Tim Bowden, ABC journalist and historian, hosted a television program called BackChat between 1987 and 1994. Viewers could write in with their comments on Aunty’s offerings. One correspondent criticised the Rob Sitch-inspired spoof of the commercial current affairs programs, Frontline. The correspondent was appalled that the ABC could waste taxpayers’ money on a program that was such a poor example of critical journalism. Bowden, po-faced as ever, recalled some advice from an old hand when he was starting out in journalism: ‘Never give them satire, they’ll think it’s the real thing.’
Reading Mungo MacCallum’s book The Mad Marathon: The Story of the 2013 Election, I began to wonder if someone had forgotten to give our current politicians the same warning. The book is a swiftly written, easily read, entertaining, foible-focused account of the poll-driven, reactionary and personality-obsessed non-debate that was the 2013 campaign. In that sense, it is a continuation of the shallow and uncritical political discourse that we now have in Australia, and a reflection of the role that the media plays.
MacCallum is a venerable insider; he has been covering Australian politics for fifty years. Given this perspective, it might be reasonable to expect a deeper sense of how Australian politics has evolved to this point, but the book, for the most part, is a chronology, peppered with references to the power of opinion polls, and the inevitable outcome of a Coalition victory. This may well reflect the author’s own preference for the politics of the left and his sense of world-weary resignation that it has all come down to this – ‘the rest of us are left bereft and unhappy, stuck with a government and a prime minister we didn’t really want but having had no real alternative’.
The book is in fact an absolution for the true believers that in the absence of an alternative we got the government not so much that we deserve, but that we couldn’t avoid. MacCallum occasionally gets close to real insight into the failure of the Rudd and Gillard governments, but he never gives credit to the Coalition’s campaign.
MacCallum’s brief account of the attempted coup led by Simon Crean, whom he clearly regards as a man of honour and integrity, ends with the laying of blame at the feet of Kevin Rudd, who, encouraged to stand for the leadership, blinked, just as he had done in early 2010 when he refused to call a double dissolution election over emissions trading. MacCallum sees this as a character flaw, a refusal to take risks. He ignores the roles played by Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, who opposed the idea of taking on Tony Abbott over ‘the great big tax’.
The likely result of that missed double dissolution will never be known. What we do know is that a government elected on a platform of tackling climate change – characterised by Rudd as the great moral, political, and social challenge of our time – walked away from it, this despite years of drought culminating in devastating floods and bushfires and a majority view that something had to be done. Worse still, Julia Gillard, deposing Rudd as prime minister, promised not to introduce a carbon tax and yet managed to do so in a hung parliament, only to have a resurgent Rudd attempt to remove it as a political obstacle in a desperate effort to neutralise the issue. The election result suggests that most Australian voters no longer regard it as a pressing issue or accept the measures proposed by the Coalition in the face of almost universal expert derision. What was clearly an issue in that election was the lack of any consistent principle or purpose. In the end, any climate policy was good enough if it could ensure that Labor would stay in government.
If the purpose of a two-party system is a debate that leads to consensus, perhaps the fact that the Coalition had a climate-change policy at all is a sign of some impact from the ranting from all sides, not to mention broadband, disability insurance, and education funding. The issue of how to deal with asylum seekers is another example, albeit in a different way. John Howard and Philip Ruddock proved that an appeal to fear was potent politics. Rudd, on his election in 2007, dismantled much of their apparatus to the applause of the critics, but Gillard largely reassembled it, and Rudd, restored to office, went even further in an effort to counter Abbott’s refrain ‘Stop the boats’. MacCallum’s judgement of Rudd on this is essentially positive:
In any case, Rudd had to be given marks for trying. On any assessment, the current situation was out of control. With more that 15,000 boat people having arrived already in 2013 and no sign of relief in sight, circumstances had indeed changed since 2008, when Rudd happily dismantled John Howard’s Pacific Solution. Drownings were becoming commonplace, despite the best efforts of an increasingly traumatised navy, and the detention camps were overflowing. Worst of all the politics had become toxic: with Abbott’s uncompromising and opportunistic stance, there was a real danger that the election could turn into a nasty brawl about race, even worse than Howard’s dark victory of 2001. Rudd’s lurch to the right was not pretty, but if it worked and the boats did stop he would be forgiven much, even by the humanitarians who were his sternest critics.
There are many problems with this analysis. To begin, it is clearly another example of politics usurping principle. It was not a counter to Abbott’s policy but a concession, and it was welcomed as such. It gave endorsement to what has now become a militarised solution, where any attempt to resolve the issue through international cooperation or by spending money in a constructive way to alleviate misery has been abandoned. The only measure of success will be the number of boats and the only aim of policy is to keep this as low as possible. Rudd’s contribution began in doing good and ended in doing whatever it takes.
There is an argument that Labor believed Tony Abbott to be unelectable, and, emboldened by his emergence as Opposition leader, removed a prime minister and proceeded over two elections to prove themselves wrong. MacCallum ends his book with a regret that ‘Australian politics may have reached its lowest ebb in the fifty years I have been actively covering it’ and with the hope that continued engagement in politics is worthy and worthwhile ‘because it is the only way we can resolve our disputes without killing each other’. If it has come down to this, we are indeed at a very low ebb.
The fault surely lies not with politics but with politicians. I prefer to see in the election of Cathy McGowan in Indi and the re-election of Adam Bandt in Melbourne, despite the cynical forces of the major parties, green shoots of a renewed democracy.