Call me naïve, but I still associate politics with words like conviction and passion. Perhaps I’ve watched too much of The West Wing, allowing its fantastically optimistic and sentimental view of politics to crack my carefully cultivated sense of sceptical irony.
As August 21 fast approaches and Australia gets ready to go to the ballot box to vote either Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott as the next Prime Minister, it is conviction and passion that are sorely lacking in the campaign.
Apart from The West Wing, I blame Barack Obama for my unfair political expectations.
I concede, this is odd considering I’m Australian. But, bear with me.
It’s been said of my generation (rather theatrically) that we are “a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves”.
In 2008, awash in global uncertainty with war, climate change, the GFC—not to mention the state of Lindsay Lohan’s mental health (some things never change)—Obama’s campaign for presidency ushered in a new hope.
Despite the fact that Obama was running for American office, he had widespread global appeal. Obama felt real, so we clung to him.
In the wake of September 11, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Thomas Friedman wrote, “people…got a glimpse of what the world could be like without America, and many did not like it. America is not something external to them; people carry around pieces of it in ways often not articulated”.
On 5 November 2008 Senator Barack Obama articulated those pieces for many people with trademark eloquence in his election day acceptance speech:
To all those who have wondered if America’s beacon still burns as bright: Tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity and unyielding hope.
That’s the true genius of America: that America can change. Our union can be perfected. What we’ve already achieved gives us hope for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
America elected a president and Australia, along with the rest of the world, embraced a new global leader. As saccharine as it reads, hope and change had never sounded so good.
Of course, this optimism was infectious. One year prior to Obama’s acceptance, Kevin Rudd became the 26th Prime Minister of Australia, after defeating John Howard on every possible “likeability” rating known to modern politics. Rudd’s prime ministership started with a Bieber-esque frenzy as he apologised to indigenous Australians and ratified the Kyoto Protocol. He deftly navigated Australia through the GFC by spending money like there was no tomorrow to beat the global downturn.
For Rudd, the excitement and goodwill generated by Obama’s election dovetailed quite nicely with his own brand of domestic progressive reform. It was Kevin 07 and beyond.
But such momentum can never last, and along came the inevitable “hopeover”.
Despite doing their best to manage the expectations of the electorate, many of Obama’s and Rudd’s followers began to feel what author Naomi Klein has coined hopesick. “Like the homesick, hopesick individuals are intensely nostalgic. They miss the rush of optimism from the campaign trail and are forever trying to recapture that warm, hopey feeling”.
For Rudd, in particular, that sense of hope and goodwill in the electorate was irrecoverable. Fast-forward to 2010 and Rudd, struggling in the opinion polls, dumped his tent pole climate change policy, the Emissions Trading Scheme. Having called climate change “the great moral and economic challenge of our time”, this move left Australian voters questioning what he really believed in or stood for. Rudd’s popularity kept sliding and, after a failed attempt at introducing a super-profits tax on the mining industry, his cabinet turned and his leadership was made untenable by right wing factions in the Labor party.
Following the political assassination of Rudd, it appears that neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott have the backbone to take a stand on passion or conviction in election 2010. Their particular brand of hope and change is practised and focus-grouped. In fact, look close enough and you see that they aren’t selling hope or change, but are both spruiking old irrational fears, held by a handful of voters in marginal seats (boat-people anyone?).
Scratch away at the media polish and all you find is two leaders with the policy depth of a kiddie’s play pool and the moral substance of a leaky breast implant. They have no chutzpah.
And this is why I blame Obama. He set the bar too high for us all. After having experienced a vague sense of political hope, why is Australia now stuck with bland fear?
Christian Kerr, writing in The Australian may have the answer. He suggests this election is symbolic of the nadir of a new professional political class:
We have a narrow choice between a former student politician, political staffer and partner with an activist law firm, Julia Gillard, and former student politician, political staffer and lobby group head Tony Abbott.
His article continues:
The University of Melbourne’s Sally Young says the professionalisation of politics and elections is a response to media demands: “The media complains about how boring campaigns are, but they are conducted this way because of it.”
Also quoted in Kerr’s article is NSW state Labor veteran Rodney Cavalier who, notably, isn’t surprised at the fact that voters aren’t engaged with the current campaign:
The professionalisation of politics has meant the end of ideology and values. The Australian people are seeing a lack of passion and conviction at this election because there isn’t any.
None of this is to say that I endorse pulling a Mark Latham and lodging a blank vote. But it does make the job of choosing a real leader a lot harder.
Anyone got Martin Sheen’s number?