Choosing the lesser of two evils

As our tumultuous, indeed horrendous, parliamentary year limps to a close, it is tempting to glance across the Pacific and see if the final frantic days of the American election can give us a hint of what to expect next year when we too will go to the polls.

And at first glance the comparisons are striking: the incumbent, an incompetent, untrustworthy, nation-wrecking lefty extremist, a misfit elected more or less by accident to be replaced as soon as possible by whatever means come to hand; and the challenger, a policy-free right wing religious nutter, a glib but gaffe-prone amateur clearly unfit for an office higher than that of chook raffler.

At least, this is the way they are portrayed by their respective opponents, and in both countries the libels have had some effect. For an alarming number of voters, the choice will not be a positive one, rather a conscious effort to select the lesser of two evils.

And the worst of the abuse has not come from the politicians themselves (although both have been subjected to an inordinate amount of muck-raking - Obama about his birthplace and religion, and Gillard about her childlessness and her legal career). The public, given implicit licence by the politicians and the commentators, have thrown themselves into an orgy of hatred.

Much of the attack on Obama has been openly racist, with "Put a white man back in the White House" the mildest of the slogans. And Gillard, of course, has had to put up with such sexist insults as "Ditch the witch" and "Bob Brown's bitch", not to mention the psychotic obscenities of Larry Pickering.

It must be admitted that both Barack Obama and Julia Gillard have disappointed their followers, who expected great and impossible achievements in their first term, and who have been unwilling to take into account the frustrations presented by economic stringency and a zealous and ruthless opposition. Obama's not very ambitious plan for public healthcare, derided as 'Obamacare', a revolutionary socialist plot by the Republicans and even some of his fellow Democrats, has had to be watered down to the point where it is all but meaningless - rather in the matter of Julia Gillard's mining tax.

And this, in a sense, has been the story of both their first terms: high ambition demolished by political reality. And having done their level best to sabotage, stymie and where possible destroy the incumbent's agenda, the challengers now feel free to make spectacular unfunded promises of their own in the hope that the voters have sufficiently short memories to succumb to the temptations of hope over experience.

At which point we shall abandon the Americans to the vagaries and distortions of their voluntary voting system and return to the nitty gritty, or perhaps that should be notty grotty, of present day Australia. Gillard is currently preoccupied with the Asia-Europe conference in Vientiane, and her treasurer Wayne Swan with the G20 Finance Ministers meeting in Mexico, but both must feel pretty happy with the way the year is ending: if the polls are to be believed (always a risky exercise) they are on the way to pulling off a near-miraculous recovery.

Less than 12 months ago the Labor Party looked gone for all money and Gillard utterly unelectable, and even when she saw off the premature challenge from Kevin Rudd, nothing really changed. The received wisdom within the commentariat was that the public was no longer listening; the voters were, to use Wayne Goss's graphic phrase, sitting on their verandas with their baseball bats, waiting for the Labor government to walk past. Now, if history is any guide, Labor is actually in the box seat: no government sitting on 50% of the two party preferred vote within 12 months of an election has ever lost office.

Actually, of course, it isn't as good as it looks. Much of Labor's revival is not so much due to its own achievements as to the belated realisation that the Coalition, and especially its leader Tony Abbott, have spent almost all the last three years being negative and destructive and almost completely bereft of any concrete proposals to fix things. There is still plenty of time for this to be remedied, or if things become drastic for Tony Abbott to be remedied.

But it will be hard for his colleagues to accept that the quartet of slogans that so nearly won the 2010 election - get rid of the taxes, stop the boats, end the waste and pay the debts - has almost completely lost its punch. The carbon tax has proved a pussycat and the mining tax almost completely ineffective; it is now clear that Abbott's plans to stop the boats would be both ineffective and unworkable; the government has pared back just about all the waste, and the voters are sick of cuts anyway; and the debt - well, Treasury reckons that the few promises the Coalition has made could add as much as $70 billion to it, and Abbott has rejected having them costed by Peter Costello's charter of budget honesty, and refuses to detail what, if any, further savings can be made to cover them.

On the other hand Gillard's record isn't much to brag about either. The carbon tax is in place, and real progress has been made on the National Broadband Network; some minor but worthwhile welfare reforms have been put in place, and that's about it. The big items - national disability insurance, education funding, taxation reform and most recently the great trek into Asia - remain visions for the future, in some cases the indefinite future. And of course, the boats keep coming, with the farcical result that Australia has now excised itself from its own migration zone, a mean and tricky legal scam originated by John Howard, and one which undoes all the international brownie points we earned by gaining a seat on the UN security council.

Not much of a choice; but, like the Americans, we are going to have to make it. Unless, of course, we adopt the practices of the Coptic Church, which last weekend chose its new Pope by having a blindfolded schoolboy draw a name out of a hat. At least it would save a lot of time, money and angst.

On which note I am off for four weeks - I'll be back in December for the silly season. But can it get any sillier?

Cheers - Mungo.

Topics:  opinion

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