26 July 2010

The Great Debate: No Choice is the New Choice

(This article was republished in On Line Opinion on Wednesday, 28 July 2010. Thanks to Susan Prior for her consideration.)

If you smear peanut butter on the roof of its mouth, a chimpanzee will rhythmically smack its lips together trying to get it off. It's apparently how they make those ads you see on TV with the talking monkeys.

It seems that Sunday night's Great Debate 2010 was made the same way - although it was slightly more difficult to take seriously.

Personally, I didn't really think any sparks would fly: it's been a tame election campaign so far. Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott have locked horns in the past over the health portfolio, but it's always looked more like flirting than fighting. You might have wondered whether a debate over the federal leadership of Australia would be enough to break the smugness and the (ahem) tension between them. You'd have been half right.

True to form, both were doing their best to make us fear higher unemployment, higher taxes, and - for reasons that have yet to be explained by either side of politics - asylum seekers. Each ate heartily of the low-hanging fruit of knowing that, at least, they weren't as bad as the other one. Neither said anything even remotely inspiring or insightful, and certainly nothing becoming of the highest office in the country. It's easy to see why they didn't want this to compete with MasterChef.

If there is a ray of light shining on this election, it's that the Australian Greens, in the meantime, are steadily gaining momentum. Two polls published only today predict the Greens getting some 12%-15% of the primary vote, up from 9% in the 2007 election. It is very likely that they'll end up with enough of a wedge in the Senate to hold the balance of power. They're even hoping for a seat in the lower House (possibly even Lindsay Tanner's seat of Melbourne).

There have been a number of grassroots campaigns in recent weeks to have the Greens recognised as a significant player on the Australian political field. Thousands of people joined Facebook groups to call for Senator Bob Brown to be included in the leadership debate. Sadly, he was not invited to the debate and could only participate via Twitter. Even more sadly, one of his tweets was displayed during the broadcast, and it still managed to say more in 140 characters than his two counterparts did in an hour.

In fact, The Chaser's Chas Licciardello, also on Twitter, declared Brown the winner of the debate at the half-hour mark. Many who watched the debate, having seen Senator Brown's address to the National Press Club on 14 July, would certainly agree (and today's poll in The Sydney Morning Herald at least suggests that he beat Gillard). Brown spoke of issues such as high-speed railways, mental health funding, additional debate of private members' bills, and the return of Australian troops from Afghanistan - topics that seem surprisingly easy to discuss among mainstream Australians, but topics nonetheless that neither major party wants to touch.

What the Greens are offering is simply a vision of something different, an opinion that doesn't fit neatly into the gap between those of the major parties.

It's something we used to have, until about a decade ago. In the late 1990s, it was the Australian Democrats offering the alternative viewpoint. That was until 1998, when then leader Meg Lees famously sold out the party to support the Coalition's GST. The Democrats endured a bitter leadership battle shortly afterwards and have struggled increasingly for relevance ever since. It was an ironic fate for a party devoted to "keeping the bastards honest".

That said, it's not just an alternative political viewpoint that Australians are seeking right now. It's arguable that Kevin Rudd won the 2007 election by taking the Howard government's conservative policies and being slightly more charismatic and clever about popularising them. It is this manner of mirror-politicking that is seeing the Labor and Liberal parties not only drifting closer together but dragging the entire political discourse to the right as they do. As such, the political progressives are fast becoming the alternative they've always claimed to be, and largely by doing and saying and believing as they have done for years, with refreshing consistency.

The issue of the environment is a classic example. Three years ago, we had a choice between the Coalition's climate change scepticism and Labor's vow to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Last year, while Abbott was saying that climate change was "absolute crap", we had massive rebates on solar electricity, free insulation and Green Loans assessments. Nowadays, we have Abbott declaring that there would never be a carbon tax under his leadership, Gillard's disastrous idea of inviting 150 random people around for tea and biscuits and policy formulation, and no ETS on the table until at least 2013.

By contrast, the Greens are fighting to fix last year's environmental programs (a personal crusade of mine), which have all but collapsed entirely and have left thousands of people in financial ruin. Plus, they've been talking for ages about a carbon tax - which, despite its name, is a far fairer economic measure against greenhouse gas emissions than the ETS would be. It's the kind of action on climate change that the world has given up waiting for. India, yet to shake of its status as a developing nation, and with a coal industry as significant as our own, has already introduced a coal tax to pay for investment in cleaner sources of energy. Brazil's sugar and automotive industries did much the same thing years ago, rather than waiting for countries like ours to embrace flex-fuel cars that can run on bioethanol. Australians are certainly this clever and resourceful, so why don't we have more to show for it?

As much as we embrace the idea of democracy, Australians can't possibly be proud of the choice we will have on 21 August. True, we don't know yet which of Labor and the Coalition will win, and current polls suggest it's pretty close. However, neither Abbott nor Gillard even seems to want the job, and a choice between two wrong answers is no choice at all. If we do end up with an increased Greens representation in Parliament, it won't be because Australians are hoping for a third political option; what we really crave is a second one.

Or you could just stock up on peanut butter. It's your choice.

2 comments:

Sophia said...

Nice writing Aaron!

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