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Yes, but what did it all mean?

By Peter West - posted Monday, 4 July 2016


This has been a puzzling election. There has been no shortage of people telling us it meant this or that. The barrows people have been pushing are creaking loudly. For the record, I have worked for some of the parties sometimes, and have voted once or twice for most of them. No, I'm not impartial. I doubt that anyone is.

The reason for the double dissolution. What was that again? There was some bill that Malcolm Turnbull wanted to pass. And so he needed a double dissolution. Most of us couldn't remember what it was, if we had to to save our lives. I've wondered about that myself. Why give away a big majority when you have a year or more to spare? And give it up for- what? A narrow majority and a dog's breakfast rabble of Senators. Historians will be puzzling over this one. Was Malcolm seeking legitimacy? Or trying to keep a noisy backbench quiet? We may never know. I wonder if Malcolm is sitting over his morning musli or his evening chardonnay and wondering, "Now, why did I DO that?"

It was an uninspiring election. Perhaps we want too much. Maybe we get misty-eyed over Whitlam. Many do, but after the first whirlwind in 1972-3, there were a succession of sackings, scandals and fumbles. Hawke had some great moments, and has given us compulsory superannuation and some other benefits. But all in all he went downwards into a rather sad unimpressive figure. Howard - about the same. Perhaps we get misty-eyed about past leaders after groaning about the dullness of this campaign and the tedious slogans (whoever dreamed up "Jobs and Growth" needs to be sent away to Siberia). I don't know anyone who felt excited or inspired by Shorten, and I wish I didn't have to watch his pathetic figure running around in a baggy T shirt.

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The end of the two-party system? This idea has been floated many, many times. When Don Chipp launched the Australia Party this idea was mooted. And it has surfaced again and again. But I'd be cautious about ditching some old notions. Many scholars have argued convincingly that in the end, we all vote for Labor or non-Labor. That has been the rule in Australia since 1910, say Paul Strangio et al. We can come back to this idea later.

Hung or not? There are people in all parties who know that it all depends on the numbers. If Turnbull gets a majority of 1 after choosing a Speaker- he can govern. If he gets a majority of 61- ditto. I wouldn't be talking about hung anything yet. We all want certainty, but working out a verdict is premature.

Maybe I can make some observations.

Leadership tussles. The media like talking about leadership challenges. It's simple stuff: X might be replaced by Y. Most of the time it's based on some shreds of evidence. I wouldn't be expecting any leadership challenges soon. Labor should be happy with what Shorten achieved. We all need to wait and see what the result looks like, and how Turnbull can get his policies through the Parliament. Wait and see, as my GP says.

Malcolm's problems. There is some truth in the comment that Malcolm seemed like a progressive. Whether it's same-sex unions or climate change, he seemed modern and hip. If you like, a cool guy. But since becoming Prime Minister he has seemed beholden to the arch-conservatives in his party- like Eric Abetz and the rural rump. Perhaps he went for an election to gain legitimacy and authority. If so, he seems to have failed. And the arch-conservatives will have been encouraged. Having normally-conservative Andrew Bolt attack Turnbull is unusual: "Malcolm: You Are Finished". It suggests that something is wrong in the Liberal camp. We can take Peta Credlin's dissatisfaction for granted. But there have been rumbles of disappointment and dissatisfaction.

Labor problems. Likewise, Labor has its issues. There has been an unpleasant stench around Labor for some time. The Obeid business still lingers in New South Wales. It's too easy to ring out a litany of the Labor people who have been found to be corrupt. Shorten somehow doesn't seem to be the man with the authority to sort these problems out. I don't follow all the detail of what happened in Victoria, but the argument seems to be about militant unions getting out of control, as Teicher said. This was an issue which has been a wonderful gift to the Liberals. Many Victorian seats seem to have stayed within the Liberal fold as a result. Labor gets a lot of its support from the unions; but when there are stories about militant unions getting nasty and threatening the public interest- Labor loses votes.

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Why did the Medicare campaign work? There are any number of reasons for this. Fear is a strong motivator. People are often scared of losing what they have. Shorten thundered often about schools and hospitals, and clearly got traction. Health and education are powerful issues, and Labor sees itself as a party that gets support from people who are concerned about health and schooling. Education also resonated, with Shorten frequently filmed with kids in some watchable TV.

Privatisation. The issue of privatisation needs more careful attention. As we said, the idea that Medicare would be privatised got people worried. Here in New South Wales, the Baird Government has been enthusiastically privatising everything it can. Some wit wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald Letters that Baird would privatise his mother if he could. We heardonly this week that electricity prices will rise by about two hundred dollars a year for each household, following a selloff of the electricity grids. There are always plausible reasons given for privatisation. The real reasons become apparent later. And it usually means that things cost more. That argument has been bubbling away in the Sydney papers for some two years now.

The environment. There were a batch of environmental issues that surfaced. Here in eastern Sydney, the landscape has been peppered with signs saying 'Save Our Trees: Put the Liberals Last'. The Baird Government has been widely condemned by demonstrations, letters to local newspapers and similar for chopping down avenues of ancient streets on the edge of Centennial Park. Malcolm Turnbull's comments about how valuable Centennial Park is somehow ring hollow. His speech of praise for the Park in the local paperhere suggest that he was aware of how unpopular Baird's tree-felling is. In other places, there is clearly concern about fracking, as well as clear felling of forests. And the fate of the Great Barrier Reef, which still seems endangered by a range of natural events, as well as nearby coal mines. And climate change. Environmental issues are powerful.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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