As we begin the official federal campaign, many have gone from excitement about an election to the realisation that we have six more weeks of this. From high-viz vests to holding babies, most of us are hoping that the blanket coverage that has characterised week one will soon ease.
Neither of the two contenders have started well, with the Opposition Leader, Anthony Albanese, stumbling when asked basic questions about interest rates and levels of unemployment. This is reflective of a Prime Minister who has been unable to recount the cost of a loaf of bread or portray empathy to those affected by natural disasters.
In response to the Albanese stumble, former prime minister, John Howard, became an unlikely ally by stating, ‘so what?’
It is true that as the world confronts the possibility of an expanding war in Europe, the ongoing tensions across South East Asia and catastrophic climate events, knowing mundane details of everyday life seems insignificant.
Yes, we should expect more from our leaders: they should be thinking and planning about the future of our nation some 20, 30 or 100 years ahead.
As a sociologist, however, I am interested in the broader sentiments that are capturing the attention of the electorate and whether the political establishment appears to understand these. In other words, I am interested in how people are ‘feeling’ about those who are meant to represent us.
If our politicians were trusted, respected and the public felt that they were doing a good job, such blunders do not matter. In the current environment though, here are three reasons such gaffes really do matter.
First, it highlights a lack of empathy for everyday struggles. Today, the lived experience of most Australians is not easy. Sure, we are financially wealthier than ever before, but wealth does not necessarily translate into a comfortable existence. Over the last 12 months, the cost of living has almost doubled, and the indications of rising interest rates will hit mortgage holders hard. The rental market is out of control and there is no indication of any relief. Climate catastrophes have characterised Australian life for the past decade and Covid meant that our lives were disrupted in ways unimaginable three years ago.
The budget offered some short-term relief regarding petrol prices which are likely to be offset with the ongoing Ukrainian War. As such, for many there appears no end in sight to the financial vulnerability they are currently feeling.
The Morrison and Albanese gaffes highlight the fear that those leading the country do not understand our everyday experiences. It confirms a gap between the political elites and the experiences of everyday people – and it is one that makes us uncomfortable.
The second reason is trust, and here gaffes matter. When we elect a politician, we trust that they will prioritise the nation and its citizenry ahead of their own priorities. This may sound naive, but it is the social contract that we expect from our politicians.
It is for this reason the Australian public has embraced accountability bodies such as the Independent Commission Against Corruption and there is overwhelming support for a federal level commission.
A gaffe that highlights that a leader (or potential leader) has no understanding of our daily challenges, makes us question whether they have spent time prioritising our interest ahead of theirs. We simply ask, ‘what is their lived experience compared to mine?
In other words, if they have not prioritised the citizenry enough to understand their daily lives, how can we possibly trust them?
And third, it’s about policy priorities. Earlier this week, the Prime Minister raised the issue of trans-athletes in sports. Mr Morrison said he would have “more to say” on the matter as he praised those in the Liberal Party who had shared their views on this topic. For a Prime Minister and government facing an electorate that feels they are out of touch, prioritising the ‘cultural war’, confirms a lack of policy priorities.
Most Australians, no matter where they stand politically or ethically on the topic of trans-athletes look at such statements and ask, ‘what does this have to do with the cost of living?’ Or ‘how does this prepare Australia for the next drought, bush fire season or flood?’
While the cost of a loaf of bread or the unemployment rate seem a long way from a discussion of trans athletes in sports, it makes us ask, ‘where are your priorities?’
Over ten years ago, I wrote a report for the Whitlam Institute in which I discussed the ongoing separation of the ‘Politics’ (the blood sport of winning at all costs in our Parliaments) and ‘politics’ (the everyday lived experience of Australians).
In the report, we warned that unless something was done by our political establishment, this separation would lead to dwindling of trust, growing disengagement, and resentment. Such a gap opens the door for populists who, no matter their financial position, argue that they understand daily struggles better than ‘the elites.’
Morrison may have enjoyed the Albanese gaffe – but the main winner from all this political carnage will not be the Prime Minister. Rather, it is likely to be populists leaders – and that is a scary thought.
Professor James Arvanitakis is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, and a Fulbright Scholar.