Election 2016: The choice we’ve always wanted
For many years now, Australians have frequently complained about the similarity of the policies from the two major political parties. Admittedly there has been some broad agreement between the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party about the need for trade liberalisation and deregulation for a couple of decades now, but the perception amongst many is that the similarities go much deeper.
The apparent homogeneity of our two largest political party was even believed to contribute to the rise of the much-maligned ‘microparties’. Yet with the calling of a double dissolution election for 2 July 2016, things are different this time.
Both the prime minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten have been at pains to emphasise their parties’ differences. In Mr. Turnbull’s case, he has to differentiate himself from his immediate predecessor Tony Abbott whom he deposed in a leadership spill. For Mr. Shorten, it’s been about rebuilding a shattered Labor party that was still suffering from the fallout of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd period of instability and infighting.
The benefit for electors this time is that both the Labor and Liberal parties have developed a range of policies that cater to their various constituencies and offer voters a real choice about the direction that they want Australia to take in the next decade.
The very reason for this election, which was triggered by the refusal of the senate to pass legislation re-establishing the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), symbolises the difference between the two parties. The pro-business Liberal Party believes that union power needs to be curbed in order to make workplaces more efficient and productive whilst the union-aligned Labor Party believes that the ABCC was merely a tool to undermine workers’ rights and attack the union movement.
In some ways, this is very much a return to the classic economic conflict between capital and labour, but with a twenty-first century flavour. The Liberal Party tried to call this out by describing the ALP’s policies as “the politics of envy” and “class warfare“, but such slurs carry little weight in the twenty-first century.
That said, there is no mistaking the differences between the two major parties this election. For instance, the Liberal Party have announced that they want to cut the company tax rate to 25% by the end of the decade, that negative gearing and capital gains concessions give middle-class people an opportunity to invest their incomes, that Medicare rebates should be frozen as a budget savings measure and that a price on carbon would stifle economic growth. Conversely, the ALP believe that business tax cuts should be limited to small businesses, that negative gearing and capital gains tax concessions contribute to low housing affordability, that a carbon tax will make a meaningful contribution to reducing emissions and that Medicare requires more funding.
The fundamental difference this election is between the Liberals who support business and private enterprise and the ALP who seek to protect Medicare, education funding and the environment. That’s quite a difference.
Yet in a recent conversation on ABC-TV’s Q&A programme, commentator Jane Caro complained of the polarisation when responding to a comment about banking policy:
Isn’t it interesting – we’re becoming so polarised. This is like… the two sides of Australian politics in the raw: banks versus unions. Do we have to be so black and white? Unions are necessary for a functioning democracy. They’re a basic and important thing. So are banks. Do we have to have them as the opposite ends of who we are as a country? And yet this seems to be the way that our politicians are positioning it, and I think that it’s wrong of them and they should stop it. Jane Caro, Q&A, 18 April 2016
Ms. Caro’s comment hit a chord with me because it made me wonder what she really wanted: a return to the old same-same?
In my view, the polarisation that Ms. Caro refers-to is borne of a real economic polarisation that is happening in our community. This was most potently highlighted on the Q&A programme a few weeks later when audience member Duncan Storrar asked the panel a question:
I have a disability and limited education. I’ve been a low income earner my whole life and as such I pay a larger percentage of my income in taxes than the average Australian. Lifting my tax free threshold would change mine and my children’s life. How come rich people get a lift in there threshold? It means nothing to them but to me it would mean my kids hear something else apart from “sorry girls, Daddy is broke”? Duncan Storrar, Q&A, 9 May 2016
The response was profound and pulled at Australia’s heartstrings on both sides of politics. Yet Mr. Storrar symbolises the real battle that exists between the rich and the poor. As Australians, we have to consider carefully how we want the wealth of our nation to be distributed.
The Liberal and Labor parties have differing views about this matter and this is reflected in their policies. Rather than complain about the political differences and argy-bargy, we should applaud the contest if ideas. This is democracy in action. The people will decide the nation’s fate.