Congratulations to Kevin Rudd and federal Labor. In all likelihood they’ll be going into opposition after this weekend’s election, but it’s not for want of trying. Despite a campaign that has seemingly lost its way on more than one occasion, despite overwhelming odds of conservative think-tanks and Murdoch press and mining and tobacco dollars, they’ve fought a valiant fight with momentary flashes of brilliance. Alas, in vain: the brand is too tarnished with unwarranted claims of profligacy and waste, of mismanagement and administrative chaos; and with slightly warranted claims of internal ructions and destabilisation, of an overbearing influence of union heavyweights, and of bad-to-the-bone NSW Labor corruption. It looks as if Labor is bound to lose this battle, the battle for election 2013. Kevin ’13 will shortly be going quietly into that long night.
But amidst all of this comes the good news for the progressives, the thinkers and the nation-builders of Australia. Whilst losing the battle, it may be that Labor has won the war.
The Coalition has finally, less than 36 hours before the polls officially open (and well after tens of thousands of Australians have already voted via postal voting) provided its full costings for the term. And, as Michael Pascoe puts it, “It’s not unreasonable to claim that the Coalition isn’t making any savings worth mentioning”. The document proves that Tony Abbott and the Coalition have been well and truly wedged by their own history and by Labor’s attack tactics. It’s a set of costings that show that, despite Labor’s rhetoric, they won’t be making huge cuts in health and in education.
Don’t misunderestimate the gravity of the situation. We will lose things of value to an incoming Coalition government. We will lose a belatedly world-competitive broadband infrastructure in the NBN – at least temporarily. It will still be built, at greater expense and further down the track, but we will lose its benefits for half of a critical generation of youth. We will lose any pretense at respecting climate change and participating in global carbon markets, until the world changes for good and not for the better. We will also lose any claim to have a voice in global affairs – in climate change where we will have squandered what little respect we had, in refugee policy and international aid where we already languish and will fall further behind, and in international politics, when the Coalition ignore our growing voice on the world stage and in the UN and the Security Council.
But this will be an incoming Coalition government unlike any other, a government that knows without a doubt that its core beliefs and ideology are anathema to the bulk of the Australian people. A government with little to offer to a growing youth demographic, and a great deal of appeal to a demographic that is growing older and dying. This will be a government driven by the conflict between the hardline Liberals who want to see a return to Workchoices-by-any-other-name, who sincerely believe that this is a medicine ultimately good for Australia’s productivity and the whole community, even if not for individuals within it; and the pragmatists who understand that it is not policy that lost the election in 2007, it is not three-word-slogans and a lack of a convenient crisis, but the core beliefs of the party. Without moderation, without a counter-influence, this ideology lost the Coalition an election before, and the 2013 election will be won only on the continued and strident claims that we will not go there again.
So the next term of government, should the Coalition prove successful, will see one of two possible outcomes. Down one road, the hardliners prevail, and Australia becomes a harder, darker, less welcoming place. Freedom of speech, workplace rights, multiculturalism and a fair go for all are eroded. For a time, Australia will languish in a two-speed economy, where the industries of mining and resource-harvesting are booming and continue to ship most of their proceeds out of Australia and out of the lives of Australians. And then there will be another election, and we will remember. Our voices must not be silent, down this road, as we remind the Australian people how they were misled, how they were lulled into a false sense of comfort at the new, cuddly Coalition; how they were lied to. I may be falling to optimism here, but I would like to think that this would be a blow the Coalition would not quickly recover from. I hope and pray that Tony Abbott is a once-in-a-generation politician. Please God.
Down the other road, the Coalition holds true to its new moderate path. It doesn’t cut profligately, it doesn’t open itself to criticisms of elitism or cronyism. Perhaps it is even approaching a good government, if not a great one; a stable hand on the tiller, if not a team of nation-builders. Down this road, the next election cannot be fought on such partisan grounds. The budget that Labor recently set in place is alike to the budget soft-Hockey is now presenting. If the actual differences between Labor and the Coalition come down to actual policy – NBN vs NBN-lite, carbon tax vs Direct Action, gold-plated PPL vs base-level PPL with extra bonuses for those who need them – these are discussions worth having. These are the kinds of discussions we needed to be having in 2013 and were not given by the mainstream media. These are the kinds of differences that lead to improvements in national policy, and genuinely progressive political parties on both sides of the fence. This is the road that leads to an actual contest of equals and an election based on merits, rather than on slogans and mistruths.
So in winning this election, I feel that the Coalition may find theirs to be a Pyrrhic victory. I hope for a Labor victory; I pray for a Senate overflowing with Greens and independents. But whilst I hope for the best, I plan for the worst. The feeling and the polls indicate that the battle for election 2013 is over. Not perhaps as resoundingly as it might have been; we may even find there are some surprises and Tony Abbott’s new government may not find everything smooth sailing in the next term. But even if 2013 is a wipe-out for the progressive left in Australia, there is always the next war to be considered.
The next war commences on Sunday 8 September as we fight to hold an incoming Coalition government to its promises, highlight every breach of trust, and constantly remind the Australian people of the society they could have had for an extra six billion dollars and a little bit of faith. Bring on election 2016.