A battle of ideas in the lucky country

Australia goes the polls this Saturday

In many ways, it’s been an unconventional election campaign. Normally the government runs on its record and focuses on its ministers and their achievements, offering stability and continuity.

But in this election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has only had the top job since August. Morrison replaced Malcolm Turnbull who deposed Tony Abbott. It’s hard to run on stability when you’ve had three prime ministers in six years, as well as three treasurers – Joe Hockey (now Ambassador to the US), Morrison himself and now Josh Frydenberg. In contrast, Labor’s Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen have held the positions of Leader and Treasury spokesman, respectively, for the past six years. 

Normally, after a period of incumbency, ministers sell the government’s record and announce policies. But this time, the Liberal-National Coalition Government has run a presidential-style campaign, with Morrison making most of the announcements while his ministers, except for Frydenberg, keep a low profile. 

This is partly because some ministers are not standing for re-election and because the government is still feeling the aftershocks of the bitter leadership struggle that saw Turnbull challenged by Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and eventually deposed by Morrison. 

Maverick rural populist Barnaby Joyce’s resignation as leader of the Nationals and deputy prime minister following news of his affair with one of his staffers, didn’t help matters. Nor did the appointment of the scandal-free but ineffectual Michael McCormack as Joyce’s replacement.

Brave campaign

By contrast, Labor has made the most of Shorten’s team. Deputy leader of the Opposition and Shadow Minister for Education and Training Tanya Plibersek has a high profile in education issues; as do Penny Wong (Foreign Affairs), Chris Bowen (Treasury) and Jim Chalmers (Finance). 

Former NSW premier and now federal Senator, Kristina Keneally, has been regularly quoted by journalists during the campaign on everything from electric cars to government ministers’ personalities, while the ‘father of Aboriginal Reconciliation’, Senator Pat Dodson, who is tipped to be Indigenous Affairs Minister if Labor wins, has spoken about constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Most of Shorten’s team have held their shadow portfolios for the past six years and are across policy details, compared with many of the Government’s ministers who are new to their jobs.

The election has also been run on the merits of Labor’s policies not the Government’s – the reverse of what we usually see in campaigns. Labor has run a brave campaign with policies aimed at redistribution of wealth, such as ditching a current concession that gives shareholders cash refunds for excess dividend imputation credits, and changes to negative gearing tax concessions in the housing market. 

Some of these policies are unpopular with retirees with self-funded superannuation plans. Labor has promised to close these loopholes so as to spend more in education, healthcare and childcare. It also promises to lift the minimum wage. 

Tensions over China

The Coalition Government has focused on its commitment to return the budget to surplus next financial year, arguing it is a superior economic manager. 

The election does offer a choice of philosophies in terms of tax as well as levels of expenditure on health and education and the balance between private and public sector provision of services. 

When it comes to foreign policy and China it’s a largely bipartisan affair. Comments by former prime minister Paul Keating caused tensions in a foreign policy debate between Trade Minister Senator Simon Birmingham and Senator Wong. However, if Labor wins the election, Wong, the daughter of a Malaysian Chinese father and an Australian mother, will be the first Australian minister of foreign affairs of Asian descent. 

The election is expected to be close and is being complicated by preference deals being done by minor parties, including big spending businessman Clive Palmer who is well known for his anti-China sentiments. The Government has done a preference deal with Palmer’s United Australia Party to shore up support in the crucial battleground of Queensland. 

But no matter what the result in the House of Representatives, where the Government is formed, neither the Coalition nor Labor is likely to win a majority in the Senate, where the minor parties and independents usually hold the balance of power.

Tim Harcourt is the JW Nevile Fellow in Economics, UNSW Business School


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