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The breaking of Australian politics: why and how we got here

On 12:14 AM

The breaking of Australian politics: why and how we got here

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It was always going to be a difficult fight.

In 1998, prime minister John Howard went to the polls with a controversial Goods and Services Tax as the centrepiece of his re-election campaign.

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“He was completely aware that no other political party in the Western world had been successful in promoting an entirely new tax system during an election campaign,” former federal director of the Liberal Party Lynton Crosby said in his post-election address.

“It was a tough campaign.”

Two years earlier, Howard had announced sweeping gun reforms in response to the Port Arthur massacre.

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These too caused political pain, especially in Queensland, where an effigy of deputy prime minister Tim Fischer was lynched in the town of Gympie.

Howard would later say he had no doubt that discontent about gun laws played some role in the emergence of One Nation.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson part ways after the government's company tax cuts were voted down on Wednesday.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson part ways after the government's company tax cuts were voted down on Wednesday.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Bob Baldwin and Richard Evans were among 18 Coalition MPs who lost their seats in the 1998 election, in a 4.7-percentage-point swing to Labor.

“I knew I was gone,” says Evans, who lost the seat of Cowan in Western Australia to Labor.

“There was a lot of angst in my electorate from the gun lobby. A lot of my volunteers went to One Nation to hand out how-to-vote cards.”

But he was convinced the Coalition’s policy direction was right: “We [backbenchers] stood shoulder-to-shoulder with [Howard] because we wanted him to show some national leadership. I was sacrificed for it but hey, that’s what you have to do.”

Baldwin says the GST had the full support of the party room: “Australia was in an economic mess and needed reform. I was glad to go to the election defending that policy."

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He also knew he would face an uphill battle to keep his seat. Not only was his NSW electorate of Paterson then a marginal Liberal seat, it also had one of the highest rates of gun registration in Australia.

“I never saw myself as a sacrificial lamb. I saw myself as a warrior fighting the good fight. At the end of the day my team won, my governme nt won and we achieved good policy.”

Today the GST enjoys bipartisan support and the gun reforms have been credited with saving countless lives. They cemented Howard’s reputation as a reformer, even among critics of the conservative leader.

But the past, to quote the wistful opening of L.P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between, “is a foreign country: they do things differently there”. These days, entitlement rules.

Governments announce policies, often without consultation, and then dump them to appease skittish backbenchers worried about losing their seats.

“A lot of our people are facing the fact that they are in the last six months of their political careers,” one backbencher told the Sydney Morning Herald's political editor, Peter Hartcher.

“They’ve got houses, school bills, cars that they’ve set up for themselves on the basis that they’re earning $200,000-plus. What do they do if they’re suddenly out of work? ”

Malcolm Turnbull announces that the government is dropping its company tax cuts policy on Wednesday.

Malcolm Turnbull announces that the government is dropping its company tax cuts policy on Wednesday.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Political scientist Dr Jill Sheppard has done some research with colleagues from the Australian National University on the changing backgrounds of politicians.

“We are seeing more politicians who have worked in political staffing, who worked in business or lobbying either inside or on the periphery of Parliament House,” she says.

“[They have] well-planned ambitions already, rather than coming into the Parliament with some notion of representing the local com munity.”

Sheppard says this political class is more risk-averse.

“I think we have a group of politicians at the moment who have a coherent worldview and a well-defined ideological view, but actually enacting that is hard,” she says.

December 1, 2009: Tony Abbott walks back to his office after ousting Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal Party leadership by one vote.

December 1, 2009: Tony Abbott walks back to his office after ousting Malcolm Turnbull from the Liberal Party leadership by one vote.

Photo: Glen McCurtayne

“Politics is really about chipping away at small reforms and working your way up to big reforms, as with something like the GST. That is a long game that a lot of politic ians in this group don’t seem willing to play.”

In the last decade, Australia’s revolving-door leadership has made it the butt of international jokes: no prime minister has seen out a full term in office since Howard lost the 2007 election.

The BBC has long called Australia "the coup capital of the democratic world".

Short-termism and political expediency is trumping long-term policy development in the interest of the country.

“Think here about how rushed the NBN was to prove that the government was getting the job done,” says Andrew Hughes, a lecturer from the ANU. “This may have a massive flow-on effect for generations into the future, as its lifespan may not allow for it to be fully paid off due to the rapid development of technology such as 5G. Same goes for company tax, pink batts and the list goes on.”

Tom Switzer from the Centre for Independent Studies believes social media is driving policy-on-the-run and leadership churn . “Politicians will all too often react to the parochialism of the present.”

He points to Labor’s knee-jerk decision to ban live cattle exports to Indonesia in 2011, following the release of footage of cattle being mistreated in Indonesian abattoirs.

The timing - just before the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan - was disastrous and the effects of the ban, which caused the price of beef to soar, led to lasting mistrust on Indonesia’s part.

As journalist Hugh Riminton tweeted: “Perhaps it is coincidental, perhaps not, but no Australian Prime Minister has served a full term since #Twitter was invented.”

Resources Minister Matt Canavan and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg: climate change and energy policy have become key fault lines for the Coalition over the last decade.

Resources Minister Matt Canavan and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg: climate change and energy policy have become key fault lines for the Coalition over the last decade.

Photo: AAP

This week Malcolm Turnbull - in a desperate and futile bid to stave off a leadership revolt - abandoned plans to legislate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions.

The New York Times observed he would be the third Australian prime minister in the past decade to lose the position over a climate change dispute.

“... it is especially dismaying when science-denying hacks and self-serving industries block action that is in the obvious and urgent interest of all humanity. That should not be happening in Australia,” the Times’ editorial board tartly opined.

Political commentator George Megalogenis believes the Australian political system lost its bearings when prime minister Kevin Ru dd folded on climate change.

Rudd, who once described climate change as the “greatest moral … challenge of our time”, put Labor’s emissions trading scheme on ice in 2010 to fend off Tony Abbott’s claims it was a “great big new tax” during the election campaign.

Labor reportedly lost the support of around one million voters in just a fortnight.

“A decade on, Australia has had no substantial reform introduced that’s survived a change of government, with the notable exception of Julia Gillard’s National Disability Insurance Scheme,” Megalogenis writes in The Football Solution.

In the current febrile political climate it has proved impossible to even tinker around the edges of tax reform. In July, Turnbull rejected a Productivity Commission recommendation to overhaul the GST, which would have seen more money go to WA and NSW. On Wednesday, he dumped the government’s signature policy of tax cuts for big business.

On the right, identity politics has degenerated into a contest over who can truly be called conservative, exemplified by Cory Bernardi's break with the Liberal Party.

Photo: Andrew Meares

“There is little doubt that the zest for economic reform has been lost for the time being at least in Australia,” Howard tells Fairfax Media in an email.

“The rise of identity politics in Western nations, particularly on the left of politics, has diverted the attention of political parties away from the fundamental importance of continuing economic reforms. ”

The term identity politics, generally used as a pejorative, is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race or social background to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics”.

“Identity politics brings the left together, whereas on the right it inspires wars over who is the true upholder of conservative principles,” Deakin University senior lecturer Geoffrey Robinson wrote for The Conversation.

This was seen in senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells’ attack on Turnbull when she quit the front bench this week, saying the party was moving too far to the left and losing its conservative base. “The same-sex marriage debate eroded further the support of our base,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

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Howard says one of the consequences of identity politics is that political parties are less inclined to develop policies which appeal to all sections of the community.

“Obviously, compiling an agenda which has special appeal to a particular group operates against adopting a program which has the capacity to appeal to all sections of the community.”

There is no doubt leadership churn is intensifying: the never-ending spill culture has seen nine leadership contests since 2007.

In the early 1990s, the Newspoll survey of federal voting intentions switched from being monthly to fortnightly.

Frank Bongiorno, a professor of history from the ANU, believes rolling opinion polls, feverishly reported by the media, have been a destabilising force.

Inside and out: Tony Abbott with his prime ministerial chief of staff Peta Credlin, who has become a media pundit.

Inside and out: Tony Abbott with his prime ministerial chief of staff Peta Credlin, who has become a media pundit.

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

He also points to partisan media commentators such as Peta Credlin, Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, “who are effectively players in factional warfare and leadership rivalries”.

This week saw Nine’s political editor Chris Uhlmann explosively accusing Sky News, The Daily Telegraph and 2GB of “waging a war” against Turnbull.

"If they are making phone calls to people trying to push people over the line, then they’re part of the story," Uhlmann said on the Today show.

“Sky after dark at the moment is turning Liberal National Party voters into One Nation voters and they are not coming back.”

In March this year, Australia’s former chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, delivered a blistering - and prescient - speech in Melbourne entitled “longing for leadership”.

He fulminated against Australian political leaders who thought more about themselves and keeping their job than they did about the nation - “notwithstanding the piety of their rhetorical commitment to the Australian people”.

“We are now used to a diet of platitudes, thought bubbles, half-truths, outright untruths, opacity and focus group-driven populist approaches based on whatever it takes to get elected.”

In his speech, Chubb railed against a “former politician” who dubbed climate science experts “alarmists” and “zealots” for whom “the cause has become a substitute religion”.

Climate change has proved an insurmountable policy obstacle for a succession of Australian leaders.

Climate change has proved an insurmountable policy obstacle for a succession of Australian leaders.

Photo: Paul Rovere

(He was referring to Howard, who told an audience of climate change sceptics in London in 2013 that Tony Abbott had become prime minister because he challenged what seemed to be a political consensus on global warming.)

“We get told, for example, to drop our preoccupation with climate change [and control immigration] to win the next election,” Chubb said in the speech. “A vision for our country that extends all the way to, what, maybe August this year or May next year at the latest.”

Chubb tells Fairfax Media he had been disappointed by Howard, who had appeared committed to science when prime minister: “I thought he was better than that.”

He says the political situation is “worse now than even [in March]”.

“Between now and then we have had the Barnaby Joyce interview, where he declared he stayed in t he job we gave him out of spite,” Chubb says.

Barnaby Joyce: hung on to his job out of "spite".

Barnaby Joyce: hung on to his job out of "spite".

Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Chubb is at pains to stress there are some very good people in Parliament: “The problem for the general public is they see too much of the others.

“Over a period of time the political class has been infiltrated by a born-to-rule class. We forget we employ them, we are their employers. What we have seen in the past [week] ... this is about getting a job, keeping a job, that feeling of entitlement.”

Chubb says he is becoming more and more worried about the future of the country.

“They [politicians] have lost the capability to tell the story and build the vision and say why they sometimes have to make decisions we don’t all agree with.”

Rudd, whose removal from office in 2010 heralded the start of the coup culture against sitting PMs, identifies a “cocktail of factors” driving the rolling leadership instability.

“It’s a combination of naked Shakespearean ambition, the cult of opinion polls and a disdain for long-term policy development and implementation.”

He says MPs' worst instincts and reliance on leadership change needs curbing. He has called on the Liberal Party to match the strict leadership rules he imposed upon returning to the job in 2013 that have gifted Bill Shorten five years as Labor leader.

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Wayne Swan, who served as treasurer during the 2008 global financial crisis, sees the crisis as a major trigger that saw the centre-right unable to defend capitalism to voters and retreating into populism instead.

“Fund amentally the rise of right-wing populism is because of the rampant wealth and income inequality and the right exploiting race and gender politics to camouflage their wealth-concentration agenda,” he says.

“They use the politics of division to override their trickle-down agenda.”

But Swan also said the intense media scrutiny on politicians' private lives and the impact of the accelerated media cycle on governing were also factors.

Others identify structural shifts that extend beyond traditional left-right arguments.

Is Australian politics broken? Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton in Parliament this week.

Is Australian politics broken? Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton in Parliament this week.

Photo: AAP

Four months ago, Fairfax Media published an exclusive analysis of the Australian Election Study, which looked at long-term trends in federal elections since 1987.

The findings were confronting: politics in Australia is broken.

And before you roll your eyes about politicians in Canberra, the authors, former Rudd advisers Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton, suggest a “less comfortable truth”: “The problem is not just them. It is also us.”

They argue the ideological polarisation of voters is a longstanding and global trend.

In Australia, this has seen rising support for parties such as the Greens, One Nation and the Australian Conservatives.

Voters and politicians are much less likely to describe themselves as “centrist” or “moderate”.

They don’t want compromise, and reward parties that decry it, Charlton and Harris argue. However passing legislation requires broad, often cross-party support: “Fewer cent rists makes serious reforms harder to get across the line. An obvious example is climate change policy.”

Charlton and Harris say that major parties, which have allowed membership to dwindle and succumbed to opaque preselections and dubious donations, will need to rebuild trust.

The Liberal Party website claims it has more than 80,000 members across more than 2000 branches. However Judith Brett, Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, says at a “generous estimate there are about 50,000 members”.

A GetUp! supporter hands out how-to-vote cards in the ACT during the 2013 election.

A GetUp! supporter hands out how-to-vote cards in the ACT during the 2013 election.

Photo: Scott Hannaford

Labor reportedly registered just 53,550 members at the end of last year, despite Bill Shorten’s 2014 plan to boost membership to 100,000. Both parties boasted around 200,000 members in the postwar years.

Meanwhile the left-wing lobby group GetUp! received donations from 64,957 individuals last financial year, which is spent on campaigns such as defending asylum seekers, protecting the Great Barrier Reef and stopping the Adani coal mine.

Charlton and Harris argue in their analysis that rather than rewarding absolutism, voters will need to reward politicians and parties who achieve agreement across political battle lines.

But Harris is a realist. In an interview with Fairfax Media, he warns against the nostalgia that guides the “we are just one leader away from returning to normal” approach.

“You have got to strip away that nostalgia that we are going to return to some previous term of stability, that is not what voters say they want.”

Steady democracy, he predicts, will end up being regarded not as a norm but a 20th and early 21st-century phenomenon “that we are watching, quite painfully, die out”.

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Jewel Topsfield
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Jewel Topsfield is the national correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Latika Bourke
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Latika Bourke is a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age based in London. She has previously worked for Fairfax Media, the ABC and 2UE in Canberra. Latika won the Walkley Award for Young Australian Journalist of the Year in 2010.

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