And they’re off, but does anyone really care?

Sydney Morning Herald | Comment | May 19, 2016.

The great divide between the parties is no longer so great.

The punters are considering their bets, with the odds narrowing: not that much between the protagonists. You might end up voting for whoever you hate less.

The politicians seem more concerned with their careers than us, or anything else. Because the political battle is at the margins – about relatively minor issues on the periphery of major policies – the quote about academics could be applied to our politicians: “Elections are the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.”

There was a period when the stakes were higher, the great divide more clearly discernible. In the post-war period (excepting Gough Whitlam’s short interlude) the conservatives presided for an astonishing 40-plus years, reinforcing the belief of the elites as the natural custodians of modern democracy.

In Australia, it took the best part of a century for Labor to prove itself. It was up to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating to demonstrate, decisively, that Labor could prosecute responsible government. We could hardly believe it. The socialists crafted a free enterprise platform for a sustained period of economic growth: floating the dollar, opening up the banking system, cutting tax from 60c to 49c and the company rate to 30c.

It was Labor who led Australia into the rapidly globalising world, while at the same time, extending superannuation to every wage earner. Thirteen years of the “lefties” challenged the conventional wisdom of their economic incompetence.

When the conservatives were returned in 1996, they sought to reclaim their designated role as prudent managers, with John Howard pushing through the GST and Peter Costello maintaining a surplus.

When Kevin ’07 stole the show as our most popular prime minister since Hawke, he promised a new world order, summits and moral righteousness.

The bipartisanship was never going to happen, and before we knew it, Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan were immersed in manoeuvring the country through the global financial crisis, with shovel-ready loads of stimulus. It was an event that tested the credibility of world markets, banks and many governments.

Australia became the poster child. The conservatives kept reminding us that the war-chest was of their making, and that they would have done better, by spending less.

Government is about aspects, not absolutes anymore. But you wouldn’t know it, listening to the protagonists.

The great divide has collapsed into uneven ground, with no clear direction left or right. However, since elections are systemically divisive, there is zero possibility for compromise.

Every punter recognises the constraints: the need for budget repair and reduced government spending. All handouts have to be weighed up against some growth dividend, hard or soft. The school and hospital funding, the cuts to company taxes, super and negative gearing all require sophisticated modelling, beyond the analysis of most. For example, take Shorten’s “Gonski … and More” and Turnbull’s “Jobs and Growth” slogans. You’d be forgiven for subscribing to either, or both – until you read the appraisals from Mark Latham (Quarterly Essay) or Ross Gittins (Fairfax Media).

This month, with our eyes glued to the starting gates, South Australia embarked on a different style of political engagement. The royal commission’s report into the nuclear fuel cycle just concluded – recommending, surprisingly, a spent uranium waste dump. The state is now seeking the community’s considered response, through a citizens’ jury – a process that encourages deliberation, rather than sloganeering.

Election contests are more about the combatants, and less about us. For a mug punter like me the current electoral form guide looks poor; with brighter prospects on a another track.

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