Opinion

John Hewson
What voters really want

One of the most frustrating features of what we pride as our democracy is how some issues that are crying out for solution, or at least government attention, are so easily left to drift. This unfortunately occurs even in the face of irrefutable and mounting evidence as to the magnitude and urgency of the policy challenge, the resolution of which would clearly be in the national interest.

The average voter might reasonably ask: How can this be? Most voters usually rely on the political system working to the national benefit. Indeed, they take great heart from the fact that the “big issues” will be addressed by the processes of our government. These are the issues that are important to them but that they feel powerless as individuals to do much about. They rely on regular elections where they can select a candidate they feel will work to best address their issues and concerns.

In this they know the election process is contestable. Candidates who stand under the banner of one of the major parties first have to win preselection to represent that party. Then of course they need to win the election in their chosen electorate. They also hope by their performance as members to secure long-term preselection. Those who choose instead to run as independents face contests with other issues – importantly, funding and developing policy positions and generally running against party candidates who tend to be better funded and prepared.

Most candidates would claim their motivation in running is “to make a real difference”. When you read their first speeches to parliament, as I have done for some recently, the “difference” is invariably stated as working in the interests of their constituents, not for their career development or personal financial benefit.

However, there are many slips here between the cup and the lips. A party candidate is under considerable pressure to toe the party line, notionally to preserve unity and consistency of message even if the candidate opposes the party’s position. There is not much room or tolerance for nuance.

Right now, in the run-up to the next election, we have several issues where voters are dismayed by the lack of government leadership and moral compass – namely, women’s safety, Indigenous recognition and disadvantage, climate change and aged care. Indeed, not only has the government deliberately neglected these challenges, in some cases they have taken decisions that have made them worse.

Morrison’s tin-ear response at this week’s women’s safety summit came against the background of his having failed to address accusations of rape, bullying and sexual harassment within the parliament, having closed the Family Court, having in the past been instrumental in cutting emergency financial support to women who suffer domestic violence and, most recently, having failed to fully respond to the Respect @ Work inquiry. In each case he was again seen as lacking genuine concern and empathy. In his keynote to the summit he showed an inadequate grasp of detail and understanding.

The lack of recognition for Indigenous Australians and their disadvantage takes a similar form. Instead of acting, the Morrison government has further disadvantaged First Peoples in its response to Covid-19 and by the inequity of the vaccine rollout.

Similarly, the government has ignored the major recommendations of the aged-care royal commission – it is unmoved in relation to the wages of nurses and other aged-care workers – and is yet to commit to the recommended 10-year reform agenda. Again, the response is no response.

The most difficult policy resistance and intransigence, however, is on climate change. The science is irrefutable. It is widely peer-assessed and agreed by more than 90 per cent of climate scientists. There is very strong and widespread community support for action as revealed in almost every recent poll or survey, by statements made by major industry and civil society groups and many of our key institutions.

But the essential climate change transition to more low-carbon activities and processes is stalled in this country. It has recently been complicated by government commitments to fund new gas-fired power generation and hints of new coal-fired power stations. This comes after decades of denial and misrepresentation on the significance and urgency of the issue and the disruption of the carbon pricing system, which could have been the most cost-effective response to climate. Most recently the government has boasted about emissions reductions achieved during Covid-19, but surely they are not advocating a series of pandemics and resultant recessions to deal with the issue?

Morrison is also under very intense global pressure – especially from the United States, Britain, Europe and China – to shift Australia’s reputation as a climate laggard and do more in terms of both emissions reduction targets and decisive policy action. The costs of inaction in having to deal with natural disasters, bushfires, floods and cyclones has risen rapidly. Economic damages per person in Australia are estimated to be about seven times the global average and the science predicts we will experience more frequent and intense extreme weather events in years to come. There is absolutely no justification for letting the situation drift to the detriment of future generations. In fact, to do so is intergenerational theft. The policy response must be front-end loaded – we simply cannot wait until, say, 2049 and still hope to achieve net zero in 2050.

It is time somebody stood up in the political process and had the courage – on the basis of all this evidence – to call out this issue. Indeed, politics and government in Australia are at an important inflection point.

Voters are crying out for strong leadership on the big issues and for truth, integrity and accountability in government. There has been a massive loss of confidence, trust and belief in our politicians and in government processes in recent years. It is unfortunate that a significant number of backbenchers and frontbenchers, in both major parties, aren’t prepared to stand up on the issue of climate. It is, after all, what they would claim that they were elected to do – make “a real difference” in the national interest. Voters will recall the personal commitments they made in seeking office about how they would use their skills and experience to improve government.

In the run-up to the next election, an active backbench, one that was doing more than just keeping the leather warm, could insist that Zali Steggall’s climate bill be brought on for debate and a conscience vote. It has never been easy for backbenchers to make this sort of “in principle” stand. In years past, it would have been considered “gross disloyalty” to both the leadership and the party; however, some key politicians of the past defined themselves by their threats and actions to “cross the floor” and were seen to have a strength of character on important, mostly moral, issues.

It need not just be in the national interest, either. The real risk of letting action on climate change drift further is that a significant number of strong individuals may run as independents in a number of key seats, exclusively on the climate issue, pushing hard for more integrity in government. Morrison would do well to recall the Wentworth byelection, where a strong independent in Kerryn Phelps ran on climate change and took the blue-ribbon seat with an amazing swing.

There are several movements under way that will see a significant number of independents challenging key seats held by both major parties at the next election. Voters are looking for politicians with conviction and purpose rather than drones who are just there for the perks of politics, whatever they might be.

Don’t get me wrong: these are not easy decisions for sitting members to make. I recall in my own preselection I went to great lengths to clarify my motivations. I said that while I was proud to be a member of the Liberal Party, I was an Australian first, and that if I disagreed with the party’s position on particular issues because I considered it against the national interest, I would work hard to change those positions.

It has been a pleasing feature of our politics in recent years that a number of independents have been successfully elected to parliament and have made a significant mark. The likes of Cathy McGowan, Helen Haines, Rebekha Sharkie, Andrew Wilkie and others have proved this point. It is not inconceivable that strong independents could hold the “balance of power” or the “power of the balance” after the next federal election – which could, or should, be a climate change election within a broader thrust for integrity and accountability in government.

It is not an unreasonable expectation of voters that the people they elect to represent their interests should do so – and should be held accountable accordingly. Politics should be a constant contest of ideas, not about picking a team and backing it, right or wrong.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 11, 2021 as "Backbench presses".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.