Men at some time are masters of their fates.
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars
But in ourselves …
Let’s substitute the gender-neutral “Australians” for “men”, and “political leaders” for “stars”. The metre of Shakespeare’s blank verse would be wrecked, but the resulting lines would accurately describe our current political quandary.
Tony Abbott told us before the election that he could return the budget to surplus without raising taxes, or cutting spending on health and education, or reducing pension entitlements. He told us he could do it by cutting waste.
It was self-evident nonsense. Blind Freddy could see, by last September, that either he would have to back off his pledge to balance the budget in a few years’ time, or he would have to break most of the other undertakings. But for months before the election, Abbott avoided interviewers who would challenge him to square the circle.
Unsurprisingly, he preferred the soft-soap flattery he could confidently expect from our brigade of shameless commercial radio hucksters.
The Coalition would deliver painless solutions, he told their listeners. There is nothing wrong with Australia that a mere change of government would not fix. And the voters of Australia - or a convincing majority of them - apparently chose to believe him. At any rate, they are now furious, it seems, that the promises have not been kept.
Bill Shorten now tells us the Prime Minister’s broken promises are a betrayal of Australia’s egalitarian ethos. Well, so they are. But no hint from Shorten about how Labor would fix the gap between revenue and spending. No acknowledgement, even, that there’s a gap to fix.
Shorten has learned well the lesson that Abbott’s years of opposition taught the Labor front bench - the lesson, indeed, that Abbott himself learned when, as John Hewson’s press secretary, he watched Paul Keating demolish “Fightback”, and his boss lose the unlosable 1993 election.
The lesson is simple: the Australian electorate will punish the tellers of hard truths, and reward the snake-oil salesmen, the good-news spruikers, the soft-soapers.
For evidence, look no further than the reaction to the budget on Australian talkback radio. As media monitoring company iSentia told The Age’s Michael Gordon http://www.theage.com.au/comment/a-fight-to-the-death-for-two-leaders-in-denial-20140516-zrf7s.html#ixzz327zBw7n8: ‘‘The overwhelming majority of people who discussed a new election [last Friday morning] said they would vote for Clive Palmer if one was held.’’
Abbott preferred the soft-soap flattery he could confidently expect from our brigade of shameless commercial radio hucksters.
That’s the Clive Palmer who told us last May http://palmerunited.com/2013/05/palmer-challenges-abbott-to-rule-out-increased-taxes/ that we needed “good programs like the NDIS”, but that “this should not be an excuse to put taxes up”.
It is the Clive Palmer who told us in June http://palmerunited.com/2013/06/palmer-united-party-pledges-80-billion-for-health-and-hospitals/ that, if elected, a Palmer United Party government would magically find $80 billion more for health and hospitals, and $20 billion extra for schools http://palmerunited.com/2013/06/palmer-united-party-would-boost-education-funding-by-20bn/.
It is the Clive Palmer who told us during the election campaign http://palmerunited.com/2013/08/2500-tax-cut-for-the-average-taxpayer-clive-palmer/ that a 15 per cent across-the-board income tax cut would generate more government revenue in GST takings than it cost in reduced income tax. (Fairfax’s Peter Martin, writing for the fact-checking website PolitiFact, found that Palmer’s claims were “False”. http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/fact-checker/is-clive-palmers-tax-cut-a-magic-pudding-or-a-pup-20130830-2suxw.html Most economists treated them as fantasy.)
It is the Clive Palmer who tells us today http://palmerunited.com/2014/05/budget-nightmare-built-debt-crisis-fairy-tale-clive-palmer/ that there is no budget emergency, no debt crisis, that such talk is “just more bullshit being fed to the Australian public”.
During the campaign last year, I wrote http://www.theage.com.au/federal-politics/federal-election-2013/truth-trivial-in-an-election-now-theres-a-fact-20130820-2s92b.html about the people who determine Australian elections - disengaged floating voters who, in democracies where participation in elections is voluntary, probably would not bother to vote at all.
As far back as the 1980s, Melbourne University political scientist Sally Young pointed out http://theconversation.com/factcheck-are-swinging-voters-disengaged-and-hard-to-reach-15804 Labor Party numbers men were describing these citizens as "basically ignorant and indifferent about politics. They vote on instinct for superficial, ill-informed and generally selfish reasons."
That, of course, was a quote from an internal party report. You won’t catch a politician, or for that matter a political commentator, uttering such elitist sentiments in public. They will talk instead about the good sense of the Australian people, how you can’t pull the wool over our eyes, how we can spot a fake a mile away.
But apparently, many of us can’t, or won’t. Not if the fake is telling us what we want to hear. Not if he or she assures us that we don’t need to do anything about global warming; that debts can be eliminated by cutting waste, and deficits wished away by cutting taxes; that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.
Australians, the polls say, have decided the budget is unfair. They are right about that. They’re right, too, to complain about Abbott’s broken promises. Themes hammered all week by Shorten.
But surely it would have paid Shorten to admit the government is right about one thing: revenue is not keeping up with spending; either taxes need to be lifted or expenditure cut, or both. If the poor, the sick, the unemployed and the disadvantaged are not going to bear the brunt of budget repair, who is?
Wouldn’t we reward Shorten for frankness, for honesty, for telling it like it is, and what he plans to do about it?
No, we wouldn’t. The fault, dear Brutus, is in ourselves.
Jonathan Holmes is an Age columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.