Campaign needs a touch of the spiritual

Apr 17, 2022
Australian government politics symbol
Image: Pixabay

Australia is calling out for leadership, for ideas, for enduring values and for decisive choices.

A succession of sacred holy-days for the people of the Book – the Passover, Easter, and the month of Ramadan provide good secular occasions to cause a pause to an already dreary election campaign. Sadly, however, the themes of the religious feasts – of liberation from slavery, of sacrifice and redemption, of revelation, reflection, renewal and empathy for those less fortunate – seem unlikely to much affect the course of the campaign. That’s a pity in a nation calling out for leadership, for ideas, for enduring values and for decisive choices.

Perhaps the first point of the mutual wrong turning is that the two major parties seem to think that the election is first and foremost a referendum about them rather than a choice about the sort of Australians we want to be. Seen as the former, one can see the parties carefully choosing their ground, so that good points – or their carefully confected images – are at best vantage. The idea is of a beauty quest in which voters must vote for one charismatic standard-bearer or another. Implicitly, the winner will later verbal voters by insisting that the choice made –even if it was of the least bad – is a mandate for future action, as well (if one is the incumbent) as an electoral dispensation of responsibility for dubious past actions.

In framing such contests, political parties and their leaders have consulted pollsters, focus groups, marketers and advertising folk looking for ways of framing themselves as thoughtful, caring and experienced, and the other side as reckless and incompetent. Slogans are chosen to simplify, but emphasise, differences. Both positive and negative messages will contain important code words appealing not to the best and the most noble of human aspirations, but the worst, the meanest and most unworthy.

The focus on deflecting, or commandeering public thinking, not addressing it

The main purpose of all of the research, and most of the listening tours, is not, of course, to find out what the people want, or even what they need. The parties, of course, have pre-determined views about that. It is, rather, to discover the best means of getting alongside such views or sentiments, inveigling voters to think that one’s party better understands the problem, its priority, and the solutions. Only rarely in doing so will parties show the policies, programs and philosophies they will bring to bear. Instead, usually, there will be some gestures – promises of spending, for example – some warm but essentially meaningless indications of goodwill and claims that the other side is ill-disposed to the cause.

As each party attempts to phrase its pitch, and to take it around the constituencies, whole fields of government are ignored as being unlikely to drag in votes proportionate to the commitment or the political risk involved. It has become clear already in the campaign for example that Labor is not interested in engaging in any sort of foreign policy or defence debate, whether over China, Russia and Ukraine, or even over the Solomon Islands, except in the case of the latter over the allegation of being asleep on the job.

Nor is it in the slightest bit interested in any sort of fundamental questions about our defence posture, the military equipment Australia needs in coming decades, or the capacity and calibre – and fitness for purpose — of our intelligence and defence establishment. Nor in any questions about the balances between an increasingly oppressive national security and national surveillance state – complete with authoritarian and blinkered comptrollers – and individual liberties. This reluctance is, of course, for fear of being misrepresented, or wedged, as much as it is a tactical decision about the constituencies to whom it hopes to appeal (or not to frighten), or the overall impression that the party wants voters to take away from the buffet.

Labor has long struggled with the popular opinion that the coalition is a more reliable, cautious and prudent manager of the economy, even when the evidence is in fact in the opposite direction. The coalition has presented itself as the party of lower public spending, lower taxes and lower deficits, as well as of smaller government and the disposition to hand over matters to the private sector rather than leave it with public servants.

For the government, it sometimes seems that mere constant repetition of doubtful claims and slogans, and adverse comparisons with the records of previous governments is enough to raise the spectre of well-meaning but incompetent administration, and debt and deficit disasters. Even where there is evidence to contradict this – and there is plenty of it – the tendency of Labor’s electoral geniuses is to think that one should fight holding actions only, since such battles are on the other side’s ground, with decisive victories almost impossible. After week one, that feeling might be accentuated by the feeling that Anthony Albanese is not playing with his long suit in attacking the government’s economic record or defending his own. That ought not matter, since he has more than enough competent lieutenants who can hold their own – if only they were allowed to properly participate in front-line debates.

If a defeatist Labor were to accept that economic management and national security were not its natural strong points, it might readily say that social spending, on health, education and community services – and, these days, infrastructure spending – were where support was to be found. Polling, after all, has rated Labor as being superior to the coalition in its view on such matters. This time about, Labor has put a strong focus on improving the quality of aged care, and the size and remuneration of its workforce, as well as improved child-care services and social housing. If these are worthy – and achievable aspirations – they occur against a backdrop of a conscious decision that Labor will not act to improve welfare benefits, at least in its first budget – and a studied unwillingness to do anything practical about the culture of cruelty and meanness, mindless and mechanical persecution of welfare recipients. This is inspired by the fear that someone might be getting too much, or by the Victorian-era theory that welfare must be carefully meted out lest it lead to indolence, fecklessness or to expenditure on alcohol and tobacco. Labor, apparently, is a champion of the workers, not of the underclasses or the poor. It’s all faith and hope, but no charity.

Wanted: sound policy behind gimmicks, give-aways and election specials

Fear, caution, and small-target obsession is affecting Labor’s capacity to make the most of what it has accepted to be a major over-riding election theme of the capacity – the restoration of regularity and integrity in government decision-making, and the establishment of a strong anti-corruption commission. Numerous ministers from the prime minister down, are very vulnerable on this score, the more so for brazen insouciance when questioned about it. There is no doubt that the electorate disapproves, even if, sometimes, voters suspect that an alternative government will soon be up to the same tricks.

Labor seems to think that a focus on scandal might rebound on them, in much the same way that a campaign about bullying, or about violence against women, can. Particularly when faced with a generally hostile mainstream media, increasingly obsessed with gotcha moments, alleged instances (in the Labor camp) of hypocrisy, and one-sided demands for costings. A hostile media, like the poor, will always be there for Labor, but running away from questions, and avoiding putting things out there are no answer. Poor behaviour, in any event, should be condemned; misrepresented behaviour confuted.

The biggest risk from an integrity commission is not of election backfire, but the discovery, in office, that it is a mixed blessing. Commissions, of their nature, tend to be forward focused, even when aware that there are rich pickings in inquesting old history, particularly of former regimes. As Nick Greiner or Barry O’Farrell found That’s no more a reason for walking away than the self-serving opposition from News Ltd ranters, or those with guilty consciences worried about kangaroo courts. Good government, with integrity, like good policy, brings its own political rewards.

The cynic will also wonder whether Labor has the guts or the appetite for carrying on with war crimes investigations – mostly over atrocities during its own periods in government. Present inquiries are proceeding at a glacial pace, and so, it seems, is ADF cooperation, probably on instruction. It is unlikely that there will be any prosecutions before 2024 or 2025, and eventually someone pragmatic will suggest that, however deplorable, the delays have been too great.

Labor has indicated that it thinks proceedings against defence whistle blowers, such as Witness K, David McBride, or the lawyer Bernard Collaery should be abandoned. It is already compromised by its own past actions in such matters.

No doubt Labor has plans for any number of attractive offers at appropriate moments during the campaign – bearing in mind that there will be another three-day hiatus, caused by Anzac Day, before the last 26 days of the campaign. No doubt they have been refined and polished to be simultaneously generous but limited in time or space. We can assume that each touches on a neglected field of administration and suggests future delights, or at least the understanding that a decade of coalition cost-cutting and neglect is soon to be over, albeit under continuing but genuine conservative economic management.

What still disappoints, however, is how many of these goodies, programs and promises are chosen for their individual delights, rather than as a natural development and outcrop of closely-thought-out policy.

It is true that opposition proposals on aged care are largely taken from the royal commission report, and as such represent more than a grab bag of promises. In adopting the report, indeed, Labor has taken on the hard choices, including about minimum nursing staff levels and what these involve in the way of increasing the aged-care workforce and the low level of pay for workers in the field.

Even so, these proposals can be seen only within the context of wider problems. The quantity and the quality of the aged-care workforce is, for example, a subset of a more general problem of medical-staff shortages in hospitals, in public health, community care and even in childcare. A massive labour market investment must happen before supply can meet demand. Just as importantly, the whole area suffers as much from retention problems as from recruitment problems. No doubt better remuneration (and, it is to be hoped, better and more secure career progress) can address some of the attrition problems, but it will only be some. And, eventually, Albanese must face a problem the royal commission admitted but did not resolve – the contradiction between for- profit facilities and the best practice in quality of care, of food, of service and of staffing.

Social infrastructure investment is more urgently needed than roads, ports and railways

Infrastructure has long been a mantra for Albanese, but he has for too long regarded it as primarily a matter of trains, roads and physical things. These may well enable better and more efficient industry, and serve as labour market programs in action, at least insofar as “infrastructure” is efficient at delivering jobs in these days. But the Labor focus has been too little on social infrastructure, or on investment in schools, hospitals, TAFEs and universities, as well as in the run-down facilities, including social housing, in rural and remote communities and in some of the poorer areas of the cities. These are just as crucial factors in efficient capitalism in the new economy, and in the aspiration that Australia is again to be a place which makes things, or which can make things happen.

Modern political parties have tended to shy away from allowing policy matters to be at the centre of election campaigns. Good policy involves discussing choices and consequences and thinking aloud. This is not always easily dressed up with convenient slogans, artists’ impressions and frank discussions of the lobbies and vested interests blowing in one’s ear. Besides, the public service has run down its capacity to analyse, develop, propose and review good policy, and very few of those offering external advice are really disinterested. What’s even more dangerous, though it can be exhilarating, is that open discussion of better ways of resolving public problems has a tendency to bring in citizens, constituents, and public interest groups, rather than the vested interests, including the provider groups, that modern ministerial officers and ministers find easier to manage. Public enthusiasm is all very well if a minister is conducting the orchestra. Not so wonderful if it is focusing and sharpening criticism for limited agenda and imagination, and unwillingness to deal with elephants in the room.

The major political parties have more than $100 million of taxpayers’ funds with which to have a conversation with the Australian community about the sort of nation we want to be. What a pity so much of that money, once in the hands of the advertising agencies is concentrated on narrowing, rather than widening the debate, and on shutting out, rather than inviting in, the views of the wider public. This election does not require a total discipline by players, ensuring they are constantly on script. Or speaking only when authorised in writing. It requires candidates who are thinking aloud, moving, but not in lockstep, in a clear generally agreed direction. Not focused on set-pieces, the moment-to-moment scoring of the mainstream media, or memorisation of 100 separate statistics, but on engaging with the minds, the emotions and the will of the wider electorate.

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