It is two weeks since Australia went to the polls, but are we any wiser as to what actually transpired at the ballot box and during the preceding weeks of mind numbing electioneering? Politicians and commentators alike have single-mindedly focused on the ‘surprising’ election result – shocking for some, miraculous for others. But few if any of the explanations ring true.
Shorten, who was widely viewed as having run a tight ship and performed better than expected, is now said to have misread the mood of the electorate, and failed to communicate complex and overambitious policies. Morrison, who was generally thought to have run a solid but uninspiring campaign largely devoid of policy substance, is now portrayed as having cleverly exploited the weaknesses of his opponent, and mercilessly contrasted the stability offered by his government with Labor’s rash promises.
All of this is at best simplistic rationalisation after the fact – made no more persuasive by senior Labor Party figures now prepared to mouth the same platitudes. There is no denying Labor’s dismal performance in Queensland, but its share of the vote elsewhere was disappointing to say the least. In Victoria, widely regarded as the standard bearer of progressive politics, Labor managed a swing of just 1.4% cent (more than offset by the fall of 1.8% cent in the Green vote). In Victoria Labor’s share of the vote was a lowly 37% (2% less than the Coalition’s), and lower still in all other states.
The reality is that in Australia, as in other parts of the Western world, a weary public, deeply disenchanted with the current state of politics, is increasingly anxious about the future – and this for reasons few are able or willing to articulate.
Unsurprisingly, the public paid little attention to the election campaign. They were not listening to political speeches, not tuning in to the leaders’ debates, not following the media commentary. Some of the more independent journalists labelled the utterances of politicians ‘tedious’, lacklustre’, ‘scraping the barrel’. Others pointed to a lack of trust, empty rhetoric and futile point-scoring.
Political parties and their leaders, it is true, have been too busy appealing to the hip pocket nerve or ill-founded fears to worry about the bigger picture of Australia’s future. But are they alone in this?
The commentariat itself has said remarkably little about what this bigger picture looks like. Even the so-called quality media have done little to identify the key challenges ahead, let alone explore how we might constructively respond as a nation.
Simply put, the failings of the current election campaign are symptoms of a deeper and more widespread social ailment. If the discourse of the political class falls short of the mark, it is in large measure because public discourse and engagement, our cultural and educational institutions, and our media seem unable to envision, let alone practise a different kind of politics.
As a consequence, the election campaign was conducted in what is best described as a political vacuum. Absent from the political conversation were most of the issues that will largely shape the future.
Neither of the two existential threats of our time, climate change and nuclear weapons, received adequate attention. On the nuclear issue, in particular the nuclear ban treaty which the Coalition government has steadfastly opposed, not a word from political parties, the media or pretty much anyone else.
On climate change, Labor did make the case for more concerted action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the Greens advocated the phasing out of fossil fuel mining and fossil fuel based electricity generation. But neither was able to explain how we got to the present perilous stage, or the far-reaching restructuring of the economy that was now necessary, and its inevitable implications for both production and consumption of goods and services.
Very little emerged in the course of the election campaign, or for that matter before it, by way of a reasoned discussion of immigration or the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. The rapidly evolving multicultural fabric of Australian society and its implications for future policy were largely ignored.
And apart from periodic outbursts on the multiple threats posed by China’s rise, little or no light was shed on how Australia might negotiate the global power and civilisational shift from the West to Asia, and what the implications might be for economy, security and culture.
Our lingering links with imperial power in the West were equally relevant to the complex but essential task of reshaping the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia. In so many different but closely interlinked ways, Australia is called upon, perhaps with greater urgency than at any time since European settlement, to rethink how we might reconcile our history and our geography. Outside of a few outlets with limited outreach, little of this has surfaced into the public arena.
The evasive approach to the questions raised above has been reflected in the deliberate silence regarding the future of our democracy. Yet, so many questions required sustained deliberation. Are human rights and civil liberties imperilled? Are our political institutions in need of reform? Can parliaments, political parties, the apparatus of government, citizen participation, the media, both conventional and digital, continue to function as they presently do? If not, what options might be at our disposal, and how might we go about it?
All of which begs the question of what can reasonably expect of our educational institutions. Issues of funding are no doubt critically important, but funding is but a means to an end. The more fundamental question is: what must we do if our schools, colleges and universities are to equip a new generation with the skills and insights required for citizenship in a globalising yet fragmented world?
Close reflection on these daunting but unavoidable challenges sheds new on the election campaign we’ve just endured and on whether and whether and how we might be able to fashion a national conversation better fitted to the demands of our time.
Joseph Camilleri is Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University. He chairs the planning group of a year-long project [email protected] – the proceedings of the landmark Conference on 23-24 April 2019 can now be viewed here