GREG BAILEY. Problematic Trends Emerging from the 2019 Federal Election.

Irrespective of who finally wins Saturday’s election-and it looks like the ultra-conservative forces–, certain deeply disturbing observations can be made about the state of the Australian polity and the electorate. These evoke cultural and regional fissures long existing in Australia and an apparent shift away from any kind of critical thinking in making political and other judgements affecting the future of the country.

Saturday’s election seems to have been won for the LNP, and their conservative backers, in Queensland, Western Australia and Tasmania. But the absence of any significant swings against them in the other states is a clear indication of an underlying support for them across the nation. This is disturbing given that they virtually offered no new policies and refused to countenance serious action on climate change mitigation and increasing economic inequality. Nor did the mainstream media–even The Age–really call the Prime Minister’s lack of policy espousal to account, never asking why his one man campaign only served to strengthen the prejudices instilled so strongly in the minds of many elderly voters.

What was highly characteristic of the election campaign was the extent of distraction from what might be considered real issues. This was most noticeable in the saturation advertising of Clive Palmer, presenting broad principles with very little accompanying details. Whilst for Palmer the money expended is an investment which will now no doubt pay off handsomely, it captured the attention of the public–who either loved or hated him–as to why somebody would spend so much money with minimal possibility of winning. But it was also present in the media hyperbole concerning the number of candidates disendorsed from various parties on the basis of injudicious comments made on social media. These became personal interest stories–grist for the mill for many journalists–but contributing nothing to a recognition of the crucial issues facing the country.

A very considerable regional disparity has emerged with Queensland and Western Australia putting the LNP back into power with consistent swings towards them. This may perhaps be accounted for by the particular inferiority complex that affects some people in those states who believe they should not be subject to the will of those living in the large cities to the South and East respectively. This feeling has long existed. But it is also a reflection of the narrowness of the economic base of those two states and the incapacity of state or federal governments to improve educational standards–especially in non-urban areas–and to promote enterprises not based on the extractive or agricultural industries. These regional differences have always been there but have become much stronger over the past ten years, and reflect the influence of politicians who give simple sloganistic responses to complex problems. It is epitomized above all by North Queensland, but the potential for such disparity exists in other rural areas and has been exploited by the far right, but also very effectively by the National Party.

Finally, the apparent collapse of critical thinking as a factor in voter choice seems especially prominent in this election. Social media-especially FaceBook–makes everybody a potential expert. Almost no social media messages are refereed for factual consistency and most show no concern for critical analysis applied to evidenced-based material. The abiding effect of this is to place beliefs above critical thinking as a mode of testing assertions, that is, assuming uncritical belief allows assertions to be tested at all. This can be seen especially in commercial television where belief and opinion dominate all reporting in a very partisan manner. Again, this ties very effectively into the kinds of distractions seen in this campaign. It also reflects an increasing gap, both here and in other first world countries, between the so-called intelligentsia and the rest of the population, epitomised above all by Donald Trump’s support base accepting his chronic lying.

Two examples of this dominance of belief over critical thought can easily be cited. Firstly, the long-standing prejudice that the LNP are better economic managers than the ALP, a prejudice sustained in the light of so much evidence and analysis that the contrary is the truth. Secondly, is the apparent refusal in this election to take climate change mitigation seriously, even in the face of all the evidence of a changing climate impacting us more rapidly and destructively than originally predicted. The ALP, at least, put up some measures to deal with this, but the vote against them suggests these were not considered at all. That this is so may reflect a head-in-the-sand attitude, but it also reflects a belief that to do anything is impossible, given that Australia is (wrongly) held to be a small contributor to carbon warming.

All of this has been accompanied by a refusal of so many of the baby-boomers to countenance the possibility of intergenerational responsibility. Their concern to lead a retirement in gentle comfort and to manifest a belief that the problems of climate change, housing affordability and economic inequity can be put off to the next generation has above all shaped their vote for the short-term, unhindered by any selfless concern for the distant future. The LNP have exploited this vigorously with their reprisal of the axiom that the ALP is a high taxing government destined to take away the lifestyle of hard-working retirees. It seems to have worked brilliantly.

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Greg Bailey is Honorary Research Fellow in Asian Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

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