The “jobs and growth” mantra of the government already seems to have hit the stage of relentless monotony that I seem to recall from Labor’s 2007 equivalent, “working families”. But the latter looks positively authentic compared with its current iteration.

Given the stasis in most of the published polling, jobs and growth (say it fast and it sounds like “sobs and goth”) can’t be said to have given Malcolm Turnbull any kind of bounce. And last week’s loathsome attack on all those job-hungry refugees suggests a remarkable lack of confidence in the ability of the government to set out any kind of framework for employment growth.

Turnbull promised much in this department: at the very least, a sophisticated conversation about how Australia negotiates its way to opportunity in a world of large-scale labour market disruption. After all, the bloke who made a decent quid out of the start-up OzEmail could be said to have practically invented the prototype for the 21st-century worker: the tech-savvy, STEM-trained, critical-thinking, enterprising wunderkind so beloved of HR recruiters.

Our universities, in spite of the slings and arrows of repeated policy shifts, are doing a pretty good job at producing just this kind of graduate. No doubt in the weeks ahead, the campaign teams of both sides will put in an appearance at the innovation hubs and accelerator programs of the Go8 institutions. It can only be hoped that these visits spur a more coherent and consistent approach to government-supported research.

Of course, just outside the frame of the political leaders and their momentary gushing endorsement for all this digital creativity will be an army of graduates yet to feel the love. It now takes four years, on average, for young Australians to find full-time employment after graduation, and that might not be in the field for which they are trained. And as the latest data shows, graduates are chasing jobs in a market where growth in wages is anaemic.

The latest figures show the wage price index has come off a long-term average of 3.5% to just 2%, a fall greater than many other developed countries. So what’s the promise for the coming generation? We’ve spent years lecturing about the value of tertiary education with the implied expectation that it will deliver at least a version of the good Aussie life.

The reality for many is job instability, variable incomes and rental and housing options that require ongoing parental subsidies. That’s the getting by scenario. Less skilled 20-somethings find themselves in a world where repetitive work is being automated. Australia already has large pockets of disadvantage, and it’s hard to see that this won’t become a greater problem as more young workers have to survive on the economic margins.

So how’s that jobs and growth message going? Can’t see it engendering too much excitement myself, and it’s instructive to see that Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity has taken a big fall among younger voters. On the latest Fairfax-Ipsos, polling support among 18- to 25-year-olds has dropped from a high of 60% to 46% in the space of six months, and there’s an even bigger drop in support from those aged under 39.

Some of this disenchantment can be attributed to a sense that Turnbull doesn’t appear to be taking his cues from that nice inclusive Justin Trudeau, but instead has developed a political persona more than willing to take a turn into the badlands. High-octane community views on refugees notwithstanding, the price of last week’s unqualified backing of Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s confused conflation of “illiterate refugees” with fear-mongering about a lunge on local jobs will be a greater electoral focus on the question, who is Malcolm?

Personal definition counts in politics, and the old rule applies: define yourself before your enemies do it for you. Already some commentators are categorising Turnbull, only nine months into his prime ministership, as just another transactional politician, someone who operates from deal to deal.

This election is still Turnbull’s to lose, and the niceties of belief and conviction run a long way behind the hard grind of securing the votes, seat by marginal seat. But as recent history in Australia has shown us, hard-driving leaders can win elections, but they struggle to govern.

My sense is that the country is still willing Turnbull to succeed and break the cycle of policy ineffectiveness that has plagued us for years. Gravitas may be too much to ask for, but Turnbull’s authority and claim on the office will be enhanced if, over the next few weeks, he articulates a convincing set of principles that will guide his next term in office.

Above all, Turnbull needs to live up to his own rhetoric. When he sent Abbott to the backbench last September he promised “a different kid of leadership … one that explains challenges and opportunities. A style of leadership that respects the people’s intelligence, that explains these complex issues and then sets out the course of action we believe we should take and makes a case for it. We need advocacy, not slogans.”

Hear hear, said millions of Australians, and from all sides of the political divide. Well, it’s delivery time, and the slogan of jobs and growth is a long long way from an honest discourse about how we sustain living standards in a world of low growth and tepid private investment. Anxiety in the electorate suggests there’s a gut feeling we can’t — that the best is behind us and the future is a scary place.

Shifting this sentiment will take a lot more than a set of dreary talking points. In the same way that enduring friendship often comes down to the way like-minded individuals enliven each other, communities can be nourished by a sense of what can be. Show us your best self, Malcolm. What are you waiting for?

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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