are important policy and personality tensions between Coalition partners, there are members and senators crossing the floor on key votes, there are some leadership tensions in both parties, and there is a breakdown between the Liberal parliamentary party and the organisation over preselections in New South Wales, a state in which they will need to perform well in order to retain government.

One issue likely to dominate the election, but for which none of the players seem prepared to propose a solution, is the rapidly rising costs of living. Many voters have found their wages and incomes constrained and the insecurity of their jobs increasing. Inflation is accelerating and the Reserve Bank has admitted it may need to raise interest rates this year – some in the market are predicting the central bank will do this two or three times.

This could have a devastating effect on home owners as well as those hoping to buy a home when a significant proportion of borrowers have borrowed more than they can actually afford. Supply-chain disruptions and labour market pressures are also compounding the inflation situation – with little chance of early relief.

In all this, the average voter is naturally bewildered, with honesty and policy substance the likely first casualties of what is shaping up as a particularly dirty, dishonest and increasingly shrill election campaign.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Battle for the centre".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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