Relentless. There’s simply no better word to describe Australia’s current political atmosphere. Ever since Julia Gillard became the nation’s 27th Prime Minister in June 2010 we’ve been caught in a groundhog day election campaign.
Tony Abbott’s determination to tear down the Gillard minority government, and belief that he will ultimately succeed, has seen him treat every day since the 2010 election as yet another campaign day. He’s constantly subjected us to a scrappy, negative campaign distinguished only by factoids, fluro-vest photo-ops and three-word slogans.
The Prime Minister has had no choice but to respond in kind, and her counter-campaign has been no less intense. Julia Gillard has left no media opportunity unexploited to reaffirm her legitimacy, proclaim her government’s fiscal virtuosity and stake her claim for posterity. But no-one is meant to run a country while simultaneously fighting an election campaign. That’s why we have caretaker arrangements once an election is called, to shift the running of the government into the hands of an apolitical public service. This ensures the grubby business of vote-winning does not contaminate government decision-making.
But the faux election campaign being waged right now has no such separation. Time and again, we’ve witnessed craven electoral politics triumph over responsible government and sensible policies. A confident and secure government, not stuck in an election campaign loop, would have taken a strong leadership position on issues such as the mining tax, climate action and asylum seekers. The more politically palatable options chosen instead by the Gillard government serve as a constant reminder that in this groundhog election campaign, vote-winners will prevail every time.
Minority government too has compounded our sense of a never-ending election. The Opposition and some quarters of the media have attempted smear and character assassination to change the parliament’s composition and trigger an early election. Lobbyists and activists, meantime, have felt a strengthened sense of purpose with the small number of unaligned and minor party MPs holding the balance of power. Vested interest campaigns have been redirected and redoubled as a result, in an attempt to put greater pressure on the minority power-holders.
It’s not just the leaders and lobbyists that are carpet-bombing us with faux election hype. All MPs seem to have defaulted to constant campaign mode. Once there was nary a politician to be seen between election campaigns, but now they are ubiquitous. Parliamentarians tout their wares on our televisions most mornings and every weeknight. Weekends are no longer sacred but crowded with political chat shows and interviews that yield little more than the lines of the day. Our local MPs now lurk in shopping centres and main streets, as well as sending us stalkerish letters and robocalls or popping up on our Twitter streams and Facebook pages.
The only respite we’re given is the Christmas break; the political hiatus when voters and parliamentarians alike flock to the beach and the barbie, preoccupied by little more than the batting average or the plot of a good novel.
But summer days are starting to shorten again and soon the campaign will begin afresh. Despite feeling that we’ve been living with a looming election for the past two years, the real campaign will commence sometime this year and an election will be held even as early as March.
It’s little wonder then that we’re heartily sick of the federal election, even before it’s officially underway. There’s only so much hype and harping that we can hear; only so much politics trumping policy that we can swallow. For many, the temptation to switch off from it all is particularly strong.
But for others, the lure of dissent prevails. These are the voters who’ve added their voices to the shrill and the shouty. Perhaps this explains the negativity that pervades our current political discourse. The groundhog campaign, more than the shockjocks, Twitter trolls, combative political talk shows or online disinhibition effect may be the reason we’ve turned into curmudgeonly quarrelers.
Perhaps the online commenters who habitually seek to discredit the authors of political news, analysis and opinion do so because they’re sick of campaign spin and cant. Perhaps political discussions on Twitter and Facebook have been reduced to snark and the crushing of alternative views in response to the infestation of sock-puppets and shills. Or perhaps we’re simply more cantankerous and less tolerant than we used to be.
Either way, when the federal election is finally held it will mark the end of the longest campaign seen in contemporary Australian politics, spanning as it will from the day after the 2010 federal election to the 2013 polling day. Official or not, the non-stop election campaign will be remembered for diminishing Julia Gillard’s capacity to run an effective government by denying her the free air needed to make necessary decisions despite their political unpalatability.
Hopefully, polling day will mark the end of the groundhog election campaign too, allowing the newly elected government to proceed comparatively unencumbered by short-term political considerations.
Such a government would be free to lead and make the right decisions, rather than the politically expedient ones. It could also set the tone for a new civic discourse, distinguished by respectful, constructive debate and a focus on policy. Over time, this could change how Australians participate in their nation’s democracy, and in turn influence what the media considers to be newsworthy.
In the meantime, we must endure. But at least we can do so in the knowledge that the groundhog election campaign will end within the year, and may yet bring with it the promise of better public debate in the years and elections to come.
This post originally appeared in The King’s Tribune