On Polling Day, Trust Only Your Judgement: The Age

This is the editorial from the Victorian Sunday Age.

The newspaper is part of the Fairfax organisation.

Text of editorial from the Sunday Age.

Age

At the start of the federal election campaign, both leaders agreed that trust would be a central issue.

Prime Minister John Howard said the election would be about which party could be trusted to keep the economy strong, interest rates low and lead the fight against terrorism.

Labor leader Mark Latham agreed, adding that he could be trusted to deliver truth in government.

At the time, The Sunday Age published a poll revealing that a third of voters seldom or never trusted political leaders and only 20 per cent believed the parties put the national interest before their own.

As we enter the last week of the campaign, it would come as no surprise if electors were even more cynical of those who aspire to represent them.

Billions of dollars have been promised in new spending in what has at times been an unseemly auction for votes.

Each leader proclaims that interest rates will be higher under the other (Mark Latham even signed a public pledge). They seek our trust when they say the economy will never go into deficit. They pledge that Medicare will be safer under their government, that Australia will be more secure under their watch, that education will be more equitable under their tutelage

What are we to make of this? The Greek orator Demosthenes had one solution. He suggested we maintain a healthy disregard for politicians asking for our trust. “There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust.”

A more modern, anonymous interpretation, is, “In God we trust, all others we virus scan”.

Trust, indeed, is central to this campaign, which is perhaps unprecedented for its level of big-spending promises. The Coalition in particular has signalled its intention to excite the hip-pocket nerve by forgoing revenue or promising new spending programs.

Labor will do the same, but to a lesser extent. Once Mr Latham declared that the Prime Minister was spending like a drunken sailor, he could afford to be seen as only slightly inebriated if he wished to build fiscal credibility.

Ultimately, both parties want us to believe they can spend up and yet maintain surpluses. But in a sobering warning, Access Economics concludes that the slew of promises combined with a sharp economic slowdown would see public monies “nearer the bottom of the barrel than we think”. It continues: “Judged against the yardsticks of raising productivity, raising participation and/or saving for the future, 2004 was mostly a missed chance. What a waste of an opportunity.”

Clearly, there is little in either side’s extensive list of promises to make Australia more competitive in the long term and, more particularly, improve our position in non-resource exports.

Even the notion that governments can adjust the settings or pull the fiscal levers, as Paul Keating used to say, to guarantee a surplus is dishonest. No federal government has its hands on all the switches and dials: the federal treasurer cannot control the whims of US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan, the political volatility of oil-producing nations, acts of international terrorists or the weather.

It could also prove irresponsible to maintain a surplus at all costs, for example, if substantial government spending was needed to kick-start an ailing economy. This is not economic heresy, but sound government – and the International Monetary Fund endorses such policy.

On a more positive note, the choice this time is no longer between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Though predictions differ as to how long it can last, Australia is in the fortunate position of having slain the dragons of high unemployment, crippling interest rates and uncontrolled inflation.

This has allowed the major parties to promise a social dividend, and there are significant differences in the parties’ responses. These are most obvious in policies on education, tax, health – particularly Medicare – aged care and Australia’s place in the world.

The leaders themselves present choices: Mr Howard is tested and safe, but may not last a full term; Mr Latham will last, but is untested and more volatile. What also differentiates this campaign is that it is perhaps more than usually, some would say shamelessly, about self-interest, about sating the desires of specific groups.

Politically expedient short-termism is the by-product of three-year (or less) electoral cycles. The House of Representatives we elect next Saturday will be the 41st in the 103 years since federation, making the average life of the parliament two-and-a-half years.

While that situation remains, we can trust in one thing: our politicians will, by necessity, continue to focus largely on their self-interest and the electoral appeal of their party. And individuals face choices that are influenced more than ever by their own circumstances.

As a result, we feel it inappropriate to lecture individuals on how they should vote in the best interests of the nation.

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