Enter the void

Australia rests gently on the precipice of farce. It has done so for some time.

Our democracy never recovered from Kevin Rudd’s second, brief stint as prime minister. In those two months, the office became a triumph of venality.

When Rudd lost the leadership to Julia Gillard three years earlier, he did so because he was unable to continue governing. His office was in chaos. The flaws in his character were tearing apart his government.

When he challenged Gillard in 2012, unsuccessfully, he did so for no reason but self-interest. When he challenged again in 2013, that self-interest aligned with the party’s. Nowhere was there concern for the nation or the office or the people he was supposed to represent.

In the politics that has followed, the one constant has been instability. The policy achievements of the past five years have been negligible. It has proved impossible to govern in this broken system.

Then, as now, the mess is helped along by a bored and restless media, made cynical by its loss of power and emboldened by old structures that haven’t noticed it is gone. Witless figures such as Ray Hadley thrill at the thought of influence, and aged ones such as Alan Jones glory at the thought of revenge. As is tradition, the tabloids sell out their readers to the status quo.

On Thursday, Malcolm Turnbull said Australians were “rightly appalled by what they’re witnessing in their nation’s parliament today and in the course of this week”. He described a campaign to “bully and intimidate” parliamentary colleagues and “pull the party further to the right”. He described the situation as a “madness”.

All this is true, and all of it his fault. He is no better than the parliament he is in. Nor is Bill Shorten. Both are beneficiaries of the same hungry-handed avarice, the same opportunism and disregard, the same plotting and counterplotting, the same hubris and lost purpose.

Meanwhile, a child sets herself alight on Nauru, trapped in a system this parliament built. The country coasts towards oblivion with no credible policy on climate change. The public school system atrophies. The health system struggles on, underfunded.

A reckoning is coming, but not of the kind we have seen this week. An election will not fix this, either. The whole system of preselection is broken and it has given us the parliament of hucksters and also-rans through which we now suffer.

It is not that the system fails to attract talent; it is that it seems to preclude it. If anything is to change, people from outside the machine need to run for parliament. People reading this need to run for parliament, people without patronage or preening expectation.

People need to stand not out of self-interest but out of concern for the country in which they live. Our politics can no longer survive its own emptiness. It has created a vacuum, a kind of two-party void.

Perhaps it is true that a nation gets the government it deserves. But surely no nation deserves this.


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 25, 2018 as "Enter the void".

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