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The Election: Week One

Nick Bryant | 02:56 UK time, Saturday, 24 July 2010

You will have to forgive me for continuing to monitor the election from afar, but needs must. Our travel timetable has been set, for reasons which will hopefully become joyfully apparent sometime in November, by a calendar that takes little account of the electoral cycle.

Still abroad, I have not been reading the papers with quite the usual diligence, but the one story that appears to have caught the imagination of international news desks is the decision to shift the start time of the televised debate on Sunday night so that it does not clash with the mega-hit cooking show, Masterchef (clearly, the Labor Party, which has gone into the election with a healthy lead after ousting Kevin Rudd was keen for the debate to reach a limited audience). Now Australians can watch both.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, 21 July 2010Two very different Australias will be on show on Sunday night. Masterchef has been such a hit not only because it focuses on fabulous food - isn't the way to an Australian's heart through his or her stomach? It also deals in hopes and dreams, and is hugely aspirational. Rather than humiliate the young contestants, most of whom dream one day of opening up restaurants of their own, the judges nurture and inspire them. The emphasis is on nice.

You can read the last blog, The Australian Ugliness, for a take on how politics has gone through a particularly nasty and brutal phase. So let's not belabour the point. But it is worth asking whether Sunday's televised debate will offer many of the same ingredients on display in Masterchef: hope, dreams, inspiration and aspiration?

Please holler if I am wrong - and I know that you will - but Australian elections do not tend to deal much with "the vision thing". Sure, politicians outline policies for the future, but they tend not to trade in big ideas, overarching national narratives or high-blown rhetoric. The rhetoric is workmanlike. The promise of change usually comes with the disclaimer that it will be incremental and risk-free.

In Labor circles, Gough Whitlam's 'It's Time' campaign in 1972 is so storied because it was so exceptional. The campaign was launched at the Blacktown Civic Centre in Sydney with the kind of bold speechifying that would certainly be rare today:

"Men and Women of Australia! The decision we will make for our country on 2 December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time. It's time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunities: it's time to create new opportunities for Australians, time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and the region in which we live. It's time for a new government - a Labor Government."

You can read the full speech here.

Tony Abbott,  Liberal Party leader, at a fruit shop in Melbourne, 20 July 2010These days, Australian campaigns are more about tactics rather than visions (it's the same elsewhere, before you press the comment button). Indeed, the first few days felt like a tactical re-run of the 1997 campaign with the issue of WorkChoices, the Howard government's unpopular labour laws, brought front and centre. Knowing he was being hammered on the issue, Tony Abbott tried to convince voters that WorkChoices was not only "dead" and "buried" but "cremated," as well.

Then, later in the week, Julia Gillard followed up with another tactic, by trying to neutralise another issue which has troubled the Labor government: setting a price on carbon through the creation of an emissions trading scheme. She did so by
announcing the creation of a Citizens Assembly to reach community consensus on climate change policy, which has been slammed by Liberals and Greens alike as an act of political cowardice. It also produced a rare moment of unscripted drama when an environmental protester tried to shout down the prime minister as she delivered her speech.

The old maxim is that good policy makes for good politics. But from Julia Gillard's change of course on the Big Australia policy to the fumbled new asylum seeker policy, which ABC's Annabel Crabb deftly dubbed "The Non-Specific Solution", policy is politics.

I'll be watching on Sunday night, and I dare say many of you will be too. The Masterchef final or the leaders' televised debate. Which will be the more nourishing?

PS Having said the international news desks haven't yet been paying much attention, one of America's leading columnists, EJ Dionne of the Washington Post, has weighed in.

PPS Thanks, by the way, for the response to Animal Kingdom. Someone complained that the thread was going nowhere, when it had already gone somewhere really interesting. Not a huge number of comments, admittedly, but proof that less is sometimes more.


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