Four sore years

To watch Michaelia Cash hide behind a whiteboard after abusing parliamentary privilege is to know one thing above all else: politics in this country is conducted as if by children. This is not the coward’s castle; it’s a creche.

This week marks four years since The Saturday Paper published its first edition. The paper’s archive is a farce in weekly acts. Tony Abbott’s destructive emptiness stumbles into Malcolm Turnbull’s studied inability to govern. The policies of one play first as tragedy and then, forced on the other, repeat again as tragedy.

The problem with this politics is its childishness. Offices are run by inexperience. Everything is played as a game. These are people who watched The Thick of It not as satire but for instruction.

And so, years go by and nothing happens. The problem with games is they have no real stakes. Buried under a hill in Canberra, our politicians forget what it is they are supposed to do.

Ministers’ offices trade memes and put out novelty press releases. Strategists become caught up in their own cleverness, and forget that it is a country they are running.

And so we have a postal survey to decide what should have been a vote of the parliament. Calls to suicide prevention lines increase, especially from young people. In Canberra, the exercise is a work of factional ingenuity.

We have a constitutional crisis over eligibility, brought on by the negligence of elected members, and it becomes a game of who will refer whom to the high court. We have a deputy prime minister unable to acquit his duties, who never had the competence to deserve them in the first place.

For months at a time, this parliament deals with its own extraordinary deficiencies. Meanwhile, we live in a national stasis.

Hundreds of men, women and children remain in offshore camps, tortured by a regime maintained by both sides. No credible policy exists on climate change or energy. Our welfare system is a shambles, and the government uses this mess to punish the poor.

On tax, we pursue kook theories, as if our treasury advice comes from a chain email. Inequality is stoked liked a rich man’s fire. First Australians are chronically ignored, or shunted to the far side of a history war.

Education is a joke. The reef is dying. Ministers scandalise the courts and seek new and obscene powers. And there is a national debate about whether or not to tip enormous moneys into an economically unsound coalmine whose environmental impact will affect the planet as a whole.

These problems are complex, and this parliament is not equipped to deal with them. It runs on the adrenaline of student politics, as if the House of Representatives is an O Week-themed amusement for a group of men who never grew up. This is government by midlife crisis.

It doesn’t differentiate between the benches, either. Both sides are captured by a Peter Pan failure of imagination. These people do not govern for the real world – they do not even live in it.

After resigning from the parliament in disgrace, Sam Dastyari returned from an absence to complain on Twitter that a BuzzFeed reporter had more followers than him. “This is bullshit Twitter. Bullshit (I’m now allowed to swear).”

Here is a child anxious about his own popularity, who goes behind the bike sheds to tell his friends he knows a rude word. Here also was a rising star of the Australian Labor Party.

Dastyari is rumoured to be writing another book for Melbourne University Press, called On Failure. But Dastyari’s expertise is not failure; it is living without shame. His proficiency is in opportunism, which makes him an exemplar of this parliament, even as he is cast from it. He was raised by knife shop franchisees, entered politics young, and never grew up.

Four years since the first issue of The Saturday Paper, it is near impossible to name a political achievement that is not tainted by cynicism. It is near impossible to look at this parliament and see anything but callow entitlement.

Australia is better than this, of course. That is why this paper exists. It can only be hoped that the politics of this country will be better soon, too. In the meantime, nothing happens while the world irreparably changes.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 3, 2018 as "Four sore years".

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