Sunday, May 5, 2013

Indifference


Australia is currently in the grip of an indifferent electorate, although "in the grip of" may be putting it a touch too strongly. Perhaps "caught in a limp handshake with" would be more accurate. In some ways this is great because it comes from there being nothing, on a large scale, to care about. All around the world there are things for citizens to care about on a sliding scale from Syria to Greece to America, but in Australia things are going pretty well. We've got bucket loads of incoming money from all the pretty coloured dirt in Western Australia, and a well funded service industry from all the money spent by the people who get paid to dig up the coloured dirt. Our often overly zealous attitude to regulation and government intervention means that our banks weren't able to ruin the economy when every other developed economy fell into a hole. Our welfare and health systems aren't the best in the world, but they're comfortably in the top bracket.

So here we are then. A country which on balance has nothing to complain about. It's understandable then that the average Australian voter doesn't care much about the government. Sure, politics is still a regular topic of conversation, but it's not serious. We care about who's in charge in the same way we've always cared about who should be the opening combination in the Australian cricket team; there's lots of opinions and spirited debate, but whatever the final outcome you're still going to watch The Ashes. It's not the same kind of care that results in student riots, or a hundred thousand people marching in the streets.

Indifference is the last thing politicians want with an election around the corner. When a country has compulsory voting like Australia does, an indifferent voter is an unpredictable voter. Elsewhere they just won't vote, but here they'll drag themselves off to the nearest school hall and do what needs to be done to avoid a fine. If there's not an issue that the voter cares deeply enough about to have an opinion on who they should vote for, then what is going to be the deciding factor when they step into the booth? For the non swing voters it makes no difference. If you've always voted Liberal, you're going to vote Liberal because once every three years you have to roll out to the booths and vote Liberal. For the swing voter, though, if there's no substantial policy difference then anything at all could be the thing that tips the balance. Maybe one of the candidate names is a bit longer so it stands out on the list. Maybe the last interview you saw on TV featured Tony Abbott in budgie smugglers and Saturday morning is no time to be thinking about that, not so soon after breakfast. Maybe a possum on the roof kept you awake all night and you're not in a Greens kind of mood.

The safe move is to get voters to transition from indifferent to engaged, rather than relying on nocturnal marsupial activities. In Australia that means appealing to greed and not-so-latent racism. I for one can't wait to hear another six months worth of real talk about how failing to stop the boats will destroy Australia, and how managing the Australian economy is really more complex than hoping against hope that the mining boom lasts another twenty years. My guess is that by September I won't be indifferent any more, I'll be sick of the whining, insults, and B-grade rhetoric.

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