Another Seinfeld Election for Australia

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Julia Gillard was a rotten Australian prime minister. Clueless, mercurial, distracted, vindictive, tin political ear: Man, did she stink.

So went the conventional wisdom that helped drive the nation's first female leader from office in June. That doesn't even include the sexist whisper campaign against an unmarried, childless, atheist woman. Or the 2011 television show "At Home With Julia," which depicted Gillard lying naked under an Australian flag after having sex in her office with her hairdresser boyfriend. Or the abiding image of opposition leader Tony Abbott at a Parliament House rally alongside protesters carrying a "Ditch the Witch" banner.

And it was all for naught. If there were ever proof that Gillard wasn't dispatched for her performance, this election campaign is it. Other than co-opting her signature ideas on education, disability care and other issues, Abbott and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have offered nothing new or insightful to voters.

Rudd dispatched Gillard in a party coup three years after she had done the same to him. He claimed revenge wasn't driving him, but audacious ideas about accelerating growth, raising competitiveness and preparing for the day Australia's mining boom winds down apparently weren't either. After calling elections in hopes of profiting from his personal popularity, what has Rudd offered? Hard-line policies on asylum seekers to pander to the right and small-beer tax policies.

Hardly distinguished

Although he's the favorite, Abbott has hardly distinguished himself, either. Sure, he's against the carbon-emission policies and taxes on excessive mining profits favored by Gillard and Rudd. But he's moved in their direction on a variety of public welfare initiatives. The real problem is that neither man (both are 55) has come up with a plan to redefine Australia's economy and its place in the world. It's cute that Rudd boasts twice as many Twitter followers as Mick Jagger and that Abbott is an amateur boxer, but neither has connected with younger voters.

Abbott seems to think he doesn't need to think big -- that he can just sit back and watch Labor implode amid infighting and scandals, declare the party isn't worthy of governing and, voila!, election landslide. According to polls, this strategy may well work. Rudd's sliding approval numbers must have Gillard supporters drowning in schadenfreude.

But the run-up to Sept. 7 doesn't bode well for Australia's future, especially following a 2010 vote dubbed the "Seinfeld Election," meaning that it was about nothing. Here we are, three years on, and Chinese demand is slackening. Commodity markets are in turmoil. Climate change is intensifying. Dismayed by the complacency he sees in Canberra, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz has warned about a "crisis Down Under."

Stiglitz is particularly worried about "deficit fetishism." The candidates seem obsessed with who's spending a couple of billion dollars more than the other. Yet in a world where red ink is flooding Europe, Japan and the U.S., Australia's national debt is comparatively tame. If government debt peaks at A$370 billion ($330 billion) in April 2016, as expected, it will still only be equivalent to South Korea's currency-reserve holdings. In the global context, that means the ink on Australia's balance sheet is a faint shade of pink.

On the other hand, short-term thinking in Canberra risks shortchanging high-return investments in technology, education, broader Internet access, and a state-of-the-art rail and highway system. Australia needs to make these kinds of investments now if it's ever to develop a growth strategy that doesn't depend on digging stuff out of the ground and shipping it to China.

Heavy lifting

Part of the problem is the legacy of 13 largely wasted years under John Howard (1996-2007) and Rudd (2007-2010) before he returned to power. The heavy lifting done by former Prime Ministers Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and Paul Keating (1991- 1996) turned Australia into a Group of 20 power. It's now the world's 12th biggest economy thanks to their steps to float the dollar, open the financial industry, remove import barriers and create a compulsory national pension program. On the economy, Howard and Rudd simply kept the plane on autopilot.

When Gillard proposed setting a price on carbon emissions, when she wanted to shake up education, spread the mining wealth, empower the nation's indigenous people, and achieve greater gender equality in a "blokey" society, she was leading and reading from the Hawke-Keating script. Rudd and Abbott? Strictly Seinfeld.

William Pesek
William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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