Aus­tralia’s Se­in­feld elec­tion

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

Here’s the plot: an un­mar­ried, for­eign­born, athe­ist woman whose part­ner is a male hair­dresser wants to lead a ma­jor nation fa­mous for manly men. Her op­po­nent is the “Mad Monk” — a Speedo-lov­ing am­a­teur boxer who once stud­ied to be a priest.

The lat­est Fox sit­com? Nope, it’s the script for next month’s Aus­tralian elec­tion. It re­ally would be hard to make this stuff up. And yet there is a far­ci­cal an­gle worth not­ing here. The Aug. 21 con­test has been dubbed the “Se­in­feld Elec­tion,” mean­ing that it’s about noth­ing.

No bold plans about Aus­tralia’s fu­ture from La­bor Prime Min­is­ter Ju­lia Gil­lard or Lib­eral op­po­si­tion leader Tony Abbott— no grand de­signs to im­prove com­pet­i­tive­ness, no fresh think­ing about the risks of be­com­ing China’s fuel sta­tion. Plenty of chat­ter about emo­tion­ally charged is­sues such as asy­lum seekers ar­riv­ing by boat. Lit­tle about what role the nation of 21 mil­lion wants to play in a fast-chang­ing global econ­omy. Aus­tralia’s 19 con­sec­u­tive years with­out re­ces­sion is bound to breed com­pla­cency, but nei­ther the La­bor prime min­is­ter nor vot­ers show con­cern for the coun­try’s se­ri­ous is­sues.

This idea-starved elec­tion should con­cern all of us who have grown ac­cus­tomed to Aus­tralia beat­ing the odds. Nineteen con­sec­u­tive years with­out re­ces­sion is bound to breed com­pla­cency on the part of of­fi­cials in Can­berra. That also goes for in­vestors who see Aus­tralia as a risk-free part of their in­ter­na­tional strat­egy.

“Yadda, yadda, yadda,” to bor­row an oft­heard phrase on Jerry Se­in­feld’s 1989 to 1998 tele­vi­sion show, won’t do for Aus­tralia. Au­topi­lot has been the set­ting for this $1 tril­lion “mir­a­cle” econ­omy for a decade now. It’s time for of­fi­cials to grab the con­trols once again.

The nation’s fail­ing in­fra­struc­ture, over­stretched ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and in­creas­ingly po­lar­ized econ­omy need ad­dress­ing, and now. In­stead, the elec­tion cam­paign is be­ing driven by fo­cus-group re­search and pop­ulism. So lack­lus­ter is the dis­course that politi­cians are com­pet­ing with “MasterChef.”

Sun­day night’s Gil­lard-Abbott de­bate was ac­tu­ally resched­uled to avoid clash­ing with the pop­u­lar cook­ing show’s fi­nale. Vot­ers be­ing more in­ter­ested in who churns out the tasti­est tuna tataki than who runs their nation is a sad com­men­tary on the cal­iber of Aus­tralia’s choices. If Welsh-born Gil­lard and her op­po­nent, Abbott, are won­der­ing about the missing in­gre­di­ent, it’s in­spi­ra­tion.

Gil­lard and Abbott both are untested en­ti­ties de­void of vi­sion. Rarely has the need for it been so great.

Aus­tralians clam­or­ing for vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship faced a bit too much nostal­gia re­cently as for­mer Prime Min­is­ters Bob Hawke and Paul Keat­ing brawled in the me­dia over their re­spec­tive lega­cies. It was a bizarre and ugly ex­change prompted by a book, pub­lished by Hawke’s mistress-turned-wife, that Keat­ing says air­brushed over his achieve­ments. Keat­ing de­fended him­self in a let­ter to Hawke pub­lished in the Aus­tralian news­pa­per.

While the spat won’t sway the elec­tion, it raised two ques­tions about Gil­lard’s La­bor Party. First, are di­vi­sive pol­i­tics dis­tract­ing La­bor from ad­dress­ing Aus­tralia’s big chal­lenges? Sec­ond, and more im­por­tantly, where have the re­ally big thinkers gone?

The com­bined tenures of Hawke (1983 to 1991) and Keat­ing (1991 to 1996) were a wa­ter­shed for the 14th-biggest econ­omy. Im­port tar­iffs were re­moved, the dol­lar was al­lowed to float, the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try was opened and a na­tional, com­pul­sory pen­sion pro­gram was in­tro­duced.

It has been coast­ing ever since, some­times in the wrong di­rec­tion. John Howard (1996 to 2007) seemed to for­get Aus­tralia was near Asia, pre­fer­ring to cozy up to then-U.S. Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush and his for­eign-pol­icy dis­as­ters. Howard’s suc­ces­sor, Kevin Rudd (2007 to 2010), was far more fo­cused on the fast-grow­ing re­gion in which Aus­tralians live.

Dis­mal ap­proval rat­ings and few solid achieve­ments did in Rudd last month. His planned tax on min­ing prof­its en­raged the busi­ness world and back­fired. Af­ter de­pos­ing Rudd, Gil­lard will have the chal­lenge to set out a clear roadmap for the fu­ture. All she is of­fer­ing is vague plat­i­tudes.

Talk about weak-kneed ap­proaches to the biggest chal­lenges of our time.

Since this is an elec­tion about noth­ing, lots of fo­cus is on Gil­lard’s life­style. Is a woman per­ceived to put ca­reer be­fore fam­ily a good role model, jour­nal­ists ask. It’s ir­rel­e­vant to her lead­er­ship skills — not to men­tion un­fair.

The ques­tion that mat­ters is how Gil­lard or Abbott plan to lead Aus­tralia. No one re­ally knows, and, un­like Se­in­feld, this is no laugh­ing mat­ter.

Tony Abbott The lib­eral op­po­si­tion leader de­bated Gil­lard on Sun­day night. That de­bate had to be resched­uled to avoid clash­ing with the fi­nale of the pop­u­lar cook­ing show ‘MasterChef.’

Ju­lia Gil­lard

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