Is Political Chaos the Price of Australia’s Success?
Words by Terrence Duggan
In 1964 Daniel Horne said that Australia was ‘a lucky country, run mainly by second-rate people who share in its luck.’ Over fifty years later; this still rings true. The events of our political sphere since the election of Kevin Rudd in 2007 would appear to have exacerbated this sentiment. Since that time, we have had five Prime Ministers in eleven years (compared to four in the previous 30), two hung parliaments (out of four in the entire history of the federation), and a bizarre and unprecedented dual citizenship saga which claimed the positions of seven senators and eight representatives.
For people of our generation, we are entitled to demand reasons from our representatives as to why this has happened. You can't make, unmake and implement significant policy in months. In some instances, you can't even do it in a couple of years. We are still currently in the process of rolling out significant initiatives such as the NBN and the NDIS — both of which were policies conceived three or four prime ministers ago. Significant challenges cannot, and have not, been dealt with in this period. The issue of same-sex marriage — which had high public support and would have involved a minor amendment to the law, could not be resolved by parliament and had to be determined by a farcical plebiscite.
The undergraduates of today barely remember a time when Australian governments were expected to serve out their full term. I’m 22, the last time this happened I was 11. We have had a whole generation of people that have grown up without any public policy vision.
But the essential question remains as to what has happened to induce this. The structure of the government itself has remained the same. Our economy has retained its consistent growth trajectory. The country as a whole has done well —unusually well — with a recent special report from The Economist noting once again that we are one of the only countries in the world capable of maintaining such consistent improvements in real wages, living standards, and GDP; whilst inequality has flatlined, and the rate of immigration has remained consistently high with strong public support.
These two things--- the success of our country as a whole and the dire state of our politics---- are not contradictory — instead, Australia is a political victim of its success.
The policies which enabled Australia to become the prosperous society it is today upended the structures which sustained our political consensus. The Liberal-Labor split which defined post-war Australian politics was a neat one: one party was working class, the other, middle class; one was Catholic and Irish, the other, Protestant and British; one left, another right; one urban, another rural and suburban. These neat divisions reflected the ordered, static, and homogenous society that Australia once was. I don’t need to tell you that this Australia no longer exists. However, our party system is still reflective of these structures.
Traditional conduits for the expression of the public interest — party organisation, trade unions — are in significant decline. Only 10% of the private sector workforce are members of trade unions. Individuals at recent rallies to ‘change to rules’ are on average older and greyer than the rest of the population. Australia’s major political parties have some of the lowest memberships (relative to population) of any OECD nation. The Liberal Party’s current membership base of 80,000 is not much larger than the number of current students at the University of Sydney.
The traditional bases for these parties have shrunk- as the labour force becomes more flexible and mobile, and the number of naturalized immigrants increases. The traditional dichotomy upon which the Labor-Liberal split based itself no longer holds. And yet the party system endures.
The result, in most jurisdictions, was that what remained of these two ‘wings’ of society, became more vocal and more radical as a way of combating their declining relevance. In Australia, our system of compulsory and preferential voting means that the disaffected segment of the population are the most politically significant class. Instead of the race to the extremes seen in other nations, the competition is to the centre.
However, the impact of this is a distinct lack of political vision. Politicians campaign upon likability and the ability to resolve mundane issues rather than upon the ability to solve big problems or embark upon ambitious projects. The result is that ‘politics’ per se has withered away in significance. Individuals do not feel they have a stake in the political system, and in turn, a political system defined by mundane risk aversion does not have an impact upon improving people’s lives.
Whilst the governments of the post-Howard era have generally stuck to their mandate of prudent economic management, maintenance of national security, and attempting (with mixed success) to avoid becoming enmeshed in cultural cleavages around immigration, sexuality, and race, that have divided other nations so bitterly. This seemingly isn’t enough for the electorate. The electorate is crying out for a clear and bold vision for this country, and yet politicians have been completely unable to offer it. Instead, a paralysis of risk aversion is the order of the day.
All our political leadership has offered to ameliorate this demand for vision has been thought bubbles - from the MySchool website, to Scott Morrison’s sudden decision to move the Australian Embassy to Jerusalem; from the ongoing fiasco surrounding the National Broadband Network to royal commissions and judicial reviews into just about everything - substantial change eludes us as our successive governments search for policies which aim to sound expansive whilst achieving substantially little. Instead of vision, the public is offered little more than taxpayer-funded public deception. Ill thought out policies often leaving a burdensome legacy for future administrations.
As such, this country’s addiction to leadership spills counts as nothing more than bald men fighting over a comb. The diminished implications of what comes out of Canberra were brought to the fore most recently with the disastrous by-election in the seat of Wentworth. The Liberal Party’s playbook was to encourage people to vote liberal to avoid a hung parliament. However, the educated and savvy constituents of Wentworth didn’t see any tangible difference between a hung parliament and the present state of affairs. The popular response was: ‘So what?’. It’s a public response which is now at the centre of our public life.