Once again the campaign is exciting — not because of the depth, brilliance or unpredictability of the player, but simply because it is close.
At the start of the final week, it remains anyone’s race. On the latest polls, the government should scrape home. But everything depends on a handful of marginal seats, particularly in Queensland. If Labor can hold its losses in the Sunshine State to about seven, Julia Gillard will fall over the line. If the figure reaches 10, Tony Abbott has pulled off an improbable victory.
It is not clear why Labor is so badly on the nose north of the Tweed, but the consistent polling cannot be denied, and at this late stage it appears that the desperation tactic of bringing Kevin Rudd back into the field has failed. One way or another, his reappearance seems only to have reminded people why they turned against Labor in the first place.
And this is the last great unanswered question of lacklustre campaign. At a time when Australia, alone among the developed nations, has dodged a global economic crisis and emerged with low unemployment, inflation under control and interest rates still well below their historical levels, why is the government teetering on the verge of losing office after less than three years?
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OK, the dropping of key policies and the change of leadership didn’t help; but given that the alternative is, to put it mildly, a bit of a risk and Australian voters are notoriously risk averse. Indeed the whole campaign from both sides has been based on avoiding risk; the staging, the timidity and the lack of any hint of action that could raise the electorate’s pulse rate has been its chief characteristic.
There have been no big-game breakers such as climate change and WorkChoices were in 2007; the nearest example has been national broadband, and that emerged too late and too technical to fill the gap. Instead, it has been t-t for tat handouts and slaps and the last few days look like providing more of the same: a final rain of pork in the marginals, an eye-glazing argument about costings and a ramped-up scare about boat people.
In the desperate hope that I had been missing something by keeping my distance, last weekend I briefly joined the circus following the Prime Minister. Gillard had announced a real policy on climate change — well, as a real as a policy that did not put a price on carbon could be. It attempted to control the level of carbon emissions by allowing farmers to verify and receive credits for any measures they took that would lessen emissions and then trade the credits for real money on the international market.
In Abbott’s version the government would pick the winners and the Australian taxpayers would foot the bill; in Gillard’s it would be run independently and paid for by international polluters. It was a vast improvement, a policy worth spruiking, and she conveniently chose to spruik it at the Wollongbar Agricultural Institute in my neighbouring electorate of Page, so I went along to watch.
The Prime Minister was late, but the hacks who were following her on the campaign trail were used to that. It had not, one veteran confessed, been a jolly four weeks — not nearly as much fun as it had been with Kevin Rudd, three years earlier. But the mood on the bus was reasonably upbeat.
More so, it turned out, among the camera crews than the journos; more than ever, the campaign was all about television events. The forthcoming announcement that farmers would be able to claim carbon credits for measures they took on their properties and then trade them on the international market for real money had appeared in the morning papers and was running on radio, but it would not be real until there were pictures to go with it.
Thus Gillard, together with Climate Change Minister Penny Wong and Agriculture Minister Tony Burke – a ministerial triptych — were delivered to a paddock whose rural tranquillity was disturbed only by the roar of traffic on the adjacent highway and a barking dog, presumably of National Party tendencies. A group of cows was mustered for the occasion; the Prime Minister, resplendent in jeans and cowboy boots, resisted the temptation to inquire if they were mooooving forward. She chatted to the farm workers, had a cup of tea and ate quite a lot of blueberries supplied by a local admirer.
Finally, after all traces of bullsh-t had been removed from camera range, she made the big announcement and settled own to the usual questions from the youngish press pack — the heavies had by now bailed out to pontificate. The hacks were a lot more friendly than I remembered them being with Rudd, and it was all pretty low key. The Prime Minister was content to be simply Julia, real or not. She appeared in good spirits, cool and controlled, and there was never any risk that she would lose the script.
But somehow it was a bit of a let down; I had been hoping for more passion But then, I had been hoping for bit more passion for the past four weeks, and indeed for quite a long time before that. And this, I feel, is the heart of the problem: if the politicians present themselves as nothing more than glorified accountants, people who refuse to raise their eyes above the bottom line, who never dare to dream and pour scorn on those who do as impractical fools unfit to take part in modern politics then we, the voters, will follow suit.
If they tell us they care about the future but show neither vision nor emotion about it, why should we care any more than they do? We vote without enthusiasm or conviction, and often in the belief that whatever we do will make no real difference; that the ritual is no longer worthwhile. And when we, the people, reject the democratic process, the very spirit of the nation withers and dies.
And that, my friends, is the story of the double disillusion election of 2010.