As Australia heads into an eight-week election campaign, the trigger for the early election – the defeat of the Government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission Bill – seems to have disappeared into the distant past.
No one is focusing on what
started the race.
Because the quota for the Senate in a double dissolution is halved, Malcolm Turnbull’s calling of a double-dissolution election to resolve the Senate impasse is unlikely to work, leaving the next government without a majority in the Upper House.
Although the Turnbull government set out on a vote-buying spree over the new submarines and budget handouts, the election outcome is more likely to turn on the respective leaders’ credentials in economic management, and a series of issues which have traction with particular constituencies: foreign ownership, border protection, family policy, marriage and education (including the “Safe Schools” program).
The almost total absence of any reference to families in the Treasurer Scott Morrison’s Budget Speech confirmed that the welfare of Australian families is not his high priority. It seems that the Treasurer believes that if you get the budget right, and can put something into small business, Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” will deliver national prosperity and stable families.
Unfortunately, neither of the major parties has a coherent platform embracing these issues, so people are left to tick off a notional checklist of issues that are of importance to them.
Apart from the cultural shifts that are undermining family life, the government is totally ignoring the other challenges facing families.
These include unemployment and underemployment affecting up to 20 per cent of the adult population, the massive mortgages facing many young couples who are also struggling with education debts, and insecurity generated by part-time work and short-term contracts.
In rural Australia, the problems are deep seated and of long standing. To survive, most farms depend on off-farm income, and most farmers are working for nothing. Low commodity prices and soaring prices for water have made much of Australia’s irrigation zone uneconomic.
The National Party is aware of the problems, but with the concentration of population in the major capital cities, its capacity to do much is limited.
With the mining downturn and imminent closure of motor manufacturing, Australia seems destined to slide further into a service economy, based on education and tourism.
Bill Shorten’s alternative is even more unappealing. To deal with the problem of housing affordability, he is proposing a crackdown on negative gearing except for new homes, a policy guaranteed to accelerate the demand for new homes, already the target of foreign buyers. Rises in prices are all but inevitable.
By accepting the United Nations’ deeply flawed climate-change agenda, Mr Shorten is committing Labor to a new emissions trading scheme and to the closure of Australia’s efficient coalmining industry, with the inevitable result that electricity and gas prices will surge, as they did under the Rudd and Gillard governments.
Labor’s climate-change policies will have no measurable effect on Australia’s or the world’s climate, but may stop the leakage of left-wing Labor votes to the Greens and the loss of more inner-city seats.
While Mr Shorten professes support for the Coalition’s plan of offshore processing of boat people from Indonesia, he has also called for the relocation of those in the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres, and the closure of these facilities, which were opened by the last Labor government.
After the experience of the Rudd and Gillard years, we can have no confidence that Mr Shorten will maintain the firm line on border control pursued by Tony Abbott and continued by the Turnbull government.
Other than resentment at Mr Turnbull’s obvious wealth, working-class voters who deserted Labor in 2013 have no reason to return to the fold. Labor’s big-spending policies on health and education will simply mean that the current budget deficit of over $30 billion will blow out further.
The rising national debt eventually has to be repaid by future generations, fuelling intergenerational resentment, as we have seen in some European countries in recent years. Soaring public deficits also push up interest rates, discourage saving and choke growth.
Mr Shorten’s commitment to same-sex marriage and his endorsement of the “Safe Schools” program, with a promise to roll it out across Australia, confirm that his government will pursue a libertarian social agenda, a lot more radical than that of the Rudd and Gillard governments.
His de facto alliance with the Greens on social and environmental policy means that Labor and the Greens will hold their numbers in the new Senate, so that the Liberals, if they make it back into government, will continue to be dependent on securing the support of minor parties to get legislation through the Upper House.
For the people of Australia, the best outcome will be the narrow re-election of the Coalition government, with the balance of power in the Senate held by smaller pro-family and pro-Christian parties.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.