Slogans stifled debate – and we let them

Slogans stifled debate – and we let them

Posted 2 hours 53 minutes ago

If we had pushed for solid policy ideas and not slogans before the federal election, we might be better prepared to address the issues that confront us, writes Jonathan Green.

An election, at least in theory, gives our informed consent to the work of an incoming administration.

Good word, administration. Is that what we hope for from our elected representatives, that they keep an eye on things? Run the firm on behalf of the stockholders?

“The people of Australia thank you for your presentation and are pleased to offer you the opportunity to form a government based on the program you have outlined.”

That kind of thing. Mind you, that’s a scenario that assumes:

a: The voting public has some kind of determining influence over the electoral agenda; and

b: That it gives much of a damn in the first place.

Both somewhat contestable.

Which takes us to the condescending mass of cliché and twaddle that was our most recent experience of the democratic miracle: A federal election in which both parties stood nervously in each other’s policy shadow, told us as little as they could about the concrete and problematic realities that confront us, never mind what either might do about them, then posed for a poll that hung all but exclusively on one simple proposition: we are not them.

The issue of informed consent then is probably moot.

The election was all about dumping a government seen as divided and dysfunctional. This is probably because in large part the previous government was divided and dysfunctional, an unfortunately overwhelming distraction given the gravity of the national circumstance. But that was the electoral narrative: getting rid of Labor.

And now, with a new government in power the position of the country seems to grow more awkwardly complex by the day as we confront realities untamed by politics. In an election, reality can be sculpted, in government it must be confronted.

It is entirely possible, for example, to gain power on the basis of the slightest of policy prescriptions. For Tony Abbott this amounted to a recurring and simple series of pledges:

“We’ll build a stronger economy so everyone can get ahead. We’ll scrap the carbon tax so your family will be $550 a year better off. We’ll get the budget back under control by ending Labor’s waste. We’ll stop the boats. And we’ll build the roads of the 21st century because I hope to be an infrastructure prime minister who puts bulldozers on the ground and cranes into our skies.”

As the weeks and months have moved on it has become increasingly clear that the terms of this electoral contest, terms largely determined by the government’s calculated minimalism, did us no favours.

We went to the polls after an exchange of slogans rather than ideas … and the worst kind of slogans. Slogans that increasingly seem not to have been a shorthand for a more elaborate and considered system of policy and belief, but, well, slogans, entire of themselves.

As we are beginning to see, as 2014 unfolds with its faltering in manufacturing and numerous other signs of an economy in “transition”, there was quite a bit of solid policy ground the 2013 election might have dealt with.

Could our decision-making process on who might best administer our commonwealth have been aided by a robustly expressed series of thoughts on how we set about the restructure of an economy tripping out of a mining boom, stumbling towards the end of manufacturing and looking for a sustaining future direction?

That sort of process would not have changed the outcome. The ALP was roadkill regardless of the detail of the campaign. But a more vigorous, a more testing debate might have been of benefit to the incoming government. You could argue, too, it was the debate we probably deserved, and that as a consequence we might now have a series of policy proposals that might extend beyond this encapsulation of the government’s current thinking on industry policy offered by the prime minister to AM’s Chris Uhlmann: “If you ask me, Chris, can I say what individual Toyota workers will be doing in four years’ time, I can’t give you that answer, but Chris, none of us know the answers to those questions. What we’ve got to do is remember that we are creative people in a capable country who have always faced the future with confidence and have always made the most of it.”

Our 2013 discussions on the economy could also have been partnered by a more than rhetorical musing over the state of federal fiscal affairs; unless repeated exhortations to “stop the waste” will be sufficient to resolve the sort of structural imbalances that, if left unattended, seem certain to leave the federal budget in a state of spiralling decline.

As the Grattan Institute put it last year: “Australian government budgets are under pressure. In the next 10 years, they are at significant risk of posting deficits of around 4 per cent of GDP. That means finding savings and tax increases of $60 billion a year.”

Cutting the waste may not cut it.

Resolving the troubled balance between declining commonwealth revenues and multiple running sores of galloping expenditure will be the work of one or two parliamentary terms and will involve comprehensive reimagining of what it might be to be an Australian economy in the 21st century.

Anybody sign up for that in September 2013? No. Not really.

And we all have to take some responsibility for that, for governments that can coast on their campaign rhetoric when in power no matter what aggravated circumstances they confront.

If we had demanded better, if our media had pushed harder for more considered responses and insisted that the electoral argument go beyond cliché and slogan, then we might by now have a national conversation of the sort of maturity that seems, increasingly, demanded by the circumstances we confront.

Because that’s the tricky thing about circumstances: they seem resolutely impervious to slogans.

Jonathan Green hosts Sunday Extra on Radio National and is the former editor of The Drum. View his full profile here.

 

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