Australia feels at the moment rather like an anxious country. Gone is the economic swagger produced by almost 30 years without falling into a recession.
In the electoral campaigns for the elections on Saturday, May 21, a great absentee is the type of hope and expectation that they are supposed to engender.
Instead, one can detect a general sense of nervousness that the second quarter of the 21st century might be less joyous for Australians than the first.
Australians are facing a cost of living crisis , exacerbated by the first interest rate hike since November 2010.
Nearly 40% of homeowners are believed to be experiencing mortgage stress. Property prices, which serve almost as a gauge of national well-being, are leveling off and, in some places, falling.
But although the housing boom has subsided, housing remains unaffordable for younger Australians, especially.
Home improvement – doing renovations is almost a national pastime – is becoming prohibitively expensive due to skyrocketing raw materials.
Add to that the climate emergency , evident in natural disasters that used to happen once a century and now every few years, or in some communities, like Lismore, New South Wales, every few months.
During my first time in Australia 8 years ago, I came to regard this country as the world’s number one superpower in terms of lifestyle.
But global warming alone is putting that status in jeopardy.
With the constant threat of the pandemic , which has had a fragmenting effect on Australia, what was a commonwealth of states and territories have become more like silos.
People are exhausted. The slow rollout of the vaccine and the unavailability of rapid antigen tests during the omicron outbreak undermined faith in the government.
Then there is the troubled relationship with China , the country’s largest trading partner, which poses not only an economic threat but also a national security dilemma.
Just over eight months after the Australian foreign policy establishment went into orgasmic paroxysms of joy over the Aukus nuclear deal signed with the US and UK, it had a moment of panic over Beijing’s security deal with the Solomon Islands.
The deal, fiercely resisted by both Canberra and Washington, raises the specter of a Chinese military presence in Australia’s “backyard.”
The war in Ukraine, and even an unusually gray and wet southern summer and early fall have contributed to a state of national despondency.
Things are not well. Things are not resolved. There is a persistent feeling of discomfort .
Australia no longer feels like the “Fortunate Country” as public intellectual Donald Horne described it in the mid-1960s when, in his controversial book, he noted: “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people.” .
If he were alive today, watching what has been widely regarded as a dismal campaign, perhaps Horne would draw the same conclusion. One of the reasons his book remains so relevant is because his words have remained so reverberating.
Australia is arguably paying the price for the brutality of its policy over the past 15 years.
Canberra’s coup culture killed off two of the country’s most substantive recent prime ministers, Kevin Rudd of the Labor Party and Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party. Julia Gillard, his first female prime minister, did not last long either.
A frequent complaint you hear from voters is that a country of 26 million people should produce a better alternative than Prime Minister Scott Morrison or Labor leader Anthony Albanese.
There is a feeling that ” none of the above ” is the best option in these elections .
That partly explains the rise of so-called “teal independents”, a group of female candidates challenging Liberal MPs in what are normally very safe Conservative seats.
The term comes from the color of the flyers and posters worn by many of these candidates, and my suburb of Sydney is full of them. Perhaps we will witness a blue-green tide.
With many voters actively seeking alternative options, this election could also produce the lowest level of support for the two major parties since the war.
It has been a rudimentary six-week campaign, marked more by its shadows than its lights .
The second leaders’ debate was an ugly screaming fest.
The media has faced criticism for often following a leading line of questioning.
Anthony Albanese’s failure to quote the unemployment rate on the first day of the campaign dominated the entire first week and set the tone for news conferences throughout the campaign.
For some voters, it’s legitimate media scrutiny. For others, a trivial pursuit that boggles the mind.
Big ideas and broad narratives have been rare .
Surprisingly little has been said about a post-pandemic reconstruction agenda. Following the fracture of Australia during covid, when some states like Western Australia acted more like independent countries, there has been no call for national reunification.
Instead, negative partisanship has been a recurring theme: Leaders often spend more time attacking their opponents than promoting their own ideas. Partly due to the savagery of Canberra politics, the Australian system has become better at producing effective opposition leaders than effective prime ministers .
In short, the political leaders of a nation of natural storytellers have seemingly lost the ability to present a compelling national narrative, a vision of Australia’s future.
This electoral campaign has been marked more by anxiety than by ambition.
* Nick Bryant is a Senior Fellow at the University of Sydney Policy Laboratory .
- Nick Bryant *
- For BBCNews