Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Things That Matter

‘One of the things about elections is that … they are a chance to have a national conversation about things that matter.’

So said Labor’s Shadow Assistant Treasurer, Dr Andrew Leigh, to a gathering of Labor faithful at the home of Pat O’Neill Labor candidate for the Federal seat of Brisbane last Wednesday evening.
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Leigh’s context was inequality and he went on to talk about inequality being one of the deep currents that will run through the 2016 campaign.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Leigh makes a good point.  Elections should encourage a national conversation and a refocusing of the national awareness onto matters that will affect us in the years to come.

‘Australians believe the state of the economy, interest rates, unemployment, the cost of living, and the gap between rich and poor are more concerning than immigration, environmental issues, and social problems.’ Reported Gareth Hutchens in the Sydney Morning Herald earlier this year. Hutchens was reporting on a late 2015 Morgan poll.

Prime minister Turnbull, banking on terminally linking Shorten to union corruption and malpractice wants to fight the election on Industrial Relations.

The double dissolution trigger for a July 2 election was the return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) legislation. Turnbull asked the Governor-General to recall parliament on April 18 to debate the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013 (which will reinstate the ABCC). The Senate cross benchers rejected the Bill giving Turnbull the trigger and justification he needs to request the Governor-General to dissolve both houses and lock in the July 2 federal election.

But there’s a small problem – nobody outside State Circle in Canberra actually cares much about reinstating the ABCC. As Gareth Hutchens mentioned, employment, inequality, cost of living and interest rates are engaging the population – the proposed resurrection of an arcane ABCC is not.

Second tier issues energizing voters’ minds include immigration, health and the environment and on these issues there has been little or no solid achievements by the government – certainly not enough to base a campaign around – and nothing new on the horizon.

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Immigration minister, Peter Dutton, who staggers from disaster to disaster in his portfolio - of which last Thursday’s reports of young people being beaten on Nauru is just the latest - at least has the advantage of a chimera of bipartisanship between Coalition and Labor asylum-seeker policies to hide behind - his penchant for gaffs notwithstanding.

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The Paris agreement on climate change was significant but, given that the “announceables” for that were late last year, those achievements will not be front of mind for voters come July and it is beyond Environment Minister Greg Hunt to prosecute a decent case based on them. He has little else to work with after former climate change advocate Turnbull capitulated to the deniers in the Coalition and ruled out any changes to the Coalitions widely criticised Direct Action policy.

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Health Minister Sussan Ley’s, recent announcement regarding health care packages for chronically ill patients has little to differentiate it from Medicare Locals or Primary Health Networks and will, in any case, be totally drowned out - as will any future announcements by Education Minister Simon Birmingham - by claims that the Abbott/Turnbull government has ripped $80 billion dollars out of the states health and education budgets.

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Birmingham has already discovered the depth of feeling there is in the higher education community with his proposed changes to deregulate university fees.
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As for the hapless Treasurer, apart from not being in his prime minister’s inner circle as Phillip Coorey in the Fin Review of 23 March revealed, Scott Morrison has been emasculated on every single economic policy position he has taken from raising the GST through changes to negative gearing. In the end, all the Treasurer has left are company tax cuts and tax cuts for the wealthy and even company tax cuts are looking shaky following the prime minister’s comments regarding the up-coming budget.

Morrison’s woes were compounded last week with the revelation that the Australian Tax Office is investigating over 800 wealthy Australians following their exposure in the Panama Papers. If Andrew Leigh is right, and inequality is the deep current running through the campaign, then the Treasurer has only broken arrows in his quiver to fight the election with.

In September last year, advocates of same sex marriage had high hopes for the newly minted and hugely popular prime minister. Marriage equality was, by Turnbull’s own account, a signature policy. What remains of that hope was dashed by recent reports that even the plebiscite to which Turnbull had conceded to placate the right wing of his party is now likely to be postponed indefinitely. Mungo MacCallum, writing in The Monthly, suggests that: ‘… the actual vote on the plebiscite will drag well into 2017. And even when it comes, it will be hedged around with caveats and loopholes.’

Malcolm Turnbull’s personal approval rating, though on the wane, is still a significant factor when discussions regarding the outcome of the up-coming national poll occur and Bill Shorten’s less than impressive approval rating is touted as a lead weight to Labor’s chances.

However, electoral analyst for the Guardian Australia, Ben Raue, wrote in last Thursday’s edition that ‘personal popularity is no guarantee of poll success for prime ministers’.

The reality of our political system is that leaders’ personal popularity is completely relevant only in the federal electorates of Wentworth (Turnbull) and Maribyrnong (Shorten). It’s not irrelevant, it’s just less so while-ever the major parties are fundamentally responsible for electing federal leaders.

It will no longer be sufficient to rely on the personal popularity of Malcolm Turnbull to get the Coalition over the line for a second term.

And all this underlines Leigh’s broad message. Not on inequality, necessarily, but on elections providing the opportunity for greater national awareness and a deeper national conversation.

In May last year, celebrated Australian musician Mark Seymour said in an interview with ABC News 24 Breakfast: ‘The national conversation has narrowed down almost to a dangerous level’, and he was right.

Australian voters are looking for an opportunity to expand the conversation in the lead up to the likely July 2 election and the dwindling grab bag of policies on offer by the government won’t meet their needs.

Around the dinner tables of middle Australia, the conversation will be about all of these issues – marriage equality, climate change, immigration, the gap between rich and poor – all of them. Our politicians would do well to heed Seymour’s warning. These issues – things that matter - are what will guide the pencils of the voters on their ballot papers in July.

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