Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Political cycle of cynicism and naivety about to turn

They say oppositions don't win elections, governments lose them. If, as almost everyone expects, Prime Minister Julia Gillard loses the election in September, it will be a classic example of that phenomenon. Labor will be tossed not because Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's policies seem so much better but because too many of us have tired of this government's foibles and failings.

A telltale sign that a prime minister is on the skids is when nothing they say makes any difference, when the public has just stopped listening. We'd stopped listening to Paul Keating before the 1996 election and to John Howard before the 2007 election, and it seems pretty clear that we've stopped listening to Gillard.

But though this is the usual way government changes hands, it's hardly the ideal way. It means that in the months before the election, the opposition, the media and the electorate devote most attention to recounting the government's many failings, not reviewing the opposition's policies and plans.

This, of course, is just how oppositions like it. They make themselves into the smallest target possible in the hope they can slip into government with as few commitments and as little examination as possible.

And for the most part, they succeed, because we're preoccupied by our disaffection with the last lot.

Trouble is, our lack of diligence almost invariably sows the seeds of our eventual disaffection with the new lot. When we make up our mind to throw a government out, hope springs eternal that the new lot will be much better.

How do we know they'll be better? We don't really. Certainly, it's not a conclusion we reach after careful evaluation of their policies. It's just a naive hope that a new broom will sweep cleaner. That a new government with a new page won't blot it the way the last mob did.

But I've been around long enough to know the flip side of naivety is cynicism - the kind of cynicism we're seeing all around at present, the kind that causes people to stop listening and some to go into plague-on-both-your-houses mode.

The antidote to both naivety and cynicism is reasoned scepticism. And it's because we didn't exercise it from the start that we end up disillusioned and cynical. Scepticism determines what can be believed and what can't; cynicism comes to the lazy, impotent decision that nothing can be believed.

Because we don't put in enough effort to be continuously questioning, the cycle keeps repeating: having flipped to cynicism about the old lot, we flip to naivety about the new lot.

What feeds both naivety and cynicism is unrealistic expectations about what the new government will do and what any government could ever have the ability to do. As we speak, unrealistic expectations are building about an Abbott government. And that's true despite - and, indeed, partly because of - all Abbott's efforts to make himself a small target and make as few commitments as possible.

How? Well, first, by Abbott's probably successful effort to slip into government without much voter attention being paid to the unpopular cuts in government spending he knows he'll need to make after the election to pay for all his promises.

When voters discover the new government is doing things it didn't warn them were coming, they'll suffer their first bout of disillusionment.

And, second, by the opposition's unreasonable criticisms of the Gillard government's performance. It's become standard practice in Australian politics to blame governments for almost every bad thing that happens on their watch, including developments beyond their control.

This makes no sense but, since so many punters don't bother to think things through, it goes down well with your rusted-on supporters and the great unwashed. So in shadow treasurer Joe Hockey's reply to the budget last week he implicitly - but of course, not explicitly - blamed Labor because Treasury got its forecasts wrong, because the world economy keeps behaving unexpectedly and because Labor can't control the value of the Australian dollar.

Now, you may protest that both sides do this and it's long been regarded as acceptable behaviour. True. We can be sure that when Labor's back in opposition it will be returning the compliment, making the same unreasonable criticism of the Abbott government.

But that's my point. The way our pollies play the political game perpetuates the cycle of cynicism and the ever-declining credibility of their profession.

Abbott says the few commitments he's making are part of his determination to rebuild the trust of an electorate that feels alienated and disenfranchised.

Sorry, but that's what they all say - when they're in opposition. So far, it's not what they do in government, and I'll be surprised if the most successful scare-campaigner of our age turns out to be the first prime minister in living memory to get through three years of government without breaking any promises.

Hockey is promising a return to ''stable, predictable and honest government''. But how can you have stable and predictable government in an unstable and unpredictable global economy?

Honest Abbott's unqualified promise to Stop the Boats assumes there are no push-factors beyond our government's control, only pull-factors within its control. Sure. So what are the punters likely to think when, long after September 14, the boats don't stop coming?

I've got a better idea. Why don't the pollies on both sides Stop the Bulldust? And why don't the rest of us keep giving both sides a hard time until they do?