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Former federal politician Fred Chaney on why politicians gave up on tackling our greatest challenges.

The Vote: Confessions of a former Liberal politician

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What happens when the cause you’ve dedicated your life to, turns into something you can no longer support?

That’s the question Fred Chaney, the former deputy leader of the Liberal Party, has had to confront this election.

Now, he’s hoping people like his niece, who is running as an Independent in Western Australia, can teach the major parties a lesson.

Today, former federal politician Fred Chaney on why politicians gave up on tackling our greatest challenges.

Guest: Former deputy leader of the Liberal Party, Fred Chaney.

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media and 7am, I’m Ruby Jones, and this is The Vote

 

What happens when the cause you’ve dedicated your life to, turns into something that you can no longer support?

 

That’s the question Fred Chaney, the former deputy leader of the Liberal Party, has had to confront this election.

 

And now, he’s hoping people like his niece, who is running as an Independent in Western Australia, can teach the major parties a lesson.

 

Today, former federal politician Fred Chaney on why politicians gave up on tackling our greatest challenges.

 

It’s Wednesday May 18. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

 

RUBY:
Fred, you've been in politics for almost two decades, I believe. So what’s your assessment of the state of politics in Australia - and more specifically, the Liberal Party, right now? 

 

FRED:
Well, I should say I've been out of politics for more than 25 years. So since then, I've had much less confidence in the leadership. What we've seen over the last ten years and more is a lot of a bit of a revolving door of leaders. We've seen a focus on politics rather than on good policy. But I think also at times I've been absolutely shocked by things that the party has been prepared to do. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. And so, as you say, you've been out of politics for a long time now, but you were the deputy leader of the Liberal Party in the late eighties. And I just wonder when you think to that time, how does that era of politics compare to what we're seeing now when we when we're talking about the substance of policies and the visions that are being put forward? 

 

FRED:
It was actually quite an important time in Australian politics because the thing about the 1980s was that that was a time of change. That was when we moved to a more open economy and that was something that was done with an enormous struggle. 

It was difficult. It was politically difficult. It to some extent split the Liberal Party and split the nation. And it was a time of genuine political debate.

 

On the social policy front however, it was a quite constructive period and I like to remember that very difficult issues could be handled outside the direct party political conflict. 

 

And I particularly think with about 1975, which is, of course, ancient history to most of the people who listen to this.

Archival Tape -- News:
“Then came Remembrance Day, November the 11th, 1975.” 

FRED:
But 1975 was the year that the Gough Whitlam government was dismissed by the Governor-General. 

Archival Tape -- News:
“The Governor-General announced that he was dismissing Mr. Whitlam and appointing Mr. Fraser as caretaker prime minister until a general election decided.”

FRED:
A very contentious matter.

Archival Tape -- News:
“An angry Whitlam responded with a speech on the steps of Parliament House.”

Archival Tape -- Gough Whitlam:
“Well may we say God save the Queen. Because nothing will say the Governor-General.”

FRED:
So it was a time of high political tension. The party of which I was part, the Liberal Party had stopped supply, held up supply until the government was dismissed.

Archival Tape -- Fraser:
“A future in which Liberal government will seek power and authority not for its own ends, but for the service of all Australian people, their freedom and their dignity.”  

 

FRED:
But at the same time in that year we were able to deal with most incredibly difficult issues so that in that year we dealt with racial discrimination and legislated. We dealt with family law and legislated it. We dealt with land rights, a highly contentious issue.

 

And all of these things were done by the Parliament being actively involved and by vigorous, cross-party and intra party debate. And so what I see now is, is a lack of capacity to handle difficult issues in that way, with the Parliament really getting itself involved in a very constructive way.  

 

RUBY:
So do you have much faith in the Liberal party anymore? 

 

FRED:
Well, I think I could maintain faith in the Liberal Party while it was led by John Howard. John and I had our differences at one stage, quite significant differences. But I think while he was Prime Minister, I always felt that he had a feeling for the country. He was he had a genuine concern for governing. Well. He had a deep interest in good government. 

 

RUBY:
And what about Scott Morrison? Do you think he has a deep interest in good government? 

 

FRED:
No, I don't. I think the appellation Scotty from marketing comes into my mind every time I watch him. Now, it just seems to me that he is prepared to say anything that will give immediate political advantage. I mean, take, for example, just take a recent example. He was ridiculing Albanese for the fact that he had a new suit and different glasses. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I'm not pretending to be anyone e lse. We're still wearing the same glasses. Sadly, the same suits.”

FRED:
I'm that person, said the Prime Minister. You know me. I'm always going to be me. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I'm not pretending to be someone else. People they might not agree with everything I've done, but they know what I'm about.”
 

FRED:
A couple of days ago, he suddenly found that the me that we all know wasn't very popular. 

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“And I know Australians know that I can be a bit of a bulldozer.”

FRED:
And he said telling us he's going to change.

Archival Tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I know there are things that are going to have to change with the way I do things.”

FRED:
I think the interesting thing about Scott Morrison is that I think he believes implicitly whatever comes out of his mouth. It doesn't matter if what comes out of his mouth was different from what he was saying yesterday or the day before. I think that leaves me and I think a lot of the electorate with a sense of unease. 

 

RUBY:
Mm. And you said that you were shocked by some things the party has been prepared to do. Can you tell me more about that? What were you shocked by?

 

FRED:
One is the robo scandal. 

 

Archival Tape -- Channel 9 news:
“A judge has slammed the Federal Government's robo debt scheme as a shameful chapter, a massive failure and a huge waste of money.” 

 

FRED:
The Liberal Party is supposedly the party that stands up for the individual. In the Robodebt scandal, you had all of the might of government being pitched against people who are in very vulnerable positions, who are told by the government, you owe us money.

Archival Tape -- Channel 7 news:
“Over four years the scheme issued $1.7 billion in debt notices to more than 430,000 Australians, many of whom didn't owe a cent.”

 

FRED:
It was the most scandalous abuse of individual citizens that I can remember that was ultimately ended not by the political will of the government, not by the intervention of thoughtful parliamentarians, it was ended because the courts found it was illegal. 

 

There were suicides, people who suicided because it was a disgraceful, disgraceful abuse of government power. 

Archival Tape -- Channel 7 news:
“This happened because someone decided to think about numbers over thinking about people.” 

 

FRED:
Now, how can a party that says that it stands for the individual tolerate that? Where were the Liberal parliamentarians that stood up and said, we will not support this? And that's, I think, a really dramatic example of a a failure of principle. 

 

On a continuing basis That disturbed me that things like the couple per park rorts, the sports rorts and all the rest, where there was blatant sort of seeking of party advantage using borrowed or taxpayers money that I found quite offensive. And I think the lack of accountability on this sort of thing is a national disgrace. 

 

What's happened is that the systems got out of kilter. Current approach is what's the answer that the swinging voter will accept? What's the answer that the focus groups will accept? 

 

I got some very good advice from an old colleague, now dead. Jim Carleton When we were working together on policy matters and he said, our job, Fred, is this, our job is to find the right answer. Our second job is to work out how to sell it. 

 

But I think that's what's gone wrong. The emphasis now is on what you think you can sell. 

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back after this. 

 

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RUBY:
Fred, we’ve been talking about the way the major parties operate in Australia, and what you’re saying is a focus on selling rather than a focus on policy, on the real issues facing the country. So I just wonder then - what are those issues, in your opinion? The things you think we need to be addressing? 

 

FRED:
I mean, the really big issues are the I think on the defence front we've got lots of words and announcements and very little actually fighting capacity. And I think there's a, you know, a real problem in our defence procurement.  

 

And the issue of climate change that requires careful long term, not political attention, but government attention.

 

The issue of the place of women in society, including their place in politics. But integrity in politics is the thing that's really made me worry about the political system has been the lack of accountability. 

 

It just seems to me that the system shows an incapacity to deal with complex issues in a way that takes them forward rather than simply papering things over to get to the next election contest. 

 

RUBY:
And you mention the place of women in politics - because that is something that has come up a lot in the last year - the treatment of women. Because your niece Kate Chaney, has decided to run this election - as an Independent in the seat of Curtin. Can you tell me what you said to her when she said that she was thinking about entering politics?

 

FRED:
Well, I should start by saying I have I have a very high regard for my niece. She's the one with whom I engage most often on matters of policy and matters of what sort of society we should have, what sort of country we should have. And, you know, her career, she's been devoted she's devoted attention to that. 

 

And when this question came up of her being approached to run as an independent in the seat of Curtin, my immediate response was, Well, I really don't want you to do that. The reason I didn't want her to do it was because I think politics has become pretty ugly and pretty vicious. And I've seen the way some women politicians have been treated on both sides of the parliament. And I don't want to see someone that I really love subjected to that sort of treatment and behaviour. 

 

However we had long, very long conversations about this and in the end we could totally agree on one thing and that is that the system is not working as it should. The government is not focussed on government, it's too focussed on politics. We both could agree that this could not change unless good people put themselves forward and sought change. And she was clearly quite passionate about her determination to do something for the sake of her family, for the sake of her children. And she had all the right motivation. 

 

In the end. I said, Well, if that's how you feel, I agree with you. Only good people coming forward will change anything and I'll give you my full support. 

 

RUBY:
MM ok. And so your niece is one of many Independents running this election - and I wanted to ask you - when you look at this swathe of Independent Candidates, and the money being raised, the people supporting these campaigns - is this really the best use of people's time and resources, particularly in seats that they're unlikely to win? Or are there better ways to change the system?

 

FRED:
I think to try and change the system from within the major parties is very, very difficult. And I think that's obvious from the point that the so-called liberal moderates have had so much difficulty in having a say, if you like, in the way the party presents and the way the party governs. 

 

I think the great positive thing about the rise of the independents has been that I've never seen such strong community engagement in the electoral process, as I'm seeing today. There's a very different level of individual voter engagement in the process, and I think that has to be very good for democracy. There's a whole group of people who've never had anything to do with politics before, who are now very closely engaged and will, I think, be much more vigilant and engaged citizens than they were before this. 

 

RUBY:
And so do you think that that is the lesson then, that the major parties need to be taking from this moment - that they need to better engage with voters?

 

FRED:
Well, yes, I think it is, but I think the only lesson that they will listen to is the lesson that they have to listen to. I don't expect a spiritual conversion in the major parties to an ideal of governing. Well. I think the only thing that will change the habits and the behaviours of the major parties, if they have to depend upon people who are not part of that party system, people whose primary obligation they see as being to the electorates and to the nation. 

 

RUBY:
Fred, thank you so much for your time. 

 

FRED:
Thank you, Ruby.

 

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RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

Refugee advocate Shane Bazzi has won their appeal overturning a ruling that he defamed Defense minister Peter Dutton. 

 

Last November, the federal court found Bazzi’s tweet labelling Dutton a ‘rape apologist’ defamatroy and had ordered the advocate to pay 35 thousand in damages - but on Tuesday, a full bench of the federal court overturned this decision.

 

**

 

And the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says that if re-elected the federal government will improve the budget's bottom line over the next four years by cutting spending on the public service.

 

Currently, there is an efficiency dividend that reduces the budget of the public service by 1.5 per cent per year, but the Coalition says it plans to increase that to 2 percent for the next three years. The Treasurer said this would raise more than $2 billion in revenue.

 

I’m Ruby Jones, This is 7am, see you tomorrow.

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Fred Chaney was deputy leader of the Liberal Party and served as a minister in the Fraser government.