Voters, it seems, are deeply unhappy. They’re certainly unhappy with the government, and judging by opinion polls prepared to throw it out with sufficient force to cripple Labor for a the best part of a decade.

But they’re also deeply unhappy with Tony Abbott. The recent Australian tradition has been that successful opposition leaders have high approval ratings from voters in the lead-up to winning office. Abbott is every bit as unpopular as the widely loathed Julia Gillard. The Prime Minister can at least reflect that she has earned her unpopularity through some substantial economic reform; Abbott’s unpopularity is derived purely from his negative, wrecking style.

They’re unhappy about other things, as well. They’re unhappy about a lot of the economic reforms of the past three decades. They’re convinced, against all evidence, that they can’t keep up with the cost of living. They think Australia is becoming less fair. An angry sense of entitlement, an expectation that government exists to hand out much-deserved money to voters, pervades political debate.

One result is a kind of Fantasy Football in which people speculate whether other leaders, most particularly Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd, would do a better job of actually providing leadership. This overlooks that both men had stints as leaders, and both alienated voters — although Rudd’s polling never came close to the dark depths to which Gillard has sunk in voters’ esteem. Another result is the effort by independents such as Rob Oakeshott to somehow improve parliamentary standards and the quality of debate, an effort fiercely resisted by both major parties.

The party, or the leader, that finds a way to respond to voters’ discontent in an intelligent way that resolves many of its internal contradictions stands to benefit from potentially massive support. But such a task may be beyond our current generation of politicians, or any previous ones, for that matter.

This may be the politics we’re stuck with. We better make the most of it.

Peter Fray

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