Thursday, September 2, 2004

Please, just give me something to vote for …

Today I did my civic duty, stopped by the post office and finally filled in a long overdue change of electoral address form. This should switch me from being enrolled in a safe inner-city Labor seat to a safe rural Liberal seat. Oh, hurrah.

To pin my colours to the mast, I am definitely voting against the current government – but I am sceptical that the Labor party is offering me much to vote for.

Despite talk of a “values” agenda and the already rather shop-worn sounding metaphor of a “ladder of opportunity”, the election turf appears to have been carved out: interest rates, taxes, security and “trust” versus “truth”.

Interest rates are basically a distraction. While government policy and performance certainly influence interest rates, the majority of determining factors are in the hands of the global economy. At best, Australian governments can make things no worse than they have to be.

There has been some interesting and nuanced coverage of the “truth”/”trust” issue at Troppo Armadillo and Ambit Gambit. The essential suggestion being that the electorate (outside of “elites”) cares little about truth, as “all politicians lie”.

Also, let’s face it, the word “lie” is devalued verbal currency in politics as both sides – for cheap advantage – are willing to ignore the difference between wilful distortion, inadvertant ommision or just changing your mind over time.

“Trust”, however, emphasises what is done over what is said: and on things like refugee issues Howard has implemented policies, which while heartlessly draconian, are popular. (Thus making the children overboard scandal a potential non-issue as far as the talkback-radio constituency is concerned.)

The reasons to vote against the Howard government, from the perspective of a left-of-centre lawyer, are obvious and legion. The basic contempt for the rule of law. The attempt to place executive decision making in refugee and migration matters beyond judicial review. The chronically mean-spirited and profligate expenditure on phalanxes of QCs to defend every stolen generation case. Joining a flagrantly illegal war.

This is before we even get to its profound cognitive dissonance on refugee policy, children overboard or WMD in Iraq: if the facts don’t fit a preconceived view of policy and reality, they will be reinterpreted until they do.

The Labor “Machinery of Government” paper contains some worthwhile measures (follow the links to download), but I am yet to be convinced it represents any sea-change in the conduct of politics. At the end of the day the value of a ministerial code depends on the quality of the front bench. On a few other recent issues, it seems disappointingly thin. The promise that personal ministerial staff could be allowed to appear before Senate committees - but only where the responsible minister is unable to answer for them - seems a much smaller change than some have claimed. The talk of restoring the independence of the public service seems to be canvassed only in a terribly general passage on Ministerial Office/Departmental relations.

Thank god for proportional representation in the Senate and the minor parties. At least my upper-house vote needn’t be either squandered on a major party or risk counting for nothing.

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