While the major parties play the traditional, convenient, presidential-style blame games, and the media placidly comply, a growing number in the electorate are clamouring for politics to be done differently. Old stuff is not working for them. They have put up with a decade of policy inertia, ranging from climate change and integrity to broadband and the Uluru statement. These voters want a new way of determining the future for their descendants.
Nearly 40 per cent of the population no longer favour either party in their voting intentions, tending towards independents and smaller parties. Traditionally safe Liberal seats are at risk of falling to community-based “Voices” candidates, deserting a party ruled by religious fanatics, rorters and rooters.
The fringe city suburbs, normally held by Labor, are being duchessed by the Liberals, who are making appeals to personal greed and bigotry, hoping to drag some seats away from Labor. On the basis of the published polls, Labor is positioned to win the election. But this is by no means a certainty.
Even though our economy is struggling under a massive debt, and deficits are forecast for decades ahead, neither major party is proposing any real change or fresh initiatives. Instead they rely on dogma and the blind faith that productivity increases will cure all ailments or the resource sector will maintain our standard of living, even though we want to go to war with our major trading partner.
Productivity has not increased in recent years and is unlikely to lift the capacity of either major party to address debt and stagnant wages. The current policy mix suggests lowering unemployment is the road to increasing the standard of living, incomplete as that is.
The Liberals are stalled where Tony Abbott parked them in 2010, preferring culture wars rather than forward-thinking policy that addresses future challenges. Labor, meanwhile, has ditched its reforms to negative gearing, capital gains tax and franking credits – issues most economists would suggest are going to have to be addressed at some stage.
Trust is at an all-time low. The prime minister is a master of lying, dog-whistling and division. On top of this is a media dominated by a few owners, with outlets that are little more than propaganda machines under the guise of independent thought.
We have inertia because we have arrived at the era of personal greed and the major parties feel obliged to pander to that greed. The test of this election isn’t whether Labor or the Liberals can outscore each other; it is a test of each and every Australian as to whether they care about the future of our democracy and political institutions, whether they care about the world our old people die in and our young people will live in, or if they care only about themselves and the rorts and indulgences politicians promise them.
The phrase of the year was coined by the independent candidate for Goldstein in Melbourne, Zoe Daniel, speaking about the need for climate action – although it could equally apply to the need for all of us to become involved in shaping our political world: “If not us, who? If not now, when?”
My old catchphrase – “the world is run by those who turn up” – also applies. The communities behind the community-based independents are a classic example of how politics at the local level can be done differently.
The leader of the Australian Greens, Adam Bandt, made a telling comment last week when he responded with some perspective to a journalist’s gotcha question: “Google it, mate.” Albert Einstein is said to have made a similar remark when asked if he knew the speed of sound: “I don’t carry such information in my mind, but it is readily available in textbooks.”
These two statements, made 90 years apart, are a reminder of how facile the world can sometimes be. They point to the same thing: that greatness is not on the other side of a pop quiz, that true intelligence is to be found where someone bothers to interrogate and really think about the information in front of them.
There is potentially unlimited access to information but our leaders are finding more and more ways to hide the operations of government and to keep pertinent information away from the community. The tendency of the Morrison government to ignore the readily available global scientific knowledge on climate change – and Scott Morrison’s penchant for hiding or misrepresenting the information, his keenness to lie on this and many, many other issues – has become a trademark of his time in office.
Integrity and climate change will be the key issues at this election. Integrity is the key to a flourishing democracy, and dealing with climate change will shape the future for unborn generations. The job prospects for Richard Marles may be the big issue for some journalists but they won’t rate in the clouds of history. Climate change above all will.
Jane Caro, a New South Wales senate candidate, said it best in a recent tweet: “Integrity matters. If we re-elect this government after all they have done and, as importantly, not done, we are telling them and every subsequent government integrity and honesty do not matter.”
Fellow senate candidates David Pocock in the ACT, Susan Benedyka in Victoria and Rex Patrick in South Australia have made similar comments. The independent candidates in virtually all of the states are shouting loudly that they want a federal integrity commission with teeth. The prime minister has taken a great risk, verging on stupidity, by essentially ruling out any meaningful investigative body.
Labor has indicated it will present legislation that has real teeth with retrospective powers and no special deals for politicians, but independent Helen Haines is the only MP to actually introduce meaningful legislation.
Then there is climate change. The deal between the Liberals and Barnaby Joyce to do nothing to combat rising temperatures is unravelling. Constituents in inner electorates are flocking to support excellent representatives rather than being taken for granted by do-nothing seat-fillers. Slogans such as “Same is not safe” are catching on.
In the seat of Kooyong, for example, polling indicates that independent Monique Ryan has pegged Josh Frydenberg’s primary vote to under 40 per cent, which means he could be in big trouble.
The irony in all of this is that the people the National Party purports to represent – the farmers – may in fact be saved by the very people Joyce constantly condemns as inner-city “latte drinkers” whose “burning flesh” he could smell during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. If there is to be action on climate change, it will be forced by the independents running in these city seats – and that action will be necessary for every farmer in the country to have a future. Certainly Joyce will not be giving it to them.
The hoary claim that Australia contributes only a small portion of global emissions and so shouldn’t bother taking action is simplistic – which is probably part of its appeal to Joyce and his cronies. A continual flow of scientific research indicates that Australia will be a major victim of extreme weather events such as have been experienced in recent years. Agriculture in particular will be in the firing line with some marginal areas drowning from the cost of doing business. Moree in northern New South Wales and much of the north-west of the state experienced 55 consecutive days where the maximum temperature was above 35 degrees Celsius in 2017. Plants can’t thrive in an environment where there is no break from constant heat. Moree is one of the best cropping areas in Australia.
This is the true cost of doing nothing. And that is before you get to the more obvious extreme weather events that destroy people’s lives and livelihoods. Still, the Morrison government is promising nothing and doing less. This is the “deal” Barnaby Joyce won for farmers.
Australian politics should not be bogged in a time warp of short-term political advantage. We cannot afford a second decade of inertia. We should be leading the action on renewables if for no other reason than the fact our country will be the greatest victim of the change in weather systems.
Another example of the inertia of the current government is the recent move by China into Solomon Islands. It indicates once again the lack of forethought in relation to foreign affairs. Since the Alexander Downer days, when Pauline Hanson dictated foreign policy, we have treated the population of the Pacific as if they are second-class citizens.
The list is long: the treatment of Timor-Leste, bugging their discussions and stealing their resources; the cruel small talk between Peter Dutton and Tony Abbott, joking about raising sea levels in Port Moresby; the mistreatment of Papua New Guinea and the condescending way in which we treat Indonesia. All of this points to an inward-looking Australia and lack of leadership on
the global stage. And now we wonder why the Solomons would want to talk to China?
Leadership should be about connecting the dots in such a way as to provide guidance for a safe and better future. It is not about using other nations and races as pawns in
a domestic political joust.
So what would be the result of doing politics differently? Perhaps there is a clue in the document our founding fathers put together. The Australian constitution makes no mention of political parties. It only mentions elected representatives from a diversity of electorates.
Wouldn’t it be odd if we all voted in our electorates and the successful representatives went off to Canberra to run the country? It can be done. It’s up to us to vote for it. So take the chance; it can’t get any worse.
Tony Windsor is on the advisory council for Climate 200.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Rorters, rooters and the country’s lost decade".
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