Petty political class is stunting Australia's growth



Some days it seems a marvel that there is not much unrest in Australia, compared to other parts of the developed world.

Malcolm TurnbullPerhaps we're opting for cruise control after the high-octane, fender-bending Rudd-Gillard-Abbott years. Or perhaps it is because our welfare systems, social institutions and security apparatus are holding, making it less easy for agitators to mount a case against migrants or call for an overhaul in Canberra.

But the conditions for distrust and disgust are plain, from looming penalty rate cuts to worsening levels of housing affordability. Wage growth is at a record-low and underemployment is high.

Such conditions drive voters to seek alternatives. In the latest Essential poll, the primary vote for Pauline Hanson's One Nation lifted to 11 per cent, despite its patchy record on welfare, as well as multiple scandals over its internal workings. It generally does not bode well when competence is no longer the baseline; though in a leadership vacuum, 'someone else' holds a natural appeal.

In any case, there can be worse things than incompetence. There is timidity. Mediocrity. Running up the cost of doing nothing at all. In so many ways, the Australian political class is holding us back. That is the crux of nearly every policy impasse over the past several years. We are stunted.

The recent Finkel review into our energy supply is illuminating in this regard. It has quickly amounted to nothing more than paper-pushing, through no fault of the chief scientist. The Coalition has decided that the Clean Energy Target, a mechanism for investment in new low-emission power generation, needs further analysis.

It is classic stonewalling — as if infrastructure issues, inflated electricity prices, and slack investment in renewables and storage have not already overtaken us. It calls to mind the plebiscite tactic, which deliberately kicked same-sex marriage further down the road despite every poll confirming that Australians just want it done.

The reticence against the CET is not just ideological. It is petty. The CET would be a price on carbon emissions in effect, bringing the Liberal Party closer to Labor policy. Some of its MPs think this is a bad thing. The same mentality left negative gearing and capital gains tax discounts untouched in the recent budget, despite the drain on revenue. It would look too much like a concession to the other side.


"The overarching and more significant divide seems to be between us and the people who rule over us. If only there was a way to stop them from holding us back from the kind of country that we want to be."


This is typical of the mediocrity that keeps Australia inert. Political dividends are seen to come from partisan theatrics rather than — shock, horror — reflecting what Australians care about, or exercising a larger leadership than that of the party.

If polls were any measure and democratic representation meant anything at all, there would be bipartisan agreement about things like action on climate change, legalising same-sex marriage, a constitutionally bound and just relationship with Indigenous peoples, resettling refugees from Nauru and Manus, and protecting penalty rates.

Support for such things present a picture of the kind of people that Australians probably are: fair-minded, open and collectivist. It is a vision to reach for and one that does not get validated near enough.

There are real divisions, to be sure, but the overarching and more significant divide seems to be between us and the people who rule over us. If only there was a way to stop them from holding us back from the kind of country that we want to be.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She co-hosts the ChatterSquare podcast, tweets as @foomeister and blogs on Medium.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, climate change, Finkel review, same sex marriage, refugees, Indigenous Australians



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Existing comments

You suggest the polls indicate that a majority of the population supports the five positions highlighted in your third last sentence, Fatima. If that is so, then in any true democracy there should be bipartisan agreement and action in accord with the majority view. However, it is dubious that the correct questions have been asked by the pollsters and polls might not be representative. We should be given the opportunity to respond to all of these situations in a well constructed referendum which carries the obligation to respond to the will of the people. For example, I suspect that few would not opt for resettling current refugees in off-shore detention but not support the unfettered acceptance of all and sundry in the future. Again I suspect recognition of same sex civil union would be widely accepted rather than same sex marriage if the two options were polled in parallel. Similarly with the other three, the correct questions, not the Howard-styled deceptions, need to be put to the people.
john frawley | 21 June 2017

"If only there was a way to stop them from holding us back from the kind of country that we want to be" whereas I say that is just the point that there is something preventing us hurtling along as if a "majority" is right by virtue of size alone which cannot be verified in polls which are limited in sample size and location as well as the nature of the question as is John Frawley's point @ June 21. Even what that means when voting is non-compulsory is illustrated in the Irish YES vote on the question of SSM. A minority of overall voters though a majority of 60% who turned out on the day generated a precarious 'win' that is painted as the will of the majority.
Gordana Martinovich | 22 June 2017

"f only there was a way to stop them from holding us back from the kind of country that we want to be." So true! I want a country that takes climate change seriously, that accepts many more migrants and doesn't put asylum seekers in off-shore hall-holes, that increases overseas aid, that continually strives to reduce the great social divide and that respects and supports the democratic process, not undermines it with political donations.
Grant Allen | 24 June 2017

“….the overarching and more significant divide seems to be between us and the people who rule over us. If only there was a way to stop them from holding us back from the kind of country that we want to be.” There was a way and, in five years’ time, we’ll see if it worked in France.
Roy Chen Yee | 25 June 2017

If only the Senate allowed the plebiscite on same sex marriage then it would all be decided by now, by the people saying what they think. It would be another step towards the country we want to be, instead of it still being debated and causing division. I'm afraid it's the Senate playing party politics and not allowing a democratic vote.
Jane | 26 June 2017

It is true that voters often turn to alternative parties when they feel that major political parties are not addressing their real needs. Just witness the Trump victory in the US I too have concerns about One Nation, but I also think that we cannot just assume that One Nation is the only party that is incompetent. The current federal government is being totally incompetent and irresponsible for the reasons you have mentioned. In its quest to please the tiny super wealthy section of our society, it has cut the budget for education, health, social services and has shown a complete dereliction of duty in relation to the environment as you have identified. It has also wasted huge amounts of taxpayer money to give huge handouts to big business and the very wealthy, supported US military adventures abroad and allowed the dirty industries to pollute the environment with hardly a slap on the wrist. In addition, this government is insisting on taking oil and gas resources from the 1/2 of the Timor Sea belonging to the East Timorese, our great WW2 ally. To stop the LNP Coalition preventing us being from being the country we want to be, progressive and caring Australians need to struggle to ensure that our leaders give priority to social justice, human rights, peace and care for the environment.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 26 June 2017

One specific impediment to the Federal Government moving on any of the policy areas you have listed is the disunity of the Liberal-National Coalition, split between the true liberals and the conservatives, both terms used in the British sense. It was good that Senator Cory Bernadi resigned to found an Australian Conservative Party, and even better to read that his foundling party is growing rapidly, hopefully towards providing a home for all the conservatives in the present governing parties and their supporters in the electorate. When leading conservatives in the Liberal and National Parties - Abbott, Dutton, Abetz, Christiansen, to name a few - develop the courage to leave and join Bernadi, the Liberal Party will have a better chance of actually returning to its liberal origins and hopefully getting on with governing the nation. Meanwhile, Labor's problem is quite similar, although more difficult to define. But they do have to develop a policy platform which reflects modern Australia, including breaking the nexus with the trade union movement, which now represents only a small minority of Australian workers.
Ian Fraser | 26 June 2017

Many of the problems facing Australians would be solved, if the Government would create Development Bonds whereby Investors would finance a plan to build dams and pumping stations to turn back the rain water that floods East coast towns and send it over the Ranges to the parched farm lands. Building the infrastructure to control the water, and the renewable energy generation, would create jobs, stop the drift of population from the country and help to decentralise and enrich the country.
Robert Liddy | 26 June 2017

In the last 10 years of this nation’s pseudo-government, too many politicians of all ilks have shown attitudes verging on contempt towards the people of Australia. This has largely changed the verb for our feelings about most from “dislike” to “despise”. And for once, politicians have no-one to blame but themselves. Our current politicians are reminiscent of small children engaged in far-over-the-top misbehaviour. They know that consequences are coming, but just can’t help themselves, and almost hysterically persist way beyond the point of no return. But it is time to put our wayward politicians in the naughty corner. If your local member or Senator continues to misbehave, or if his/her leader or key representatives do – at the next election, sweep the floor! Remember this, people of Australia, and pledge to vote for politicians willing to negotiate in benevolent good faith with all other members to achieve for the Australian people. Not win/lose political brownie points for their party, but synergistic win/win outcomes for all. And if no-one in a major party running locally fits that description, vote for the most honest and competent independent candidate. (Benevolent intentions naturally preclude the Hansonist beserkers.) Sweep the floor! Think France. En marche!
PaulM | 26 June 2017

I am not in favour of same sex marriage, perhaps describe it as a union. A plebiscite with the extra bit of voting paper at the next federal election is my suggestion. I disagree with approx. 234 politicians from C'berra having a conscience vote. These people were not put in to dictate morals to the rest of the population. As for the leaders, some people generally concede that the PM needs to have a stronger grip on leadership. The leader of the opposition has changed so many times...He agreed a while ago on a plebiscite, then wanted to go to parliament. On the decision of penalty rates he supported (initially) the commission and then decided that we had a right to challenge the decision. He, Mr Shorten, has been given very good advice by Bob Hawke and Martin Ferguson to disassociate from the CMFEU and has ignored that. Finally Tanya P and Bill were 2 of 9 in Labor inner circle who did not want to support Gonski, I am led to believe so if they had followed the majority on both sides of parliament,we would not have this silly wrangling.
Mick Jones | 27 June 2017

'These people were not put in to dictate morals to the rest of the population'. I agree wholeheartedly with you Mick. But civil marriage has nothing to do with 'morals' in the sense that you use the word. Civil marriage is about loving and supportive relationships between partners, it's about family formation and family security, it's about committed relationships in old age. And no one, least of all legislators, should be withholding access the civil marriage from same-sex partners and their families on the basis of his or her own 'morals'.
Ginger Meggs | 27 June 2017

Excellent article! How can we restore genuine representation and democracy in this lucky country!
Fred Scholten | 29 June 2017

I support the increase in the number of refugees that the Government accepts,and the closing of the Manus and Nauru camps, and a very substantial increase in well-used overseas aid. But I want to have my vote on "same sex marriage":(against). And those who believe a great reduction is urgently needed in the number of immigrants to a sustainable level, in view of all the harmful effects of excessive levels of immigration of which more and more are becoming aware, are not just "agitators". (Refugees are a small part of the present intake.) Pauline Hanson at least brings that major issue to our attention, as she brought to our attention the varying needs of children with various disabilities in our schools even if not in the clearest way. For those reasons alone, despite all her faults and ignorance, she might well get a preference from me ! The Coalition, Labor, and the Greens who all support the very high levels of immigration that have come about in recent years will certainly not.
John Bunyan | 29 June 2017

Well said, Fatima! And there are other issues, too: for example, the proposed media law changes which will limit even further the range of views aired in the public domain, as well as proposed further scrutiny of the ABC and SBS, two of the few organs in Australia one can trust with the truth. It was so disappointing to see the Finkel report put aside over petty political issues, or perhaps behind-the scenes lobbying by the fossil-fuel industries, not to speak of the politicisation of the same-sex marriage issue, the cruel victimisation of genuine asylum seekers on off-shore detention centres (when we are signatories to the UN convention on the rights of refugees, how can this be justified, and indeed, in any sense of humanity, how could it ever be justified?) At least we do have compulsory voting, meaning a majority 9 interpreted as more than 50 %) is a majority! Who knows what the Brexit or the French election outcomes might have been had everyone had their say!
Mary Lynch | 18 August 2017

Fatima, How do we fix the problem? Is a corollary to this the notion that our political parties appoint leaders with mirrors up to those closest to power, and the system is indeed broken.
Jim Slingsby | 06 October 2017


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