Syndey, Australia – After six years of Labor rule – marked by leadership change, minority government and the country’s first female prime minister – Australian voters have had enough. In the vernacular, they’ve had a gutful.
Barring an unprecedented political miracle, incumbent Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will lose this Saturday’s election, quite possibly by a large margin. Labor is tipped to lose up to 20 seats and move from being a minority government (with Green and Independent support) to the opposition.
If all this comes to pass, Rudd – an ex-diplomat, self-confessed policy nerd and one-time political giant slayer – will become on Saturday a twice-rejected prime minister: once by voters (this Saturday), and once by his own party (in 2010).
He will hate it – but possibly not as much as sections of his own party will dislike him. Rudd’s pending electoral demise tells more than half of this election’s story, and serves to reinforce the maxim that, in politics, disunity is death.
Labor has swapped leaders twice, from Rudd to Gillard and back to Rudd, but also mucked about over the period with policies on climate change, asylum seekers and taxation.
The election’s outcome will also say much about the nature of contemporary 24/7 politics and media. Rudd has gone from hero to near-zero to hero to probable-zero in just six years. Australia used to elect parties to power for a decade or more at a time. Sometimes, it even stuck with the same leader – such as Menzies and Howard – for more than 10 years. Now it dispenses with them after a few short, chaotic years.
Australia’s alleged tolerance does not extend that far when it comes to politicians. There has been a breakdown in trust in politicians in general, and in Labor politicans in particular.
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The ‘Mad Monk’
The rest of the narrative belongs to Rudd’s opponent, Tony Abbott. He is the leader of the Liberal-National Party conservative coalition, and his CV includes a stint as a trainee priest, a Rhodes Scholar, and a self-described “non-conformist” voice in the most recent coalition government of John Howard, which ended in 2007 with Rudd’s victory.
If Abbott wins, and in this case it is a pretty small if, he will have surprised not just the left, who have always disliked him, but more importantly subverted the perception that he was too ill-disciplined, too hardline and just too “mad” to govern.
Once known as the “Mad Monk” or, more kindly, as “Abbo”, he is instead most likely to become Australia’s 28th prime minister. For the next three years, Australian voters will have plenty of time to assess whether such perceptions about Abbott turned out to be grounded in truth, spin or prejudice.
There is, for instance, a sense that he will disappoint the right wing of his own party and, in particular, its business support base. His disciplined election campaign has ensured that important issues for employers, such as anti-union workplace reform, have remained submerged (if not buried) so as not to frighten the swing voters who turned so hard against the Howard government six years ago. Business has been willing to accept that for now, in order to get their guy elected. But it will want its pound of flesh.
Will Abbott resist the coalition’s base? What will happen if he does? What will happen if he doesn’t?
These are legitimate questions, but they will wait for now. More tempting to pull apart will be what could well be called the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd Paradox. How did such a seemingly successful country turn on a party that could argue it saved Australia from the global financial crisis, maintained the country’s AAA credit rating, and articulated plans to provide fast broadband internet to all households and tackle the threat posed by climate change. (For the record, Abbott plans to repeal Labor’s carbon legislation and abandon plans to deliver fibre to every home.)
The short answer is disunity.
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Thousands of words will be spilled in the post-mortem of Saturday night, and most will be dedicated to Labor’s predicted demise, but really the conversation could be quite brief. Having elected Rudd (in 2007), then disposed of Rudd (2010), and then disposed of Gillard (2013), Labor has become a bit of a joke – yet no one is laughing. For many, many voters, it is that simple.
Or, as Hugh Mackay, one of the country’s most astute social commentators has put it, the country simply stopped listening to Labor. Some people were polite enough to offer an opinion to the pollsters, keeping alive the idea that Labor could re-shape itself under Rudd Mark II, but the vast majority tuned out a couple of years ago.
When faced with bills, kids and mortgages, tired and stressed adult voters at least expect to see adults running their national affairs. Instead, they saw squabbling kids much like the ones at home, shouting at each other about minority government, leadership and, at times, minority issues.
All Tony Abbott and his team have to do is look like grown-ups during this campaign to win. They have done that well. Many voters are undecided about how good the Liberals-Nationals will be, even though several of them were ministers in the previous Howard government.
These doubts will either grow or dissipate very soon. But one of the biggest question marks concerns Abbott himself and his grasp of foreign affairs. His recent comments that the Syrian conflict is not about not about “goodies versus baddies” but “baddies versus baddies” may well contain a ring of truth – but it sounded a tad unsophisticated, to say the least. Australia is chairing the UN Security Council this month.
The most grown-up grown up on the Liberal front bench is Malcolm Turnbull, the party’s former leader. Turnbull, an urbane, intelligent ex-businessman, lawyer and journalist, is a crowd-pleaser across the political spectrum, and beloved by the large sections of the commentariat, especially the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But he is not his party’s favourite.
Will Turnbull have another shot at the leadership? That question, too, is destined to consume a googleplex of pixels. But these are matters for the coming months. What really matters for now is that Labor has probably lost this election. The coalition probably did not win it.
Voters will likely decide that it was time for a change – or, at the very least, they were tired of having MPs in their face. John Howard made a virtue of appearing not to govern. The longer he stayed in power, the more avuncular he became. Many opportunities were squandered, not least the chance to re-make his own party by transitioning leadership to his treasurer, Peter Costello.
But it also meant he was returned to power four times. It may well be that Australians like their politicians to be grown-ups, but I suspect what they really want is for their MPs to be mute most of the time.
So, after the shouting and clapping on the blue side, and the renting of cloth on the red side, is that what Australia is up for? There is also, of course, the Greens – who have arguably become the party of the traditional left. It will be very interesting to see how it goes on Saturday – I suspect not well.
For a while, Australia is going to enjoy the upcoming summer and its political slumber. But there is another maxim not to be ignored: What’s the point of having power, if you don’t use it?
See you in three years.
Peter Fray is the editor-in-chief and founder of PolitiFact Australia, the nation’s leading fact-checking website. He is the former editor-in-chief of the Sydney Morning Herald.