The evolution of a swinging voter

posted in: Life and things | 0
1969 – student activist days Yes, that’s me. And for what it’s worth, the man behind me was a draft resistor.

I found an interesting article in the news the other day, talking about what appears to determine which party we vote for. The first words in the article are: ‘Many have tried guessing who first uttered this saying: “If you are not a liberal at 25, you have no heart. If you are not a conservative at 35, you have no brain”.’ That’s an age-based suggestion, that we change our voting patterns to become more conservative as we grow older. Maybe it’s a generational thing. The article is worth a read. Here’s the link.

I thought about how the way I vote has changed – because it has. In fact, I’ve thought about it a few times lately. I think there are a number of factors. Let’s start with social background.

I grew up in a working-class family. Of course my parents voted Labor, and so did I.

The Labor party was on our side, interested in the welfare of people like us, all about jobs and decent social services, health and education. Back when I was old enough to know anything about politics Robert Menzies, stalwart of the conservative establishment, finally retired in 1966 as the longest serving PM in Australia’s history. After him, in rapid succession, we had Harold Holt, who disappeared in the surf, then John McEwen who was deputy PM and had the top job for a few weeks until the Libs chose a new leader. That was John Gorton, who was eventually replaced by Billy McMahon, who faced the 1972 general election against a revitalised Labor party led by Gough Whitlam. In that tumultuous six years Harold Holt and John Gorton both won elections but the Prime Minister’s office had the same sort of revolving door we’ve seen in the years since 2007.

I went to university in the late sixties in the middle of the period of student activism all over the world. In Perth we protested against the French nuclear testing ground at Moruroa in the South Pacific. I attended marches against the war in Vietnam and against the conscription introduced in Australia at that time to provide troops for that conflict. Not everyone was called up. They called it a ‘birthday ballot‘, an event like a lottery draw that was shown on TV. Dates of birth were drawn and if your 20th birthday fell on one of those dates – you’re in the army, kid. If I’d been male, I would have been conscripted. It’s not a nice feeling.

So, it would be fair to say that, like many of my university mates, my political predilections were definitely socialist. When tall, eloquent, and charismatic Gough Whitlam finally replaced Arthur (Cocky) Callwell, bringing the Labor party into the post-war world, we were all delighted. Who could forget Gough’s famous ‘It’s Time’ election campaign? Up against a Liberal party in complete disarray with weak leadership and unpopular policies, Gough was a shoe-in. Labour won in a landslide. And he did some great things. Conscription was suspended, he introduced a new, free public health scheme known as Medicare, and he abolished university fees, among other things. Looking back, it’s remarkable how quickly the wheels fell off. Soon, the country was in debt to pay for the Government’s largesse. Gough forced an election to maintain his mandate – and was only just returned to power. It all ended in November 1975 when the Governor General dismissed the Government and forced a new general election. Gough’s brave new world had lasted about three years.

That unprecedented election was the first time I voted non-Labor and I found it difficult, hesitating with the pencil in my hand, reminding myself that Australia couldn’t go on like this.

Malcolm Fraser swept to power and immediately introduced austerity measures to pay for the debt. This was a difficult time for the country. There were many strikes, jobs were hard to find. It was almost like a class war, the workers versus the big end of town. It couldn’t go on.

Enter Bob Hawke, president of the ACTU and respected across the country. He’d been in parliament for about three years when he was elected leader of the Labor party. At the next election, he won handsomely and of course I voted for Labor. The first thing he did was negotiate an accord with the union movement – something he was uniquely positioned to do. Bob and his treasurer, Paul Keating, understood that workers won’t have jobs if business is not encouraged. The strikes stopped. The one exception was the airline pilots’ strike. Bob refused to cave to their demands and found other ways of keeping planes flying. He also de-registered the Builder’s Labourers Federation (BLF), one of the most militant unions. Everybody knew he meant business.

But he was always a pragmatist. While Medicare was retained, the Government introduced a special levy to pay for health services, and eventually university course fees returned. The pie-in-the-sky notion that abolishing fees would increase the number of able students who could attend university proved untenable. When I went to uni (on a scholarship) a very small percentage of working-class kids attended, let alone passed a course. Numbers passing a course didn’t change much when fees were abolished. There’s much more to success at university than paying course fees. But free courses were not sustainable.  Hawke and Keating introduced the Higher Education Contributions Scheme (HECS) which was effectively a student loan.

Meanwhile, we went through the ‘recession Australia had to have’ as Paul Keating famously explained. He took over as PM and while he won one election, lost the second to John Howard, who had been in and out of the Liberal party’s leadership job several times. I never liked Howard much but there’s no doubt he presided over a period of peace and stability, all the while clawing back the national debt so that for the first time in an age, Australia’s books were balanced and we had a surplus.

John Howard became the second-longest serving PM, eclipsing Bob Hawke’s run. During that time Kevin Rudd had become leader of the opposition and Australia had started to think it was time for new blood in the Lodge.

I thought Rudd would be okay. That was silly, wasn’t it?

Kevin 07 (he was elected in 2007) had obviously been watching what Hawke had done. He tried his own grandiose vision of an accord, inviting people from all walks of life to an elaborate talk fest that cost a heap of money and achieved nothing. He and one of his ministers ‘designed’ a national broadband network (NBN) on the back of a coaster in an aeroplane and decreed that the NBN would be built, so subsequent Governments were stuck with it. It was hardly a surprise that the estimated costs rose exponentially while at the same time the original approach – fibre optics to every household – was quickly eroded to a solution we could actually afford.

Then the global financial crisis happened. Australia was actually in a very strong position in comparison to other countries and we came through the GFC relatively unscathed. But the Labor party panicked and put in its own hare-brained ideas, like the $900 paid to most people to stimulate the economy. But you only got the money if you put in a tax return that year, so pensioners missed out. I’ll admit to being a cynic. I reckon the money would have been spent on the mortgage, or maybe on a big telly, which would benefit China.

Labor introduced other initiatives, like the ‘pink batts scheme’. Pink batts are glass wool material put into roof spaces to help insulate houses. It was supposed to help reduce power bills. The proposal was rushed through without proper controls and four young men died while installing the stuff. And there was a school buildings fund, where the Government paid grossly inflated prices for a school hall or a library. (Somehow, if buildings are publicly funded the cost seems to go up. Rather a lot.) Apart from that, though, while some schools received welcome additions, halls were built for schools about to be closed and libraries were built with no provision for books – just to name a couple of examples.

In short, they were all knee-jerk, reactionary activities designed to look like the Government was doing something. There was no proper planning, no cost/benefit analysis and certainly in the case of the pink batts scheme, cautionary advice from experts was completely ignored. The surplus nest egg that Howard and Costello had left behind when the Government changed hands was frittered away and the country was up to its eyeballs in debt.

Mister Rudd was very soon on the nose with the electorate. Seeing this, the men who ran the Labor party factions decided it was time for Rudd to go, replaced by Australia’s first female PM, Julia Gillard. No, I wasn’t impressed, even when she won a closely-fought election. She had been responsible for the school buildings fiasco and her famous quote was, “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead.” Hamstrung with a minority government, Gillard soon became almost as unpopular as Rudd had been. But things were looking bad for Labor with an election looming. The boys running the factions decided that maybe they should have kept Rudd. It seemed the voters were not impressed with ‘faceless men’ getting rid of a sitting PM. Gillard would have to go. The same men who ‘executed’ Rudd now engineered Gillard’s downfall and the return of Rudd.

That episode might be seen to have set the tone of Australian politics but that’s not actually true. Go back to the late sixties when Menzies stepped down and note the turnstile in the PM’s office. Be that as it may, the Australian public had had enough and Labor lost the election. In fact, the Austrlian public had had about enough of both major parties. Quite a few turned to the smaller parties and independents, a trend which would prove costly.

In retrospect, the Liberals weren’t yet ready to return to government. The party was still in disarray after the departure of Howard, Costello, and a few of the stalwarts. Tony Abbott had been great in opposition but turned out to be not the greatest PM. For me, his most cringe-worthy moment was when he made a “captain’s call” to reinstate knighthoods in Australia and handed one of the first to Prince Phillip! Yes, that one, who’s married to Queen Elizabeth.  Abbott was replaced by Malcolm Turnbull, a move I heartily endorsed.

I had high hopes for Turnbull but he ended up being a disappointment.

After poncing about at the helm for some time, Turnbull called a double dissolution, where all the seats in the Senate and the House of Reps are declared vacant [1]. The issue causing the spill was the refusal of the Senate to pass legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission to oversee construction contracts in Australia. This move was the result of a Royal Commission into the thuggish behaviour of trade unions, particularly in the building sector. The BLF hadn’t really gone away, its members had just become part of the enormous Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). There had also been a number of instances highlighting corruption within the union hierarchies, with union officials rorting their members. But during the whole election campaign Turnbull never referenced the findings of the royal commission, never asked Labor the hard questions about union behaviour in the workplace. He won the election – just. But once again, the PM had lost the respect of the people. As Turnbull’s popularity slumped and the next election loomed, it was inevitable that there would be yet another internal coup.

To his surprise, I suspect, Scott Morrison got the mantle as PM. The next election was months away, and most people in Australia, including me, thought Labor would win easily. No, that notion did not please me. The Labor leader, Bill Shorten, had been one of the faction bosses who deposed Rudd, then deposed Gillard. There were a few other factors relating to his union activities that led me to distrust the man. I also had little faith in the party’s sitting members. It seemed hardly any of them had ever had a real job. They went from university to working for the unions and then into parliament. The union movement had been bleeding membership for years. In quite a few cases union organisers had proved to be corrupt, fleecing members for their own benefit.In contrast to the Hawke Accord days, the president of the ACTU, Sally McManus, declared it was okay to break ‘unjust’ industrial laws. [2] I felt the unions had far too much power in the political party.

I didn’t much like the idea of Shifty Shorten and his Union thugs running the country.

As the election approached, Labor, cock-sure of itself, made some stupid, arrogant errors. In response to concerns from shareholders (many of them pensioners) about the removal of franking credits, Chris Bowen, the opposition treasury spokesman, declared, ‘if you don’t like it, don’t vote for us’. Shorten was asked about the economic impact of his proposed climate change initiatives, such as ensuring half the cars sold in Australia by 2030 would be electric. He couldn’t answer. Shades of Labor past, yet another Great Idea with no analysis of the impact.

It seems to me that Labor has lost the plot. The party used to be about low-income workers, jobs, and security. I understand their concerns about climate change. It’s a huge concern in the community. The party’s current policy of shutting down coal-fired power stations (while still selling the stuff to China and India) has already driven up power prices, deterring business investment and sending businesses overseas. The state of South Australia is an object lesson in how well those policies work. Those that suffer are always the poor. Pensioners, single income families, people earning minimum wages, small businesses trying to make a go of it, farmers. And for what? Uncosted fairyland schemes which will do nothing to change the climate. Sure, encourage renewable energy. Start with maybe changing the building code so that all new buildings MUST have solar panels and solar hot water systems. What about legislation to phase out plastic made from oil, replacing it with biodegradables? Put electric car recharging stations in the big cities by all means. Set up targets that can be achieved over time. But just right now, when the Government has once again clawed back some of Labor’s national debt, we can’t afford to splash out on hypotheticals. One of the biggest mistakes Shorten made, to my mind, was summoning the ghost of Gough Whitlam in his appeal to the Australian people. He was channelling “it’s time” – but people like me were channelling Gough’s disastrous three years in office. No thanks, been there, done that.

So you see, I’ve changed the way I vote because of history. I remember Gough’s excesses, Hawke’s pragmatic brilliance, Howard’s stewardship, Rudd’s spendthrift egomania. Morrison strikes me as a decent, ordinary family man who genuinely wants to make a difference. I can’t say the same about Malcolm Turnbull, or Kevin Rudd – or Bill Shorten. They just wanted the crown.

I voted for Scott Morrison to give him a chance to steady the ship of state and do something to help the battlers who are already doing it tough. If a Labor leader comes along who can actually create something like Hawke’s Accord, I might shift my position. But I don’t see that happening anytime soon.

If you’re still here, thanks for reading. These are my thoughts, my opinions and I know not everybody will agree with me. That’s okay. I believe in freedom of speech.

Here, have a picture of a kitten.

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