Seven Ways to Save Politics
It’s a strange way to start, with musings on the future, but this is where we must situate ourselves, in the place of anticipation. By the time you are reading this, you will have cast your votes, and a new federal government will be settling in. It will either be a government of the same stripe, a Coalition government, or more likely—if the opinion polls at the time of writing are to be believed—a Labor government. It is also possible that we are looking at a minority government of either disposition.
In any case, a wild prediction about the May election result isn’t my purpose. I want to consider what happens next: a more significant quest than putting together the conventional report card on the ‘first 100 days of the new government’—the arbitrary measure imposed by the imperatives of anniversary journalism. What happens next should be a more fundamental reckoning. What happens next should be a recognition that democracy is now on trial in the court of public opinion, both in Australia and around the world.
The world has, over the last ten years, endured the most significant economic shock since the Great Depression, and the aftermath of the global financial crisis has shaken faith in democracies and institutions. The basic lesson of twentieth-century history is profound economic shocks have profound political consequences.
The economic downturn has sparked a global debate about inequality and the distribution of wealth. Nativism and populism are on the rise. If important institutions and conventions are to weather the current turbulence, it will fall to this generation of politicians to be sufficiently self-aware to understand the fight they are in, and to look for ways to refresh and renew their approaches to governing, leading and listening. We all need to rise to the seriousness of the times.
While Australia avoided the worst of the global economic downturn, we have not avoided these debates, or the erosion of trust in institutions evidenced elsewhere. In Australia, voters are becoming estranged from their parliament. A gulf has opened between the representative class and the people they serve. Voter disaffection can be measured in a range of ways.
The latest Australian Electoral Survey, research undertaken by the Australian National University after the last 12 federal elections, found satisfaction with the way democracy works at its lowest level since just after the Whitlam dismissal in 1975. In 2007, 86 per cent of the sample expressed satisfaction with Australian democracy. In 2016, satisfaction had fallen to 60 per cent. When it comes to trust in politicians, the reading in the latest AES was at the lowest level since the question was first posed in 1969. Almost three-quarters of survey participants asserted a view that politicians looked after themselves and not the voters they represented—a corrosive perception that sits at the heart of the estrangement problem.
Australians remain politically engaged, but are drifting away from the major parties. A research project by the Grattan Institute in 2018 highlighted the increasing share of the vote for minor parties. That’s been rising since 2007, and it reached its highest level since the Second World War in 2016. But as voters are rusting off (as my Guardian colleague Gabrielle Chan puts it in Rusted Off: Why Country Australia Is Fed Up, her terrific book of 2018), political debate is becoming more polarised as the major parties engage in high-velocity courtship of the people who once voted for them, hoping to hold a base sufficiently large enough to form majority government.
Sticking with polarisation, news consumers in Australia are more polarised than the global average, and people’s political leanings influence their choice of news outlets, according to the latest findings of the Digital News Report, Australia 2018—a regular collaboration between the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford and the News and Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra. In my short book On Disruption, published by MUP last year, I lamented the rise of fractious enclaves in the public square, an observable trend that is being fuelled by narrowcasting in media culture, with news outlets intent on building the emotional connections with readers and viewers that convert to paid subscriptions.
Democracies around the world seem to be enduring the same headwinds. The German organisation Bertelsmann Stiftung, which tracks sustainable governance indicators, notes in its latest assessment that the quality of democracy in the OECD and the European Union has declined. Accompanying this decline is a growing polarisation in politics that has ‘made the day-to-day work of governance, and thus member states’ capacity to reform, more difficult’. It notes that some governments are ‘deliberately stoking social tensions rather than seeking consensus’.
Perspective is important. Conditions are better in Australia than elsewhere. I was in the northern hemisphere over the summer, and imbibed the anxiety of Londoners as we journeyed around. Every snatch of conversation that drifted into our orbit, as colleagues and families gathered for Christmas catch-ups, was about Brexit, and the country’s sustained political crisis, with a government teetering in full public view and the major parties seemingly unable to project competence. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump, the self-appointed troll of the free world, has also exhausted onlookers with his strange, sullen belligerence, but who may yet secure a mandate to go on exhausting the world for a second presidential term if the US Democrats don’t field a candidate and a program capable of defeating him.
If we look at how sentiment compares here with elsewhere, we can consider data fron the Pew Research Centre from 2017. That shows satisfaction with Australian democracy stands at 58 per cent, which puts us in the top 20 countries. Australians are less satisfied with our democracy than Indians (79%), Swedes (79%), the Dutch (77%), Germans (73%) and Canadians (70%)—but we are more satisfied than Britons (52%), Americans (46%) and citizens in France (34%), Italy (31%) and Spain (25%).
Australia has our own chaos and feckless-ness, which are generating frustration in our polity, but the point of comparisons with elsewhere is to note there is still time to turn things around, if there is political will. Turning things around will require something bold: it will require Australian politics to have the courage of its own self-reflection.
What needs to happen now are some steps to check the excesses and failures of the last decade—excesses and failures significant enough to be eroding trust in the institution. What’s required is a recognition that politics has to change at fundamental levels. This list will certainly not be exhaustive, but it’s a start. Here are some practical ways our politics could change.
Cults of personality do not equal leadership
We all know about the revolving door of political leadership, the unravelling that began shortly after Kevin Rudd was elected in 2007. The Liberal Party went from John Howard to Brendan Nelson to Malcolm Turnbull to Tony Abbott then back to Malcolm Turnbull and finally to Scott Morrison in the space of a decade. On the Labor side, Rudd was replaced by Julia Gillard, who was then replaced by Kevin Rudd—an unhinged power struggle that killed a Labor government in plain sight. Both major parties have taken steps to curb the regicidal impulses that have brimmed over a disrupted decade, with the objective of making it harder to remove a leader on a whim, or more pertinently in a fit of panic. But what’s required is a broader rebalancing.
Australia has always had strong political leaders. Think of Robert Menzies towering over the national affairs landscape for decades, or charismatic Labor leaders such as Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating. But in contemporary times we have drifted into a situation where there is too much focus on leaders, on prime ministers and opposition leaders, and not enough on the collective organism of government.
The prominence of leaders in a government makes them vulnerable during times of adversity. There is abundant evidence that a cycle of veneration followed by scapegoating of a pseudo-presidential figure isn’t helpful. Having a figurehead who magically and uniquely personifies the character of the government is a precondition that transforms governments into cults of individual performance, and then plunges them into existential territory when leaders change.
Often when party leaders have taken one another out over the past decade, the new regime has offered platitudes about the prompt and necessary restoration of proper cabinet government, and some of the incoming prime ministers have even meant it—but the rebalancing I’m talking about goes deeper than this.
Perhaps egoless leadership is a strange quality to hope for in an age where self-obsession is considered a virtue, and where the studious maintenance of the personal brand is considered essential to success, but at some point we have to understand that the power of the individual in politics is directly related to the performance of the collective.
The quality I’m searching for is a style of political leadership that is confident enough to allow government to be a collective pursuit—a prime minister secure enough to allow ministers to be powerhouses in government, driving agendas, championing ideas.
Bill Shorten, if he is the prime minister we are looking at, has allowed his senior colleagues in opposition room to reset policy. The dynamic he has presided over hasn’t been perfect, but it has helped rebuild Labor both as collective organism after the Rudd–Gillard civil war. It has been a source of strength.
If Shorten has prevailed in the election, will he have the wisdom to persist with this model in government, or will he succumb to the sense of manifest destiny that is shortening the shelf lives of Australian governments? If he’s our prime minister, I really hope it’s the former.
Value the institution
There were many reasons to object to Scott Morrison’s frequent references to the ‘Canberra bubble’ in the lead-up to the federal election. The first was the inherent cynicism of being a creature of the same bubble you claim to decry, not only bubble denizen but bubble master.
But the worst of it, from my perch, was the constant devaluing of institutional politics by the practitioner at the pinnacle of the art form; the faux distancing made me wince again and again. In what universe should the most senior politician in the country pretend to transcend politics, and in what universe should that confected levitation be invoked, implicitly, as a test of authenticity?
Morrison was right in this sense. There is something wrong with the workplace culture of federal politics. Politicians have started to talk about the various toxicities of the life in recent years, which has been a healthy conversation. That conversation should continue, and I have a close interest in documenting these conditions in the hope of securing better ones. We need political life to be sustainable for a broad cross-section of people, otherwise we will be left with representation by people who are fundamentally unbalanced: self-promoting show ponies who only know conflict, creating an occupational culture where derangement is self-perpetuating.
It’s reasonable for the political class to interrogate the reality of the life, but motive matters. If the objective is truth telling with cathartic intent, then it’s unobjectionable. If the objective is diagnosis of a pathology in order to pretend you are somehow above it, the paragon of immunity, in order to position yourself on the ‘side’ of people alienated by the system, then your intentions are not cathartic but corrosive.
That performance is pure exploitation, and exploitation culminating in self-harm given the implicit disdain in the diagnosis. You are inviting citizens to conclude you and your enterprise add little value. The antidote is simple. If you think there’s a bubble, don’t bang on about it as if you aren’t part of it. Look for ways to pop it. Look for ways to be better. Look for ways to correct the pathologies.
Take simple steps. Here’s my non-exhaustive list. Respect the conventions of the Australian Parliament. Insist on decent standards of ministerial behaviour. Look at the time-wasting farce that is question time, and consider whether there are ways to make it more meaningful. Insist that parliamentarians stay within the rules governing the use of taxpayer-funded entitlements, which is an issue voters care about, and has become totemic in the perception that politicians only ever feather their own nests.
Look to improve transparency and accountability. This needs to be a priority. Publish the diaries of prime ministers and ministers, so people know who is meeting whom. Have a system of registration for lobbyists that involves penalties if participants transgress. Right now the lobbyists code is an inbox, with negligible enforcement. Deal with the inexcusable deficiencies in the donations and disclosure regime, including real-time disclosure of political donations.
The other thing that needs attention is the culture in Parliament House. It has frayed over the past decade courtesy of the endless leadership intrigues, and the rise of winner-takes-all hyper-partisanship.
What’s required are simple steps that can bring people together, not because partisans agree on everything, or because it’s desirable to remove conflict from politics—that is ridiculous—but given the enmity that has built up in politics, there has to be some investment in restoring esprit de corps. There has been talk about establishing a women’s caucus in Parliament House. I hope that proceeds this term. I think it would be enormously beneficial for women to meet regularly across party lines without that being seen as a thought crime, or fraternisation with the enemy.
There is also scope for boosting the various parliamentary friendship groups, lending them the status of caucuses. The purpose of this is similar to the women’s caucus: it’s about constructing demilitarised zones in the hope that the political class remains capable of finding common cause. Bottom-up cooperation on policy issues has the potential to be a check on the excesses of partisanship we’ve seen in recent years.
The same dynamic should apply with the multi-party committees of the parliament. Opportunity exists with inquiries to try to carve out points of common ground, not just endlessly sharpen points of difference. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has a strong record of operating under those principles, and that needs to be the model, rather than the frolic late in the last parliament by the Liberal Tim Wilson, who used the Economics Committee as a taxpayer-funded adjunct to a partisan campaign against Labor tax measures. Wrong way, Tim, go back.
Senate reform: A brake but not a barrier
The Victorian Liberal Scott Ryan has made some interesting observations about his chamber during his period as Senate president. In a speech late in 2018, Ryan contended the Senate, following the demise of the Democrats, the rise of the Greens and the proliferation of micro-party cross-benchers, had ‘partially evolved from a place of process seeking to negotiate the passage of legislation, to … a stage for expressing alternative views, and even occasionally seeking attention’.
He said the Australian Senate was gradually drifting in the direction of the American system, which manifests ‘entrenched positions, or explicit unrelated trade-offs’ when legislation moves through the chamber. Ryan said recent policy debates, including firearms registration, euthanasia and funding of apprenticeships were all discussed in a context of ‘trade-offs for support on
unrelated legislation. This change has brought the role and function of the Senate into question from governments of both parties.’
Ryan argued that one of the reasons voters were increasingly frustrated with democracy was because grandstanding and gridlock were substituting for practical progress. ‘Democracy needs elections to work, people need to see their vote matters and does change things, in order to avoid the frustration we see in other democracies.’ He suggested a structural change rather like the Salisbury Convention that has been in place in Britain since the 1940s. Salisbury explicitly states that the House of Lords will not block a policy that is explicitly part of a party’s election manifesto.
The Senate president said that change would need major-party agreement, and adjustments for Australian conditions. There would have to be rules on the timing of election announcements of particular policies, a requirement of full publication of all the necessary detail, and explicit costings supplied by the independent Parliamentary Budget Office ‘to ensure the details were clear and not subject to obfuscation’. The boundaries of the mandate would need to be very clear.
He argued the change would potentially help re-engage voters inclined to tune out. If voters understood their vote was consequential, if the outcome of the election meant the adoption of a program, rather than the process where all players in the Senate subsequently claim a mandate, thereby thwarting the implementation of a program, they might be more inclined to look more closely at the offerings of the major parties before exercising their democratic rights.
Major parties would also have greater incentive to be transparent and explicit about their intentions, rather than fudging or lying their way into office. Saying one thing before an election and doing something else afterwards, is another component of the trust-erosion story, and perhaps some structural reform could help keep the bastards honest.
I don’t know if Salisbury is the precise solution, because there is still value in a chamber that exercises rights of review, but I agree with Ryan that we have seen an increasing incidence of gridlock and American-style transactional rent-seeking. In the event we are all looking at a new Labor government in Canberra now, for example, I can see the potential in the coming term for another paralysing argument on climate change.
Dealing with climate change is one of the most important and urgent policy challenges Australia faces. It is a more substantial problem than reducing emissions sufficiently to have some prospect of ameliorating the most damaging effects of warming. There is also the imperative of transitioning an economy highly reliant on carbon-intensive industries to a low-emissions economy. We need to act, and quickly.
If political actors were motivated by a spirit of finding a grand bargain in relation to policy reform, there would be no need to contemplate systemic change, but given recent evidence, I think we need to have this conversation.
Try to starve 24/7. Harder than it looks
During the last parliament, government MPs said to me at various times that they thought one of the most productive things that could possibly happen for the restoration of good sense and wellbeing in Australian politics would be to remove all Sky News subscriptions from parliamentary offices.
This wasn’t just frustration from small ‘l’ liberals about the reactionaries dressed up in conservative garb who populate the Sky News night shift, the Fox News wannabes, who despite their tiny viewership managed to infiltrate the heads of government MPs in the build-up to the toppling of Malcolm Turnbull. The point about pulling out the plug is a broader one. It’s a reflection about the psychologically oppressive nature of 24/7 news coverage.
Covering incremental developments second by second, minute by minute, blow by blow, is not only transforming politics into a sporting match, where heart-thumping action is regularly substituted for measured deliberation—I strongly suspect it is sending MPs bonkers. Drip, drip, drip contributes to the pressure-cooker environment in Parliament House, which is the constant that sits behind the madness of recent years. It increases the collective anxiety levels. It’s like listening to a chord progression that never resolves.
I make this observation, not gratuitously against Sky, in one of those bitchy, tribal asides that journalists can make, but as a colleague in the same business. I’m one of the people who pioneered the live coverage of Australian politics. I was the first Australian journalist to anchor a regular live blog from Parliament House. When the blame gets apportioned, feel free to send some my way.
Our collective innovation, or more precisely the innovation digital has imposed on journalism (let’s be honest, none of us went looking for it), has been welcomed by audiences, who flock to live coverage in substantial numbers, and are discerning about which of these products represent a quality offering. But it hasn’t been helpful for politics. The political class now feel compelled to feed a media beast with a stupendous appetite, and occupy a brutally contested environment where the feedback about their every utterance is instant.
The rise of the 24/7 news cycle is connected to the contemporary tendency of governments to govern in permanent campaign mode—which in more settled times would have been considered a contradiction in terms. The 24/7 news cycle has also elevated punditry, particularly on television, where a cast of characters now drift through a roster of programs sprinkling their bons mots and declaring rhetorical war on other pundits in order to assert their cultural relevance.
If you surveyed Australian politicians and their advisers, and they were being honest, I guarantee a large majority would vote to shut down 24/7 in the interests of improving the quality of government. The problem for them is there is no way to do that. Sky isn’t going anywhere. Neither is the ABC’s rolling news channel. Neither are the live blogs, which was my particular contribution to the eco-system, and which are a core part of our news offering at Guardian Australia. Those products exist because of audience demand. News consumers are discerning and impatient. They don’t want to read about events tomorrow if they can read about them today.
Even if you shut down live coverage by established media players, outlawed it tomorrow, that horse has already bolted. Social media sites operate as publishers and live aggregators as major events unfold, matching media companies micro-blog by micro-blog. Media companies (at least the news outlets that still take their bearing-witness obligation seriously, and make a priority of exercising sober editorial judgements) add considerable value by being able to confirm facts and share them with a large audience.
If the tide of 24/7 can’t be reversed, what can be done? At the big-picture level, governments can develop media policy in the public interest, rather than the present dynamic, which has been evident for decades, which is presiding over a series of transactions designed to placate or punish various moguls. That does remain a choice for politicians despite all the accumulated evidence that they don’t think that particular choice is a viable one.
At the day-to-day level, going on the endless Sky programs, or fronting up on ABC24, is a choice. It continues to amaze me that politicians keep fronting up dutifully for these shows given the audience is modest, and your contribution to the Zeitgeist is ignored unless you mess up, in which case your disaster is replayed everywhere, which is a semi-regular occurrence on Sky, given the network’s political editor David Speers is absolutely at the peak of his powers as a broadcast interviewer, and the rest of the Sky day shift are fast, experienced and relentless in the best sense of that word.
If you asked politicians why they turn up, they say vacating the field hands their opponents an open microphone. This is true, the practical point can’t be denied, and it’s why the whole unseemly apparatus lumbers on, often through entirely gritted teeth. But perhaps it’s time some of the opportunity cost of fronting up is also factored into the decision. Perhaps it’s time for politicians to stop talking long enough to ask themselves: am I really helping? Seriously, is contributing to this ceaseless cacophony helping?
Bringing people in
It makes sense to me, just as a basic point of logic, that if Australians feel increasingly locked out of, or estranged from, their own democratic process, then we need to consider ways of bringing people in. There are some obvious ways to do this.
Before we go there, it needs to be noted we are lucky in Australia to have a system of compulsory voting. It is such a blessing. As social researcher Rebecca Huntley has pointed out in a recent issue of Quarterly Essay, compulsory voting creates a broad sense that voting is an important social obligation, it forces the major parties to pitch to the political centre rather than focus on getting their base out. ‘In some respects, compulsory voting is the glue that keeps the democratic majority—which is on the whole centrist and sensible—together,’ Huntley writes. The historian Judith Brett has written recently that without compulsory voting:
many disillusioned voters would turn away from politics altogether and stop voting; but because they have to find someone to vote for, new contestants, many from outside the established political class, enter the fray to pick up their protest and offer an alternative. This is a very good thing.
With Huntley’s and Brett’s observations in mind, and with my own strong view that compulsory voting is such a plus for Australia, I think it is time to lower the voting age to 16. The young people of 2019 are mature enough to want a direct stake in their democracy. I think allowing teenagers to vote would encourage young people to remain engaged with politics, and it would also light a fire under the political class. Another obvious enhancement would be the establishment of a First Nations voice to parliament to give Indigenous people greater status and agency in their own political system, a reform that would deliver both practical and symbolic benefits.
Considering ways to make Australian parliaments more representative of the broader community is also a critically important step to help counter perceptions that politics is pale, male and stale. The Liberal Party, whether in government or opposition, has to face up to its well-documented problem with female representation, and when we talk about expanding the diversity of the political class, the challenge is more wide-ranging than gender balance.
A research paper from the think tank Per Capita released in early 2019 noted that while the federal parliament had diversified since 1988 it is still ‘overwhelmingly dominated by MPs with Anglo- and northern European backgrounds. Established European migrant groups like Italians and Greeks now have proportionate representation in parliament, but no other ancestry does.’
The same study also examined the career backgrounds of MPs. It found that in 1988 the most common career pre-politics was teaching, followed by law. Having a union background was also common for Labor MPs. But more recently ‘there has been a surge in MPs running for office after having worked as ministerial or political advisers; almost 40% of MPs and more than half of Labor MPs worked as advisers in state or federal government before running for office themselves’. Another notable development, according to the study, was that the number of MPs with banking or finance backgrounds has more than doubled in the 30 years since 1988, and that MPs are also increasingly more likely to have small business backgrounds.
In my view the pathway from backroom staffer to parliamentarian doesn’t have to be a disqualification. Working in the backroom is a useful apprenticeship for the life, and anyone in any profession can understand that vocational training is intrinsically useful. But from my vantage point it is worrying how many lateral recruits have struggled to sustain themselves in political life in recent times because they find the culture of contemporary politics hostile to basic human needs. If diversity in Australia’s representative class shrinks further, the gap between them and the public will only grow. The public will not see themselves reflected in their parliament.
Australia’s former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane also made a compelling point about the importance of diversity in political representation after the slaughter of 50 innocents in Christchurch in March 2019. He said Australian politicians, by and large, have no skin in the game when it comes to indulging in race politics for short-term political advantage, because they have never been on the receiving end of racism. They are insulated from the effects of their behaviour. More of this shortly.
As well as taking steps to make the business of representative democracy more genuinely representative, parliamentarians need to think about ways of communicating with, and listening to, their constituents without filters. This generation of MPs is bombarded with static and false signals and can find it hard to pierce the clutter.
The best and most hardworking parliamentarians are at railway stations in the morning, knocking on doors on the weekend, going to community events in the evenings, hosting town hall meetings in their electorates—making sure they are part of the organic conversations in their communities—rather than taking their cues from shock jocks, or assuming that an organised letter-writing campaign generated by orchestrated clicktivism is representative of the resting local disposition. But it’s hard.
Increasingly I wonder whether there will be a neat technological solution that allows MPs to communicate directly with their constituents on a regular basis, allowing them to better manage their signal-to-noise ratio. I think that would help. We can only hope.
More on bringing people in: Countering the rise of hate
I mentioned Tim Soutphommasane just a minute ago. In 2016 he and I had a memorable conversation. He was at the Human Rights Commission, and there was a live debate about whether to wind back protections against hate speech in the Racial Discrimination Act. Pauline Hanson had returned to federal politics, declaring in her first speech that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Muslims. Soutphommasane told me that through a combination of lingering economic downturn and a related anti-globalisation backlash, we’d reached a tipping point on race relations.
He was worried at that time about a new Guardian Essential poll that showed 49 per cent support for banning Muslim immigration. He linked that sentiment with Hanson’s return, and with the saturation, largely soft, media coverage her return had generated. ‘We have seen about two months of blanket coverage of Hanson, not a week goes by when you don’t see or hear her views about immigration and Islam, and there’s a real danger that we are normalising what might otherwise be unacceptable ideas, beyond the bounds of a liberal democracy,’
he told me.
Soutphommasane says racism is corrosive for democracy, because it threatens core liberal democratic values. He says racism is laced through debates about asylum seekers and the dog whistling about African crime before the Victorian state election, and exclusionary politics has consequences for societal harmony. Media outlets also have a case to answer. Racism is being deployed, he says, by some outlets as cat nip for
angry audiences who want to vent against so-called political correctness and against minorities who dare speak up. In a fractured media landscape, outlets are seeking to monetise hatred. They are feeding off the resentments of those in the majority who feel they are losing their position of power and privilege.
Countering hatred, Soutphommasane says, is a fundamental obligation of inclusive patriotism, and inclusive patriotism is the moral antidote to the rise of exclusionary nationalism. Inclusive patriotism involves understanding difference and accepting that difference makes us stronger. He’s absolutely right. Countering hatred is what committed democrats do. It isn’t a situational calling. It’s a moral imperative. What can modern governments do to counter anxiety? Spoiler alert: show up.
The consistent theme, as I project forward to what needs to come next in Australian politics, is buttressing and building. Refashioning political leadership as collective responsibility. Respecting the vocation of politics, and reforming the practice so that voters can have more confidence their parliament works in their interests. Making sure the Senate doesn’t put virtue signalling ahead of practical progress. Pulling back from the permanent campaign, fuelled by 24/7 media coverage, to reserve energy for deliberating and governing. Looking for ways to bring people in through voting reform, and changes to representation and modes of direct communication, minus the distorting filters, while restoring relationships between political protagonists with a view to resetting destructive hyper-partisanship. Countering exclusionary nationalism with inclusive patriotism.
Anxiety is at the root of the present malaise—that destabilising sense that the system no longer serves the interests of people. As well as pursuing the transparency and accountability measures I’ve flagged, the next government, whether it is of the centre-right or the centre-left, has to have something to say about whether the time has come for governments to step more assertively into the frame. Governments shrank as part of the drive that began in the 1980s to transform Australia into an open, free trading, market economy. Government intervention was out of fashion. The prevailing view was the private sector would do it better.
But living in an age of stagnating incomes has led citizens here and elsewhere, where wage stagnation has been far worse, to question the orthodoxies that have shaped the policy-reform debate for three decades. People wonder whether corporations have amassed too much power, and whether governments still have the tools to stand up to corporations in the interests of people. As Crikey’s political editor Bernard Keane puts it in his terrific book The Mess We’re In, the orthodoxy of neoliberalism was tested by the global financial crisis.
In Australia—the country where neoliberalism was most successfully implemented—the years 2016 to 2018 were partly the story of how it fell apart under electoral pressure. In the United States and Britain the failings of neoliberalism wreaked political havoc that drove countries deep into a democratic terra incognita of extremism, populism and political chaos.
Here the debate centres around whether the economy is delivering for ordinary people. In Australia a lack of wages growth is the entry point of that debate. As the economic commentator George Megalogenis noted back in 2016, the debate we are having has been ‘forced on us by the market failures of the twenty-first century’.
Megalogenis said the open-economy model had once told voters, and the major parties, a reassuring story of Australian success, but ‘that open model has been exhausted by capitalism’s extended crisis and the end of the mining boom’. We had reached a juncture, he predicted at that time, where open markets could not guarantee prosperity in the future without an active state.
While Australians are angry with their governments, perhaps what people are most angry about is not politicians in their face, in their lives, on their televisions. Perhaps the anxiety is about governments shrinking, before their eyes, with protagonists drawing the salary and asserting the status, but contributing little more than squabbling over the spoils of defeat.
Perhaps the antidote to this estrangement with politics is not shrinkage but expansion. A return of bigger governments, being assertive, doing things. Now wouldn’t that be something? •
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 UC.