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Insular campaign lacks a big vision

Nick Bryant | 02:16 UK time, Friday, 20 August 2010

So this has been the politics that goes with the economic "wonder from down under", where a great national success story that unfolded in the aftermath of the global financial success has been followed by the slapstick of a madcap campaign.

Caricatures of Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard

For the past two years the world has marvelled at Australia's seemingly recession-proof economy. For the past two months, it has looked on askance, like freeway rubber-neckers passing the scene of a pile-up made all the more inexplicable because the driving conditions seemed so perfect at the time.

It is the great paradox of the 2010 election. Australia emerges from the most serious global economic convulsion since the Great Depression without falling into recession, and yet the prime minister who would have been expected to take at least a modicum of credit gets ditched on the eve of the election by a deputy who then slumps herself in the polls.

In explaining this apparent paradox, perhaps historians will follow the same analytical furrow that Donald Horne ploughed in the early 1960s - that Australia is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, but cursed by second-rate politicians.

Might we even one day call this The Lucky Country election? For many will agree with that great sage of the Canberra press gallery, the Nine Network's Political Editor Laurie Oakes, who described it as a battle between two "political pygmies".

Perhaps they will come to reflect on how the Gillard coup backfired, that the politician most closely associated with the economic wonder from down under, Kevin Rudd, is on the sidelines.

It was easy to detect real nervousness in the voice of Julia Gillard when she appeared on ABC's AM programme this morning. Going into this election, she surely did not expect to be involved in a photo-finish. Labor, unquestionably, is spooked by Tony Abbott's unexpectedly strong showing.

Visiting Australia at the start of the campaign, the Harvard academic and economic big brain Niall Ferguson was struck by the parochialism of the election, and the dismal quality of debate.

In a withering assessment, he compared national politics in Australia to local politics in his Scottish homeland.

"It is true to say that there is a quality of Australian political debate very reminiscent of local politics in Glasgow when I was growing up," he told Mark Colvin on ABC's PM programme. "There is a parochialism combined with, I'm going to say, an edge of nastiness that is very familiar."

"Now it may seem mean to use a term like parochialism but I think it is justified when you reflect on the magnitude of the changes that we are living through - massive shifts in the global economy, a radical transfer of economic power from the west to the east.

"And one listens to the contenders for the Australian premiership discussing in the most oblique and mealy-mouthed way issues about immigration and infrastructure that really, you know, sound more like Strathclyde Regional Council than a debate for the leadership of a major power in Asia-Pacific."

Certainly, it has been a very insular campaign, with hardly any focus on the rest of the region or the rest of the planet.

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The relationship with China; the ongoing mission in Afghanistan; where Australia fits in with what looks like being the Asian Century or, if not, the Asia-Pacific Century. None of these topics has been the subject of serious or prolonged discussion. Even "the boat people" have felt like an abstraction, rather than real people from real countries.

Because of the small-bore nature of the campaign and the microscopic focus on such a small number of marginal constituencies, many macro-national issues have been ignored, let alone some of the big international issues.

But this kind of politics seems to suit both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Neither could truly be called a big vision politician.

My sense, not only from reading your comments, but from speaking to a lot of voters in a lot of constituencies, is that many Australian voters have been deeply disappointed with the choice put before them in this election, that neither Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott have truly measured up.

The one prediction I am confident of making is that many Australians will be delighted to see the back of this scrappy campaign.

Of course, the old adage says that countries get the politics and politicians they deserve. So a final question on the eve of this poll, and one that I ask with enormous affection for this country - is that true of Australia and Election 2010?

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