Opinion

Anne Summers
The dead policy scrolls

It is perhaps easy, given the pitiful state of our federal politics, to forget just how much worse is the state of our policies.

They are connected, of course, those principles and pathways. We need them to frame and guide the way we are governed and the conduct of our representatives, the women and men we elected to govern us.

Yet while the political antics attract all the media coverage, and endless analysis about the parlous state of our politics, in reality it is the lack of policies that should truly alarm us.

It’s not just that we don’t have a climate policy or an energy policy or an immigration policy or a population policy or a water policy. Nor is anyone able to say exactly what is our economic policy. Or our environmental policy. The truth is, there are so many policy deficits in Canberra, it is difficult to know if there are any established, well-based and effective policies still in existence. We might have thought we had a functioning foreign policy until the prime minister unleashed his “Let’s move the embassy to Jerusalem” zinger, apparently oblivious to the way that would ricochet around the Muslim countries of our region and threaten so many long and once valuable relationships.

When we move to other areas, there is nothing to see: what is Australia’s cyber policy, our cultural policy, our digital policy, our income and wages policy, our housing policy, our retirement incomes policy, our welfare policy, our industry policy?

And don’t get me started on women’s policy. Where just 30 years ago we were world leaders in this field, we now have descended to demanding that women victims of domestic violence dip into their superannuation – presupposing they have any – to pay to get themselves and their kids relocated, rehoused, employed and otherwise back on track. Once, governments saw it as their role to assist those dealt brutal hands by our society.

Emerging from the final sitting week of parliament, the government has nothing to show for all the chaos. No energy guarantee, no clarity on medical removals from Nauru and Manus, a barely scrutinised encryption bill experts say should be raising privacy alarms.

In all of this, it is easy to forget just how recently policy and politics became unhitched – if not unhinged – which ought to mean that the rift is not irreparable. Our descent into political anarchy is not, yet, as alarming as the United States’ plunge over the past two years into not so easily reversible perils.

In Australia, we voters increasingly have been asked to vote for nouns, not policies. Since the election of Tony Abbott as prime minister we have been ruled by slogans, preferably those that can be expressed in as few words as possible.

In 2013, voters were asked to choose between Abbott’s “Real change” and Kevin Rudd’s “A new way”. 

In 2016, although the politicians were different, the approach was the same – a choice between the “Strong economy” promised by Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten’s pledge, “We’ll put people first”.

In the intervening years, we’ve been asked to endorse “jobs and growth”, “border protection” and “debt and deficit”. Whatever they may mean.

As voters, we have not endorsed a direction, let alone a set of policies. We voted for these inane strings of words. We did not demand of our leaders that they offer us substance.

As a result, we cannot say what sort of country we are – or want to be.

So, does this make us victims? Or, as voters, are we collaborators?

In truth, we are both. We walked into this. But now it is time to walk away. The big question is, can enough of us repudiate this kind of politics, and demand those we send to Canberra devise responsible policies to guide us through these unsettling and, let’s face it, often scary times?

There are signs the Australian electorate may be ready to do this.

The recent repudiation of the Liberal Party in Longman, Wentworth and Victoria suggests many voters are tired of this state of affairs. They recognise the Liberal Party is no longer able, even if it were willing, to govern. What Australia needs right now is not slogans, not appeals to fear and hatred and resentment, and not trickery and undemocratic deals to save mates’ – though not women’s – preselections. Rather, Australia needs government. And that means having policies on every conceivable issue that affects how we live.

Unless there is urgent action to do this, we will be entering the third decade of the 21st century more directionless and unfocused than we have ever been, at a time when global politics is in chaos. This is not the time to be drifting, hanging on to hope that our (economic) luck will continue to hold.

If it is the case that these feckless and mostly fear-based politics have really taken hold only within the past two federal election cycles, they should not be so difficult to dispense with. Especially as voters now seem able – and willing – to apply the bullshit detector more liberally than they were inclined to in the past.

They should not find it difficult to give Scott Morrison the boot for his faux folksiness and cringe-worthy small “t” Trumpism.

Not so easy to get rid of is the cynical attachment Australian voters have to allowing themselves to be bought at election time. John Howard turned vote-buying into an art form, one that came at huge cost to the federal budget bottom line. He encouraged voters to equate their personal financial wellbeing – which was cushioned with inflated subsidies for almost every conceivable area of their lives – with the national interest.

If Morrison engages in similar pork-barrelling, will we be able to resist?

We can only hope enough of us have come to understand that the jig is up. That the time has come to put the actual national interest – Australia and its collective wellbeing – ahead of our personal fortunes.

Climate change may well turn out to be the trigger for a radical change in our politics.

Exasperated by the failures of successive federal governments to implement a workable climate and energy policy, we have stopped listening to their excuses. People are taking matters into their own hands – installing solar panels at record rates, undertaking their own household emissions audits, changing their consumption habits.

The politics of fear may well be turned on its head as a genuine fear of where the planet is heading replaces the confected fearmongering stew of xenophobia, racism and petty narcissism adopted by so many politicians in the Hanson era.

Instead, when Sir David Attenborough warns that “the collapse of our civilisation ... is on the horizon”, as he did to a United Nations Climate Change Conference last week, we believe him. We are frightened of the consequences of not taking urgent action and taking it now.

We see enough around us – the fires and the floods, the soaring temperatures – to persuade us that it’s time to listen to the experts and to give the sceptics and the deniers the short shrift they deserve.

Can we do the same with the fearmongers on immigration? Scott Morrison recently said in a speech on population that voters in our biggest cities “are saying: enough, enough, enough. The roads are clogged, the buses and trains are full. The schools are taking no more enrolments”.

Rather than announcing an infrastructure program to address these deficits, the prime minister has proposed immigration be cut to historically low levels. He ignores the fact our birth rate is such that we are not replacing ourselves, so we need the migration that currently accounts for 55 per cent of our population growth to maintain our population and meet our skills shortages.

Maybe if we had an immigration policy, a population policy, a skills and employment policy and an infrastructure policy, they would all talk to each other and enable us to address one set of problems without exacerbating others. That’s what governments are supposed to do.

It’s what we once did – and often did pretty well. I suspect more people than you may imagine yearn for those days. Not out of nostalgia – some of us may never have experienced them – but because we want things to work, we want problems to be tackled, not denied, and we want to expand what’s possible for Australia. For all of us.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 15, 2018 as "The dead policy scrolls". Subscribe here.

Anne Summers
is a journalist and author. Her most recent book is a memoir, Unfettered and Alive.