Prime Minister Scott Morrison finds himself astride a particularly toxic moment in Australian history, and one whose entrails will be exposed in an election campaign.
Political journalists like to predict that each election will be more divisive, and, yes, more toxic than others that have gone before. These forecasts should be regarded sceptically.
However, it is the case the country is more “confused’’, as the historian Stuart Macintyre puts it, than at other contentious moments in its history.
The rise of populism, including an unpleasant version of “anti-other’’ ethno-nationalism, with its echoes in a Persil-white Australia, is reflective of the country’s mood.
This is Australia’s “Tea Party’’ movement. The American version's influence on American politics was disregarded by a Democratic Party in thrall to the out-of-touch Clintons until it was too late and we got Donald Trump.
What is clear is that the centre of Australian politics is under increasing stress. A reasonable question on the eve of this 2019 election is: can the centre hold, or will we witness a further fragmentation of the political system and, therefore, more instability?
Ian McAllister, of the ANU, whose long-established Australian Election Study is the authoritative survey of election trends and voter attitudes, has little doubt that a trend apparent over the past decade of diminishing trust in politicians and the system itself will persist.
What that means is that a trust deficit risks widening further. This is not the least of Morrison’s challenges, nor Bill Shorten’s for that matter.
In the AES study taken at the time of the 2016 election, Shorten – compared with Malcolm Turnbull – rated poorly on the metrics of honesty and trustworthiness. No polls taken in the meantime contradict those findings. Among internal criticism of the Turnbull campaign in 2016 is that it failed to capitalise on the Opposition Leader’s perceived vulnerabilities.
Beyond personalities, McAllister’s polling reveals an alarming decline in satisfaction with democracy itself, matched by an even more precipitous fall in trust in politicians. In the 2016 election study, just 26 per cent of those surveyed believed people in government could be trusted, down from 43 per cent when Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007.
Perhaps the most telling number in the AES study is the closing of the gap between those who voted traditionally for the same party and those who considered voting for another party. That tally of rusted-on voters is down to 40 per cent from 63 per cent in 1987 and 72 per cent in 1967.
This is the voter volatility index. It is the metric that keeps party professionals awake at night.
A decade ago satisfaction with Australian democracy ranked at the top of the table with Scandinavian countries. Now, Australia finds itself below virtually all of its like-minded Western democracies with the possible exception of Brexit-addled UK. This is not an accident.
Economic insecurity at a time when the country has experienced an unprecedented run of economic prosperity fuels this disaffection. People have lost confidence in the ability of governments to influence the economy for the greater good.
Shorten’s “living wage’’ pitch represents a reasonable response to widespread community concerns about wage stagnation and what is perceived to be obscene levels of remuneration for chief executives and board members exposed in the banking royal commission.
In 2016, just 19 per cent of those surveyed believed the government would have a positive impact on the economy in the coming year. There is no reason to believe this number has shifted in the meantime. That is Ian McAllister’s contemporary view.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg did his best last week to provide some reassurance to battling Australians that the government was on its side via tax relief and the promise of more to come. However, disaffection is unlikely to be alleviated by stop-gap gestures such as cash handouts amounting to two cups of coffee a week, and limited tax relief.
Nor will Shorten budget reply – leaving aside his well-received pledge on cancer funding – necessarily move the needle when it comes to overcoming a trust deficit and, most likely, fiscal deficits, in a softening economy.
What can be predicted with reasonable certainty is the election campaign 2019 will not free itself from the pestilential culture wars in which fringe dwellers of the popular media seek to inflame divisions.
Morrison should be wary of blandishments from those whom he might regard as his media allies on the right.
Arguably, his best speech as prime minister came in the wake of the Christchurch massacre when he addressed the Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne.
In that speech he assailed a “mindless tribalism’’ incubated, it must be said, by Morrison-friendly sections of the media.
“If we allow a culture of ‘us and them’, of tribalism, to take hold … if we yield to the compulsion to pick sides rather than happy coexistence, we will lose what makes diversity work in Australia,’’ he said.
If Morrison can resist calls to run to his tribal, culture warrior base on the centre-right and position himself in the sensible centre he might just do himself some good politically. Who knows, he may even make some progress in overcoming a trust deficit.