Opinion

Rob Oakeshott
The case for a bipartisan accord on reform

I first see Malcolm Turnbull’s words on my phone: “There’s never been a more exciting time to be Australian.” I am travelling to Myanmar to work on elections there. It is a 22-hour trip, with four poorly connecting flights, each a small reminder of how disengaged the country has been for the past 50 years.

I finally arrive to hear the introductory remarks from a special United Nations envoy from Belgium. “These,” she says, “are genuinely exciting times in Myanmar.”

There is no escaping the “new black” of global politics: “exciting times” is where it’s at.

The use of the term sets up an obvious juxtaposition for us. Myanmar – ridiculously poor, corrupt and ethnically complex – is currently transitioning peacefully from long-term military rule to an open democracy. A 20-year freedom struggle by new cabinet minister Daw Aung San Suu Kyi led to a strong belief within the people that the ballot box will beat the bullets. So far, it has. That’s not only exciting; it is truly historic.

Elections at the end of last year saw a clean sweep of the old guard. Almost 90 per cent of MPs are new. Now, the country is abuzz with political opportunity for progressive reform. The big, hard questions of constitutional reform are being discussed. A peace accord among some of the oldest rebel groups on the planet is nearly finalised. And Myanmar is reaching out to the international community, and sincere in its desire to engage. These progressive moves emphasise how valuable free elections are for all of us.

By comparison, back here in Australia, that freedom is a given, thankfully. For us, the politics has advanced to a more nuanced place, but one that places restrictions on the imagination of candidates and parties, thanks to concepts such as donors and factions and opposition attacks.

The problem is, to survive, even our prime minister has to divorce himself from his own progressive views, and his progressive electorate. That’s the cruel reality of having to appeal to an arch-conservative Liberal and National faction of about 25 MPs, who can take credit for destroying Rudd, Gillard and even Abbott, and are now doing a good job on Turnbull, through constant and often unrealistic demands and campaigns. Not just on climate change and the national broadband network, but section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, Safe Schools, and the agenda of key third parties such as the Institute of Public Affairs. Turnbull may like to position himself as some sort of free bird, but he knows he is trapped – the price of higher office was flying into the cage of the arch-conservatives within his own party.

This trap was on full display while I was travelling in Asia, where I noticed a report that the northern hemisphere tipped over the marker of 2 degrees Celsius above “normal”. This was to be one of the key markers of global political failure on climate change. But did our prime minister – who I purposely sat next to in 2009 as a show of support when he crossed the floor on carbon pricing – say anything? Not that I heard. Six years ago he would have led the commentary and the conversation within the community, and rightly so. Now the space is vacated. Since taking the top office, the only noise I’ve heard from him on this topic is crickets. It’s an exciting time for crickets, I guess.

I spent three years as a parliamentary neighbour to the now prime minister. We would often visit each other and talk. He was the perfect host and guest, but beyond pleasantries, I did get the real sense he understood that progressive reform is what builds exciting times. I always felt Malcolm Turnbull was more about doing something, than being someone. Heck, he didn’t need the bucks – so why play the game unless with the intent to reform?

Sure, the commercialised nature of modern politics makes key donors an increasing driver of our privatised democracy, with citizens too often coming second. Yes, reform takes courage, compromise, perseverance and risk. But why else be involved in public life, if not to pursue something big?

How is it that an underdeveloped country such as Myanmar can embrace progress, and reap the benefits, but Australia hides behind some cultural cringe called conservatism? Have those with power become so disconnected they don’t see the real damage from reform inertia?

I know both Turnbull and Bill Shorten. For my sins, I have been locked in rooms with both of them with minders running around the sides. From this inside view, I can report they are both good men. One is a skilled debater; the other, a skilled negotiator.

Why could they not reach out across the divide? There is nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping Turnbull and Shorten from meeting in private pre-election and agreeing to work together on a list of issues to be brought to the coming parliament, regardless of who wins.

An accord-like process could identify policy directions on which the major parties will not resort to cynical point-scoring during the election campaign, and will collaborate on in parliament for legislative reform.

Consider tax reform. Both major parties have tried and failed to go it alone on comprehensive tax reform. Labor didn’t, or couldn’t, progress the Henry tax review. Tony Abbott floated the GST rise and it flopped. Now Turnbull is pondering states’ income taxing powers. It will pop as another thought bubble. What we’re ending up with is a nasty “Chicken Little” election debate on small changes to housing tax and superannuation. Despite expenditure being identified as the problem by the “treasurer-for-2GB”, it shows the power of lobbying, of donors, and of adversarial politics, that kicking his opponents into the long grass takes precedence over actually doing something on either of these two issues.

Housing tax expenditure is the major tax expenditure of Treasury. Last time I looked, it was about $40 billion a year of taxpayers’ money that is transferred from the public purse to private income as a housing subsidy. It is just one of many tax expenditures that, in its current form, doesn’t pass the 21st-century test for Australia.

And this isn’t some airy-fairy university debate on tax. There are real reasons reform is urgent. It is to the shame of all of us who have been in parliament that concentrated disadvantage continues. Look at any demographic map, and you see the same locations time and time again as the sites of greatest disadvantage, too often at Third World standards. It is these people in these locations who miss out most from the same old infatuation with conservative nothingness.

So I plead to the good natures of both the prime minister and opposition leader – is there no room for reaching out on a sensible joint tax accord that ends this destructive madness on tax? Can you not stop the pointless rock-throwing and determine a tax package that will be progressed in the 45th parliament, regardless of the election result?

Likewise, on same-sex marriage, which simply demands bipartisan agency. No referendum or plebiscite required. While Freud would have a field day analysing some of the political positions taken against such a move, the reality is it means a lot to a lot of people. The least-harm principle. Malcolm and Bill, let’s do it, and let’s celebrate together when it’s done. Yes, even you can dance, George Christensen MP.

In the same co-operative spirit, why don’t we look at our constitution? Some parts are strong, but it shouldn’t be romanticised too much. A small group of white men on a Hawkesbury River boat-trip did a good job of drafting it, but it was written at a time of exclusion, not inclusion. Women had no voice. First Australians had the legal status of flora and fauna.

Malcolm, Bill, you must agree that the head of state issue is a hangover from times past. If we are an independent nation, then Australian citizenship should be a prerequisite of all office-holders. And if now is not the time to hit the “go” button on a path to an Australian republic, then when?

Consider also restorative justice for all Australians. The expert panel on Indigenous recognition gave the government a road map for reform about five years ago. The response has been minimal at best. Malcolm, Bill, why so slow? At least you could release an agreed referendum question to the people some time soon, preferably pre-election.

And gentlemen, please – you are both good men, you both understand the importance of international relationships for Australia, so could you reach some pre-election agreement that drops the “dog-whistle” xenophobia, the anti-United Nations, United States-style scepticism? Sure, the UN is not perfect; but we are a better and safer world with it rather than without it. As lifters not leaners, Australia should be front and centre in such global networks. For negotiations on global climate strategies. On the movement of stateless people throughout the Asia-Pacific region. On the illegal movement of money, drugs and weapons. On the great challenge of political corruption within our region. On sexual and reproductive health and the empowerment of women and girls. On nutritional food and good soil. On safe, clean water. All of these have a sovereign benefit through our global partnerships.

Yet sneering at the world to win a vote has become the new normal in Australia. It is bad for business, and bad for the soul of the nation. Like asbestos, the sneer is easy to stir up and very hard to settle down. Pauline Hanson and Tony Abbott both used it with great effect. Now, however, it is a luxury we can’t afford. For one, let’s hope Senator Cory Bernardi comes back from Geneva a different man.

Back in Port Macquarie, taking a swim in the ocean in without doubt the best country in the world, I can’t help but worry. I worry that politics is failing my four children and their friends. I worry that their standard of living will, for the first time in Australian history, fall below that enjoyed by their parents and grandparents. That is not the way it should be. What is worse is I am angry that today’s grown-ups can see this reality, but no one seems capable, or caring enough, to fix it.

Instead, we get patronising comments about excitement and very little necessary reform for the nation. Passive-aggressive trench warfare along party lines is everywhere.

If the major party political leaders can’t re-imagine Australian politics, then somehow, somewhere, the Australian ballot box needs to do it. Our history is built on progress, not on the “do-nothing” bitchiness into which conservatism has morphed, and which is strangling our latest prime minister.

As Myanmar is showing, there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting a clean sweep through ineffective parliaments. By placing a great value on your vote, you make it count. In the end, it’s all we’ve got if we want Australia to progress again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 2, 2016 as "Moment of truce". Subscribe here.

Rob Oakeshott
was a member of state and federal parliament for 17 years. He is the author of The Independent Member for Lyne.