A Politics of Disillusionment?

With the next election increasingly likely, it’s a good opportunity to take stock. Let’s think back to federal election night, Saturday 2 July, 2016. For those looking to get to bed before midnight knowing the result, it was all a bit of an anti-climax. Both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten would not declare victory nor concede defeat. The result was known only a week later – the Coalition returning with the slimmest of majorities.

The 2016 election was a double dissolution: an election in which both houses of parliament are dissolved to ostensibly break a policy deadlock. But with legislation on the Australian Building and Construction Commission as the ‘trigger’ for this extraordinary election, combined with the constant threat of leadership challenges, and electoral reform designed to dampen the influence of the Senate crossbench, it was not difficult to see how political strategy outweighed policy considerations in motivating the timing and the form of the election.

As an agenda-setting event signaling future policy contestations, the 2016 election was extremely underwhelming. The array of issues considered in what was generally regarded as a dull campaign remained largely constrained to narrow debates about limited economic growth and austerity, with both major parties wedded to extremely conventional economic management theories. Both parties played to their policy strengths: the Coalition emphasised stability and measures for budgetary restraint, which Labor was quick to mirror. Labor focused on the protection of Medicare with its controversial ‘Mediscare’ strategy. In many areas, policy issues were reduced to synecdoche issues for wider concerns; for example, threats to the Great Barrier Reef instead of a wider debate about economic management, same-sex marriage over social inclusion and penalty rates over wider industrial relations terrain.

The ambiguity of the result, the lackluster campaign, the overt strategic considerations in how the election was called and the lack of policy engagement lead us to call our analysis of the 2016 Australian federal election Double Disillusion and to choose as our cover the now iconic photo of political journalist Laura Tingle watching on as Turnbull and Shorten evaded questions at the second leaders’ debate.

As the 16th volume in a long tradition of post-election analyses of federal campaigns, Double Disillusion: The 2016 Australian Federal Election (ANU Press) brings together 41 contributors from a range of disciplines. The chapters in Double Disillusion analyse the 2016 as a ‘magnifying event’ reflecting the politics of the nation – a popular disillusionment with traditional Australian political institutions and actors. This is identified in three key themes.

First and foremost, the 2016 federal election highlighted the fact that although elections formally function as the opportunity to provide a ‘voice’ to the people to hold politicians to account, several aspects of the electoral process can be managed by political parties as a tactical mechanism to prolong periods in government and achieve their legislative programs. As several of the chapters in the book suggest, while the government’s strategy of clearing out a previously difficult Senate may have backfired, with a plethora of new parties gaining representation, the politics behind the Senate voting reforms, the timing of the election ad the use of the double-disillusion trigger were clearly in the interests of the established parties of government and contributed to the climate of disillusionment surrounding the 2016 campaign.

The second theme is the necessity to understand and engage with the growing complexity of electoral politics in Australia. Attention must be paid to the shifting attitudes and forms of engaging with politics, and the constantly evolving landscape of actors involved in election campaigns, as well as the arenas in which political talk occurs. The increasing myriad of political actors involved in the electoral process highlights the importance of looking beyond traditional arenas to assess the extent and impact of political debate.

Although political parties and their leaders remain central to Australian election campaigns, the universe of participants is far more diverse than this. Contrary to their representation in traditional and emerging media, elections are not monopolised by leaders parties and media elites. The 2016 contest saw ongoing participation by a wide array of interest groups, marginalised communities, independent candidates and online campaigning organisations.

The final theme is that much of the disillusionment with the 2016 Australian federal election is linked to critiques of the major parties’ capacities to deal with the significant policy challenges facing Australian society and to represent the interests of an increasingly diverse community. Double Disillusion reveals how these policy areas were approached and emphasised (or de-emphasised) by the various actors involved in the campaign (parties, interest groups, social movement organisations and others) involved in the campaign and the political strategies involved in the process.

In providing an expert analysis of the actors, policies and, importantly, the political strategies involved in the campaign, this collection gives readers a much more nuanced understanding of why the 2016 Australian federal election was one that represented a ‘double disillusion’. It is evident that voters were disillusioned, but, looking beyond the negative tone associated with the title, we suggest that many of the characteristics of the 2016 Australian federal election may also represent a longer-term shift in Australian electoral politics. Party and electoral fragmentation has led to a richer universe of political and campaign participants, increased policy complexity in a climate of growing economic uncertainty and inequality, and an ever-present public cynicism with leadership churn and the manipulation of electoral rules. These are all important considerations when we turn our minds to the next upcoming election either later this year or early next.

Double Disillusion: The 2016 Australian Federal Election is available free download. Hard copies can also be purchased directly from ANU Press.

Anika Gauja is Associate Professor at The University of Sydney