Last year was a gruelling one in Australian politics. The despair of the representative class was sometimes sufficient to brim, then spill from the parliamentary precinct.
Liberal women, bystanders to the destruction of yet another prime minister, ululated. The government’s perennial managing partner, the most patient of Liberal women, Julie Bishop—a model of containment and poise either on the world stage or in the Sunrise studio, rictus locked, eyes glittering as the breakfast banalities tumbled forth—acquainted herself with a feeling that could be characterised as entirely undiplomatic. I’m not entirely sure what it was. Not rage. Cold fury, perhaps. Julia Banks, all at sea in the derangements, first rued, then turned her back on, her late-career conversion, the major-party enterprise, unable to divine its purpose.
Self-awareness bloomed in patches, puncturing the general desiccation. Scott Ryan, who once taught university students political science, presided in the Senate, and tried to counsel his charges against trashing the institution that gave them succour and purpose. Anthony Albanese wondered out loud about progressives who now declined to engage with conservatives on principle. What would become of progress, Albo wondered, if no-one was interested, any more, in trying to change anyone else’s mind?
The Liberal Craig Laundy wondered about a team sport where the participants celebrated the reversals of their team-mates. What was this allegedly collegiate enterprise—public service, representative democracy—where ‘cover defence is a rarity’. Politics, like the pubs Laundy’s family owns, is supposed to be the human business, the place of assembly, a theatre where the tribes gather and oral history is unfurled on a grander scale than the front bar and bistro. But could humans somehow prosper in a politics devoid of humanism?
Something cracked in 2018, and shards of truth tumbled out. Wither the polity—the great in-joke of the political commentariat, an invocation often uttered before punching out the opening paragraphs of a weekend political column, a minor prayer to the deity of portent—was suddenly the subject of open dialogue between protagonists.
Some politicians had the audacity to stand, calm in the melee and ask, ‘What the hell is this all about?’ Only some, mind you. The rest just jousted on, disinclined to reflect on any higher purpose—because why pose a question when there is no answer—or were rendered quiescent in one way or another.
The new year brings an election season, traditionally the most punishing season of all. Strangely, it feels possible 2019 will be less cruel than the couple of years that preceded it, but one should never underestimate the capacity of Australian politics (and the media chorus that thrills at the prospect of another dumpster fire) to punish protagonists and onlookers with random acts of animus.
But rather than waiting for the next shoe to fall, what we should be focusing on, of course, is substance. Internationally speaking, Australia is a small beacon at, how did Paul Keating put it, the arse end of the world? Objectively, we are that beacon. The economy is travelling well. Our politics creaks, but it has not yet succumbed entirely to the populist forces roiling democracies elsewhere.
We are not, like Americans, governed by a leader with poor impulse control who deploys the tropes of reality television as a substitute for any deep understanding of public policy. We are not, like the Britons, in the middle of the madness that is Brexit, with a political class floundering in full public view.
But the truth is we aren’t rising to the challenges of the future as efficiently as we once did. Collectively, we seem more afraid of the future than we used to be because the present supplies so little reassurance. Here’s just one example of the paralysis. We have a party of government, the Liberal–National Coalition, unable to face up to the reality that is climate change, when we need them to. The science tells us there is only a limited window of opportunity to act to reduce the risks, and mitigating the risks requires collective action, dare we say, some enlightened internationalism in an age when nations are shrinking back into themselves.
Relying on technology to deliver salvation is a gamble. As well as the challenges of preserving a habitable planet, we also have much of our national prosperity tied up in carbon intensity—which is a risky strategy if preserving life on earth requires nations to implement rapid decarbonisation.
My anxiety about the inability of one of Australia’s major political parties to face reality is twofold. Like all parents, I fear for my children, and their children. The failure of my generation will be their inheritance.
I also feel frustration that the Australian government, which has presided over structural adjustment in the past with an eye to safeguarding fairness, is, seemingly, prepared to allow this transformation to play out chaotically, at high cost to people who work in the carbon-intensive industries. Why, when a crunch is entirely visible, do you stubbornly decline to plan for it?
There are other pressing challenges where our political system has fallen short. Funding for aged care, an urgent imperative with an ageing population. Broader population pressures, combined with inadequate service provision, threaten to ignite the nativism and scapegoating we see elsewhere. Our regulatory system delivered stable and well-capitalised financial institutions that withstood the pressures of the global financial crisis, but it failed to restrain the market power of the banks that prided themselves on being too big to fail.
But the biggest deficit, if the mulish sentiment of Australian voters is a reliable guide, is the trust deficit. This is the dynamic that will shape the looming federal election contest in ways that are very hard to predict.
The Coalition has not bested their opponents in an opinion poll since the 2016 election. The negative trend against the government appears to be hard baked. In these circumstances, where voters appear to be limbering up to punish the incumbents, the usual eventuality is an orderly change of government with a sizeable swing. But sentiment is volatile, and voters are showing increasing interest in voting for independents. In a Guardian Essential poll in late November, 42 per cent of respondents said they would consider voting independent at the coming election. The cohort ‘rusting off’ (as my Guardian colleague Gabrielle Chan put it memorably in her 2018 book of that title) is not disengaged with politics. Quite the contrary. They are watching events closely. The cohort that will swing the next election, the voters who are disaffected and still undecided, are much more likely to consider voting for an independent than a major-party candidate.
A study by the Museum of Australian Democracy and the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, released late in 2018, suggests satisfaction with the way democracy works has nosedived over the last ten years. Eighty-six per cent of us were satisfied with democracy in 2007. By 2010, only 72 per cent of us were happy. But the real free fall came after 2013, starting at 72 per cent and plunging to 41 per cent by 2018.
These conditions can change the topography of elections. Labor leader Bill Shorten knows his major opponent going into 2019 is political disaffection. He said so at his party’s national conference in December. The question is, does Scott Morrison know it—and if he does, how does the Prime Minister intend to rise to that challenge?
Katharine Murphy began her career in the Canberra parliamentary press gallery in 1996. She is political editor of Guardian Australia and Adjunct Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Canberra.