Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek pose for a selfie on the campaign trail in Sydney
Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek pose for a selfie on the campaign trail in Sydney

Et tu, Margo? Et tu? Then die, Australian democracy! Yes, Margo Kingston, the most stalwart of those urging us on to believe that this election was a true contest of forces and ideas, has all but thrown in the towel.

No one can doubt her valiance. Through four weeks as the buses of the major parties have wandered across the country like lost crusaders looking for a city to sack, as the indifference has seen the election retreat to page 3 of the tabloids, as the journalists have melted away from the buses, as the iview of the leaders’ debate is prescribed for insomnia, Margo has stayed strong. If she can’t find the strength to go on, then it’s all over. It’s like that terrible moment when the rhythm guitarist looks up and says “You know what? This is bullshit — we’re just making noise” and the whole thing just falls apart.

That is good news for Malcolm Turnbull who, until the start of last week, was widely supposed to be losing the one-on-one battle. Turnbull appeared diffident, unleaderly, unable to get into it, and rather as if he had made a mistake in calling such a long innings.

Bill Shorten, by contrast, was in his element. He looked perked up, enlivened, on point, for the first time in, well, since he’d become Opposition Leader. But of course he did. He’s been doing this sort of thing for decades, in the Labor movement, campaigning to get the ninth spot on the services committee of the Frittlers Union for the Network Right. This election is simply that pointless grinding tedium writ large.

As Malcolm failed to keep focus, and couldn’t disguise his desire to be not too close to people, unless those people were close to a steam train, Shorten slowly began to prevail. In an electorate that prizes stability of character — after bitter experience — Turnbull had looked like the Patriarch of the Greek orthodox church compared to Tony Abbott. But that was then. Now Shorten’s deathful absence of spark looks like quiet maturity compared to Turnbull’s five-minute spin cycle.

Or it did, until last week. That was when sprockets sprang out of Labor in all directions, with a campaign that simultaneously raised future deficits, wouldn’t use the world “raised”, and announced that Turnbull was putting our triple A rating in jeopardy. Commentators talked about what a disaster week it was for Labor — and it would certainly be, if anyone is actually listening. If they are listening, it’s the “can’t trust Labor” moment, and Labor’ll slide back down the greasy pole. But that’s a big “if”.

When you get a campaign screw-up like this, it’s usually the product of passionate debate and discord within the party command. Everyone’s convinced they know the one cool trick to win the election, and the other guys will lose it. This time ’round, the stuff-up has the feel of either being too clever by half, or a stuff-up through sheer inertia, as if no one could be bothered to communicate with each other.

It’s the vague air of Mogadon that suffuses the whole Labor campaign, as if they feel they could sleepwalk into power. (Bizarrely, just as I typed this sentence, while watching Bill’s soporific Q&A appearance, the term “Mogadon” was tweeted by … Margo Kingston. Do they even sell moggies anymore? ‘Cos I want some.)

The temper of this election has declined towards absolute zero, because it is at the very end of a long cycle — one lasting decades, in which the differences between the two major parties, established as a deep philosophical and class difference, has been steadily running down. Consider this: in 1949, one party wanted to nationalise the entire banking system, while the other wanted to criminalise any leftist they deemed a “Communist” (which was to be more than just card-carriers).

The parties did not simply offer different programs, they didn’t simply have different value systems. They had different metaphysics, different ideas of how the world worked — one attributing value in the economy to the labour of workers, while the other saw it as a product of the entrepreneur’s risk-taking and ingenuity. From the worldview, which came from the class base, flowed the value system and the program.

Over the decades, any sort of “socialist” metaphysic has leached away from Labor. The Whitlam government was social democratic, Bob Hawke/Paul Keating a sort of social market-ordoliberal, and from 1996 to 2007 Labor was a null set. But the crisis of left-right mainstream politics was disguised by some last-gasp improvisations: the culture wars “gift” of Tampa/9-11, and finally, Kevin Rudd’s surprisingly comprehensive technocratic social democracy — the NBN wired to the Building the Education Revolution to create an education-comms system orienting things strongly back to the state, to create a base for an economy spreading opportunity.

Alas, Rudd’s move was like the “hysteric recapitulation” of some Tourette’s sufferers — who perform every face they’ve seen in a day, in a five-minute rapid spasm at the end of it. With that grand eclat, it was over. And with Abbott’s burn-out, the great conservative-liberal party version was done for, too. This is the first election in which the fuel loaded into the two-party system in 1949 — a poll following an epochal war, in which the Western economies had been de facto socialised — has entirely run out. This is a centre-right version of what Swedish elections must have felt like in 1961 or something, on the left, something, for many, barely worth bothering about. Because it has the appearance of a debate between two technical experts, about the settings to be applied for an agreed-upon end. The two-party contest is dead because the divide no longer runs between them.

We’ve seen this before in Australia: in our first decade of federation, when the non-labo(u)r parties were split into Free Traders and Protectionists. That debate had dominated the colonies since the mid-19th century. Both such parties were loath to admit, until it could not be ignored, that the rise of Labo(u)r had entirely changed the nature of the political divide. Both hoped it was a fad. When it became clear that railwaymen and bricklayers could run their own party, the non-Labor parties fused together and the system that is now dying was born.

This should all sound terribly familiar. The difference between now and then is that the Greens lack the class/social base to pose the same threat as Labor did. They offer the genuine opposition to the major parties — a different view of how the world works, which in turn informs values and program. Given the long march they’ve been on, it may seem as if they might never get to the position where they could challenge the system. But it’s worth remembering that there was a labour movement here for half a century, before a Labour party won power (in 1899, in Queensland). Given today’s polling in Higgins from Fairfax — with the Greens at 24% and Nick Xenophon Team at 8% primaries, having stripped away 10% from the Libs, and 6% from Labor — that moment may have got yet closer.

Labor could, in principle, revive — or have revived — a sense of its own identity, if it had managed to tie together its various reforms and offers into some even half-synthesised pitch about what the world is. That would be something about the profound changes in the nature of work, how life shapes around that differently, how life is going to have to be different, but offers new opportunities for better, though different life — changes that people see now through the prism of fear.

If Labor had set themselves up as the party that would want that change, would welcome the challenge, they would at least have a theme that is unifying without being grandiose, some position to attack from, to say that the Liberals aren’t up to the job of taking us into this century. That would have tied up nicely with the parade of drongos and pimps that constitute the back reaches of the Libs’ lower-house field.

But there is not the energy within the core of the party, the desire to put that proposition to the people — especially, one suspects, among Shorten’s core, studded with old student politics cronies, who will simply go back to lobbying if they go down to a loss. Maybe they don’t want to win this election; there’s great reasons not to, and Bill still looks like he’d rather be back at the Amalgamated Frittlers.

Of course, the simpler point is that it is not only that the major parties are out of gas, but also that they are locked in place by the system. Hence the Senate race, with the Greens, NXT and the motley right jockeying for position, being something genuinely exciting and full of possibility, while the House limps along. Thus the paradox: our politics won’t change until our institutions do, and our institutions won’t change until our politics does. Yes, as we have said for years, the system is discredited, obsolete, worn out.