Looming problems mean Aussie election may be good one to lose
WEEKS before yesterday's Australian general election, Tony Abbott's victorious conservative Liberal-National coalition commanded such a lead in the polls that the incumbent Labour Party overthrew its own prime minister, Julia Gillard.
It replaced her with Kevin Rudd, whom Labour had overthrown three years previously when his popularity began to wobble.
To the extent that the party was thinking coherently at all, it may have been dreaming of 1983, when a last-minute leadership switch dumped Bill Hayden in favour of Bob Hawke and set Labour on the path to five consecutive election victories.
But in 2013, it turns out, as it was probably always going to, that Labour was just dreaming.
Usually in a democracy, an election result is regarded as cause for celebration or disappointment. Not this time, not in this place. Australians seem to just want the whole dreary circus to be over with. Were voting in Australia not compulsory, it might have come down to which of Rudd and Abbott had the larger family. There are two reasons for this weariness with politics.
One has been the unprecedented and enervating length of the campaign, which effectively began just over seven months ago, when the struggling Gillard, possibly hoping to allow maximum time for a miracle to manifest, first announced a September vote – Australian federal election campaigns usually last roughly four weeks between the naming of the date and polling day. The other has been an overwhelming tone of frivolity and inanity, abetted by the willingness of Australian media to treat the contest to steward the world's 13th-biggest economy as some decadent reality show.
Many people I have spoken to have wistfully recalled a time, not long ago, when the country appeared to be run by grown-ups. The nostalgia has been so fervent that I have heard lifelong Labour voters speak almost fondly, in retrospect, of the stolid but principled suburban conservatism of John Howard and Liberal supporters admit that they kind of miss the passionate, internationalist firebrand Paul Keating.
The papers have reported as news that fact that Mr Abbott once said "suppository" when he meant "repository", as if this signifies anything beyond the odd difficulty one might have with five-syllable words when one has been talking all day on little sleep. Both Mr Rudd and Mr Abbott have recorded special messages for the participants in the current Australian series of Big Brother.
If it's tough to take all this seriously. I have returned to Australia more or less annually since I left to live in Britain in 1990 and on each visit Australia strikes me as more and more blessed, and less and less grateful.
This dissonance has been amplified only recently, as Australia – under the first premiership of Mr Rudd – sauntered along as the rest of the developed world suffered the greatest economic disaster for nearly a century.
Australia has posted 22 consecutive years of economic growth, not that you would know it from consuming the fatuous scaremongering that fills so much of its media, whose headlines every day should really be some variation on the theme of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah!" This is a country so rich that it can afford an argument over whether or not the state should, as Abbott has promised, fund six months of maternity leave at full replacement salary up to a total payout of A$75,000 (€52,000).
And yet this is a country so timorous and paranoid that it insists on framing the persistent niggle of boat-borne asylum seekers as an existential threat to be feared, rather than a humanitarian problem and law enforcement issue to be discussed.
It is, however, becoming possible to perceive some economic clouds on the horizon. The long resources bonanza is lulling, as demand from China ebbs. The recently rampant dollar has retreated slightly from the point at which the exchange rate meant that the foreign visitor's only reasonable response to being presented with the restaurant bill was bursting into tears.
The country's patently deranged property bubble is surely not indefinitely sustainable – Australia, by population, is three Londons on a continent larger than Europe. There is a vague sense that Australia is returning to Earth – and as such this may end up being a good election to have lost.