It is sometimes said that the last stage of grief is acceptance. According to people familiar with recent focus group research for one of the major political parties, Australians have begun to manage their disappointment with Malcolm Turnbull. Towards the end of 2017 and in early 2018 voters cut their losses with being angry with the Prime Minister for not being the person they thought he was. It had been a journey, but people had reached the acceptance threshold, declining to waste energy with an eternal ‘why’. They had also noticed a positive uptick in the economy.
This new voter equanimity was disrupted at the start of 2018, when Barnaby Joyce’s private life exploded in the public domain. The grim spectacle that followed—Joyce refusing to quit as Nationals leader and deputy prime minister, a thin-lipped Turnbull trying to blast him out, Joyce digging in and returning fire, pleading for privacy while inviting journalists in to record the circus—disturbed the tranquillity. Anger resurfaced. But the anger dissipated when the bad headlines did. By March, the creeping Zen had returned.
Like many stories about internal party research, this one could be bollocks. It’s possible. But I strongly suspect it isn’t. The insight is consistent with a nascent shift in published opinion polls at the time of writing that suggests the contest between the major parties is narrowing.
For my purposes here I don’t give a toss about the horse race, whether the Coalition has pulled ahead or whether the opposition led by Bill Shorten has peaked. At the best of times, the Canberra game of snakes and ladders—the opinion-poll-fuelled game we all play furiously between elections to break up the monotony of governments sprinkling out their daily increments and battling their chronic unhinging—is a boring story. Right now, frankly, I couldn’t care less.
What draws me to the story is the possibility of a shift in national mood—a new inclination to be sanguine. Is it possible that, rather than being overcome with disappointment, people are beginning to adjust to politics as it now is?
The Guardian Essential poll that I write up religiously each fortnight gave a little hint of this at budget time in May. This year’s budget from Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison was received more positively than the economic statement in 2017, even though that budget, the 2017 opus, was an unsubtle apologia to the voters after the government almost lost the 2016 election.
Turnbull and Morrison obviously want 2018 to work, given the centrepiece is $140 billion worth of personal income tax cuts—more a dump truck worth of dollars than sandwich and milkshake scale largesse—provided of course that people are credulous enough to believe promises of tax relief seven years hence.
But whatever the trigger for positivity, cash or the last stage of grief, sentiment is more positive than it was in 2017. More people thought this year’s budget would be good for them personally. This uptick is off a very low base, but the positive movement is outside the poll’s margin of error, which means there is something to see there rather than the appearance of something.
I understand the cautious shift in sentiment. Anyone reading my work over the past few years will know that I’ve been very uneasy about the profession I cover; not depressed, because sinking into a morass is a professional indulgence I can’t permit myself if I intend to remain at my post, but I’ve been deeply concerned.
In a long essay for Meanjin last year (‘The Political Life is no Life at All’, no. 2, 2017), I tried to document the toxic workplace culture of contemporary politics in the hope it might explain some of the factors sitting behind the dysfunction we all write about constantly, mostly without ever interrogating the root causes. Things seemed so hopeless to me last year I wrote another essay contemplating a politics without professional politicians (‘A Parliament without Politicians?’, Meanjin, no. 4, 2017), which would be a ridiculous thought experiment for me in the normal course of events, but last year it felt entirely sensible.
But this year I’ve not felt quite so hopeless. I’m not jumping for joy at the state of our politics, or feeling like any great corner has been turned. Much of it is still terrible, and if you ask pretty much anyone inside the system, the toxic work environment is as soul-destroying as it was a year ago. Good people are still leaving, and the people staying ask themselves why they persist, given everything seems impossible.
But despite the institutionalised weariness, the whole ecosystem feels marginally less unbearable to me than it did 12 months ago. This feeling has crept up on me, rather like the creeping equanimity of the focus groups. My own creeping positivity is subject to sudden, sharp reversals—but perhaps I too am trying to make my peace with a system that so often disappoints because it is struggling against massive headwinds, trying to put one foot in front of the other, and striving in small acts to defy its very worst inclinations.
Reassurance comes to different people in different ways. For me, two things about contemporary politics reassure. The first is the persistence of policy debate, even if the loathed thought-leading elites have developed something of a cottage industry in decrying the national policy conversation as insipid, piecemeal and hopeless. The second is that politicians who care about policy debate as a proxy for being able to change the country just keep on showing up, and trying.
There are several examples I could draw on, but energy policy seems a reasonable place to start. The energy minister Josh Frydenberg—gifted the portfolio by Malcolm Turnbull in the same spirit as parents once gifted their children cold showers or cod liver oil, in a spirit of resilience building—inherited the disaster of the Coalition’s own making: the repeal of the carbon price Labor introduced during the period of minority government and the ensuing energy policy vacuum that has contributed to rising power prices, rising emissions and grid instability.
Frydenberg not only inherited Tony Abbott’s big policy mess, he also inherited Abbott hanging around on the backbench, working to preserve his own mess in perpetuity, a former prime minister apparently intent on erecting a perpetual shrine to hyper polarisation and political short termism. Every time Frydenberg looked sideways, Abbott was there, doubling down to ensure that his almighty cock-up wasn’t righted by some next-gen upstart with the temerity to invoke the national interest.
So it’s fair to say Frydenberg’s path to resolving the energy policy issue has been complicated internally and difficult conceptually. Because of trenchant internal opposition from Abbott and the new conservative right wing of the Liberal Party—which in this particular policy area eschews market mechanisms in favour of heavy-handed state intervention—the energy minister didn’t have the option of just doing the sensible thing: reviving a carbon price in some shape or form, rebadging it, and pretending the whole ‘axe the tax’ debacle had just been a hallucination.
Frydenberg did try to achieve the obvious for about five minutes at the start, setting up a review with terms of reference favourable to eliciting a recommendation favouring emissions trading in the electricity sector, but that bit of thought criminality was cut off at the pass. So he had to buy time.
Australia’s chief scientist was then given a brief to come up with a policy recommendation for the energy sector to deal with the ‘trilemma’ (a made-up word that sounds so much nicer than abject debacle) of an insecure power grid, rising prices and no roadmap for emissions reductions despite the fact one of Abbott’s last acts as prime minister was signing Australia up to the Paris climate agreement, invoking the ‘she’ll be right’ doctrine.
Alan Finkel, the chief scientist, went through an exhaustive process with all the major stakeholders, lining everyone up behind a new clean energy target—including all the rent-seekers that had lined up with Abbott and tried to run Labor out of office just a couple of years earlier for pursuing the carbon price. Only the Minerals Council of Australia refused to agree.
When it became clear that change was coming, Abbott and his faction revved their jets for another confrontation on the basis that the proposed clean energy target would not help the coal industry, coal not being clean energy—and worse, the Finkel policy would lock in the renewables necessary to help meet the emissions reduction target that he had signed Australia up to.
So Frydenberg had to regroup again, but this time more quietly. The energy minister killed the Finkel recommendation in full public view, handing Abbott and the coal choir the apparent win. Finkel was gracious enough not to explode in public. Abbott went to London to give a speech to climate change sceptics, noting warming was ‘probably doing good’ and comparing policies to reduce the risks to ‘primitive people once killing goats to appease the volcano gods’.
Behind the scenes the government went into overdrive, tasking energy regulators to come up with a workable alternative to Finkel’s CET, and pronto. The national energy guarantee—a brand new policy idea where energy retailers would face new obligations to produce a required amount of dispatchable power and also reduce their greenhouse gas emissions—was cooked up in a matter of weeks.
The new proposal was brought back to the Coalition party room and Frydenberg emerged with an in-principle sign-off despite the objections of Abbott and others. So the moral of the story? Audacity, agility and persistence paid off, at least in round one.
This fight has a long way to go. The policy was heading to the COAG energy council in August for a make-or-break deliberation. If it survives that round, then it will return to the federal parliament for a decisive legislative vote. The NEG isn’t great policy by any stretch, in fact it has serious deficiencies; it’s the sum of its parts and the miserable history preceding it. The Coalition, because some MPs doggedly won’t face the scientific evidence on climate change, has set an emissions reduction target far too low to see Australia meet its obligations under the Paris agreement. But the moral of this story is Frydenberg persisted. If he succeeds, and can persuade Labor to sign on to the policy mechanism on the basis that a future Labor government can scale up the level of ambition in emissions reduction to align with scientific reality, then more than a decade of warfare on climate and energy could be consigned to history. If we get to that breakthrough, that will be no small thing. If we don’t turn a corner, a politician trying to fix a problem is still reassuring.
Ambitious mid-career politicians such as Frydenberg are always weighing up their next move, trying to ensure they don’t trip on the travellator of advancement. In Coalition terms, trying to leverage the next opportunity by sorting out Australia’s energy policy mess is high risk. It could easily blow up in your face. But Frydenberg accepted the risks, knuckled down and did the work. He worked to deliver what’s possible. This is rarer than it should be in contemporary politics.
The energy minister isn’t alone. There are a number of people in frontbench positions on both sides of the chamber who have chosen to prioritise doing their job ahead of pursuing advancement through brutal power plays and B-grade intrigue. Josh Frydenberg is not unique, but the behaviour stands out.
The Frydenberg case study invites us to consider what is happening on the other side of the chamber. He won’t thank me for the comparison, given the circumstances are quite different, but shadow treasurer Chris Bowen has shown similar tenacity and staying power during this period of opposition.
Labor rolled out of the Rudd–Gillard debacle suffering collective post-traumatic stress. I don’t invoke that idea glibly. That era inflicted unmanageable stress on participants who didn’t sign up for public office to fight a civil war, and the after-effects of the leadership conflict could easily have consigned Labor to opposition for a generation if the party had rolled from disaster to a new cycle of perpetual recrimination.
Bowen had been a Rudd supporter and active in all the backroom bloodshed, but he transited into the new phase of opposition with eyes firmly on Labor’s policy agenda as a means of gluing the show back together. Bowen had been treasurer in a Labor government all too briefly. He wanted to get back there. It remains a singular objective for him.
But external events would shape the contours of his contribution. Bowen is a cultural Labor right-winger, a person who regards himself as a disciple of Paul Keating. But he found himself crafting Labor’s economic story at a time when progressive parties around the world were tilting left in response to the global financial crisis and its aftermath.
Bernie Sanders had become a cult figure. Jeremy Corbyn grabbed control of the Labour Party in Britain. Neoliberalism of the type practised by Bob Hawke and Keating in the 1980s and 1990s was not only out of fashion and distinctly off zeitgeist, it was now also openly decried by left-leaning activists around the world. The economic orthodoxy had shifted on its axis and the centre left was redefining its program as a consequence.
A lot of people see contemporary politics as mortal combat between populists and technocrats. Chris Bowen is your archetypal technocrat: intellectual, precise, rational, bloodless.
But the times required something beyond clean, clear argument; they required a response to the prevailing mood. Going after tax concessions used by the wealthy, proposing bold changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, was a boon in revenue terms, but it also spoke to the prevailing political mood, the pent-up frustration among working people facing stagnant wages and rising cost of living pressures, the feeling that the system was stacked against you.
After the world didn’t end when the bold policies were proposed, Bowen pushed on in the same vein, proposing changes to family trusts and to axe cash rebates associated with dividend imputation.
The policies would make the tax system more progressive. Crafting this agenda has helped neutralise pressure from the left of the ALP to be even more aggressive with redistributive policy. Bowen is a centrist, which doesn’t endear him to some colleagues on the left. The cluster of revenue-raising measures has allowed the shadow treasurer to claim (correctly) that Labor has put together the most progressive policy platform in 40 years, and also resist proposals such as a Buffett rule—a minimum rate of tax for the wealthy—and quash a conversation about concepts such as universal basic income.
If left-leaning critics start to get restive, Bowen can point to a host of measures he has already championed during this period of opposition as evidence of his bona fides.
As well as lining Labor up with some of the new progressive thinking, Bowen chased these measures to fill Labor’s coffers so it could continue to spend on social capital, in areas such as health and education, in essence avoiding some of the internal fights that are always prompted by the imperative of expenditure restraint.
Given Labor’s frenetic policymaking and legislating that persisted throughout the nadir of the Rudd–Gillard civil war, it would be silly to say that Bowen is the poster child of a redemption drive by Labor—a deliberate signalling exercise to tell the voters the ALP has now parted ways with intrigue and taken up hard policy work as a public act of atonement. Progressive parties always want to change the world, tempting conservative parties to thwart them.
So while ritualised atonement is clearly a stretch, it is true to say Labor has led the policy debate on a range of fronts during this period of opposition, achieving forward motion during periods when the Coalition has struggled to articulate its own agenda. Showing up, doing the thinking and the empathising, making the public case for changing the status quo has helped to tether the system at times when the whole #auspol apparatus has felt flimsy enough to float and fly away.
Over the last six months of 2017, two things happened. The parliament descended into near farce as the dual citizenship fracas tore through the place, with MPs falling like nine-pins courtesy of the ancestry stories they had failed to interrogate before standing for office—constitutional requirements being for lesser mortals.
The second major dynamic was a group of cross-party MPs formulating a plan, putting their heads down and achieving legalisation of same-sex marriage—a landmark human rights measure. On the day the parliament finally did its job, joy and elation—emotions rumoured be extinct in the 2600 postcode—tore through the place like a tsunami. A memory I will carry with me throughout my reporting life is the sound of political staff clapping and cheering and weeping outside the chamber as their bosses filtered out into the corridors after the yes vote, a great affirmative roar of humanity I’ve never heard in the building before, and perhaps will never hear again.
Cross-party cooperation is a deeply fraught business in the tribal politics of our era. People on the government benches took risks driving the marriage equality issue through to a successful conclusion. They invited retaliation within their own ranks. One factional warlord told me recently a particular person’s preselection was under a cloud because of their voting record during the same-sex marriage debate. Suffice to say that person’s voting record was in line with a majority of Australians.
One of the saddest reflections in a lot of poignant, deeply honest reflections from politicians in my essay last year came from the former Western Australian Liberal MP Mal Washer when he unpacked what had changed in Australian politics once we entered the cycle of leadership coups that began on both sides after 2007.
During the Howard era Washer had collaborated on a lot of cross-party private members business, believing that to be an essential feature of representative democracy. But that working across the aisle culture wasn’t tolerated during the Abbott era, and Washer felt surplus to requirements. ‘When you can’t sit down with your own mob, it’s very bloody difficult,’ the former MP told me in the middle of 2017. ‘I’m a negotiator, not an attacker. I think in politics you’ve got to cut a deal. I found people like me just didn’t fit in.’
In the context of Washer’s reflection, the same-sex marriage vote was a triumph of common sense over the zero sum. With the same-sex marriage issue now settled, another cross-party issue has bubbled up in the federal arena. The architect of it, the Liberal Sussan Ley, has some interesting thoughts about what politicians need to do in order better to connect with their constituencies.
Ley, once the federal health minister, lost her frontbench spot in an expenses scandal. Perhaps that searing experience has taught her that it is important to achieve change how, and when, you can. Despite representing a rural constituency, the Liberal member for Farrer wants to phase out the live sheep trade, believing it to be an industry built on the suffering of animals, with an export chain outside the control of Australian producers.
The Liberal backbencher has not set up her objective as a cross-party effort. Her stated ambition is to shift her own party’s policy on live sheep exports. This ambition is dicey enough, given success would mean the Liberal and National parties had different policies despite governing in coalition.
But private members bills come down to votes on the floor of the chambers of parliament, and she notes that the chambers of the parliament work best when people vote with their consciences. ‘This should be debated,’ she told me in a conversation in late May. ‘It’s a really powerful topic for many people and it’s an important topic for Australia. I think it should be debated and everybody should vote according to how they feel. I’m not calling it a conscience vote, but [at the point the debate comes on] I believe we will see the parliament at its best, as we have with the gay-marriage debate and with other issues I’ve seen over the years.’
Ley says people back at home who disagree with her position on the live sheep trade still connect with her desire to stand up and have her say. ‘If you were to talk to my constituents and they were to hear that I had ever ruled out ever crossing the floor they wouldn’t like that. They want to see you standing for something.’
‘A Liberal Party member said to me recently, “Gosh, Sussan, you’ve almost half convinced me,” he said—he’s a sheep farmer—“but I’m going with you because I can see how much you believe in this and I am going with a politician who has conviction.” I think people want to see that.’
At the time of writing it is hard to predict how Ley’s foray will end, but in an invocation sincere enough to yank you back from the brink of hopelessness, the Liberal says this: ‘I have to keep going on the path that I’ve set. One thing I’ve learned from being in parliament for 17 years is when you believe you need to do something, you must do it, and never take a backward step.’
Just after the May budget, the National Press Club hosted a trio of accomplished economists discussing the implications of the annual Treasury statement. The collective mood about the health of the reform project in Australian politics was downbeat. The offering from Scott Morrison on 7 May was all pretty short term in scope, those income tax cuts, all funded by rubbery budget assumptions. Where was the connective tissue, the considered road map for the future? I have considerable sympathy with this reasoning. Obviously they are correct. I said exactly the same thing on budget night: this was a package for re-election, not a deeply thought out offering revealing the true character of the Turnbull government, or its ambition for the country.
But we miss a couple of important things in this sentimental reform conversation that we often return to in Australia, we dispossessed children of the Hawke–Keating era, deracinated and forever mourning the loss of a golden age where politicians transformed the country by dreaming 20 and 30 years ahead. We miss the fact that this conversation fails to engage the losers of those reforms, and that some voters now associate economic reform with the idea that they will, inevitably, be worse off, left behind or ignored by a tone-deaf political class. We profess confusion when a growing proportion of Australians look for alternatives, and vote for someone other than the major parties, seduced by populists who tell them it is possible to wind back the clock.
In banging on about the desirability of reform in the abstract, we also miss the fact that reform is easy to invoke but hard to achieve in the disrupted environment that politics and the media now operate in. Even if politicians can maintain concentration long enough to map out a vision for the country beyond the next five-minute news cycle, will a society unmoored by technological change, and swamped by hot takes, listen to these big ideas? Will media upended and hollowed out by the digital revolution have the steadiness and the clarity of purpose to explain their implications?
It is easy to see that the most significant weakness of the Turnbull government, apart from its chronic lack of political judgement, has been the absence of a coherent agenda to anchor it. Turnbull is not one to drill down. He is one to have thoughts and move on to the next one, a magpie forever in pursuit of shiny objects, the ideas broker in search of the next patent.
As well as the problem of Turnbull’s serial entrepreneurialism, the Coalition hasn’t done any deep internal work since John Hewson produced Fightback! to try to articulate what it might be about. In the absence of clear markers, the philosophical differences between right-wingers and moderates, and between the conservative and libertarian factions of the Liberal Party right, play out issue by issue.
Now that the Catholic right has migrated to the Liberals as a new-fashioned DLP, and the hard left has migrated to the Greens, Labor is more adept at projecting a set of values that cohere, more or less. For reasons I’ve already canvassed, this putative Shorten government is left of the Hawke–Keating government, and I suspect slightly left of the Rudd–Gillard government, but the broad policy framework—tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners, higher taxes on the wealthy, and an end to concessions, coupled with the traditional spend on health and education and other services—tells you a story about Labor’s collective DNA in 2018, as do the commitments on climate change and social issues such as Indigenous affairs and the desirability of Australia becoming a republic.
Despite the many internal contests and shallow roots of the Coalition of 2018, the Turnbull government does, however, remain capable of projecting a flimsy but more or less coherent world view to voters. The government Malcolm Turnbull leads is about lower taxes, pro-business policies, a focus on economic growth and job creation.
As a federal election approaches later this year or early next, both sides are warming up for a modest battle of ideas as well as the lobotomising personality games that both sides feel obliged to play; leadership by meme: Mr Harbourside Mansion versus UnbelievaBill. Policy is still on the field. Australian politics is still about something. It’s not much, but it’s better than a lot of what we see elsewhere.
I suspect one reason Australian politics doesn’t feel quite as hopeless as it did 12 months ago is the daily comparison we get with truly dire political conditions elsewhere. Every randomly capitalised tweet emanating from the thumbs of US President Donald Trump is like a giant billboard screaming, There but for the grace of God go the rest of us; Avoid this eventuality at all costs, hide somewhere safe with bottled water and canned food and wait it out.
Trump’s ascendancy and the chaos it has unleashed could be funny, but it really isn’t. The country held hostage to Trump’s rolling reality show is a country we used to regard as the leader of the free and democratic world, and these are serious times: the rise of China, a new cold war with Russia, tensions on the Korean Peninsula, continuing bloodshed in the Middle East. Nobody needs the Trump circus yet here, absurdly, it is.
Katharine Murphy began her career in the Canberra parliamentary press gallery in 1996. She is now political editor of Guardian Australia and Adjunct Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra.