Why Australians are not happy about their choices this election

by Bernard Lagan / 28 April, 2019
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Australia election

Voters are showing little enthusiasm for either Scott Morrison or Bill Shorten – and you can't blame them.

Having had six prime ministers in under 12 years, Australians could be accused of apathy were they not – understandably – angered, embittered and sceptical about the general election on May 18. And, possibly, never more bored.

The choice is between a marketing-man Prime Minister, who has feverishly reinvented himself from the nation’s besuited treasurer to lumpy suburban dad, and an Opposition Leader who – as one commentator observed – learnt public speaking in a funeral parlour.

The turmoil started in 2010 with Julia Gillard’s take-down of her leader, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Then, Australians looked on in dismay as the Labor Party’s ferocious internal warfare spread to the conservative side of politics in 2015, when Malcolm Turnbull ousted another elected prime minister, Tony Abbott.

The Gillard-Rudd and Abbott-Turnbull wars lasted eight years – ending with Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison’s accession – alienating many voters who saw politicians’ self-interest placed far ahead of their own. They also handed Australia years of political and policy uncertainty – assuaged only by the luck of having masses of coal and iron ore to export and keep the economy growing.

The fall in trust has been rapid: fewer than 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way democracy works – down from 87% in 2007. Generation X is the least satisfied (31%) and baby boomers (50%) the most.

According to the organisation that produced those results, Canberra’s Museum of Australian Democracy, women are generally less satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia and more distrusting of politicians and political institutions.

“Australian citizens are very clear that they do not like the character of contemporary politics on display,” concluded the study’s academic authors by way of masterly understatement.

All of the warlord ex-prime ministers from the decade of uncertainty are gone from Parliament bar one: the most divisive of all, Abbott. But he is under siege in his Sydney electorate from a fast-rising independent challenger, 45-year-old barrister and former Olympic slalom-skiing bronze medallist Zali Steggall. Come polling day, “Ironman” Abbott may be replaced by an ironwoman.

For the many Australians who think 61-year-old Abbott’s quarter-century in Parliament is time enough, who think he still harbours prime-ministerial ambitions, his demise can’t come soon enough. As long as he stays, he is a reminder of the wasted years.

Australia’s sense that it has been let down by its leaders has been heightened by the rise of Jacinda Ardern and the example this young Prime Minister has set of leadership, empathy and courage. It was not a performance predicted by those in Australia who are paid to observe foreign governments.

“Jacinda Ardern, at 37, is an infant in politics. She has neither policy nor political achievements to her name. She became leader five minutes ago. During the campaign, she made an absolute hash of tax policy. So, naturally, she won,” sniffed the Australian newspaper’s veteran foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, after Ardern’s ascension in October 2017.

In contrast to New Zealand, which has been genuinely enthusiastic about its last two elected prime ministers – John Key and Ardern – Australia is showing no special relish for either 50-year-old incumbent Scott Morrison or the aspiring Bill Shorten, the 51-year-old Labor Party leader.

Both are former party back-room operatives. Morrison was the director of the Liberal Party’s New South Wales division and Shorten a lawyer who became a union leader. They were plotters, not populists. Both ascended to the leadership of their parties because they had a hand in bringing down their predecessors. Unsurprisingly, both rated near-identical scores for untrustworthiness, smugness and arrogance in a YouGov Galaxy poll this month.

It’s a barren choice.

New Zealander Bernard Lagan is the Australian correspondent for the Times, London.

This article was first published in the May 4, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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