10% of voters may determine who finishes first in the federal election.

Barry Cohen The Australian April 12, 2010

Closing the gap Image: AIATSIS

With the Tasmanian election finally resolved, the South Australian elections fading from memory and the great health debate a narrow win for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, we can concentrate our minds on the forthcoming federal election.

If Rudd falters, John Brumby will romp home in Victoria, which is why I expect he will be the last to go to the polls this year. Once the budget is brought down we will be in full election mode.

I'm constantly asked, as if I had some special insight, who will win? Labor is firm favourite but no one is putting their house on it. As I predicted, Tony Abbott is proving a formidable opponent but I do wish he would do away with the budgie-smugglers. He's giving half the population an inferiority complex and winning the hearts, if not the minds, of the other half. I'll be glad when winter comes.

Now to the issues. You don't need to be a political scientist to discern that health, education, climate change, asylum-seekers and the economy will dominate the campaign. The economy will be a big plus for Labor whether one agrees with the methods used to stimulate it or not. It staved off a recession and kept unemployment low. These issues will determine the vote of 90 per cent of the electorate.

What is being ignored is a swag of secondary issues that, while not making headlines, could decide how the other 10 per cent of votes. Ten per cent is more than enough to decide the winner. It's a long list, that includes my personal prejudices.

Let's start with superannuation. A long overdue initiative, introduced by Paul Keating in 1992, it is beyond belief that since then zillions of dollars of worker's savings have been handed over to super funds set up by banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions, enabling them to play the markets while taking huge commissions whether they were successful or not. The Sydney Morning Herald reported recently that the "for profit" superannuation companies had gouged $42 billion from the funds, costing the average contributor $80,000, for financial advice, most of which was useless.

What surprises is the issue appears to have been ignored by parliament. An exception to that is the excellent work by Queensland government MP Bernie Ripoll and his committee. If ever there was an area crying out for reform it is superannuation.

What looked like the big election sleeper, immigration-population, and that excludes asylum-seekers, has now become a major issue. A lot of people, already concerned about the overcrowding of our cities, were stunned to hear the PM announce that he favoured a "big Australia" and that Australia's population, already 22 million, will rise to 36 million by 2050.

The prospect of Sydney and Melbourne topping seven million each has horrified large numbers of Australians already suffering from the inadequacy of our health, education, road and rail infrastructure and the spiralling cost of housing.

Government MPs are asking when near doubling of the population became ALP policy while Coalition MPs have been strangely silent on the subject. Both parties appear nervous about questioning any increase in immigration for fear of being called racists by the ethnic lobby. This apparent indifference has spawned a new political party with a policy of stabilising the flow of immigrants while having a national inquiry to determine the Australia's optimum population. The issue is not who comes but how many, and what happens when we reach 36 million?

Rudd's wise decision to appoint Tony Burke as Minister for Population is a recognition of the widespread concern in the community

While on the subject of growth every opposition in living memory has railed against the endless growth of the bureaucracy while promising to rein in the bureaucrats and the red tape they spawn. When elected they do the opposite. The party that promises a permanent red tape inquiry to dramatically reduce the bureaucracy will win lots of support, particularly with those who have had the dubious pleasure of dealing with CentreLink and the like.

Aborigines constitute about 2 per cent of our population and about 90 per cent of our underprivileged. They aren't a large voting bloc but they can influence the result in a handful of seats. However, there are millions of non-aboriginal Australians who feel passionately about the treatment of the first Australians and those votes will influence the federal result.

The Liberals, having given us Neville Bonner, have just endorsed an Aboriginal candidate, Ken Wyatt, for the marginal West Australian seat of Hasluck. This will embarrass Labor, which prides itself on being the Aborigines' champion but has yet to endorse an Aborigine for a winnable seat in the federal parliament in the 110 years since Federation.

Which brings me to my major obsession, the manner in which a small elite have arrogated to themselves the right to select Labor candidates without recourse to rank-and-file ballots.

Why the Labor Party ignores the American primary system is a mystery. Americans recognised, many years ago, that a genuine democracy only exists if the voters not only choose between Republicans and Democrats but also choose the candidates.

Until recently, all political parties in Australia had preselections to pick their candidates.

Granted, it was a restricted franchise, but at least candidates weren't the personal choice of Tammany Hall bosses. That has changed, particularly in the Labor Party, where party hacks, whose sole qualifications are that they will do their bosses' bidding, are given safe seats.

Things are better in the Coalition parties, with the Nationals taking the step of having a "primary" in a NSW state seat.

Nothing would energise the public more and improve the quality of our representatives than introducing the primary system to our democratic process.

I've barely touched on the many issues that interest vast numbers of voters.

But it will be the party that can cobble together a coalition of those interested in these secondary issues that will have the best chance of winning the next election.

Barry Cohen was a minister in the Hawke government.