Who to believe ... Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
From Saturday, September 7, 2013 Australians will be led by one of two men, neither of whom seem able to convincingly tell us what they believe in.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has apparently been told not to tell us about the beliefs that stimulated his participation in politics or animate his current election campaign. Opposition leaders now present themselves in public as small targets. They express little of either passion or lasting value; they oscillate from one stilted, set-piece campaign appearance to another, deploying rehearsed word blocks designed to give little away.
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd talks a great deal and as his prospects of re-election fade he has become increasingly voluble. Few of his frantic words carry conviction. The words Abbott and Rudd exchange are little more than rote tactics; dead text fired to obscure and malign.
Abbott's appeal for Rudd to shut up seems one of few genuinely felt statements either of them has made during the campaign. Do you wonder what's been lost from political discourse?
In 1903, prime minister Alfred Deakin opened his federal election campaign with a speech to the electors of Ballarat, his own constituents.
At the outset, Deakin warned his audience they would have to bear his ''wearisome prolixity'' but he felt he must pay them the respect of explaining the government's conduct since it was elected in March 1901 and outline its future plans. Deakin said he would rather ''tire your patience'' than ''mislead your sense''.
Deakin reminded his constituents ''of the vast area upon which it is necessary that you should keep your attention … and how varied are the circumstances of this continent''. At Ballarat, Deakin treated Australians as intelligent citizens, interested in their own government and willing to engage in its making. Deakin understood that Australians cherished their most basic entitlement: the right to vote. One of the most liberal electoral laws devised ''anywhere in the world … confers not only upon the manhood of Australia but upon the womanhood of Australia (cheers) very full rights of citizenship''.
Following the passage of the Franchise Act through the Commonwealth Parliament in 1902, women could for the first time participate fully as citizens.
Deakin expected their participation would make ''this life better than it has ever been before''. Such were the hopes invested in the federation of the Australian colonies, and expressed in a spirit of inclusive, active citizenship.
Deakin described how the government had created the High Court of Australia and enacted tariff barriers to protect Australian industry; in its next term his government would resolve disputes between employers and employees and provide better wages and conditions through a new system of industrial arbitration.
All this nation building was done to develop the strength, as Deakin declared, of a ''white Australia''.
That claim may now ring disturbingly in our ears, not least because its fearful spirit resonates in our time, in anxieties over boat people and exposed borders. In 1903, the appeal to a white Australia found a receptive audience.
White Australia provided the story arc of Deakin's speech; it nestled everywhere in the policies he described, binding their distinctive qualities under the appeal of a compelling cause: the unity of one people. The spirit of a white Australia reached down ''to the roots of our national life'', Deakin said, drawing the citizens of a young country together.
Our unease at Deakin's endorsement of racial exclusion distracts us from understanding a crucial element of his purpose. When Deakin described a white Australia, he was reminding Australians what they believed in: themselves. And he believed in them.
In 1972, Gough Whitlam's speech to launch Labor's federal election campaign flipped the white Australia logic inside-out, yet in service to the same appeal that Deakin had made: cultivating a story to bind a people together.
Australians, Whitlam declared, could now embrace the wider world without racial fear and forge a new self-confident identity. The government he would lead would literally ''extend the horizons'' of the Australian people. Whitlam's government finally revoked the white Australia policy: racial discrimination was forbidden under Commonwealth law. Australia began to engage with Asia, formally recognising the People's Republic of China.
Addressing his electors at Blacktown, Whitlam appealed to the ''men and women of Australia'' as active, intelligent citizens with the patience to follow a long and detailed speech that described what his government would do on their behalf.
Perhaps in 1972, Australians were more inclined to listen because Whitlam did not simply list measures they would passively receive.
Whitlam's policies often required the participation of citizens: stimulating community participation, encouraging participation in education. Australians were urged to be active in their own government. Whitlam assumed that Australians expected no less. He believed in them.
In election 2013 political words die on our brightly lit screens.
Our politician's words have been infected with a binary code of manipulation and fear. Don't doubt that your politicians fear you. The crass manipulations of negative attack ads and three-word slogans mask their inability to explain what they believe in. It's easier to frighten than inform.
That's the degraded relationship that electors have with the elected in Australia today.
We should expect more of each other. Australians once did.
- Dr Mark Hearn is a lecturer in the department of modern history and politics at Macquarie University.