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What sort of election campaign are we having?

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 18 May 2016

I was a young (in fact the youngest) member of the political science department when I was invited to join a senior colleague in commenting on the ABC’s 1966 election night extravaganza; James Dibble was the anchorman. I had not appeared on television before, and it was all new and somewhat forbidding. Once it started, though, I forgot about the cameras. I did know a lot about elections and vote counting, where seats were, who the candidates were, and so on. There were a couple of politicians on our panel, but I can no longer remember clearly who they were. Perhaps the late Gordon Bryant (Labor) was one. What interested me was their response to the counting during the evening. They relied on telephone calls and messages from party stalwarts in particular electorates. They knew where the parcels of votes had come from, and what the distribution in that parcel meant for the final result. They were usually right, too.

That was the beginning of my television career, which lasted about fifteen years and consisted mostly of election nights, a regular spot for a time with Steve Liebmann’s 11 AM program on Channel 7 in the 1970s, and appearances on TDT, Four Corners, Monday Conference and other shows, always as a political talking-head. By the early 1980s I was too involved in other things to devote the right amount of time to the media, and bowed out. But election campaigns continue to fascinate me, and this one is a doozy.

I wrote a piece three years ago on character and style in politics, though my focus then was on Kevin Rudd. I thought Tony Abbott did not have style, but that he might have character. I now think he has that attribute, and he has shown it. A bit more style would have helped. But what about our two current champions?  I’ve watched  Bill Shorten now for several years, and my judgment is that he has some style, though not a lot of it. I’m not sure that I’ve seen much sign of character. Malcolm Turnbull? He has lots of style, but again, I’m not at all sure about character.


What do I mean about character? I long for one of them to say something like ‘This is what I think our country needs at this time, and that is what I’ll do if we are returned. Yes, I know some of you don’t like it, and I accept that. This is why it has to be done — and I’ll do it.’ Something like that — a bid that is unlikely to please everyone, and could get people offside, but which a leader feels just has to be said whatever the cost. That is what I think the real job of leaders is. What I hear, and I guess I will go on hearing it for the next several weeks, is more inducements to attract the support of this interest group, that electorate or another single-issue constituency. More promises, but always about gifts — today, swimming lessons for every kid. I can put up with some of that — Harold Holt and Arthur Calwell were doing it in 1966 — but I want someone to be talking toughly to us, reminding us that our country is not a kind of holiday resort, but a work in progress. I’m probably old-fashioned.

I’ve seen a few signs and posters reminding us that the right to vote in a democratic and free election is an immense privilege, and, again, I want our leaders to tell us that most people on earth don’t have that privilege, or have only a faint shadow of it, and that election time is not just another football match, but an important moment in our nation’s history. Above all,  it is (or ought to be) a time of judgment, hope and foresight, for all of us.

It may be just the accident of what I happened to hear and see on television, but the Prime Minister seemed to be doing little more than smiling, waving and pressing flesh, wherever he was. Mr Shorten said something like this — that he was the son of teachers and was the father of teachers, and that he would not rest until every child in Australia had the best education possible — my summary, but I think that was the gist of what I heard on radio. I thought to myself that I too was the son of teachers and the father of teachers, but I knew very well that throwing money at education did not and would not provide the outcome that Mr Shorten was talking about. I wrote an essay about this issue in recognition of the work that Phillip Hughes did in Australian education, and I’ll present it here in due course. The essence of it was simple: if you want every child to have the best education possible, you have to start with the child, not with the school, university or TAFE institute. And that instantly lifts the costs of it into astronomical heights. Education institutions, no matter how good they are, have to provide a ‘one size fits all’  educational garment, and  some young people miss out. They always have done, and they do today.

I need to be fair. I only heard a tiny sentence of what Mr Shorten will have said in his address, in Brisbane (I think). He may have gone much further. But what I heard was rhetoric — quite good rhetoric, but rhetoric just the same. I asked myself where the money was going to come from, and remembered that that was just the question always asked of Dr Evatt back in the 1950s, when he had grand plans for Australia. Nonetheless, given our enormous public debt, talking about how much one wants to spend on education or anything else has to come with an explanation of how one is going to pay for it. And isn’t reducing the debt just as important, if not more important, than other public expenditure policies, no matter how worthy they are?

The campaign has only started, and there will be new incidents and events along the way. But after a week of it, I felt that the real issues had hardly been mentioned. What are they? For me, attention to the size of the public debt, reducing the involvement of government in family and daily life, and a certain modesty in talking about ourselves and what we can do, they would be starters.

I noticed that Mr Di Natale, the leader of the Greens, said he was disappointed that neither the Prime Minister nor the Leader of the Opposition had talked about ‘climate change’ in their addresses in the first public debate. I thought, on the contrary, that Mr Shorten and Mr Turnbull had showed great good sense in avoiding that issue. I should probably say something about the Greens and their policies, and will leave that to another occasion.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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