JOHN MENADUE. What the major parties ignored in the election?

Jul 6, 2016


The election seemed more about avoiding some key issues than a contest of values and ideas.

Because so many key issues such as refugees were avoided, it is not surprising that so many voters, about one third, turned their backs on the major parties. Some issues like the NBN were widely canvassed in social media but largely ignored in the public campaign.

Take a few key issues.

The obvious and most appalling absence from the public discussion was refugees and the plight of people that we have incarcerated on Manus and Nauru. They are concentration camps, run in our name. Malcolm Turnbull tried to run the boats issue for a while, but Bill Shorten clung to him so tenaciously that the public would not think there was any difference at all between the two parties on refugees.. And that is unfortunately true. The Minister for Immigration and Border Protection was hidden from sight after a major indiscretion. His shadow, Richard Marles, was unheard of during the whole campaign.

Last September, the Abbott government announced that we would take 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq. Most Australians were pleased and relieved by that decision but only about 200 have arrived because of a lack of ministerial will, departmental breakdown and fear of ‘terrorists’ who might slip through our intelligence screening. The Canadians have shown that if there is a will there is a way.

Our disgraceful treatment of and behaviour towards refugees was put in the ‘too hard ‘basket throughout the election. Let’s not talk about it.

Foreign policy was scarcely discussed at all. Perhaps that is not so surprising as we really do not have any Australian foreign policy to speak of, or to be proud of. Our ‘foreign policy’ has been taken over by the defence, security and military clique led by the Department of Defence, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and the Office of National Assessment. These institutions in turn are heavily dependent on the US Departments of Defence and State for advice and direction. Our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been emasculated and sidelined. ASIO and ASIS are generously funded but not DFAT. In ignoring the plight of the poor she allowed the ODA budget to be cut to shreds.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, has perhaps accepted the inevitable reduced role for herself and DFAT and satisfies herself as the senior consular officer handling cases on behalf of Australians stranded or in trouble overseas.

Nowhere during the election was there any meaningful discussion about the future of our relations with the US and China and how we might build an architecture to minimize possible conflict. The Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tanya Plibersek, was scarcely heard, at least publicly, on the central issues of our relationship with the US and building relations in the region. We all now march to the US military drum.

It is almost too awful to consider that we don’t have an Australian foreign policy any more. If we do have one, hidden somewhere perhaps, we certainly didn’t discuss it during the election.

Then there is a particular defence issue – the $50 billion we are spending on submarines in South Australia. South Australians are excited about this enormous build and economic benefit to the state. Coming after the demise of the auto industry that enthusiasm is understandable but there is likely to be great disappointment. It was not examined during the election.

With the subsidy of $500 million a year, not high by international standards, our auto industry employed directly and indirectly about 200,000 people, most of them in South Australia and Victoria. The Abbott government pushed the auto industry out the door. Yet the Turnbull government boasts that it will be spending $50 billion on the submarine build that will employ about 2,800 people in Australia; if we are lucky. That will be about $4 million for every job created. It is unsustainable nonsense.

But it is even worse. The strategic justification for this $50 billion spend is so that we can operate large conventional submarines in the South China Sea to contain and combat China. What stupidity! Even the US, it seems will not welcome our submarine participation in the South China Sea.

But is it in our interests to provoke China in this way at great risk, enormous cost and with doubtful benefits. The Germans offered a substantially lower price, $20 billion, with a much earlier delivery so that we would not have to upgrade the Collins class submarine, and at no cost penalty for building in Adelaide rather than in Germany.

Yet for fear of upsetting South Australian voters, both the government and the opposition decided to call a truce on this remarkable and wasteful decision which is unsustainable and will start unraveling after July 2. But almost by agreement the major parties decided not to debate this boondoggle of a deal.

Climate change is undoubtedly the most pressing issue of all. The government’s ‘direct action’ plan was described some time ago by Malcolm Turnbull as a fig leaf to hide the fact that the coalition had no sensible policy to combat carbon pollution. Yet even though the ALP was pointing in the right direction on climate change, it seemed very reluctant to press its better policy. A truce was declared again.

And so on the NBN where the ALP policy of fibre-to-the-premises is much superior, it seemed unwilling, at least publicly to press its case. According to Twitter the NBN was the fifth most important issue for Twitter followers.

On the pressing issue of budget repair, a truce has been declared. In an uncertain world where economic and political shocks like GFC and Brexit do occur this truce will ensure that Australia is much more vulnerable in the years ahead.

On Medicare, I have no doubt that the coalition with its powerful backers, private health insurance funds, private hospitals and the AMA, will continue to promote changes that will eat away Medicare from within. The Coalition will maintain the shell, but the erosion from within will continue. The coalition and its key supporters have never really believed in a public single payer in healthcare. This was abundantly clear from the early days when Medibank/Medicare was launched. It has been opposed from that day on by the coalition and its vested interest supporters.

Medicare is under threat but the ALP would have been on stronger ground in explaining the real threat, the powerful private health insurance lobby, rather than possible changes to the payment system.

All in all, important issues were either ignored completely or touched upon so lightly that there was little adult contest of values and ideas.


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