[Published at Pearls & Irritations, 20 Nov]
A way to break us out of the ossified and toxic parliamentary culture and the fearful stupor of the electorate. A way to restore fluid and functional governance.
Both John Menadue and Michael Keating make strong points, as insiders, about Australia’s increasingly undemocratic politics. Perhaps an outsider’s perspective can reveal deeper causes and issues that clarify the situation, and offer a way forward that does not depend on begging the powerful.
A key theme of Menadue’s is that oligarchs have corrupted our parties and politics for their own benefit. He identifies ‘unchecked capitalism’ as a prime source of our problems. I can only agree, but where did this unchecked capitalism come from, and what is to be done about it?
A key theme of Keating’s is that our society is fragmented by intersecting fault lines, creating many constituencies at odds with each other and making demands that cannot be reconciled. He even calls some issues intractable. A deeper analysis suggests these groups have more in common than that, and a clear strategy with well-pitched messages might pull many of them together, and even ease some of the ‘intractables’.
Keating indicates that progress can be made if Labor will recognise that better wages, action on the climate emergency and a healthy economy are not incompatible. Labor shows little sign of having or gaining the requisite understanding, let alone the courage to act on it.
Menadue on the other hand proposes a set of reforms that, if enacted, would do much to improve the health of our political system. But who will enact those reforms? Not the present parliament, nor the old parties.
We can no longer wait for slow reforms. The police state is closing in on us and the possibility of retrieving a safe climate is diminishing by the day. We don’t know if it might already be too late, but we can only hope it is not and keep trying. 2019 was supposed to be ‘the climate election’. 2022 (or sooner) must be the climate election, and it must result in a major national effort to clean up our act.
There is a way forward that does not require any changes in rules or institutions. To be effective it needs to be backed by a good diagnosis with effective treatment at hand. To succeed it needs to rise above old tribal loyalties, old political labels and unproductive adversarialism.
The electorate of Indi has now elected two Independents in succession, Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines. They did it by holding a lot of grass roots conversations about what people wanted, and by identifying capable candidates with good values and a willingness to represent their people.
Zali Steggall won the Warringah electorate using similar methods, though with less time, more star power and a particular issue (the incumbent) to unite people. Kerryn Phelps came close to holding Wentworth as an Independent. We might also note Independent Andrew Wilkie from Tasmania and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie and Senator Rex Patrick, who are unconstrained by the old parties and ideologies.
Disillusionment with old politics has been growing steadily. The coming summer, already upon us ahead of the official season, may see critical shifts in many attitudes. It takes time to organise a national political party but we don’t need to. If, say, ten or fifteen quality Independents were elected to the House it would shift the political dynamics. By ‘quality’ I mean people with experience in community affairs who share the values of their electorate, as distinct from the reactionaries, fruit loops and zealots we have seen too many of lately.
You might be inclined to pin old political labels on people like Haines, Steggall and Phelps, but they explicitly want serious action on the climate emergency. You can work with people like that. You can’t work with the deluded ideologues of the Coalition, nor with an ALP gridlocked by factions, dragging old policies and blinking in the glare of a hot new world. You can’t work with the thoroughly corrupt.
So I propose that we move beyond the toxic adversarial habit and put people in parliament who want to represent and govern.
The first decade of Federation was one of minority governments and shifting alliances, but a lot was accomplished. The Gillard minority government also accomplished quite a lot. But why stop there? Why not hand government to someone supported on supply by a majority of Independents in the House? Shocking as the thought may be, the old parties and the old toxic ways are comprehensively failing us and we need to contemplate their demise.
Of course alliances would soon form among Independents. The point here is not to abolish alliances, it is to break us out of the ossified and toxic parliamentary culture and the fearful stupor of the electorate. The point is to restore fluid and functional governance.
What would a sensible government, minority or otherwise, do? Higher incomes for the unemployed and low-wage earners would immediately stimulate the economy because they would spend the money on necessities instead of on unproductive asset speculation. Force the big corporations that want to operate in Australia to pay taxes, it can’t be that hard, we just need the will. Spend on productive infrastructure, there is a huge backlog. That will also stimulate the economy. We can get over the misguided obsession with balancing the Federal budget and notice that Government spending enables private saving, as well as anchoring our whole monetary system.
During the postwar decades governments governed for full employment and unemployment averaged 1.3%, with inflation averaging a moderate 3.3%. GDP growth averaged over 5%. The neoliberal era has never come close to that ‘beautiful set of numbers’. There is no reason we can’t control foreign investment and regulate the banks as they used to be – by that old socialist Bob Menzies.
Supporting employment security instead of attacking and undermining it would relieve a lot of needless and destructive anxiety. Using the budget and other powers to reduce a wasteful labour force underutilisation around 14% would give people a fair shot at the decent jobs they want. The ‘intractable’ issues referred to by Michael Keating tend to be exacerbated by poverty and alienation, so we should be able to ameliorate them by giving people a fair go.
If the battlers find their lives noticeably improving they will be less resentful, less combative and more inclined to appreciate who is responsible. Some of the present ‘fault lines’ might be bridged. If everyone sees a government intent on governing and focussed on improving the lives of the many (for a change) they will be more inclined to support it.
I was in the United States during Jimmy Carter’s term, and pundits were saying the US was becoming ungovernable. Then Reagan got in, with a clear story and a strong program, and he governed, though it was much to the detriment of the world.
We have known for decades how to address the climate emergency, we just need to get on with it. We can create a workable smart electricity grid, adding strategically scattered pumped hydro storages (not Snowy 2.0!) and incentivising efficient buildings, clean transport and clean industry. There should be no new fossil fuel mines or exploration and the workers should be helped to transition into clean work, which many may prefer to do anyway. As Ross Garnaut is only the latest to point out, there are large opportunities for Australia in clean energy.
Regenerative agriculture is developing rapidly in Australia and it sequesters carbon, retains much more ground water, minimises pollutants and allows the natural world to thrive around it. We don’t need trashed habitats, blowing soil, dead fish, dry rivers, waterless towns and sick seas to make a living, as if we could for long anyway. This shift can also be actively supported.
There is much more we can do, but this conveys the flavour and direction. The underlying truth is that neoliberalism has been a disastrous failure that has generated great economic and social division. It was always snake oil and was never going to succeed. Its failure was clear twenty years ago. The ‘Keynesian’ approach was not broken, it was disrupted by quadrupling oil prices and Nixon’s reckless spending on Vietnam. Restoring some of the postwar social democracy would be a good start, and we could do even better if we set about it.
The oligarchs, including the media, will of course squeal that the sky will fall if we so much as think about any of this. Well hello? The sky is already sagging and we need to do something about it. Networks of people can go around the old media, as they can go around the old parties and habits.
Perhaps all of this seems like a big ask, but times are changing. What will Australia be like by the end of this summer, let alone in three or five years? Perhaps my outlined policy agenda is ambitious and not yet widely understood, but it’s the sort of thing you get to if you go beyond the market-fundamentalist nonsense and look at what used to be done and what might be done.
Only that kind of ambitious thinking will give us a chance of having a recognisable Australia come 2030.