May 2022

Comment

Spoiling for victory

By Nick Feik
Labor leader Anthony Albanese at Mount Thorley Warkworth mine near Newcastle, New South Wales.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese at Mount Thorley Warkworth mine near Newcastle, New South Wales. © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

The election campaign is no way to decide how to run the country

Nine years of Coalition government have had devastating effects on Australian civil society – not that you’d know it from watching the election campaign coverage. Elections always bring a curious reset in our politics, as if recent months and years are suddenly irrelevant. As if the mere fact of an election is sufficient to sustain democracy, and past votes have justified everything that followed.

Suddenly the only thing worth discussing is the presentational prowess of the two main candidates for the prime ministership, and their ability to cleave to a perilously narrow road to potential victory. We are engaged in a remarkable collective act of self-silencing and denial, one steeped in Australian history but never more damaging. It’s the campaign, stupid.

Context is abandoned, and a gravitational force is exerted on debate, bringing with it an aggressive focus: what will appeal to middle Australia? Or rather, what can be said uncontroversially in a public discourse policed by media organisations (which apparently own the minds of middle Australia) and business groups (whose idea of good policy doesn’t extend beyond clientelism and neoliberal economics)? If the Overton window is the range of ideas acceptable to the general public, the Campaign window is a subset so narrow it’s often difficult to discern any differences between the prime-ministerial candidates. They say the same things, only the names are changed.

Australia is on a precipice, facing the most consequential election in years, yet we ignore the fact that the organisations and institutions that enrich and protect us have been ravaged under the Coalition. The mainstream media and both major parties delude us into thinking that complex problems should be set aside for a few weeks and we can return to them later. There’s no incentive for that, though, because we reward politicians simply for mouthing slogans.

It’s no minor concern that government accountability measures are ignored, whistleblowers prosecuted, community legal services defunded, charities threatened, cultural bodies cut to the bone, public broadcasters attacked. Or that the billions misspent on non-existent submarines, JobKeeper or the terribly flawed NBN, or on policy disasters such as robodebt, didn’t even prompt a shrug of the shoulders let alone a mea culpa.

Federal grants programs – all of them – are treated like piggy banks, and half a dozen ministers have faced serious if not criminal allegations that have been buried rather than investigated. Political donation and advertising laws are a joke.

The Australian Human Rights Commission, already under major financial strain, had its funding cut by a third in the recent budget, threatening its international accreditation as an independent human rights organisation. The Australian National Audit Office, the Commonwealth Ombudsman’s office, the Australian Law Reform Commission and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal all face major cuts too, with the latter also being stacked with friends of the Coalition. Requests from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner – for instance, for information relating to Barnaby Joyce’s short-lived but well-remunerated “drought envoy” position – are routinely ignored, as are questions on notice presented in Senate estimates. At the start of the campaign there were 790 questions on notice overdue for a reply. Minister Angus Taylor’s department of energy and emissions reduction, for one, took 79 questions on notice during the recent estimates hearings, and provided answers to precisely none of them within the required time period.

The Morrison government promised in 2018 to introduce a national integrity commission, but never did and never will. For obvious reasons.

The damage to Australian society from the Coalition goes well beyond these collapsing governance and accountability standards.

Funding for an arts sector that was in distress before the pandemic was cut by 20 per cent year-on-year. Under both pandemic and non-pandemic related budgetary pressures, the major universities have become akin to property development corporations with a sideline in education – actively hostile to academics and research, and for whom students are a necessary inconvenience. Desperately needed public-school funding continues to be sacrificed for the sake of private schools. Social services such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme and aged care are at breaking point as a result of continual financial pressures. Centrelink has been reshaped to humiliate its “clients”, with the rate of the unemployment allowance sitting well below the poverty line. Indigenous disadvantage is as stark as it’s ever been, but the Uluru statement proposals have been ignored. Unions’ ability to represent workers’ interests has been deliberately undermined by over-regulation, with consequent impacts on wage growth. Precarity is baked into the jobs market. Two decades of bad housing policy has made it an engine for growing inequality. Manufacturing policy is a running joke without a punchline, with no one noticing that it comprises the same empty announcements made over and over. And the public service has been reduced to a husk, outsourcing its core tasks to overpaid consultants.

Climate and environmental specialists are treated like pariahs, their work ignored or dismissed if it ever sees the light of day. A report on the management of threatened species from the Australian National Audit Office this year found the government could not demonstrate it is protecting Australia’s endangered wildlife because it was not monitoring most species, habitats or threats, and there was limited evidence that conservation plans were being implemented: just 2 per cent of species-recovery plans since 2013 had been finalised within the time frames required under law. The minister for the environment, Sussan Ley, has been sitting on the 2021 “State of the Environment” report – a comprehensive national assessment written by independent experts – since last year. Given the Coalition’s record, one can surmise why.

Despite overlapping natural disasters, the government refuses to take climate change seriously, continuing to promote and subsidise new fossil-fuel ventures, while its funding of national emergency services, disaster relief and resilience agencies remains pitiful and subject to pork-barrelling. Scott Morrison brags on the campaign trail about keeping Australians safe, but every time his government is called upon to lead – whether it be COVID or disaster related – he performs a disappearing act and shoves responsibilities to the states. He only reappears when it’s safe for a photo-op. There has never been a prime minister so ill-equipped to govern.

Yet here we are. Who won the day on the campaign trail? Who forgot a crucial number? Who looked more convincing cosplaying a tradie? If you can’t face any more of the campaign, let me save you some time and trouble: there is bipartisan agreement on the importance of defending our borders and having a strong economic plan with targeted, modest social spending measures; no one is proposing increasing revenue to solve the aforementioned problems Australia faces; both leaders support jobs, footy, and trips to the pub and Bunnings.

Neither major party seeks to rock the boat. Happily, in this election there are better alternatives than normal.

Nick Feik

Nick Feik is the editor of The Monthly.

@nickfeik

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