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A rancorous mood overtakes the country

By Don Aitkin - posted Thursday, 15 August 2013


A correspondent in our local paper tells of her experiences with a telephoning pollster (I received a call too, from an automated telephone pollster, but decided that I wasn't prepared to speak to a machine). The interview went like this:

'If there was a federal election tomorrow, whom would you vote for? Would you vote for the Labor party?'

I answered 'No'.

'Would you vote for the Liberal Party?'

I answered 'No'.

'Would you vote for the Greens?'

I answered 'No'.

'Would you vote for an Independent?'

I answered 'No'.

There was a little silence, and then I was thanked.

I asked, 'You do not intend to register my responses, do you?'

The pollster said, 'No, I am sorry, but there is nowhere on the questionnaire for your response.'

Seems to me to sum up the way I feel about the choice I face in September.

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This is a droll reaction to what many voters see as their predicament - who to vote for. The reasons are varied, and the flavour of much of the talk is a good deal less droll than the story above. No comment I've seen thought the leader debate was of any consequence or value, and no one seemed to like the performance of the major party leaders. The debate, as one said, 'didn't help at all'.

Perhaps the most persistent unhappiness comes from what I would call the 'left-Liberals', whom I take to be middle-aged, middle-class people who care about asylum-seekers, 'climate change' and similar issues. Mr Rudd has moved as close to the Coalition as he can on the first two issues, to the discomfiture and irritation of these voters. Where are they to go? Yes, they can give the Greens their first preference, but what do they do then?

Then there are the women - and men - who liked Julia Gillard, and thought that she had been disgracefully dumped. Where do they go? Ms Gillard herself seems to have dropped completely out of sight - the last notice I can find for her in the press is dated 26 July - but the manner of her replacement is by no means forgotten. Yes, there is another woman party leader in Christine Milne, but once again, where do you go after you have voted Green?

I can't help reporting that the Greens' sole representative in the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, is being targeted by both the major parties. The Liberals appear to have decided to ask their supporters to give their second preference to the Labor candidate rather than to Mr Bandt, a recommendation which might, if followed faithfully, restore the seat of Melbourne to the ALP, which had held it since Federation, I think, until Mr Bandt won it when Lindsay Tanner retired.

And, perhaps more important, but not surprisingly, the Greens are not profiting from the dissatisfaction with the two major party groups. Very generally, poll results show a slow decline from around 11 per cent in 2010 to the present 9.5 per cent. There is no suggestion in these figures that the Greens can move up to be a minor-major party, able to insist on portfolios in a Labor-Green government. Why not? Because the environment and 'climate change' are not high on the priorities of the voters. It is the economy - or the fear of what might happen - that is far and away the most salient issue in the coming election.

You can see this on the ABC's Vote Compass website, which has so far considered 250,00 respondents. Here I am not interested in shares of the vote, but only in the issues and what voters think of them. Liberal and Labor voters alike place the economy at the top, and 'climate change' comes a long way down the list. Green supporters do place it first, but there aren't a lot of them, and they can't be happy with either major party - another contribution to the general irritation.

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Despite the comforting talk from both leaders on Sunday night that 'Australia is strong and we can rise to any challenge', which I think is the position of both, the general mood out there is much less confident. A lot has happened in the last six years. Some have done very well, and some have done badly. But middle Australia, exposed in terms of mortgages and two jobs in the family, is understandably nervous about what could happen if the wind falls out of the mining sails, manufacturing slumps, and we are left with little more than a service sector.

While a budget surplus is not the be-all and end-all of good government, borrowing for anything other than infrastructure seems to me a mistake in other than the very short term. And our government, as is plain from the Treasury figures issued yesterday, is a long way from surplus. If things get worse rather than better, which seems entirely possible, then the deficit will simply get larger. And every family in middle Australia knows that just as it can't for long spend more than it earns, our government can't, either. Each person who moves from a paying job to the dole is a double cost to the budget bottom line.

Hence the irritation, the rancour, the worry about whom to vote for. Can either of the parties, either of the leaders, get us out of this hole, people wonder.

I wonder too. But I think Mr Rudd has an almost impossible task in persuading voters that his record in this area is a strong one, or that he and his colleagues have the answer for the future. Mr Abbott may well get to be Prime Minister by default.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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