Two weeks in, and this election is starting to repeat itself. At the end of the first week, Malcolm Turnbull was accosted by “Melinda”, who wanted to know why it was expensive to send a kid to a state school — “they’re telling us to choose the year 10 subjects we can afford”. Turnbull wanted to talk blather about single parenting, before Melinda cut him off: “I don’t need help on that side of it, I need affordable education.” The papers styled it Malcolm’s “Melinda moment”, hoping it would take off. It didn’t.
There was a brief two-day flurry when Labor ballast-load David Feeney’s housing arrangements were brought to light — three houses, one not on the assets register, one bought from Kathy Jackson, and his Canberra allowance paid as rent to his wife — which was followed by a media beat-up of Richard Di Natale’s arrangements, which were falsely made to look somehow comparable. This was capped off by a police raid on an MP’s office for documents of little worth in criminal terms, but greatly embarrassing to the government, the recounting of which showed government and AFP duplicity or incompetence or both. By the start of this week, Fairfax journos were being withdrawn from the campaign buses, reassigned to Real Housewives recaps. Yesterday morning, Turnbull was accosted over aged-care funding (restaging The Thick Of It moment when a hapless minister on walkabout is asked, “Do you know what it’s like to clean up your own mother’s piss?”) by Diane Lang. Alas there was no “Diane doorstop” moment. By the end of the day the story had all but disappeared.
With six weeks to go, the election has entered ghost territory. It is travelling along like one of those small planes in which pilot and passengers have died from a monoxide leak into the cabin, the aircraft drifting across the continent on auto-pilot. The major parties’ policy offerings are different enough in one respect — Labor has moved left, into a progressive statism, while Turnbull and crew have become enamoured of Silicon Valley, low tax, entrepreneurship, etc. But neither has enough in the cupboard for a traditional four-week campaign, let alone this monster. There may be a few big policy surprises closer to the final weeks, but they too will be drawn into the huge gaping maw of this pseudo-event. Doubtless the Coalition has a few (more) dirty tricks ready to be deployed. Yet judging by the underwhelming impact of the AFP raid — which was not, of course, a political act, no way, how dare you, etc — it is difficult to know what there is that cannot be absorbed into the maw.
This insanely drawn-out process is having an effect that the political caste cannot like much — exposing the farcical and semi-democratic nature of the whole business. The election is taking place at a point where rising inequality and the “squeeze” on the middle class is beginning to bite (far more so than either major party was really aware of), an election in which what was previously a “budget emergency” has been quietly disappeared. It’s an election being fought in the final period before our economy starts to reverse on us, and the golden period finishes.
There is a sense that we are simply filling in time before the new situation emerges, and questions of equality, the state, taxation and spending are put to us with more urgency and a clearer sense that the country can choose one path or the other. Because we can’t really face those big questions until the new situation is here, the current election is starting to put the question of politics itself front and centre. David Feeney’s ghost house, lurking off the books, might have been the start of it, pinging the Bunter of Batman as the personification of the system — political lifers, using both the general boondoggles available to everyone (i.e. negative gearing) and combining them with boondoggles only available to politicians (i.e. the accommodation allowance).
Last night’s Four Corners turned attention on the whole system of political donations — or our lack of one. Will some form of groundswell put the whole system front and centre, as this interminable election starts to cave in at the centre? Probably not. The election is geared to the marginal electorates, to the working-middle classes within them, and to their keen sense, honed over recent decades, of exactly what they are being offered. The whole thing could really be done in a fortnight.
But it seems impossible that something big will not happen in the next few weeks, one that will turn the election on its ear, and make the start of the campaign unrecognisable from the other end of it. Boredom, as Napoleon once remarked, is the most underestimated force in history. The sheer inability to put up with a masquerade may well push people to do something, anything to show that they are not fooled. Whatever it will be, if it comes, it will come from the outside of the system, not the phantom process currently haring round the country in empty buses.