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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Australia’s 2022 election: toxic politics and a lack of ambition

By Barry Jones

Australia’s 2022 election: toxic politics and a lack of ambition

A better future for Australia requires not only different priorities from our political parties but greater engagement in the process from the Australian people.

This is an edited extract of the Jim Carlton Integrity Lecture to be delivered this evening at the Accountability Round Table, Melbourne Law School by Barry Jones. Jones joined the ALP in 1950 and had a total of 26 years in the Victorian and federal Parliament. He was a minister for seven years and the ALP’s national president for eight.

Almost all elections turn on three factors: leadership (a highly personal judgment — “I don’t trust X”), ideology or “It’s time (to give the others a go)”.

The 2022 Australian federal election has a disconcerting resemblance to the US presidential contest of 2020, with Scott Morrison playing the role of Trump lite — but smirking, not snarling — with Albanese paralleling the immensely experienced but uneasy Biden, then aged 78.

Trump filled the screen, Biden did not. Nevertheless, Biden won.

Australia has 17,000,000 people enrolled to vote but in my estimation barely 30,000 living, breathing persons, not on life support systems, could be regarded as active members of mainstream political parties — about 0.2% of voters.

It is just possible that Clive Palmer’s claim of having 80,000 members in his United Australia Party is correct, although how many are paid up is a different question. This would make its membership more than double the number of activists in the mainstream parties combined. But it may reflect the degree of alienation and anger in segments of society, a reaction to COVID lockdowns, anger about multi-culturalism, refugees and the breakdown of patriarchy, fuelled by conspiracy theories.

In 2019 the alt-right gained 1,300,000 votes — 9.1 % nationally, 16.7 % in Queensland. Scott Morrison is not part of the alt-right but he needs their preferences in a tight election, so he needs to send out coded messages to them without further alienating the moderate Liberal base.

Our election campaigns are marked by personal attacks, stunts, scare campaigns, photo ops and gotcha moments. There is no serious debate on major issues. France had a debate between Macron and Le Pen which ran for three hours. A comparable debate in Australia is unthinkable; heroic viewers would be catatonic long before the end.

Australia took a leading role in the establishment of the United Nations, the UN Conventions on Genocide, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, preserving Antarctica from mineral exploitation. It seems inconceivable now that Australia could take the lead on any major international policy, so shrivelled is our ambition.

Australia could exercise a far greater international influence if it chose to.

Russia, a major power with a population of 145 million, ranks number 11 in world rankings for gross domestic product. Australia, with 26 million, ranks number 13. (Canada, with 38 million, ranks eighth.)

If we worked closely with the US, Japan, the UK, Germany, France, Canada and New Zealand on climate change issues we could, collectively, make a very powerful contribution. (At present we are ranked with Brazil.)

In adopting a “small target” strategy, which has never been a dazzling success in the past, Labor has willingly accepted Morrison’s terms of engagement, fearful of being wedged by his brutal campaigning and spooked by memories of the unlosable election of 2019.

Nevertheless, in five areas Labor is superior to the Coalition:

1. Commitment to a Commonwealth Integrity Commission with strong powers to investigate political corruption, hold public hearings and demand straight answers, on oath.

2. It is serious about the extraordinary power imbalance based on gender and reforming the toxic culture of Parliament House, Canberra.

3. Person for person, Labor’s front benchers are more capable than their Coalition counterparts — Wong, Plibersek, Shorten, Dreyfus, Husic, Chalmers, Keneally, Burke, Butler, Bowen, O’Connor, Gallagher, Marles. Anthony Albanese is very collegiate, was an excellent minister, negotiator and leader of government business.

4. Labor would be less secretive, corrupt or vindictive, and preserve our great public institutions.

5. More effective use of the Commonwealth public service.

Labor has quite a sensible energy policy (“Powering Australia”) but is oddly coy about the science of climate change which is its rationale. Neither the ALP or Coalition will utter the c-word — coal — or the p-word — planet. Both are remorselessly short-term in their advocacy.

Homo sapiens has morphed into Homo economicus, because all our politics revolves around production and consumption.

Despite the magnitude of Australia’s problems, I am confident that there are solutions.

There are 10 priorities for our time if we are to survive the next half-century without irreversible damage to the biosphere and our social and political institutions.

1. Strong action on climate change; transition to a post-carbon economy; recognition that coal is the biggest single source of greenhouse gases, that the environment is not the enemy, and that Australia can be a world leader in adopting economically complex industries (ECIs) with far higher added value than bulk commodities.

2. Challenge major parties to adopt open democratic practices, come clean on funding, expose the role of lobbyists and restore trust in public institutions. As major parties fail to respond, it is inevitable that angry and well-informed citizens create alternatives.

3. Reject the “Nixon strategy” of winning elections by promoting division, exclusion v inclusion, cultivating “the base”, persuading economic victims to blame those below them — race, refugees — exploiting the condescension factor and promoting resentment of expert opinion.

4. Making a personal commitment to strengthening liberal democracy, recognising the threat posed by the rise of populist authoritarian leaders.

5. Protecting the right to be informed as a central tenet of democracy — preserving the ABC and its investigative reporting; recognising the importance of a free media, not subject to commercial pressures or government bullying; strengthening the public service’s capacity to give “frank and fearless” advice; and providing adequate funding for CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and university research. Resist secrecy as the immediate fall-back position by government to avoid embarrassment.

6. Recognising that inequality is not just a social Darwinian byproduct of the economic system (“survival of the fittest”) but a political artefact: not an accident, but built into decisions about taxation, education and health. Thomas Piketty, the French economist, is right*.

7. Insisting that the goal of education must be to enable people to fulfil human potential for the whole of life, not just to train pupils to be consumers and producers for the contemporary economy. The syllabus should include some political science, philosophy, the humanities, the arts and exposure to comparative religion, with encouragement for speculative thought.

8. Reject all forms of racism and adopt rational and humane responses to the refugee/asylum seeker crisis. Give high priority to the Uluru Statement from the Heart and take stronger action on the Closing the Gap strategy.

9. Resist fundamentalism and rethink the nature of freedom and tolerance.

10. Recognise the moral basis of progressive taxation and not retreat from it.

On taxation, both major parties offer the equivalent of the Indian rope trick.

In an ageing, insecure context, with a likely contraction in exports to our principal trading partner (China), and huge but uncosted expenditure on nuclear submarines (which we cannot service) to protect us (against China), increased outlays for aged care, NDIS, hospitals and rail links, rebuilding infrastructure after natural disasters, and repaying borrowed funds, both Labor and the Coalition insist that taxation levels will not rise — growth alone will meet all needs.

Really? Contrary to what might have been expected, electorates that swung from Labor to the Coalition in 2019 were marked by higher unemployment, lower incomes and (in some cases) fewer migrants, while electorates with an increased ALP vote were marked by higher education, extensive use of franking credits and negative gearing.

Labor gained significant swings in wealthy electorates such as Bennelong, Bradfield, Sydney and North Sydney in NSW; Goldstein, Gellibrand, Higgins, Macnamara and Menzies in Victoria; Ryan in Queensland; and Curtin in Western Australia, but lost ground in Blaxland, Fowler, Lindsay, Aston, Calwell, Fraser, Gorton and Lalor.

The greatest problem of all — climate change — could be the easiest to tackle with higher levels of community engagement.

The number of Australians with lived experience of climate change from direct observation — farmers, gardeners, vignerons, birdwatchers, bushwalkers, firefighters, anglers, skiers, beekeepers, photographers, aviators — amounts to millions. But they are currently disengaged from, and repulsed by, the way politics operates.

Their expertise should have been harnessed by the hegemonic parties to ensure that powerful mitigation measures were adopted, but was not.

Politics always trumps the science. The National Party insists that reducing greenhouse gases, including methane, would be disastrous for farming, but the National Farmers Federation says “We are already doing it”. Major energy generators propose to phase out or close down coal-fired power stations, but Angus Taylor says “No, you can’t do it”.  Banks, superannuation funds and insurers are making lending or investment decisions based on climate change risks, but elements in government insist “No, you mustn’t”. Oddly, state governments, both Coalition and ALP, have been far more courageous than the Commonwealth in setting climate change targets.

Instead of hand-wringing, citizens must engage, engage, engage. As Ross Garnaut has argued, we should not fear transition to a post-carbon economy — we have the potential to be a superpower in that area.

Voters are now spectators, not participants, in the political process.

Exploitation of citizen passivity is the secret weapon of the major parties.

Much could be achieved in a range of policy areas if even a small proportion of our citizens were prepared to engage.

If 1000 citizens in each of the 151 federal electoral divisions could be persuaded to join the political party that they normally vote for, play an active, principled and informed role, insist on a reform platform, and fight existing factional systems/cliques, this would only involve 1% of all voters. But it would be a political revolution.

I conclude with WB Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

What will be our legacy?

Posterity will be harsh on this generation if we fail to act.

So is Dr Andrew Leigh, federal MP for Fenner in the ACT, who explores the Australian egalitarian ethos in his book Battlers and Billionaires. “Australians typically prefer mate to sir, don’t stand up when the PM enters the room, and don’t have private areas on our beaches. Many of us sit in the front seat of a taxi, and there’s an ethic that dates back to gold rush days that Jack isn’t just as good as his master, but maybe better.” That ethos is now under threat from the relentless rise in inequality, documented by Tony Atkinson and Andrew Leigh.

Barry Jones is an Australian writer, teacher, lawyer, social activist, quiz champion and former politician.

This article was 1st published in Crikey

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