It’s important at this perilous moment in our political history that candidates and their leaders say the things by which they wish to be judged years from now.
It was refreshing to at least hear Malcolm Turnbull label both sides’ refugee policies as “harsh” and “cruel” (though he’s not proposing anything that might be better). Former Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser has referred to "Australian gulags" in PNG.
That kind of honesty is a start. But others – including community, religious and business leaders and media commentators – need to step up explain why this campaign isn't normal politics, and that it will likely lead to some very bad policy.
For anyone who thinks the use of ‘perilous’ above is an overstatement, let’s review the situation.
The 43rd parliament was a tough one, and the hostility between the government and opposition benches reached new heights, largely because of the inflamed debates over the carbon tax ‘lie’ and boat arrivals issues.
Nonetheless, the Labor minority government went through a methodical process to work out some major reforms – Disability Care, the Gonski education reforms, federal/state health care funding, the Clean Energy Futures package and tax and superannuation reforms.
It also did quite a lot of damage with off-the-cuff announcements. Media law reform was a stinker, so too was the undemocratic bastardry of the MRRT, which supposedly was worked out by Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Treasurer Wayne Swan in a closed-door meeting on a BHP laptop.
But after three years of laying its policy cards on the table – three years interrupted and destabilised by frequent bursts of enthusiasm from senior journalists that the ‘Rudd camp’ was about to return to the fore – the right thing to do would have been to ask voters, “so what do you think of all that?”
The Rudd forces within Labor, which grew stronger with every piece of commentary published in their favour, decided otherwise.
What Labor needed to do, given Gillard’s low primary vote figure in the opinion polls, was to change its boat-arrivals policy, its carbon-tax policy, its fiscal policy, and say to voters “that was all a bad dream – this is the real Labor Party”.
Labor’s big-hitters – the likes of Simon Crean, Craig Emerson, Greg Combet and Stephen Conroy – were banished to obscurity, and Labor became all about policy backflips and the presidential figure who would save the party (or whatever there was left to save), Kevin Rudd.
In normal times, that would be enough to finish Labor. Voters certainly see through the cynicism of parachuting Rudd in to save the government he’d been white-anting for three years. The acrimonious tango that was being danced by Julia and Tony, suddenly became an absurd hip-hop dance-off between you-culture-savvy Kevin and a bemused Abbott. And Tony can’t rap.
More importantly, Tony’s team can’t rap. He’s apparently given several of them strict instructions not to say anything, or show off their dance moves at street level again, until he’s safely installed in the Lodge.
Labor last night issued a statement that begins: “The Rudd Labor Government today issued an all-points bulletin for the safe return of Shadow Minister for Health, Peter Dutton, Shadow Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science, Sophie Mirabella and Leader of the Opposition in the Senate and Shadow Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations, Senator Eric Abetz.
“We have grave concerns for the whereabouts of these three senior Shadow Ministers. If Mr Abbott wins the election on 7 September, they will all be senior Cabinet Ministers. Yet we have not heard a peep from them all campaign.”
Voters don’t get to hear Dutton’s policy detail on health because Labor is poised to turn anything he says off-message into a “cut to the bone” scare campaign.
Mirabella can’t be let loose, because she’s so prone to hyperbole and distortion of facts on the carbon tax. Heaven help Abbott if she pipes up about the finer details of Direct Action.
And a twitch of Abetz’s eyebrow is a sure sign that “WorkChoices is back”, according to Labor.
So those three must remain mute. Enough damage has already been done by new candidates. First was Jaymes Diaz's breathtaking display of ineptitude on Abbott’s ‘six-point plan’ to stop the boats.
Then on Sunday evening we saw Liberal candidate for Wakefield Tom Zorich admit on Sky TV that he was “not across” his own party’s carbon emission reduction plan, Direct Action.
Given that Tony Abbott had worked so long and hard to make carbon policy the bête noire of a prosperous Australia, you’d think any Liberal candidate would have some idea of the Coalition’s alternative.
I hope now readers will understand my use of the word ‘perilous’ above.
With the polls currently favouring an Abbott victory, it looks likely the Coalition will sail into power without giving voters more than five minutes to scrutinise the costing of its policies.
The Coalition can also remain vague about how it’s Direct Action plan will work – despite numerous studies showing that it won’t. Or if it does hit its Kyoto-II target, it will cost the budget billions more than presently stated.
Its public service job cuts won't be announced. That's going to be worked out after the election, when those pesky voters have all gone away.
And even on boat arrivals, the Coalition is not forced to explain why its policies will work, when Kevin Rudd’s carbon copy of their approach continues to fail.
The buffoonery of Labor is distracting voters from giving full attention to the incompetence of some Liberal candidates, and the unpalatable policy detail being hidden away with others.
Come to think of it, ‘perilous’ might be far too mild a term to describe this mess.
At least when one of these vaudeville acts forms government we’ll get to critique their real policies – and please, whoever it is, don’t switch leaders just before the 2016 election and try to tell us the 44th parliament was all a bad dream. That’s being tried right now, and it’s not working.