Commentators are reporting a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this weekend's federal election. Such a public mood is appropriate, and cynicism is well deserved on this occasion.
First and foremost, this is a double dissolution election triggered by the Senate's refusal to pass three bills: the Building and Construction Industry (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2013, the Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, and the Fair Work (Registered Organisations) Amendment Bill 2014.
In theory, the issues raised by the building industry bills ought to be at the top of the political debate but clearly are not. They have been barely canvassed by the politicians, and the only political advertisement relevant to these bills, I have seen, was run, not by a political party, but by the Master Builders Association. The widely perceived reality is that the real reason (as opposed to the legally valid reason) for the double dissolution is to get rid of the micro parties and Palmer United using the new Senate voting rules. What we have therefore is a clear case of political opportunism and barely disguised misrepresentation.
Instead, the main topic overall in the election is the economy, with Labor striving to also make an issue of alleged Coalition risks to Medicare and to education spending. The double dissolution itself was deserved but should have been based on a different trigger, namely the refusal of the Senate to pass key sections of the 2014 budget (the issue that dominated the outgoing parliament). Australians are addicted to their "free stuff" from the government, which was not game to cock and pull a trigger based on an unpopular budget.
The Coalition had been true to its historic "brand" (of prudent financial management and more modest spending) with the first Hockey budget. The 2014 Budget was intended as a start in dropping the budget deficit to just $2.8 billion by 2017-18. Instead the Coalition (compounded by the commodities crash) delivered deficits of around $37 billion dollars in its two following budgets, and now plans to run substantial deficits until about 2021. Labor plans even higher spending, outlaying a further $16 billion or so in the deficit over this period.
There is a widespread view among industry leaders that the run of large budget deficits that started with Rudd and seems destined to run for the next five years (nearly15 years in total) is absolutely unjustified in the context of relatively low unemployment (persistently less than 6 per cent). Those wanting to arrest our mounting public debts, however, now have no major party to vote for, and both government and opposition have damaged their political brands.
The Coalition's brand has been damaged by its failure to control the deficit and by an impression that Turnbull is at odds with the centre of his party on many key issues.
Labor (except for part of the Hawke/Keating era) has not been particularly noted for fiscal restraint so that it has been true to form in respect of deficit spending. Its "brand", however, has also been damaged but for a different reason, - hypocrisy related to Senate obstructionism.
Historically, Labor is remembered for crying foul in 1974 when it used the blocking of bills on electoral reform, Medibank, and petroleum and minerals as grounds for a double dissolution. The 1974 joint sitting of the Commonwealth Parliament is so far the only one in the history of the federation. In 1975 Labor (even more famously) cried foul, when the Senate refused to vote on the Whitlam Government's budget bills and Kerr sacked the Whitlam Government, which lost the subsequent election. In this light there has been more than a little hypocrisy in Labor's blocking of budget measures in the outgoing parliament.
A final turnoff for voters is that both sides are engaging in unashamed pork- barrelling (using our taxes). Much of this involves spending on infrastructure projects, with marginal seats (particularly in Queensland) getting most of the announced funding.
According to the Grattan Institute, the major parties are not just acting for political benefit. They are actually picking the wrong projects instead of concentrating on those assessed as worthwhile by Infrastructure Australia. Promises singled out in the Grattan report as particularly wasteful include a $150 million Labor promise to build the Walkerston Bypass, in northern Queensland, and a $900 million commitment by the Coalition to the Townsville Ring Road.
Townsville also appears set to receive a new sports stadium, with the Coalition confirming it will match Labor's pledge to commit $100 million. Malcolm Turnbull in May had also previously announced a $150 million investment for the Townsville Eastern Access Rail Corridor. There is a widespread belief that these promises have more to do with helping local member, Ewan Jones, hold his seat than with the intrinsic merits of the projects themselves.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, however, won the prize for the most blatant pork barrel, when he declared that the Veterinary Medicines Authority was going to move to Armidale (in Mr Joyce's own electorate of New England) and the 175 public servants who work at the agency better get used to the idea.
Perhaps the most unpleasant aspect of the weekend's election is how much it is going to cost the taxpayer. According to the AEC, the 2013 election cost $193 774 374 so this time we will probably be up for over $200 million. For the 2013 election, political parties and candidates received $58.1 million in election funding. There is further political hypocrisy here because many politicians in the past (particularly Labor) wanted to ban political advertising. Instead of a ban, these days the taxpayer indirectly pays for much political advertising, through election funding payments to political parties.