An election that will resolve nothing

by · June 15, 2016


Finding themselves constrained

Labor, unsurprisingly, refuses to concede any policy mandate for a Turnbull victory. Nor do the Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team or most of the independents. The mandate theory, once applying to an elected government’s program, has been corrupted to mean every party and independent has a mandate against the government.

This year’s policy contest may prove a charade, with politicians and media debating each other into exhaustion for an agenda that is never fully realised.

Paul Kelly, The Weekend Australian, 4 June 2016

This is a decision I’ve made in the national interest. The big risk in this election is that we would end up with an unstable, chaotic, Labor-Greens minority Government as we’ve seen before.

Malcolm Turnbull announcing the Liberals will preference Labor ahead of the Greens nationally, 12 June 2016

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

Just as with Julia Gillard knifing Kevin Rudd, or Tony Abbott “ending Labor chaos”, the replacement of the terminally unpopular and catastrophe-prone Abbott was meant to finally end the political malaise of recent years. Yet days after Malcolm Turnbull took the top job I warned of the contradictions embodied in the leadership coup:

[T]he socially liberal Turnbull has been forced to placate the party’s right by continuing most of Abbott’s agenda. Just as with Rudd and Gillard, you can now barely get a cigarette paper between Turnbull and Abbott on policy. Yet also like the Labor mess, the hatred and divisions inside the party mean that restoring authority and credibility requires more than Turnbull’s alleged talents for slick presentation and avoidance of basic mistakes.

For a few brief months it looked to many — especially in the media — that Turnbull would be able to ride this contradiction and deliver a killer blow to Labor. Turnbull’s case for power was predicated on being able to communicate the Coalition’s historic advantage on who manages the economy best:

It is clear enough that the Government is not successful in providing the economic leadership that we need. It is not the fault of individual ministers. Ultimately, the Prime Minister has not been capable of providing the economic leadership our nation needs.

But ReachTel polling in recent weeks suggests that the Coalition’s once huge advantage on who is trusted to run the economy now runs at just 5-10 percent. Using a slightly different question, Essential polling shows that this advantage has dropped from 20 points to 12 points in the last month. Meanwhile, the collapse in Turnbull’s job approval ratings has seen him reach net disapproval as bad as Shorten’s.

The closeness of the overall national polling alongside the high percentage of voters who have little or no interest in the election is driving anxiety that the unthinkable may happen: a Labor victory or another hung parliament. Regardless of the electoral outcome, there is worry that the Parliament will continue to be deadlocked, as expressed in Paul Kelly’s anxiety about the “Americanisation” of politics. On Saturday Peter Van Onselen fretted that our “broken system” needs three major reforms if it is to become functional again: widening the “gene pool” from which the political class is drawn, radically changing the electoral system to force parties to cooperate and hiving infrastructure spending off from direct political control.

The problem with such talk of mandates, missing majorities and operational fixes is that it focuses on either the dysfunction of parties and their leaders, or the naughtiness of voters unwilling to deliver governments that can get on with governing. These fail to address the causes and consequences of the long-term decline in political class authority that underpins the malaise.

You can see the same kind of thinking in how Turnbull reacted to disappointment with his failure to set an agenda. First he hinted that he would introduce some bold new economic policy to overcome Canberra’s reform paralysis (a raised GST, a new taxation arrangement with the states) but pulled back when he realised such measures were creating backbench nerves. If Abbott and Hockey’s Budget mess had not fully trashed the Liberal brand on the economy, this kind of hesitation and flip-flopping can only have degraded it further.

Then by March he pushed the idea that only a double dissolution could give him the clear air he needed inside his party room, in Parliament and with the public. It was a wager that electoral success and a rearrangement of the upper house would be enough to re-establish authority. Perhaps this was vaguely plausible when Turnbull’s polling was stratospheric, but it became a self-imposed trap when his polling crashed — one he couldn’t back out of for fear of looking even weaker.

Moreover, the tactic required a lot of factors well beyond the government’s control to fall into place at just the right time. Turnbull created drama by calling a special sitting of Parliament to discuss the triggering bills, but was then robbed of the chance to grandstand when his opponents blocked the laws in short order. This created a sense of drift towards a far-off election date, which was nevertheless well known to be 2 July. Worse, he had to sell Morrison’s first Budget as some kind of significant “economic plan for Australia” when in fact there was little to differentiate it from the kind of Budget you’d imagine any centre-Right government under the twin pressure of soft revenues and not wanting to look too ideological (as had been the case in 2014). That is, there was a mix of tax giveaways to core constituencies like business, mild attempts at redistribution through Superannuation measures, and a painfully timid attempt to shore in the deficit (normally a key Coalition boast).

Turnbull then officially started the second longest campaign in federal history. Yet it was hard to notice, both because the campaign already seemed to have been going from when the 2 July date had firmed, and because the level of voter detachment barely shifted after the Governor-General dissolved both houses.

While the media has attempted to play up the differences between the major parties for the sake of an election narrative, in fact there is remarkably little of substance separating them. Turnbull’s muted, politically correct response to the Orlando massacre gives an idea of how little room for manoeuvre he has on an issue that the Right would normally have tried to inflate to the point of histrionics.

Latest poll aggregate from The Poll Bludger

Latest poll aggregate from The Poll Bludger

An election about not much at all

Perhaps most importantly, neither side has a serious plan to finally overcome the deficit drift that has been at the centre of political debate since the GFC. Labor’s attempt to boost credibility with its own “10-year plan” last week exposed its own incoherent approach to what should be cut. Now neither party looks especially economically prudent, and neither can claim to be especially “fair”. Despite Turnbull and Morrison’s efforts to distance themselves from the perceived radicalism of 2014, ANU modelling showed this year’s Budget was still sharply skewed against poorer people, especially those with children.

Liberal pollster Mark Textor has complained that the high number of opinion polls being carried out drive excessive focus on the “process of an election” rather than its content; i.e. “the issues”. Yet it is Turnbull, who Textor advises, who decided to use a process solution (a DD) to solve what is fundamentally a political problem (a lack of authority).

Each side is trapped by a recent history of failure to break free of the exhaustion and hollowing out of its respective political project. As the always perceptive Piping Shrike writes:

Away from the tedious finessing over policy detail, there really is only one issue this election: where both parties go from here now they’ve run out of options. Both parties come to this election exhausted. The leadership toing and froing of the last eight years has solved nothing. Rudd/Turnbull failed to take their parties somewhere new, the return of the old under Gillard/Abbott only made things worse.

Even that most policy-obsessed outfit, The Australian Greens, has focused on signaling its desire to unseat safe Labor MPs and access the spoils of government above all else. Leader Richard DiNatale at one point even cornered himself into having to deny he would compromise on the party’s great moral crusade on asylum seekers in exchange for “power sharing” with Labor. The Greens have developed a case of collective amnesia about the political disaster of their alliance with Gillard — not just for the ALP but their own standing in the electorate. There is nothing quite as excruciating to watch as the repetition-compulsion of a small party coveting insider status.

The overriding malaise was symbolically captured in last week’s Newspoll, with the Coalition and Labor deadlock in 2PP terms, but this coming from both sides and the Greens each losing a point. Indeed knife-edge polling has become almost the central drama of the election, demonstrating how hard it is for either side to break away.

It’s a frustrating situation that has, on the one hand, provoked some in the Coalition to assert the Right’s brand along harder, more ideological lines. You could see it in Peter Dutton’s hamfisted attempt to portray asylum seekers as both dole bludgers and job thieves, only to be politely put back in his box by Turnbull’s impeccably pro-multicultural defence of harsh border policy (which hardly anyone on the Left seemed to object to or even notice). On the other hand, Turnbull has made bizarre interventions presumably intended to rehabilitate his image as both a small-l liberal and a regular guy, like his declaration that of course he is a “feminist”.

Labor has probably fared marginally better, thanks to Shorten’s ability to hold his side together under cover of low expectations. Channeling David Byrne lost in his oversized suit in Stop Making Sense, he has become the personification of how Labor is now a shrunken, crumpled version of its former glory, accepting it had to be cut down to size to get a shot at redemption. By the time he made it onto Q&A, the apologetic style was too much for this blogger to bear.


The crack-up to come

That the Xenophon group might gain several seats in South Australia by taking advantage of the low thresholds in a DD — as well as Mayo in the lower house — indicates both the level of disillusion with the political process as a whole, and the additional problems created by going to a full Senate election. As Michelle Grattan has noted, there is no guarantee that Xenophon and company will be any easier to deal with than the fractious (and fragmented) PUP brigade were last time around. Turnbull’s dire warnings against a protest vote may reflect electoral reality, but trying to sell the wet blanket named Bill as a risk after the Coalition antics of the last three years strains credibility.

The closeness of the polling has led Turnbull to order his side to direct preferences to Labor over the Greens. The deeper reason for Turnbull’s decision is worry that any advantage gained in driving Labor to defeat in safe seats like Batman will set a bad precedent. After all, something has to be done to stem the erosion of major party strength in their heartlands, even if once again it’s a process fix for a political difficulty.

All this is a world where Britain may accidentally leave the EU and Trump might steal the White House, in each case destabilising our politicians’ addiction to reliance on certain powerful friends for its credibility.

Whether the Coalition wins, or Labor scrapes across the line, or we get another hung parliament, what is certain is that this election will do nothing to resolve the malaise of Australian politics. The shells of the parties have, to date, withstood hostile takeover by a Trump-like character positioning themselves as aligned with civil society’s negativity towards politics. The closest they came was Rudd Mk I, and in that case the ALP institutions were strong enough to oust him, even if that meant inflicting near-lethal self-harm. Similarly, there has not been a political collapse dramatic enough for an outsider formation (like Spain’s Podemos) to disrupt the usual lines of division. The main parties hang on despite the erosion of their rusted-on support. And there is no obvious path to the kind of technocratic remedy that Van Onselen hints at.

If these options are closed off as a pathway to political regeneration prior to this election, the faultlines already evident during this interminable campaign suggest that a more definitive crack-up is not far off — whoever formally “wins” on 2 July.

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  1. […] left-versus-right party system that dominated Australian politics after World War II. This was the real story of the 2016 election campaign, despite the attempts of politicos and commentators to obscure it […]