An Israeli journalist visiting Australia in this last week of the election campaign called to say she was puzzled, confused, disoriented and – though she did not say so directly – appalled by what she has witnessed.
Are Australians really so politically disengaged, she asked? How come you have a presidential style election campaign when you’re not actually electing a president? Why would you have a presidential campaign anyway, when both the leaders of the major political parties are so widely disliked and distrusted?
And are there really no issues, she asked, that are crucial to Australia’s future on which the conservative parties and the Labor Party have different positions and that need debating with a modicum of passion and intelligence during an election campaign?
Coming from Israel, it’s not surprising that she found this Australian campaign boring as hell. Her questions nevertheless are interesting.
Let’s take the last question first. In the main, there are no great differences between the Coalition and Labor on health, on education, on asylum seeker policies and on what both sides have argued is the major issue of the campaign, economic management.
On economic management, the Coalition has been smart politically and Labor, under both Gillard and Rudd, has been politically inept. For all the sound and fury from Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott about the deficit, neither of them – and certainly not Abbott – are deficit hawks.
Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan handed the Coalition its greatest election-winning gift when they made returning the budget to surplus – against the advice of Treasury and most economists – the basis on which the government should be judged as an economic manager.
As a result, Hockey and Abbott were able to bury Labor on economic management simply on the basis of its failure to deliver a surplus. They did this while never promising to deliver a surplus any time soon when the Coalition won government. And certainly not, it is now clear, in an Abbott government’s first term.
Indeed, despite the rhetoric about a budget emergency, the only emergency was always a political one, the Gillard government having made a government-losing promise on an issue of only marginal importance at best.
In truth, there is hardly a breath of difference between the Coalition and Labor on economic policy.
On other issues, it’s now clear that Abbott is a committed big government man. He has signed the Coalition on to every big spending Labor initiative – on education, on the NDIS, even on the NBN give or take a few billion dollars, and has added the mother of all big spending initiatives, his paid parental leave scheme.
For some – including Kevin Rudd or at least Kevin07 – climate change was and remains perhaps the fundamental policy challenge and should be the major issue in this campaign, but first Rudd and then Gillard and now Rudd again have failed dismally in selling first an ETS, then Gillard’s carbon tax and now Rudd’s resurrected ETS.
Their failure has allowed Tony Abbott, at best a climate sceptic, to get away with his ridiculous Direct Action policy on climate change and to run a campaign for election based on getting rid of a carbon tax that, far from wrecking the Australian economy, seems to have had some impact on reducing carbon emissions.
This is Rudd and Gillard’s greatest failure – this inability, because of political timidity and cowardice, to truly campaign on climate change, for either a carbon tax or an ETS. Rudd and Gillard failed to meet the challenge of what Rudd so memorably described as the greatest moral challenge of our time.
And so it is that we have had an election campaign like this, focused on a resurrected Kevin Rudd who from day one of the campaign, has looked like a man drowning in his own illusions, and Tony Abbott, a man who in other times, seemed to be intelligent – even an intellectual dare we say – and who had interesting things to say, but who has remade himself into a politician of mind-numbing discipline, determined to kill off any trace of life from his language, a politician self-transformed into a relentless slogan machine.
So it is that we have been subjected to a presidential campaign – though we do not elect a president – involving two candidates who are almost equally distrusted and disliked. It was telling that on the ABC’s Q&A program on Monday night, a young woman said that she found it hard to tell the difference between Rudd and Abbott.
But the future for Rudd and Abbott is vastly different. By Saturday night, Abbott will be prime minister and he will be confronted with challenges vastly different to those he has dealt with as opposition leader.
It is impossible to know how he will respond but what we do know is that Abbott will find out things about himself that he can’t even imagine right now and that we will find out things about him that we can’t imagine now either. One thing is certain: he will be changed, even transformed by the office.
As for Rudd, his political time will surely be up come Saturday night. In many ways, Kevin Rudd has dominated Australian politics for the past six years. He has certainly dominated, even defined the Labor Party during that time. More than any other Labor figure, Kevin Rudd is responsible for the state of the Labor Party on the eve of this election, with the party facing a landslide defeat.
The Labor Party post-Rudd will be a different party, though its potential leaders have been wounded and diminished – while others who could have led the party have simply quit politics altogether. It is possible that a future Labor prime minister will not even be in the next parliament.
To that Israeli journalist, who reckoned that this was the most incomprehensible and issue free election campaign she has ever experienced, I’d say that, while she’s right, the result on Saturday night will be momentous. Rudd will be gone and a new government with a new prime minister will have been elected. History will be made on Saturday.