This campaign is enough to turn off even political junkies
The queasy feeling in my stomach as I flew into Sydney after five weeks in Europe had little to do with the turbulence and even less to do with the 764 unopened emails that found their way into my inbox between London and Singapore. Rather, the source of the unease was that I was landing at the beginning of an election cycle. Most of us suspect that this election is going to be short on substance and will provide us with little vision for our future.
As someone who consumes political commentary, I have grown increasingly disillusioned by both a government and opposition who swing from the banal to the ridiculous. For many of us, this election is less about voting for who inspires us, and more about who is least likely to offer an absurd policy vision.
My sense of dread has not eased as we enter the second week of the election cycle marked by a leaders debate that was focussed on the bland. The question is whether this is likely to continue? Here are five policy areas that may well provide a guide: will we see real policy discussion or be served up glib one-liners?
1. A price on carbon
It would seem that Australia is one of a handful of nations who seems to think that we can escape placing a price on carbon. This policy discussion, however, is likely to be avoided because Tony Abbott and the dinosaurs believe that we can continue to emit this stuff with no consequences despite what the vast majority of the science and economic community are telling us.
The ALP had blown a mandate to act on climate change and is now looking meek – and is most likely to avoid any discussion in the election, offering us a citizen assembly to discuss it. While such processes are valuable, it is hard not to see it as anything but a delaying tactic. Abbott’s response? His meaningless mantra: “a big new tax on everything”.
2. Unemployment and incentives
The term “working families” is now a favourite amongst both the government and opposition. It seems that everything is about now about working families. The question is, who are the non-working families? Most of us are lucky to be both working and have a family.
So who is left behind?
The policy mix seems to be at pains to ignore those who are not working. In a time when structural unemployment continues in our manufacturing industries and is often geographically based, there needs to be a vision for Australia that considers the more vulnerable and is not reliant on the mining industry.
3. Housing and sustainable cities
Australian housing policy seems to be best described as a land grab. It is about offering more land and building bigger houses further and further away from where people work. There seems little consideration for either infrastructure or the natural environment. In addition we have an affordability crisis and a rental culture that leaves tenants vulnerable to the whims of their landlords.
It is time to break the cycle of more land equals cheaper housing. This linear equation has been the basis of housing policy for decades and fails to consider the need for less energy and water intensive cities. It also fails to build the real cost of housing in.
It is time to look at large scale urban consolidation as well as long-term tenancy agreements (such as 5 to 7 years). Accompanied by investment in transport, this could change the trend that makes Australian families vulnerable to water, energy and petrol price increases that are all likely to follow in the decade.
Both major parties have confused population numbers with sustainability: it is a crass equation that will not solve any of our infrastructure or environmental challenges.
4. Interest rates
There is all likelihood that the Reserve Bank may increase interest rates in the coming weeks. Well, this is hardly surprising as the Bank continues to ease back from record low interest rates. Abbott will have a field day on this.
One of the great political economic falsehoods in a globalised world is that interest rates are simply a function of government policy. No, interest rates are more complex than this and rely on domestic and international issues that are often out of the hands of politicians. Sure, the increases over the last 12 months have hurt many of us, but this is a function of international conditions (read China). This has little to do with whether Rudd, Gillard or Abbott are in charge, and claims like those made by John Howard that interest rates would always be lower under a Coalition Government are simply lies.
5. Asylum seekers
I have saved the best to last – the race to the bottom when it comes to asylum seeker policy. To begin with, leaving your country because people are being persecuted around you is not a lifestyle choice. Those making lifestyle choices to be in Australia illegally are the tens of thousands European backpackers who overstay their visas – for those arriving via leaky boats, it is an act of desperation.
This too is a function of international factors and has little to do with domestic policy. The opposition omit to tell us that when the morally questionable temporary protection visas where introduced, the number of boat arrivals actually increased. What drives people to leave their homes are problems at the source – including rising sea levels brought on by global warming.
The “tough on people smugglers” posturing is simply for a domestic audience and should be equated to Bob Carr’s ‘tough on crime’ elections: Carr did not solve crime, and these policies will not bring an end to the boats.
Even politicians are raising concerns about the quality of policy discussions. Ironically, it was Joe Hockey who lamented both the fact that the election debate was moved for the sake of Masterchef as well the rise glib one-liners – and he did this on the same day his leader decided to appear on Hey Hey it’s Saturday’s Red Faces where a pair of dancing poodles won the first prize.
The end result is that we will continue to lose trust in those we elect. A research report released by the Whitlam Institute which I co-authored last year found that young people where increasingly finding politics irrelevant in the lives and simply did not trust politicians – a trend that has emerged across the broader population.
This can only be confronted with some honest policies that will establish a real direction for Australia’s future. Until this happens people will continue to prioritise Masterchef over political debates – and seriously, who can blame them?
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