This was only my second election, and I will never forget it. I began the campaign excited by the democratic process and the prospect of a meaningful and combative debate about how to take this country forward. I walked away from it depressed and frustrated.
It is not just the result. What boils my blood is the sheer timidity of both parties. When people of my generation look at politics we don't turn away because we are mindless drones fixated with the latest Big Brother eviction. We turn away because we are bored with the spectacle of stage-managed campaigns and zero-risk politics that inevitably turn to deception and the lowest common denominator.
The Coalition's scare campaign on interest rates is a case in point. The centerpiece of their re-election bid was a dishonest assault on the hip-pocket nerve of the Australian people. And it worked. Labor strategist Wayne Swan put it bluntly, "You can only come to one conclusion: we have been knocked out of the ring by the Liberal Party's advertising campaign on interest rates".
Never mind that interest rates are set by the Reserve Bank. Never mind the fact that economists surveyed by the media declared that there would be no appreciable difference in interest rates under a Labor Government. Never mind that the high interest rates of the Hawke-Keating era had nothing to do with "inflationary policies", but were a consequence of their economic structural reform and modernisation, and directly responsible for the bustling economy that Howard busily takes credit for. The Liberals just put a "Learner" plate on Latham's name in advertisements and watched as we swallowed it.
This outrage may sound naïve to more seasoned election watchers, but watching this process was genuinely painful for many people my age. Certainly we know that deception and scaremongering are neither new nor partisan. Most of us can remember (just) the 1993 election, when Keating terrified Australia into voting him back into office by running a scare campaign on the GST which was laced with hyperbole. We know that cynicism and vote buying also have a long and proud history. After all, Neville Wran once famously reproved Bob Hawke for trying to insert the theme of "reconciliation" into his 1983 campaign, telling him "if the greedy bastards (voters) wanted spiritualism they'd join the Hari Krishnas."
But the blatancy of the disciplined, targeted bribes and scares in this particular cycle still surprised me and disenchanted many people my age taking their first hard look at our democracy. When politics is played with such unforgiving discipline it becomes an end rather than a means. If every major policy push springs from what focus groups (drawn from three or four marginal mortgage-belt seats) demand from the Government then imagination and vision are squeezed out and the public good becomes an incidental factor.
What replaces it is the politics of aspiration, which takes its name and its function directly from that small group of swinging outer suburban voters that have been crucial to winning the last three elections. Both parties now embrace their values. Latham's response to the rates scare campaign was to sign an over-sized cardboard "pledge" to the Australian people that he would keep interest rates low and to remind every voter at every opportunity that he and his wife also had a "great big mortgage." The message was clear - under PM Latham the surplus would remain intact and spending would be carefully roped in.
What really worries me is not this precise policy as such, but the fact that Latham was clearly not prepared to even consider an alternative, such was his determination to capture this group. Meanwhile other pressing problems, not directly related to “aspirational” concerns, hardly got a look-in. There was no comprehensive policy to address the ageing of the Australian workforce. The debilitating long-term environmental problems that continue to hurt our farmers and threaten our future received only token attention.
With our nation facing emerging problems of this scope and with Treasury boasting healthy surpluses, many young people hoped that both leaders would do more than desperately petition the mortgage-belt with progressively stern promises of fiscal restraint. We were disappointed. If nothing else, their promises were deeply unrepresentative - most Australians are not “aspirational voters”. Many would have been slightly bemused as both leaders clamored about "ladders of opportunity" and "tight economic discipline." But generally these Australians did not live in marginal seats.
Howard won this election because he was more disciplined and wily than his opponent. But he fought the battle on his own terrain, within very narrow parameters, where the air is thin and visionary policy perished before it took its first breath.
Perhaps our elected representatives should take a hard look at themselves next time they bemoan the apathy of younger voters.
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