16 August 2015
This month marks five years since Australians woke up in limbo, after a Federal election which had failed to produce a clear winner. With the Labor Government of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and the Liberal-National Coalition Opposition led by Tony Abbott both falling a few seats short of winning the election of August 2010 outright, people had to contend with a hung parliament for the first time since the 1940s. And some people would argue that the Australian political scene has never been the same since then.
After Gillard somehow secured a majority with the support of crossbench Independents and the Greens, who’d won a seat in the House of Representatives and enough seats to hold the balance of power in the Senate, Abbott engaged relentlessly in a campaign of negativity and attacks, to try to convince the crossbenchers to withdraw their support for Gillard and put Labor out of office. Despite Abbott’s ferocious negativity, Labor managed to govern with crossbench support for three years, until the next election came around its expected time, but Abbott expectedly won the election easily. Aggrieved at how Abbott became Prime Minister after years of attacks and negativity, Labor has repeated Abbott’s tactics from the Opposition benches, without really inspiring anyone.
What ultimately irked me personally about the 2010 election was Gillard’s promise to fund the missing link of a railway project in northern Sydney. This shouldn’t really have been for Gillard to get involved in, because responsibility for public transport projects such as railways is normally for state governments. At that time, Labor was governing in New South Wales, but despite promising a new railway link for northern Sydney and building half of it, paranoia about the cost of building the link had spooked Labor into putting the other half, from Epping to Parramatta, off indefinitely. So when Gillard suddenly offered funds to build the Epping-Parramatta rail link, it was seen as an attempt to bribe, or “pork-barrel” in political terms, voters in a marginal Labor seat in northern Sydney. I was annoyed because I’ve long believed this railway to be essential for luring commuters out of their cars – now it’s seen as a joke.
In a sense, this questionable promise by Gillard showed how insignificant public transport would seem in voters’ minds at election time. Having followed elections for years, I’ve seen few opinion polls suggesting that concerns about public transport would sway voters’ minds. Strangely, however, the perceived need for more roads and motorways to reduce traffic congestion hasn’t always seemed significant to voters either. I suspect that transport generally doesn’t register as a high priority for voters at election time, but it’s not the only issue to appear big at election time and end up with its importance looking to be overstated.
More recently, I’ve come to conclude that, despite much media hype, mining and coal seam gas extraction on prime farmland aren’t as significant at election time as they seem. This year there have been elections in both Queensland and NSW, where there’s been much noise about those issues, but the noise has changed little. Apart from the loss by the Nationals of one seat to the Greens in northern NSW, neither state has seen other seats change hands because of mining or coal seam gas.
In the Darling Downs region around Toowoomba in Queensland, you’d have thought that the desecration of prime farmland was going to cost the Liberal National Party seats over recent years. Yet the LNP has won every seat in that region over the last two elections. Not even the vocal presence of radio broadcaster and mining critic Alan Jones has prevented the LNP from winning seats there.
And there have been other instances when the significance of some issues was overstated at election time. The forced amalgamation of two local councils in inner Sydney, about fifteen years ago, was thought likely to see seats in that area change hands at the next state election – in the end, nothing happened. And after questions were raised about the handling of bushfires by ACT authorities in the 2003 Canberra bushfires, I’d thought that ACT voters would revolt against the Labor Government there – yet at the next election in the ACT Labor actually gained a seat and a parliamentary majority, having governed with crossbench support before the election.
These instances show how the media can overstate the importance of some issues. Maybe voters don’t always think as they might be expected to. Media hype can sometimes end up meaningless.