Never in the field of Australian political conflict has so much been said about so little by so few. Apologies to Churchill, but that about sums up the election campaign so far.
Sunday night’s leaders’ “debate” has been described as a meaningless bunfight. Nonetheless, it clarified and illustrated a couple of important things.
The scraping over minor points and crumbs of policy show how fear of scare campaigns over the past 30 years has reduced Australian politics to visionless auctions and voter bribery.
The biggest policy difference between the major parties this time is an integrity commission. But it is not a competition between visions but merely about what size broom is to be used to sweep up the pooh that Australian politics has exuded, or even if the broom is to have any bristles at all.
In the context of the lack of reform and policy options, small wonder journalists and voters are left with a stripped-down choice to be decided only on judging the quality or lack of quality of each leader.
It is appalling that in the face of major problems, inefficiencies, and inequities that we are more concerned over image and trivia rather than detailed policy.
We seem to forget that major reform, significant policy, or immediate responses to dangers like pandemics or foreign aggression are not done by the leader alone. They are invariably informed by a lot of people. Collegiality should not be seen as “weakness”.
But we are in danger of deciding the nation’s fate on whether a leader remembers a couple of statistics or whether a leader is seen as “strong”.
In some respects, this plays into Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s hands because he and the Coalition really have nothing much to show for their nine years in Government.
The same-sex marriage reform is a rare exception, but that was done despite the Coalition’s wishes, not because of them.
It is a legacy of paucity and a visionless future. And bear in mind Morrison has himself stated that he is not interested in legacies.
So, it suits Morrison to fight the election on “leadership”. In particular that he is “strong” and the Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese and Labor are “weak”, “unknown” and therefore “dangerous”.
But in other respects, the character comparison, can be dangerous for Morrison. And it was illustrated during the “debate”. It happened when he held his hand out at the moderator, Sarah Abo, as a gesture to shut her up, because she had the temerity to attempt to make Morrison follow the debate’s rules.
It was more proof of the accuracy of the character references given by Julia Banks and half a dozen people from his own side saying he talks over people, especially women, and that he disrespects women’s views.
So, a young woman, purportedly given power over him, had to be dismissed, literally out of hand.
From all accounts Abo is an effective moderator (and I have to confess I am not a big 60 Minutes watcher), but even she could not counter Morrison’s domineering body language and determination to get his way irrespective of the rules.
Morrison’s aim was simply to block out policy comparisons and present a simplistic, emotional choice between “weak” and “strong”.
But the portrayal of the Coalition as “strong” on the economy and national security is only on the Coalition’s say so. We should ask what does “strong” mean. The robodebt scheme and keeping the remaining few refugees imprisoned in Nauru could be described as “strong”. They could also be described as inhumane.
A low-tax-for-the-rich economy might be described as “strong”. It could also be described as unfair.
Among many voters, particularly women, the weak-strong divide might be read differently – as a choice between thoughtful and measured, on one hand, and over-bearing, swaggering, and bull-at-the-gate, on the other.
Yes, Albanese made his share of interruptions in the debate, but he was not as over-bearing as Morrison, nor did he attempt to silence the moderator.
In a way the debate, has followed the campaign: neither side looking like they are clearly winning.
But there was a winner of the debate: the independents.
At present the National Party holds the balance of power. For nine years now they have forced the Liberal Party not to do things.
If they get it, the independents will hold the balance of power differently. They will force the government of whichever major party to do things – on pain of losing government on the floor of the House.
Of course, with two weeks to go many have not written Morrison off yet. He could rewrite Abraham Lincoln’s famous accolade to democracy: “You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.”
In Australia’s democracy, you only have to fool 51 per cent of the people every three years – even less if the seats and preference from other parties fall your way.
But with voting now under way, it seems not enough people (especially women) will be fooled, bribed or scared enough to overcome Morrison’s character deficits. It is instructive that all of the independents challenging seats in the Liberals’ heartland are women.
A final point about the “debate” is that Labor got suckered into agreeing to the privatisation of the debates and agreeing to the exclusion of the national broadcaster, the ABC, from hosting any of them. That should not happen again.
We should have an independent body to set up a consistent model for them.
And note Morrison has so far declined an invitation by the ABC’s Q and A to appear, unlike Albanese. Q and A, of course, takes the format of questions from viewers and is presented by David Speers, who has a reputation of being the most neutral presenter in Australian journalism.
Morrison’s refusal to appear could perhaps be put down to “weakness”.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 10 May 2022.