“This is the most important election in a generation,” Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says. Shadow treasurer Joe Hockey goes further — the most important “in Australia’s history,” he thinks. Oppositions always think elections are the most important ever, and frequently governments do, too. “It’s pro forma to declare each election the most important in Australia’s history,” Paul Keating said about the 1990 election. “But this one is.”

And, of course, both sides insist they’re miles apart. The Coalition claims Labor MPs are blithering incompetents who have stuffed up everything they’ve touched. Labor insists the Coalition is a pack of ideologically driven lunatics who will drive the country into recession and gut education and health.

Well, let’s move through the issues that are important to voters and establish how different the parties really are, and whether the outcome of the election will be so critically important.

Economic management is by far the most important and influential issue for voters. Both sides have their plans to enhance productivity. Both sides claim the skill to manage the challenges ahead. But most importantly, both sides have committed to a fiscal policy that will delay a return to surplus for several years out of concern about the impact of spending cuts on economic growth; if anything, the Coalition now has, for all that debt’n’deficit rhetoric, a slightly looser policy than Labor’s, with no commitment to return to surplus in 2016-17 and a professed need for “appropriate stimulus” next year and in 2015. And now Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has shifted to embrace the Coalition’s Nationals-influenced policy on foreign investment, and he even signalled going further to embrace restrictions on foreign ownership in agriculture. And lest we forget, both sides now have a “Northern Australia” vision.

Health is always the second-most important issue for voters. Abbott specifically played down major change in announcing his health policy, speaking of “incremental change”, saying there’d be no change in overall funding and talking up the current health system (and as our longevity indicates, he’s right). And one of the few differences between the parties vanished on Wednesday night when, under pressure during the Rooty Hill debate, Abbott committed that no Medicare Locals would be closed. On aged care, about which Abbott was asked in the first debate, he also said bluntly he had the same policy as Labor.

Next most important issue is a toss-up between education and protecting local jobs. Let’s take education: there’s a self-professed “unity ticket” on education funding reform from Abbott, albeit only for four years, but quite how he’ll negotiate out of the Commonwealth agreements struck with NSW and Victoria after 2018 will make for interesting viewing. On protecting local jobs, as I’ve written previously, we have a genuine policy difference, with the Liberals finally breaking away from the reflexive industry support policies in place since the Hawke-Keating years, albeit without a clean break that would satisfy economic purists. They’ve also slashed much of the corporate handouts that accompanied the carbon pricing scheme. But handouts to the car industry will continue for the time being, as will 5% tariffs on imported vehicles that continue to punish consumers.

“On the big issues identified by voters as the ones that determine how they vote, there’s mostly minimal difference between the major parties.”

Beyond those four issues we start to get into the minor leagues in terms of what changes votes. On climate change there is a clear difference, with Labor backing a market mechanism already in place and the Coalition backing a big-government winner-picking policy that, more likely than not, will be hacked into pieces in the Expenditure Review Committee before too long (the unfortunate Greg Hunt has already had his climate change portfolio savaged to fund the Coalition’s promises, and it won’t stop once he’s in government).

On industrial relations, the Coalition’s commitment is, again, incremental change of the Fair Work Act with no prospect of major reform until a second term, except for its assault on basic rights via the return of the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

On asylum seekers, it is Labor that has formed the unity ticket with the Coalition, embracing the policies it rejected when it was first elected and extending them in ever more draconian ways, forcing the Coalition to move ever further to the Right in attacking asylum seekers.

And on tax reform, the Coalition has committed to a tax review, but it has fallen into line with Labor in committing to not revisit the GST while in government.

There are unity tickets on silence, as well. Both major parties have refused to say anything about the systematic assault by the US government on Australians’ online privacy and the Australian government’s complicity in it. Of the parties in parliament, only the Greens have released a suite of policies designed to improve consumers’ awareness of the extent of surveillance.

So where does that leave us? On the big issues identified by voters as the ones that determine how they vote, there’s mostly minimal difference between the major parties. For all the sound and fury over the last three years, through one of the most febrile and aggressive periods of political life we’ve seen for a long time, it’s come down to unity tickets just a week before the election.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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