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Let’s vote with an eye to the future and stop this electoral merry-go round

4 April 2015 One Comment

One of the casualties of modern life in a technological age has been our attention span.

Some scientists maintain that our attention spans have halved during the past three decades. Instead of someone being able to pay attention for an average of eight seconds, it is now estimated to be four. Instead of paying attention for four minutes, it is now two. Instead of spending 30 seconds on a website, it’s 15 seconds. So what does this mean for politics and governments?

It means our attention span and consequently our tolerance of unpopular governments is much shorter than it was in the past.

Instead of giving leaders and governments a second chance, or at least enough time to see if their promised reforms are being ­delivered, we seem to want to ­punish them at the ballot box while the jury is still out about the efficacy of their plans and strategies. In doing so, we stifle the capacity for long-term reform and planning.

What is the incentive for governments to pursue reforms that will pay off in a decade when all we are concerned about are our individual circumstances and our material and emotional wellbeing in the next minute or hour or two?

The disappointing reality is, if we punish forward-thinking governments, then there is no incentive for politicians to be forward thinking in the first place.

In the not-so-recent past, great reforms took years — and, in some cases, successive governments — to implement.

Consider this. On January 18, 1979, John Howard as treasurer in the Fraser government appointed the Campbell inquiry into our fin­ancial system.

The explicit goal of the inquiry, according to Howard, was to kick-start reform so the fin­ancial system could “meet the current and future needs of the Australian economy.

It was more than two years later, in 1981, that the committee delivered its 800-plus page report to the government. It took a further two years — including a change of government — for one of the key recommendations of the report, the floating of the dollar, to be implemented in December 1983. By 1986, many of the key reforms of the Campbell inquiry had been adopted by the Hawke Labor government.

All of this makes me question if Australians would have the same appetite and patience for reform if reforms of that scale were proposed today.

We already know the answer to this — and the first-term Abbott government has learned the hard way. Joe Hockey’s 2014 budget tried to solve decades’ worth of future problems in a single bound and that included reform of the fiscal situation, a rethink of the relationship between the individual and the government, and ambitious policies to “future proof Australia.

But while some citizens might have respected its noble aims, Hockey’s first budget was far too ambitious for most electors.

Voters weren’t thinking about what the policies would mean in 10 years, they were thinking about how the policies would affect them in a year or maybe less.

If the opinion polls at the time were anything to go by, if the Treasurer and Tony Abbott had stuck to key elements of their plan voters would have been more than prepared to give the federal government a huge kick at the ballot box. In state politics, a similar situation is occurring, with first-term governments thrown out in Queensland and Victoria.

In Queensland, it wasn’t just that voters weren’t thinking long term about the future, it was that they also had forgotten the past.

The first-term Newman government was thrown out for Labor, which had been slaughtered at the previous state election.

Voters seemed to forget the anger that led them to boot out Campbell Newman and his Liberal National Party team this year was the same anger used dramatically to eject Anna Bligh a few years earlier.

They also forgot that, despite Queensland Labor’s strong anti-privatisation campaign this year, it was Bligh who remarked in 2009 with reference to electricity privatisation that “in a household if you want a new car, then you sell your old car.

Admittedly, Newman squandered the public’s goodwill and was personally responsible for not being able to see through his own reforms.

Last Saturday in NSW, a neophyte opposition leader — standing against a popular, cleanskin premier — achieved a swing to Labor of 9 per cent which, not so long ago, would have been a game changer.

All of this febrile electoral energy calls for a rethink of our political system. But instead of it being led from the top to the bottom, this fundamental change needs to be initiated by the voters, not by our political leaders.

As citizens, we ought step back and think that the same instant gratification we have come to expect in most parts of our lives simply cannot and should not determine our voting intentions. To allow this short-sightedness to influence our choices at the ballot box simply will lead to a revolving door of state and federal governments with nothing significant actually being achieved before the next mob briefly occupies the ministerial offices. Starting now, we ought to try to stop this absurd electoral merry-go-round.

Maybe, just maybe, the next time we vote, we should think more clearly about Australia’s future before we take our short memories and even shorter memory spans back to the ballot box.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 36 books, including his memoir, ‘My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic’s Journey’, available as an e-book and as a talking book from Vision Australia.

The Weekend Australian, April 4-5, 2015, Inquirer p 20.

One Comment »

  • Peter Smith said:

    Short horizons

    Ross Fitzgerald (“Let’s vote with an eye to the future and stop this electoral merry-go-round”, 4-5/4) calls for voters to take a long-term view but, as ongoing global financial crisis shows, it is far from clear whether we should hang on to our old Australian-made cars, or replace them with a new imported model, or use public transport more and just hire a car when needed.

    Peter Smith, Lake Illawarra, NSW

    The Australian, April 6, 2015, p 11.

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