Voters disillusioned as Australia heads to the polls

As Australians prepare to vote in a general election this weekend, long shadows are being cast from the United States and the United Kingdom.

There is no Donald Trump figure vying to run the country this election. Nor is the nation as divided as the UK was by the Brexit referendum.

But the same strong mood of distrust and hostility towards the political establishment has hung over Australia’s marathon election campaign as that which pervaded the US presidential primaries and the Brexit debate.

Like their counterparts in the US and the UK, Australians are increasingly frustrated and cynical about their elected representatives and are either looking for alternatives to the traditional major parties or turning away from politics completely.

The mood is ugly and as election day has drawn closer, with both major parties resorting to baseless scare campaigns about each other, it hasn’t got any better.

What this is likely to mean on election day is an almost record low combined primary vote for the ruling conservative Liberal-National coalition and the opposition centrist Labor Party.

With the possibility that neither will win enough seats in the lower House of Representatives to govern on their own, there could be a hung parliament making a loose bunch of independents and the Greens kingmakers for the second time this decade.

And even if a minority government can be formed, there are likely to be enough maverick independents in the upper house Senate to frustrate the future government’s agenda, in a replay of the past three years.


Turnbull vs Shorten

The choice facing Australian voters is between the incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten.

Turnbull only became prime minister in September last year after orchestrating a party room coup of the deeply unpopular Tony Abbott.

Abbott had been elected on a strong swing in September 2013 after campaigning for harsher measures to deter asylum seekers, the abolition of an emissions trading scheme and the axing of a mining royalty.

But he quickly ran down his political capital with a federal budget in May 2014 that broke many pre-election commitments and undermined sacred cows such as the universal health care system and accessible university education, while introducing other unpopular measures like raising the pension age to 70.

Although many of these measures were blocked by a hostile senate, they entrenched Abbott as a pariah in the eyes of many voters. A number of other blunders by the ultra-conservative Abbott eventually saw his party replace him with the more moderate Turnbull.

But to Australian voters this harked back to a similar coup within the Labor Party shortly before the 2010 election when Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd after overnight party manoeuvres. In fact, Abbott to Turnbull was the fifth change of Prime Minister within eight years following a stable 11-year term by John Howard from 1996 to 2007.

Nevertheless, Turnbull enjoyed early popularity as voters expected a more moderate and intelligent form of government from a man who had long personified small ‘l’ liberalism on issues such as climate change, gay marriage and republicanism.

But after dallying with raising the national consumption tax, and seemingly reversing his previous positions on climate change and other issues, Turnbull’s popularity quickly headed southwards.

This was salvation for Shorten, who became leader of the Labor Party following the 2013 election.

Shorten, a former national union leader, had withstood sustained attacks from the coalition and successfully chipped away at Abbott’s prime ministership but at the start of the year his own party was considering changing leader because of Turnbull’s seeming invincibility.

Since then, however, and especially during the election campaign, Shorten has outperformed Turnbull both as a campaigner but also with a more complete policy agenda, including increased funding for schools, a new price on carbon, changes to the tax system to improve housing affordability, a crackdown on corporate tax evasion and a royal commission into the banking system.

Turnbull’s policy agenda, by contrast, has been wafer thin. The end of a long mining boom has seen unemployment increase and economic growth slow, and Turnbull has tried to convince Australians he has a plan for “jobs and growth”, which has at its centre corporate tax cuts worth about A$50 billion over several years.

In addition, rather than provide the leadership that was expected, Turnbull has been indecisive and appears constrained by having to appease the right wing rump of Abbott supporters on his back bench.

All this has played into the hands of a Labor leader who has deftly exploited Turnbull’s own immense wealth gained in an earlier career as a merchant banker and entrepreneur to stoke public concerns that inequality is rising in Australia.


Eight-week election campaign

Just 32 months after Australians last voted, Turnbull dissolved parliament and announced the election on 8 May 2016, setting in train an eight-week campaign that finishes on 2 July.

He gave as his reason for an early election the senate’s refusal to pass laws which would have reintroduced an anti-union building industry watchdog, the Australian Building and Construction Commission.

Following an 18-month royal commission into union governance and corruption – which was widely seen as a politically-motivated witch hunt – most commentators expected Turnbull to bang an anti-union drum throughout the campaign, but instead, workplace policies have hardly been mentioned.

Both major parties spent the first six weeks of the campaign mostly spruiking their policies. Indeed, Shorten in particular seemed determined to remain positive and campaign on the merits of his agenda. But as the election race has tightened, they have jettisoned any pretence of positive politics for out-and-out scare campaigns.

Shorten used the official launch of Labor’s campaign on 19 June to claim that if re-elected the Liberals would sell off the universal health insurance service, Medicare. Turnbull has strenuously denied this.

The coalition has sought to resurrect its tried and true scaremongering about immigration and refugees, claiming that a Labor government would “open the gates” for Australia to be flooded with boat arrivals.

Respect for politicians and the political process was already in the doldrums before both major parties switched to negative.

The first of three debates between the two leaders was universally panned as neither departed from their heavily-scripted talking points.

By the time of the third debate, which was presented on Facebook, a peak audience of less than 15,000 tuned in – less than a tenth of 1 per cent of all eligible voters.



A few days out from the election, most national polls have the two major parties neck-and-neck.

For Labor to snatch back office after just one term in opposition would be an historic achievement not seen since the Second World War, and the truth is, the 21 seats it needs to win back government may be just beyond its reach.

Party strategists are convinced that the fear campaigns will pay off, but they are failing to take into account the damage they are doing to political discourse in Australia. That’s why after the dust has settled from this bitterly contested election, whoever is the next prime minister will need to dedicate themselves to rebuilding faith in Australia’s political system.

Otherwise, the atmosphere will be ripe for the emergence of a Donald Trump-like demagogue from the fringes.

Australians were shocked not only by the murder of pro-EU British MP Jo Cox, but also by the nasty xenophobia of the Leave campaign, which stoked fears about immigration and incited abuse towards elected politicians and government institutions as well as foreign residents and citizens.

Thankfully, the virulence of the anti-politics sentiment in Australia has not yet reached the same levels as it has overseas, but the 2016 election has shown that the trust between politicians and voters is just as broken as in the US and the UK.

Whatever real differences they may have in policies, after 2 July the next prime minister and opposition leader of Australia will need to unite to fix the nation’s political system.