Given that the relentlessness of the political year has ground most participants and onlookers to powder, I want to use my last Saturday column for 2018 to hoist us, briefly, above the ruckus. It’s worth the climb because, if we can gain sufficient altitude to map the terrain, some positive elements do reveal themselves.
We are deeply fortunate in some ways. The tumult of the Australian political system, while noisy, increasingly tawdry (the Nationals, good grief, make it stop) and deeply unfulfilling for people who just want an elected government to be competent, is a timid echo of the tumult in Donald Trump’s Washington.
While paranoia and reactionary populism, the animating currents of the Trump presidency, certainly exist in the Australian system, asserting themselves periodically, they have not yet taken the country hostage.
Australia is not convulsed by Brexit as the United Kingdom now is – one of the world’s great democracies seemingly teetering on the edge of chaos.
The main difference between conditions here and elsewhere is the state of the economy, and the buttressing provided by Australia’s architecture of social safety nets, which have been an automatic stabiliser through three decades of profound transformation that has opened us to the world.
Australia rode out the worst of the global financial crisis, predominantly because of the then Labor government’s stimulus package – a bit of public policy foresight for which it still gets little political credit.
Voters are rightly anxious about their material wellbeing in a time of political and economic turbulence, particularly workers in disrupted industries (and I know, because I am one of those workers).
But the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ latest national accounts shows per capita GDP over the year to September stood at just over $75,000, up 5.3% in real terms over the last five years. And IMF data shows Australia has one of the highest per capita incomes of all the world’s advanced economies, significantly higher than Germany, Canada, France, the UK, New Zealand and Japan.
The difference is that Australia dodged the recession that triggered political upheaval elsewhere. We experienced a sustained lull. The domestic economy has now picked up, delivering with it a strong turnaround in revenue collections, which might provide a buffer against the ever-present uncertainty and volatility, provided that a politically desperate government doesn’t spend every single cent on tax relief for people who go on winning regardless of the prevailing conditions.
Then there’s the inability of the Liberal party to face up to the necessity of action on climate change, because Tony Abbott’s (changeable) feelings are more important. Again, disgraceful. There is no other word.
When we all return to the fray in 2019, it will be to a federal election year. The contest could be on us quickly, with a poll called in late January, or the preamble could extend until April, allowing Scott Morrison to deliver his budget and point to a surplus as some kind of implicit apologia for all the other deficiencies of the Coalition over its two terms in government.
Morrison clearly wants to unfurl a surplus as some kind of proxy for a managerial competence that is absent on most other fronts, and of course a surplus bankrolls “please like me” expenditure. But the prime minister and the team around him will ultimately have to make a hardheaded judgment call: does waiting make our situation worse, or does it make things better?
The whole apparatus, the political class, and the media covering events blow-by-blow, will return after the summer break collectively obsessed with divining Morrison’s political strategy.
We will be like Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, doggedly pursuing his great opus, The Key to All Mythologies, and the pursuit will be as fruitless as it was for George Eliot’s pedantic, obsessive, joyless clergyman.
When will Scott scamper to Yarralumla is the wrong question to be asking.
The questions worth pursuing in 2019 – given the dangerous state of the world, given the assault on liberal democratic values by faux strongmen and charlatans, given the disdain for facts and evidence, and given the disturbing local early warning symptoms in our own political system – aren’t process questions, they are substantive.
The question is who, in Australian politics, is actually up to the task? Who understands the fight liberal democracies are in, and who is capable of rising to the challenges of the moment?
Who still believes enough in the vocation of representative politics to want to rescue it from ignominy?
Who cares enough, who respects the voters enough, to tell the truth?
Who has the guts to grapple, earnestly, with the challenges Australia faces when it’s increasingly hard to keep showing up, because everything feels unmoored?
The exercise I’m talking about is more than just articulating a roadmap that resonates, although that’s a bulwark against outright befuddlement. Having a plan also stops politicians from making the mistake that many of them make: substituting continuous motion for purpose.
The test is simple. Do you want to change the country for the better, to build Australia up, rather than talk endlessly about changing it for no other objective than an expression of rancid partisanship?
I think it’s important to note again, in the spirit of mild optimism, that the darkest political moments of 2018 gave rise to a number of honest conversations and contributions from the political class about malignancies inside the system.
The Liberal Craig Laundy spoke movingly about the absence of basic humanism in contemporary political life. Another Liberal, Scott Ryan, delivered a modest but important political eulogy in late August mourning the lost art of compromise. Julia Banks said it was becoming impossible to serve the national interest because of “internal political games, factional party figures, self-proclaimed powerbrokers and certain media personalities who bear vindictive, mean-spirited grudges intent on settling their personal scores” – and then held true to her diagnosis by decamping to the crossbench, finding communion with a group of likeminded women.
Anthony Albanese, the Labor frontbencher, also told me during a candid conversation in December that parliamentarians were lonely, and often isolated, and that undisclosed reality helped to explain why strange things happened when they all gathered in Canberra. He also warned that tribalism was corrosive; that a retreat into fractious enclaves, where people declined to engage substantively with people of opposing views, would ultimately kill progress.
All of these reflections, in different ways, suggest the absence in the system isn’t self-awareness. The absence is unifying glue.
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