Why Gillard's contest will be surreal

Ignore for a moment the 'chaos' enveloping the Gillard government. This is hard to do because it has been embraced with gleeful commitment by the Canberra press gallery and by the ever-multiplying number of commentators who are in a ceaseless life and death struggle with each other to be heard.

But if we can for a moment ignore this avalanche – with some honourable exceptions – of hysterical reporting and commentating about not much at all, what really are the issues of substance that are contested between Labor and the Coalition and that go to the future of the country and yes, even influence what sort of country Australia might be a decade from now?

In their National Press Club speeches last week, what exactly did Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have to say about these issues of substance? In the main, whatever they had to say was buried almost immediately by Gillard’s announcement of the election date, which the journalists and those shouting commentators treated as an announcement akin to a declaration of war.

Gillard did say something about the need for major structural change – code for tax increases and cuts to middle class welfare – in order to fund the Gonski education reforms and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. But who really cares about that when there’s an election date to report!

Tony Abbott, well Tony Abbott was repeating his mantra about stopping the boats and repealing the mining tax and the carbon tax when he was saved from total inanity by Gillard’s election announcement, and by the arrest of Craig Thomson which came in the middle of Abbott’s Press Club speech.

When Craig Thomson was charged with those fraud offences, chaos descended like a blanket of fog on a cold Canberra morning – on the political class and on journalists – and we have been in that fog ever since, through the announcement by two senior ministers that they will retire and the Newspoll on Monday that started a whole new round of speculation about a Rudd comeback.

This is speculation that is journalist driven basically, because journalists are prepared to report – anonymously of course – every wild and often hysterical outburst by Labor people, without ever asking these people to put their names to this stuff so that we poor punters can judge where they are coming from and why they might be saying these things.

It seems to me that journalists have become sort of counsellors for psychologically stressed MPs who need a sympathetic ear and who feel better when they have unburdened themselves of their nightmares. Whether journalists should play this game is questionable.

Now back to the issues of substance, or rather the lack of them and the likelihood that chaos will remain the leitmotif of the coverage during the next eight months – most likely the final eight months – of the Gillard government.

The fact is that compared with other first world countries – the US, Britain, most of Europe, but especially Italy, Spain and Greece – Australian politics is about not much at all. Fundamentally, this is because Australia sailed unscathed through the GFC and the subsequent deep recession (in some cases depression) that afflicted most of the developed world.

As a consequence, Australians have lived in a sort of bubble for almost five years. It is a bubble which has sheltered us from, and allowed us to ignore, the devastation wrought by prolonged recession.

There are deep divisions in American politics, with the Republican Party increasingly the captive of Tea Party fundamentalists who are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency. There’s the rise of extremist parties on the left and the right in Europe.

In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi can say that Fascism was not a wholly bad thing and still remain a candidate for prime minister, and a neo-Nazi party in Greece, protected by the police, can have its uniformed thugs beat up immigrants with impunity. In some of the developed world, faith in liberal democracy is shaky, wavering, the future bleak and challenging.

None of this has had much impact on Australia.

Australia has been shielded from all this. And yet the September 14 election will essentially be decided by people who feel stressed, despondent about the future, struggle to cope with cost of living pressure, and are worried about the influx of asylum seekers – people who, in the main, live in Western Sydney and suburban Brisbane.

Beyond the slogans that both Gillard and Abbott often employ as a substitute for a political language that is alive and that reflects real thought and real feelings, Gillard and Abbott are in fundamental agreement about this. They both said as much in their Press Club speeches.

But given that in reality, there is little that any government can do that would, for instance, shelter Australia from the consequences of a world awash with refugees, and given that the empirical evidence is that most people, including those people who feel they are not coping with cost of living rises are actually better off than they were a decade ago, there is inevitably a sort of fundamental unreality about Australian politics.

And on issues of substance, there really is not much difference between the two sides. The differences on the deficit for instance are marginal and inconsequential. There are few small government fundamentalists in the Coalition and Abbott certainly isn’t one of them. And there is now no daylight between the Gillard government’s policies on asylum seekers and Abbott’s Coalition.

Yes, Abbott has promised to abolish both the mining tax and the carbon tax but the mining tax is increasingly irrelevant as the mining boom winds down and the carbon tax, like the GST before it, is now so widely accepted that it’s hard to believe that Abbott will go through the political pain – which is likely to include a double dissolution election soon after the election in September – to repeal it.

There may be differences between Gillard and Abbott on the Gonski education reforms, but even that is not clear and Abbott has signalled that he is in favour of the NDIS and in government, would support the pilot programs that will be underway in New South Wales and Victoria.

In the one area where there is potentially a significant and substantial difference between the two sides, on labour market reform, Tony Abbott has made it clear that he is most definitely not on the side of those in the Liberal party who reckon significant reform – indeed a return to some form of Work Choices – is fundamental to the health of the Australian economy.

For all these reasons and also because chaos and conflict are so journalistically attractive, the way this election year has started is likely to be the way it continues right up to election day on September 14.

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Let's assume for a moment that the basic premise of this article is correct - essentially there is little difference between the two parties policies, either due to policy decisions or externally imposed restraints. (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6)
Wouldn't the major question then be along the lines of 'Who do you trust to leave the economy and public finances in the best shape?'
As an aside, what is this fascination Journalists have with Western Sydney? (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6)
Exactly how many of the140 plus Federal seats intersect with these fabled suburbs that sprawl westward from the Harbour Bridge? It would have to be nearly all of them to justify this proliferation of references
Or has Western Sydney simply become a euphemism for suggesting that there is an Inner Bogan living inside all of us?
Can't agree with you Michael. (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6) The union IR policies of labor are nothing like the Libs. Labor does only lip service to stopping asylum seekers. Taxing policies will be different and most importantly, the influence of the Greens with their anti wealth creation policies will be removed. The word productivity will be resurrected to replace that over-used word sustainability. Nothing is sustainable if we have to continually borrow the funds for it, just look at Europe.
Bollocks, there is a world of difference between the two sides. ( Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6)
Gillard is constantly gunning for more revenue to fund new unfunded programs and that is after spending hundreds of billions of dollars more than she got in receipts since Labor got into power.
Yes Howard went on a spending spree late in his last term to try to stay in office but he was spending money he had in the bank. He was reckless with our bank account not our credit card.
Labor on the other hand spends money its taxes DO NOT RAISE.
Labor and the Liberals are fundamentally different even if many of their aims are similar, it is the manner of execution of those aims that is important.
Perhaps a reason for the extraordinary lead time in announcing the election date is Labor and the Coalition having to deal with the common enemy first, independents and minor parties. Before they can really take to each other with the tired cudgels of histrionics they both have deal with the worrying trend of Australian voters beyond the lunatic fringe electing minors and independents.
We have already seen the very subtle introduction into the rhetoric in recent days that it has been these usurpers that have caused the political malaise and disaffection for politicians. Get ready for a scream them down campaign from both majors that a vote for a minor or independent is a wasted vote once the spivs have figured the angle which should scare the most voters back to the fold.
The problem to overcome is that while the majors have spent the last parliament carrying on like a couple of spoiled brats in the sand pit at kindy, the independents have got on with the job of representing their electorates. The Greens have also put in as, agree with them or not, there is no doubt they have flown straight and stayed on their message. If you voted Green, you got exactly what you voted for.
Overcoming these inconvenient agents of integrity and sobriety will take some very high powered PR and marketing might which costs. Maybe another reason for the long lead time, there's going to be a lot grovelling to get the millions needed to counter the very workman/woman like way the Greens and independents have gone about the job they were put there to do by their electorates.
For Tony and Julia's sake I certainly hope the electorate is as savvy as they give them credit for although I, for one, think we are a whole lot smarter than that. The last election showed we don't scare so easy anymore. No lollies thanks just show us what you got.
Not reintroducing WorkChoices isn't the same as not doing anything on IR. A bit problem in Australia is union militancy. I expect Abbott will fight a guerrilla war on this. He might seek a mandate for broader IR reform in his second term.
As to "And there is now no daylight between the Gillard government’s policies on asylum seekers and Abbott’s Coalition." That's clearly untrue. TPV's and no-family reunion are huge disincentives that the Libs had in place and Labor still doesn't. If asylum seekers know they'll be shipped home as soon as their country is stable and that they'll never be able to bring out grandma/grandpa to go on the free pension/health system, they'll be much less likely to come here.
Dear Michael, very convenient for you to gloss over the claim that we sailed through the GFC; what you fail to mention is that our GFC pain was reduced because we had a previously economically responsible LNP government who actually left the country in $20 billion surplus, which Labour has now turned into a $250 billion deficit. I cannot think of another major country who started the GFC in this position, and has now been reduced to our deficit position (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6).
Michael,
A key plank of Obama's recent speech was that this time he is going to get serious about climate change, given the environmental catastrophes that the US has recently suffered.
Australia has it's own share of climate change related weather events.
The rest of the world is beginning to pay attention to what the scientists have been saying for 20 years, as their warnings start to play out.
Surely there is a huge difference between the coalition, which is essentially a group of climate deniers, and Labor, which while timid, is still taking climate change seriously?
I know both sides want to avoid climate change, but my hunch is that people out there see need for action (look no further than uptake of solar PV).
Michael's enjoyable oiece is like a breath of fresh air. Those of us trying to assess what is really happening now in federal politics have to factor in Mexican waves of media hysteria and overkill, as well as what the key party players are saying (and meaning to imply). Michael offers a useful reality check. It is still anybody's election to win or lose, a lot can happen in seven months.
There may be little real difference in implementation, and that is a real problem.
Try getting a small manufacturing business going, one that has the potential to employ and train people, and make a contribution.
Getting through the piles of regulatory, arse covering and feel good nonsense imposed by the three levels of government puts all but the most dogged off.
Both sides claim to have a policy of removing red tape, but I am yet to see any real improvement that is not more than offset by something else imposed somewhere because somebody with a sinecure wakes up with a good idea in their hand.
Your premise is perfectly right, (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6)
both sides try to influence a lot, but have no substance, specially policy implementation.
Yes we have been sheltered from some of the GFC, ....but hang on, was it not with a bit of help from the stimulus, and may be some luck with China, but hang on, who prepared us 30 years ago for China playing a more important role in our future?
Hang on again was it not Robert H. a long time ago and Paul K. who implemented the Super and gave us a market currency and a market economy?
I read in the commentary that a Wayne S. gave to us 30 months of consecutive trade surplus for the first time in our history, he could walk on water after that, even so some labour mates have put a lot of stones in its pockets since, making it almost impossible now, specially with our ultra socialist hoot nannies, it's harder now, certainly, but I wonder if Abbott will disappear with Hockey on the hollowed space between the stones?
An alternative will be refreshing, yes, but for how long given what is on offer?
Great piece. We have a total lack of leadership on both sides. Gillard is only intersted in holding onto office. Tabloid Abbott is only bumper sticker slogans with zero credibility. Why is he never challenged by the media. As with the US Republicans unwilling to accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency, Abbott, the shock jocks, and the Murdoch press have never accepted this minority goverment. And this confected crisis is exactly the same as what confronted the Whitlam government.
One only need look at the Rudd/Gillard governments' various policy flip flops to see very clearly that the most recent experiment with the ALP has been continuous chaos.
Has everyone forgotten that Rudd's behaviour was chaotic, with his kitchen cabinet actually driven by his child genius advisors?
Or the continuing inability of the Gillard/Swan combo to actually lock in sensible funding for their grandiose plans, much of which were reversals of previous policy?
I realise that news needs fresh material to attract attention, but the thrust of this piece is, well, quite surreal.
Of course, it's all Tony Abbott's fault...
Michael I think that you are alone in believing that Labor and the Coalition are two sides of the same coin. Here are some differences:
- large govt v small govt
- nanny state v individual choice
- anti business v pro business
- high tax v controlled spend
- debt & deficit v cash at bank & surplus
- class warfare v aspirational
I could go on, but I think you get the message.
Little difference between Labor and the Coalition? Are you for real, Michael? Let me spell it out for you: Labor is a socialist party which has its fundamental premises,(a) taking as much money as it can from the "wealthy" to give to the "poor," and (b) exercising as much control over the lives of the populace as it is able to.
In regard to the latter, take a close look at the machinations of the predominantly socialist European Parliament to see what Labor is striving for. Like Labor's proposed media bill, its latest initiative is to have unelected bureaucrats deciding what journalists can or can't write or say about the EU - in other words, it's about stifling criticism of the organisation. Sound familiar? History and current events indicate that respect for genuine democracy is clearly not part of socialists' DNA.
As part of its election manifesto, the Coalition has, amongst other things, flagged less interference in our lives, in business, and in the media. For those who believe in real freedom there should be little doubt for whom they'll vote.
I try not to be too negative (I prefer to leave that to the PM and her hate chorus) but really, Mr Gawenda, why do those of the left persuasion think that abuse of those with different political views advances their cause? It doesn't work for me. And, as has already been noted, there are substantial differences between the two major parties. One that might also be added to the list is the question of trust. Can we trust Ms Gillard to keep her word on anything? Judging by her record to date, I don't think so.
The fundamental difference is their attitude to debt and spending.Money printing around the world is deeply disturbing and surely it is better to have a govt.that is committed to balanced budgets and has a proven track record from before than the Rudd/Gillard lot.Also the lies,to cover incompetence seem endless
Yes Michael I agree, it is a case of Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dummer.
Where are the liberals on the new anti discrimination laws (which are basically laws against free speech)? Labor will tax us into oblivion, whereas Abbott agrees with an unfunded National Disablility Scheme and broader maternity leave and so on it goes only way to fund is increase taxes or govt debt or print money, or all three.
Four more years of either will see middle the class taxed more, taxes on super, more regulation on small business and economic chaos on both sides.
A wise man once said when forced to choose between two evils - abstain.
A great summing up of the state of politics and the Media in this sometimes sad, mostly internationally irrelevant country (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6).
Hollande, Cameron, Rajoy,(Monti) have all been elected as the new saviors and now themselves are struggling in the opinion polls. Here, Baillieu, Newman and OFarrell are struggling after being elected with big majorities. The same thing will happen with Abbott. His rhetoric will not match reality when he has to deal with the effects of the financial meltdown that has affected the whole world for the last four years. Strip away the negative coverage of Gillard and their is little between them.
It appears the majority of politicians exist for minimal constructive purpose other than democratic window-dressing. Rather, that Australia exists to justify and fund their existence. Why must an election boil down to choice between such self-obsessed and uninspiring parties? The world in 2013 needs wise leaders to bring out the best - not the worst - in all of us. (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6)
Here is the difference:
Abbott is uninspiring.
Gillard is downright dangerous, with he Mc Ternan spin, divisive rhetoric and socialist policies, and power at ALL costs.
How could a great Labor leader like Bob Hawke sit in the gallery yesterday and watch the current abomination of a Labor Government? (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6)
Michael Gawenda is only saying what many commentators have been saying for years, that there is no real difference between Labor and the Coalition in government (Why Gillard's contest will be surreal, February 6) The only real difference is between the Right Wing of the Coalition and the Left Wing of Labor, while the Greens represent the only opposition. The danger is that if the Right dominate an Abbott government, then they will follow the pattern elsewhere where neo-liberal economics promote the enrichment of the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The contradiction is that the Liberals will get voted in by the working class suburbs of our big cities like Sydney who will support Abbott on social policy issues and because they are sick of the Gillard government and the corruption of the Right Wing faction in NSW who control the ALP. As in the UK, they may well live to bitterly regret the way they voted.