The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What’s wrong with Australia’s elections? I blame the Americans.

Australian incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison and opposition leader Anthony Albanese debate ahead of the 2022 federal election, in Sydney on May 8. (James Brickwood/Pool via Reuters)
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I blame the Americans.

Back in 1992, somebody asked then-candidate Bill Clinton if he knew, among other things, the price of “a pound of hamburger.” As it happened, Clinton was able to supply the answer — “a little over a dollar,” he said — but the “gotcha” question became a staple of political journalism around the world.

Witness the current Australian election campaign. In the run-up to the vote on May 21, candidates have become contestants in a daily quiz show, with Australian journalists the anchors.

Even before the election was called, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quizzed over the price of bread and petrol. He confessed ignorance, saying he wouldn’t “pretend to you that I go out each day and I buy a loaf of bread and I buy a liter of milk.”

One of his ministers, perhaps less than helpfully, noted it was the prime minister’s wife, Jen, who would be able to “rattle off all the prices of all the things they buy.”

Next to fall was the opposition leader, Labor’s Anthony Albanese, who, if you believe the polls, is on a knife edge to become Australia’s next leader.

On the first day of the campaign, Albanese was asked to name the current unemployment rate. He attempted two unconvincing stabs at an answer, before confessing he could not bring the figure to mind.

It was a bad stumble over a key economic indicator, and, with blood in the water, the media pack was hungry for more.

Journalists moved on to the Greens leader Adam Bandt, who was asked whether he could name the “WPI” — an obscure acronym for the Wage Price Index, a measure of changes in the price of labor. Bandt, marvelously in my view, refused to play ball, tersely telling the journalist: “Google it, mate.”

Undeterred by this setback, reporters set a fresh puzzle for the Labor leader. Albanese, after all, was unwilling to call them out. He had also just recovered from a mid-campaign bout of covid-19.

So, one asked, could Albanese list his party’s six-point plan to reform the system that funds disability care — the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

Labor’s six-point plan was, in truth, a wordy jumble of flabby slogans that would challenge anyone other than an entrant in the World Memory Championships.

The six points were: “Labor will revitalize the National Disability Insurance Agency,” “stop the waste,” “boost efficiency,” “stop the unfair cuts,” “fixing regional access,” and “put people back into the NDIS.”

Albanese’s summary of the policy — “what we will do is put people at the center of the NDIS” — was described as a “gaffe,” in that he couldn’t list the other five points. The “story” was heavily featured in newspapers controlled by Rupert Murdoch — which in Australia means the majority of what people read.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, for example, viewed it as another major failure of memory. The NDIS acronym became, in the Telegraph’s front-page splash: “Not a Damn Idea, Sorry,” the initial letters printed in red.

Some seasoned Australian political reporters say they are dispirited about the country’s decent into quiz-question journalism.

They have a point. It’s not as if the country is lacking in major issues to discuss. One of Australia’s nearest neighbors in the Pacific, the Solomon Islands, has signed a defense deal with Beijing that has alarmed defense experts in both Canberra and Washington.

Inflation has spiked to its highest level in more than 20 years, while wage growth — remember the WPI? — remains sluggish. In real terms, Australians are suffering a wage cut of close to 3 percent in 2022.

Some believe the government — a coalition of the conservative Liberal Party and the regional-focused National Party — has failed to address issues ranging from respect for women to climate change. The government responds by pointing to Labor’s prior cuts to defense spending and what it claims is Labor’s poor record on economic management.

Yet, despite the clear desire to talk about the big issues, the quiz questions keep coming.

Legend has it that John Button, Australia’s industry minister from 1983 to 1993, used to tease reporters by noting they began their careers on police rounds — chasing ambulances and police cars — and still thought the only good story is an accident.

I’ve heard the quote often, though I can’t find a record of when and where he said it. Apocryphal or not, it seems to sum up the current Australian election campaign.

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