It is always dangerous to compare political cultures because it is so easy to mistake apples for oranges. We might deplore the way that Australian elections have become Americanised, with presidential style campaigns focussing heavily on leaders, expensive advertising and negative tactics, but caution is still required. The dissimilarity in the systems is evident in the quite diverse understandings of the term “liberal”.
The story goes that when briefed before Prime Minister John Howard’s Washington visit, President George W. Bush was aghast to find that Howard was the leader of the Liberal Party. In the USA, the term “liberal” is applied only to those educated radicals who espouse humanism and environmentalism, and who doubt whether the free market can deliver social justice. American liberals were decried by President Reagan as being so far left they had “left America”. These attributes do not seem typical of Howard’s capital L Liberals.
Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how the final days of the American presidential campaign of 2004 unfolded. Television reports suggested that the Democratic Party was slightly more upbeat and enthusiastic than their Republican opponents. If this appearance translated into voting activity, then it seemed at least possible that John Kerry would defeat George Bush on the first Tuesday in November. Of course, it is difficult to pick up the vibrations unless you are on the ground in the country concerned, and history will show that Bush won a second term in the White House. Still, the possibility that the enthusiasm of Kerry’s supporters heralded a change in administration invited some reflection on the general tenor of the recent Australian campaign.
There is an obvious caveat required here. In Australia, compulsory registration and attendance at the polls means that there is altogether less emphasis on getting the vote out. Even allowing for this systemic discrepancy however, it is possible to note distinct differences of style in the government and opposition campaigns. Labor, understandably, tried to enthuse people about the possibility of a change. The government by contrast, tried to dampen down enthusiasm about politics, and might even be accused of deliberately exploiting the degree of disengagement identified by numerous commentators.
Certainly, the two leaders had different styles. Latham was more expansive, hoping to inspire people with some kind of vision for society. Howard wound everything back to the bottom line of how policies would be funded. Latham’s team was more inclined to indulge in humour and to let people believe that politics could be fun, even if it involved criticising or lampooning politicians. Howard’s team put a dampener on any of that sort of nonsense, preferring to greet even the Chaser's provocations in a sombre and serious mood. Labor hoped that voters would celebrate their power and use it at the ballot box. The Coalition discouraged this view, making people feel insecure and insignificant.
It has always been the case in Australia that the conservatives have implemented policies it has damned Labor for, such as stringent economic regulation. The latest example of this process is the creation of a Big Brother mentality around the security situation. How could the poor voter feel empowered on 9 October, knowing that he or she was an insignificant individual in a sea of terrorism?
The conventional wisdom is that the 2004 campaign was a cynical vote buying exercise, wherein the alternative potential governments engaged in a bidding auction for the votes of people who cared only about the “hip pocket nerve”. There was certainly an element of that involved, and little evidence that the question of values was the main consideration for most voters. Pauline Hanson’s brief input to the campaign demonstrated this clearly enough, as suddenly, candidates and analysts were able to express something approaching ethical reactions to the possibility that hansonism could make a return. The contrast between those few days and the rest of the campaign was stark.
The fact that Labor had to engage the Government in the bidding war reinforced the cynicism of the electorate. But what the US campaign showed is that a general level of cynicism favours the incumbent. While Kerry seemed to be riding a wave of enthusiasm, change seemed possible. While the Government was able to suppress any excitement here, change was out of the question. Scrutineers will tell you that a change is likely only when people bounce out of bed in the morning and turn up to the polls with verve and vigour.
In 2001, the Coalition Government might have been re-elected by the fearful, by those voters thinking that Australia could be overrun by what the Government termed queue jumpers, potential illegal immigrants and sleeper terrorists. When the Australian 2004 campaign is placed into historical perspective, it might well be that the best interpretation relates to ennui. Rather than buying its way back to power, the Coalition has bored its way back in by collecting the support of the yawnful. In 2001, there was some concern that trust had been banished from Australian political culture. Today, the concern is for interest. Whatever else can be said about the Howard years, let no-one imagine that Australian political culture will be the same after his stewardship. The fun, for now, has disappeared.
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