After living overseas for a few years, I’ve developed a more detached perspective of Australia, as you would expect. For a start, the wealth of the country is astonishing. The easy going lifestyle, the friendliness of strangers to each other, the frankness of people but with good manners (except in social media), the high levels of tolerance towards different cultural practices, the successful integration of most migrants. And so the list goes on.
And when you look at the data, it’s almost all good: growing GDP, low unemployment, good trade figures, relatively low crime rates and universities which rank among¬†the best in the world.
What this tells me is Australia is and has been over the decades a pretty well run place.
So on Sunday mornings if I have nothing better to do I watch the Insiders program on the ABC. It’s bad; very bad. It seems to be based on a BBC¬†equivalent called The¬†Andrew Marr Show and if it’s not worse, it’s certainly no better. Three journalists all of whom are sharply partisan and are generalists without any particular policy expertise, pontificate about the week that’s past.
And what do they do? They talk constantly about whether this or that event is going to win the next election for the government or the opposition. They analyse how the public will react to this comment or that initiative. And that’s it. Interspersed between this banal dialogue is an interview with a politician. That’s usually a little more informative. At least the ministers or shadow ministers are trying to sell some policy or other.
Then it’s back to the dreary couch. To discuss the next election or the opinion polls, even in the early days of the political cycle. I often wonder why some articulate experts on the policies of the day aren’t interviewed. Why just reporters? Why is it just the polls or some minor gaffe by a fringe player that excites the intellects of these Sunday morning couch-sitters?
I was in Sydney a year ago and I asked a conservative intellectual I know well how the government was doing. His reply was that they were going to lose the next election, look at the opinion polls and so on. I asked the obvious question; are their policies ruining the country? No, they were fine, they were just bad at politics.
This is it: Australia’s well run, it’s going well but its politics ‚Äď including the reporting of politics ‚Äď is close to hysterical. People are a “disgrace” or “appalling”, they’re “totally incompetent” and so it goes on.
The commercial channels aren’t much different but I’m not paying for them. The ABC should aim to be a tad more analytical. It should explain the background to events or initiatives and get experts to teach us about the issues.
There used to be Lateline at 10.30 on week nights. It was a copy of a similar program on BBC Two¬†called Newsnight. That was more analytical and less hysterical but Lateline was¬†scrapped in 2017. Pity.
So through this morass of partisan commentary, I’m constantly being asked who is going to win the next election. My record of making these predictions is, I confess, imperfect. I was right about the US presidential election but wrong about the Brexit referendum. I was right about the last Australian federal election and the 2015 British election but only part-right about the British 2017 election.
There will be a number of unpredictable and random events between now and the next election which will influence the campaign and could affect the outcome. So let’s accept that.
On the basis of what we know, the Liberal Party should be able to win the election:¬†the economy is going well, the country’s at peace and urgent social and environmental issues are being addressed.
But to win an election in a Western democracy requires more than good economic data. There’s very little truth in the Clintonian slogan “It’s the economy, stupid.”¬†People don’t vote for statistics. They vote based on how they feel. Successful politicians are more than good policy analysts. Leaders, to use a phrase, “ring the chimes in the hearts of the people”.
So here’s the challenge for the Liberals. They have to develop an inspiring story about where they’re going to take the country. They won’t find that story in focus groups and quantitative polling. They won’t inspire the public with a fusillade of cliches about listening and delivering. They need to produce a quite emotional story about Australia and where it needs to go.
An inspiring story will make people notice. It will play to their emotions. Australians love Australia. They care for the country and they care for it’s people. So it’s no political crime to put Australia first.
Secondly, the public don’t give much credit for what the government has done. They want to know what’s coming next. The Howard government had a great record by November 2007. But it had run out of exciting new ideas. Not much, the public thought, was coming next except the retirement of John Howard!
So, the current Liberals will need an interesting, modern and creative policy program which fits neatly into their national story. Emotion and interesting policies is an irresistible combination.
I’m sad to say this but it’s also true. To win the election, the Liberals will have to run a fierce negative campaign against their opponents. It has to be factual but it also has to be emotional. A picture of a dystopian catastrophe in which Australia will become poorer, weaker and unattractive; a society which has no appeal to aspirational people, to the creative, the talented, the energetic … well, something like that. And then attack the individual policies.
And finally, who do Liberal MPs think they are when they persistently attack the government? They need to put their toys back in their prams and work with unity to get the Party over the line. With eight months to go until the election they need to stop their petty, personal vendettas. When John Howard replaced me as Liberal leader, believe me, I wasn’t happy. But the country mattered more than me. I recovered!
Alexander Downer is a former Australian foreign minister and High Commissioner to the UK. He is¬†a¬†fortnightly columnist for¬†The Australian Financial Review.