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Blah. Blah. Blah. When they promised to make history the people yawned. When they spoke of lofty ideals and grand notions the people slept. And when they tried to rouse passions with patriotic speeches the people shrugged, rolled their eyes and continued on with their daily lives.
It was tough going for aspiring politicians in Australia's first federal election campaign in 1901. Candidates travelled the land on trains or in horse-drawn carriages. Voting was yet to be made compulsory and little more than half the registered electorate bothered casting a ballot. "Perhaps there never was a more distracted election," observed one commentator at the time. "Such apathy was much to be regretted," noted another. "The result was but a feeble indication of public opinion."
Why, how far we have come. "I get it that people are tired of politics," said Scott Morrison yesterday after committing the nation to a gruelling six-week campaign that is expected to see the parties spend more than $500 million trying to win our vote on polling day, May 21.
If you judge politics by its current standard of puerile rhetoric and hollow platitudes then yes, Morrison was right. But as he and Anthony Albanese both stressed yesterday, Australia now finds itself treading warily in a world upended by a global pandemic and a brutal European war. And when people are nervous they tend to pay more attention. So can we expect a range of visionary nation-building plans during this campaign?
Despite plenty of bluster and hyperbole about securing Australia's future, both parties yesterday seemed more content dwelling on the past and preparing for a campaign that could set new lows in dirty tricks and personal attacks. There was plenty of lip service paid to the importance of this election, of course. "We are dealing with a world that is less stable than at any other time since the second World War," said Morrison, while deputy Labor leader Richard Marles said the pandemic "has really given Australia the biggest opportunity to re-imagine the nation since the end of the second World War".
But what does that future Australia look like and will anyone be courageous enough in this campaign to tell us? The end of WWII triggered an era of unrivalled prosperity for Australia. The population doubled in little more than a generation. The economy flourished thanks to wool and an emerging mineral export market, while television and affordable cars changed the social fabric. Can Australia replicate such material success again?
What we do know for certain is that this will be the most targeted political campaign in Australian history. And don't go thinking you might avoid a great deal of political ear-bashing if you don't happen to live in the critical marginal seats in Queensland and New South Wales that will likely decide the election outcome.
It won't be like 1901. Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, opened his nation's first campaign back then by telling supporters they would "have to deal with a whole continent ... and we shall have to remember that a continent of three million square miles is rather too large to canvas."
It isn't anymore, not with highly targeted social media advertising and sophisticated consumer research. Australia might still be a large and largely empty continent. But when it comes to modern election campaigns it offers nowhere to hide.
HAVE YOUR SAY: What are the most important issues in this election campaign? Is there a topic like population, immigration or tax reform that you want to see raised? Send us your views: email@example.com
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT: Scott Morrison committed to serving a full three-year term as PM if re-elected and painted Labor and its leader Anthony Albanese as unknown quantities with no economic management experience. Albanese declared himself ready to be PM and promised to deliver cheaper childcare, a wide-ranging federal anti-corruption body and more investment in renewable energies. The Greens launched a campaign asking voters to give them the balance of power in a hung parliament, saying they would ban new coal and gas mines, introduce stricter taxes on the rich and allow Australians to claim dental and mental health care through Medicare.
THEY SAID IT: "A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation." - James Freeman Clarke.
YOU SAID IT: "Gough Whitlam was Australia's greatest prime minister. He was interested in everything from diplomacy to the lack of sewerage in poor suburbs. He had a mighty team of visionaries in his cabinet and he made sure that those who were not used to being listened to had their voices heard." - Judy
"Flawed leaders who get things done? Hitler got the trains running on time and made cars affordable. Yeah, nah. Integrity matters. Not perfection - but an ability to acknowledge and fix one's own human frailty." - Janette.
"My problem is not so much with the personal flaws of politicians but with their belief that they should be able to impose their moral and social views on the rest of the population." - Deb.
"You ask 'So does personal character really matter if a leader gets things done?' But what if he doesn't get things done?" - Peter.
"The most honourable and respected prime ministers have been those with a vision for Australia and the commitment to bring that vision about, sometimes in the face of strong opposition. On this basis I add John Curtin, Paul Keating, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to the list." - Christine.
"I am 63. No one has come close to EG Whitlam for clarity of vision, breadth of agenda (and sadly crashing through or crashing) in my memory." - George.
Without question our best ever prime minister was John Curtin. Most Australians today would know little or nothing of him but his taking us through WW2 and constantly standing up for us against the likes of Churchill et al makes him a great man. I would also argue that those immensely stressful years cost him his life." - Terry.
"Best Australian PM was Paul Keating." - Andrew.
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