Australian politics since the 1990s has been marked by a dedicated loathing of the “vision thing”. For those keen to see policies lasting beyond the life of the May fly, disappointment lies. Federal governments, at best, have shelf lives of three short years. Governments are effectively encouraged to be agents of small change if, indeed, they are to be agents of any change whatsoever. Anything beyond that is bound to be what Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes Minister terms “courageous”, so brave as to be an act of folly and a discouragement.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten of the Australian Labor Party never quite had it. He had, it is true, overseen the end of two prime ministers – Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – and came close to sneaking in during the 2016 election. But his stewardship of the federal Labor Party never cured that sense of a permanent “trust deficit”. Not even a phalanx of credible female politicians, aided by his wife’s support, were able to protect him against a highly personalised campaign that stressed the simple, the visceral, and, the importance of self-interest. The world might be burning, but what did that matter to retirees concerned about their share income from franked dividends?
Labor’s strategy had been geared towards a battle of details kept in a stuffing of income distribution. But the campaign got bogged down. Documents and policy statements were designed for the deposed Turnbull. With the coming to power of Scott Morrison after a palace coup in 2018, a sense of hopeless fun pervaded proceedings. This was not an election for him to win – keeping losses to a minimum would have been seen as an achievement of sorts.
Shorten, in contrast, exuded agitation and weariness. He seemed to wear the spectral crown of an impending coronation with discomfort. Morrison, in turn, revelled, getting his hands dirty, donning a baseball cap, making sporting analogies and being seemingly everywhere . A fossil he might have been, but a very enthusiastic campaigner he proved to be, leaving his opponent ragged.
The election was an object lesson of personal politics. Morrison made the election a matter of himself. He became a ventriloquist for the “quiet Australian voters”. He muzzled other ministers, and patched over the fact that Coalition government had done away with two of its own prime ministers since winning power in 2013. Astonishingly, he could use the term “stability” and get away with it, masking the party’s own dysfunction and lurch to the right.
Climate change disappeared from coalition discussions; the environment minister, Melissa Price, went into hermetic hiding. Having given Indian mining giant Adani approval on water management plans in the long battle of the Galilee Basin, the onus was on Labor to show their colours. In the process, they were wedged: to oppose Adani for environmental grounds sounded like a rebuke to miners, however fictional and disingenuous the projected figures of the Indian company were. Pro-Adani Labor members of parliament such as Cathy O’Toole in the North Queensland seat of Herbert were left in outer orbit from the metropolitan centres of Sydney and Melbourne.
There have already been attempts to see the Australian federal election of 2019 as a version of Trump 2016 or Brexit. Predictably, similar venting has taken place at the result, with despondent voters snorting on social media that they would move to New Zealand to escape the ignoramuses of the Australian populace.
Excerpted from: 'The Victory of Small Visions: Morrison Retains Power in Australia'.