Independents are the shock the major parties need
The former British prime minister Harold Macmillan may never have said, “Events, my dear boy, events”, in response to the question of what made the job of prime minister difficult or pushed governments off course. Nonetheless, it expresses a truism. Both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese might find the response relevant during this time, as they consider the bumps in the path of their carefully planned election campaigns.
The government set the stage with a budget that trumpeted historically low unemployment and success in getting through the Covid-19 thicket, with cash for welfare recipients and tax bonuses on June 30. They set aside a tidy $20 billion or so of borrowed money to spend during the lead-up to the election. They then campaigned on the basis of superior economic management and a better capacity in foreign affairs.
The budget, like the ensuing campaign, was designed as a fig leaf to hide the serious challenges Australia faces during the term of the next parliament. Every day during this campaign, the electorate is treated to another image of the prime minister welding, making coffee, washing hair, even dispensing drugs. Every image is a distraction from the looming realities the country faces. What the Morrison government wants everyone to forget is the unease in the electorate about the way it has conducted itself, about the way it values marketing over substance and the way it uses borrowed money to buy political support through blatant pork-barrelling.
Labor’s small-target strategy is based on widespread dissatisfaction with the government in general and the prime minister in particular. Anthony Albanese hopes proposals to reform a few areas of obvious government failure, such as aged care and corruption, will be sufficient to carry him into office.
Looking at the offerings of both major parties, their ambition seems no higher than to get through to May 21 with enough seats to win government. Whoever wins will then have to sit down and work out what to do next.
They will also have to face up to some wicked problems including: dealing with the ongoing gap between government income and expenditure; dealing with stagnant wages at a time of high inflation; dealing with inflation itself; giving the armed forces some teeth in the form of actual combat capacity; addressing the need for reform of the tax system; the need for action on climate change, including managing the transition to a low-carbon economy; disaster mitigation and insurance; rescuing a stressed health system; creating affordable childcare; and addressing government accountability and corruption. All will require attention but how these issues will be dealt with is not obvious in the campaigns.
The reality Australia faces is that it has an economy buoyed by huge borrowings and cyclical mining royalties, it has a serious mismatch between income and expenditure, it has stumbled, prevaricated and bickered over climate change through multiple parliaments, it has a defence stance entirely dependent on our great and powerful friend the United States of America, it has a loud voice strategy on foreign policy with no independent capacity to act, it has a need for higher wages but is without plans for the reforms necessary to achieve higher productivity, and it has made pork-barrelling its accepted way of doing politics with no commitment to accountability. Neither major party has the moral authority or the gumption to deal with these issues.
Why is there political incapacity to face our problems and deal with them? The answer relates directly to the loss of faith in the major parties. Neither seems able to define the national interest and set out what we need to do to meet it. Think debt, think submarines and other defence equipment scandals, think climate change, think stagnant wages, think the decline in even the idea of accountability, think the inability to deal with tax reform over decades now. All of these require steadfast commitment to good government rather than a commitment to short-term political advantage. They all need commitment to nation before party, some sort of political motivation beyond advantage, and some level of political morality.
It is in this sorry context of an election campaign designed as a smokescreen for the failure to address long-term issues that the “teal” and other independents are so important and relevant. The major parties are controlled by people who are focused on politics rather than good government. They will not change how they conduct their politics unless the parliament forces them to change. The electorate needs representatives who will reclaim politics for the people rather than for the political class.
Of course, there are good people in the major parties but they are caught in a system that seems incapable of reform from within. The Liberals need the Nationals to have any hope of a majority and hence the hope of governing. Both need the support of the worst of their members or former members – people like Craig Kelly and George Christensen. In the same way, Labor needs Greens preferences to get elected and is unable to escape the tyranny of the faction system. All parties manipulate preselections in a way that undermines democratic choices and destroys party integrity. In Western Australia, the near total wipeout of the Liberal Party in the recent state election is the culmination of decades of anti-democratic branch manipulation by powerbrokers. Parties have become dissociated from the communities they are there to serve.
What the centrist independents offer is a contemporary way to create system change. Political parties will not go away; they are an intrinsic part of our system of parliamentary government. Like any institution, they will be driven by self-interest and the pursuit of power but the electorate has the whip hand if it chooses to use it. If my old party, the Liberal Party, is told by the electorate that its failure to deal with long-term issues such as climate change and government integrity means its candidates will not be supported, the party will change its behaviour because it will have to. Reform requires an external shock and that is what independents represent.
The reason for this is simple. The parties won’t reform themselves otherwise, because to do so requires a commitment to the national good that trumps party interest. But without reform they are doomed to repeat the unacceptable politics of recent parliaments. To paraphrase: without vision the parties will perish. Where are the visionaries in this election campaign?
The near hysterical attacks on these independents reflect how great a challenge this poses to a broken system. Arrogance has seen the idea of governance for the people by the people replaced with governance by the party.
It is a mark of desperation that the funding of independents has become a key attack issue for the government, even as the funding of its campaigns is obscured. The electorate already knows far more about the funding of the teal independents than any other campaigns, and in Curtin, in the campaign that I am supporting, donations are recorded in real time on a public website. It would be a step forward if the major parties and their candidates were as transparent.
As I have recorded elsewhere, I have a personal interest in Curtin but that does not influence my views about the current problems with the system. The independent candidate, Kate Chaney, is my niece. I admire her for her intelligence, her commitment to public interest, her search for better approaches to issues including climate change, social welfare and Aboriginal employment, and her dedication to her family and her community. Because I care about her, I put to her all the negatives about running I could think of, but nothing tested her resolve to act. Social media is a mystery to me but I read of the vicious trolling of women in politics and I hate the thought of what that may involve during her campaign. Yet Kate and I both believe that nothing changes unless people work for change. I know Kate will, and so I support her as a chance to revive an ailing political system.
What we have seen so far confirms all the reservations people have about the way politics is conducted. On every issue, politics trumps substance. Both major parties struggle for points of difference rather than answers. Mind-blowing amounts of money are being promised to buy votes. On April 25 it was reported that with four weeks to go the Coalition had already promised $23 billion to electorates since the budget was handed down in March. The Murdoch press attacks Simon Holmes à Court for having investments in renewables, but there is no addressing the financial interests of Coalition backers and how they might profit from the re-election of the Morrison–Joyce government. The Coalition walked back from its commitment to an integrity commission, hardly surprising from a government so committed to pork-barrelling and with no accountability.
Whichever major party goes into government after May 21, none of the concerns about the conduct of our politics over recent decades will change without an external influence. They will continue to focus on party interest. They will continue to be hostage to party extremes. They will continue to evade scrutiny whenever they can. They will continue to be hostage to interest groups, from business or the trade unions. Only the electorate can change that by supporting centrist independents. This election is not about the shower of benefits being promised over the past few weeks; it is about how we are to be governed for the next three years and beyond.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 14, 2022 as "This is what the major parties need".
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