December 2023 – January 2024

Comment

What kind of year has it been?

By Sean Kelly
Image of Treasurer Jim Chalmers standing at lectern at Parliament House, October 25, 2023, taken from side stage

Treasurer Jim Chalmers at Parliament House, October 25, 2023. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Was 2023 – beyond the referendum calamity – a year of government timidity or a demonstration of its ability to keep the national conversation on course?

At the beginning of 2023, we received a reminder that turning points often come disguised: as small things, silly things. Fourteen years ago, when Tony Abbott became Liberal leader, to many his notorious three-word slogans seemed moronic, until he tore down two prime ministers and became PM himself, at which point the historical verdict shifted: what a genius at communication this Abbott was! Right or wrong, the force of this conclusion reverberated still in March this year, when British prime minister Rishi Sunak stood in front of a podium bearing the most famous of the Abbott phrasings: “STOP THE BOATS”. What had once seemed like Abbott’s folly had spread across the world.

That Sunak chose this year to borrow from our xenophobia seemed written in the stars, because 2023 was also the year that confirmed Australia’s recent sour fate: to be known across the world for issues of race and racism. This was the year in which the appearance of neo-Nazis at Melbourne protests became routine. It was the year the nation voted against changing our Constitution to grant Indigenous Australians the mildest imaginable form of substantive recognition. The proposal was defeated, in part, by a campaign built on racism and denial. What other countries think of us is not conclusive, but we should know, by looking at our cousins in America and Britain, that nations are not often good judges of themselves.

Was 2023, then, a year of hidden turning points, important shifts that aren’t clear yet but may later seem significant? It is at least plausible that the most significant moment in the year will turn out to be not the referendum’s defeat, but the decision of Opposition Leader Peter Dutton to attack as “rigged” the process conducted by the Australian Electoral Commission, simply because it was doing what it had always done in regards to ticks and crosses and informal votes. The reason these moments can seem silly at the time is because they do not match the idea of the world we have in our heads: they depend on conceptual leaps to somewhere we do not yet fully understand. Defensively, perhaps a little scared, we laugh. The success of Abbott’s slogans depended on the death of argument as a force in politics, a development that had not quite arrived but was on its way. If Dutton’s move gains meaning in coming years it will be because he saw that the trampling of institutions that uphold democracy could be effective in Australia, not just America.

The year is ending bleakly. The economy feels shaky, people cut costs as a matter of habit, the news is consumed with two major wars, and bushfires have arrived. But this was not how most of the year felt. Much of it, politically, seemed quiet and uneventful: “forgettable” is the word that comes to mind. Which, as Abbott and Sunak showed us, is not the same as saying it will be forgotten.

Another possible summary: “stop-start”. There were feints in this direction or that, events that threatened to grow into something but never quite did. Let’s briefly try going chronologically. In late January, the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, published an essay in this magazine advocating “values-based capitalism”. This occasioned fury in some quarters, based on spurious over-readings. Chalmers clarified, and the debate faded away into uncertainty over what, precisely, the debate had been about. In February, the government kicked off a debate on superannuation. That debate quickly threatened to run away from it, and so it was shut down with announcement of specific policy. In the process of defending this new policy, Chalmers was asked to “absolutely guarantee no change ever” to the capital gains tax arrangements for the family home, which – reasonably enough, given the question referenced eternity – he would not do. Anthony Albanese, asked the same question, shut down debate before it got started. Then came the budget, strongly Labor-flavoured – and a surplus! Beforehand, expectations of a hike for unemployment payments had been raised by an inquiry and report; the debate set off, threatened to get out of hand, and – yep! – the government shut it down. In the end, there was an increase.

Throughout the first half of the year, the government’s style since its election – solid, competent and unflashy – remained the dominant fact. Voters seemed to overwhelmingly approve. The prime minister’s referendum proposal still had a majority onside, and in April the government did a once-in-a-century thing and took a seat off the opposition in a byelection.

In response to that result in Aston, catastrophic predictions about the Liberals multiplied. Dutton, in response, announced his party would oppose the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. To many this seemed lunatic, a certain way of repelling moderate voters. Dutton, though, had little choice: he had to pacify his party. It effectively forced his Indigenous affairs spokesperson – who was in favour of the Voice – to resign, which made way for the rise of Jacinta Nampijinpa Price (one of those small things that became more important with time, and may gain more importance still). The government, either bravely or foolishly, chose to ignore history – you can’t win a referendum without bipartisan support – and forged ahead. Eventually, the Voice went down. That certainly won’t be forgotten any time soon, not least by Indigenous Australians. It was however of a piece with the stop-start list: all that effort for a loss.

Politics hates vacuums even more than nature does, and so in June scandal came to Canberra, as the Brittany Higgins–Bruce Lehrmann case flared again, with accusations that Finance Minister Katy Gallagher had misled parliament over the incident. It all got quite bitter, with the actual substance – a rape allegation and its denial, an unsafe workplace culture – sidelined. But even this ugly spectacle ended quickly, once the accusations turned around and bit the Liberals, ending with the expulsion from the party of a senator, David Van, accused of various misconducts (all denied).

The second half of the year was consumed, mostly, by the referendum, so at this point we swap chronology for thematics: let’s begin with endings. There were other federal exits, appropriately forgettable: Alan Tudge, Stuart Robert and Marise Payne. The states were more exciting: Daniel Andrews resigned, as did Mark McGowan, while Dominic Perrottet didn’t get the chance. We sadly lost a sitting senator, Jim Molan. The careers of two Labor leaders who died this year, Simon Crean and Bill Hayden, remind us that it is possible to pursue the noble thing in politics – though it may be equally instructive that each man, in the end, lost his job. Final mention goes to Galarrwuy Yunupingu, who did not live to see the latest affront to the cause of Indigenous rights he had fought for all his life.

As though to illustrate the qualities opposite to those of giants such as Crean and Hayden, we got the robodebt royal commission. Written in moving, declarative language, the report is among the saddest documents to emerge from Canberra in years. Former ministers were condemned. The damage done to the public service over decades was made clear. Its most important message was mostly for politicians, but really was for all of us: we need to stop verbally bashing welfare recipients.

Which might be the obverse of the Abbott–Sunak example: something that seemed significant but ends up less so. Will the welfare conversation really change? Still, if I had to bet on possible turning points from 2023, it would be on the way other conversations began to shift. If it seemed like I was being sceptical about the government’s shutting down of conversations, I should point out that it can sometimes be hard to tell, with this government, whether it is very bad at things or very good. When it closes out inconvenient speculation, it can seem as though it is because it is incapable of holding its nerve in order to shepherd discussion in useful directions. But it is very possible it will turn out, with time, to be otherwise: that, in fact, the government is highly skilled at shepherding discussion, and that the way it does this is by avoiding unhelpful tangents that distract from more important topics.

What are those topics, then? A better question is: what aren’t they? In July, Chalmers built on his Monthly essay by releasing a “wellbeing framework”; a month later came the Intergenerational Report. The message of both, distilled: we cannot pretend anymore that the only useful discussions to have about politics and our nation are economic. The meaning of life – personal and national – is not simply GDP, industrial relations and tax. Successful governments ride the momentum of what is already happening. And so, we should give some credit for the changing conversation to corporate Australia, which has successfully mismanaged its way to a position of particular unpopularity. Special mention must go to Alan Joyce: the Qantas drama briefly hurt the government, but perhaps provided a benefit overall, by further weakening business just when the government was challenging it on workers’ rights.

Here is a list of the government’s changes from this year: the climate safeguards expansion (though many don’t think much of it), a boost to Medicare, the announcement of industrial relations laws, important changes in migration, cheaper medicines, tax on gas and petrol, Reserve Bank reforms, finalisation of paid parental leave, a change to single parents’ payment, an NDIS review, the commencement of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, payments to help with inflation, a pay rise for aged care workers, extending the Murray–Darling Basin Plan, a national skills agreement, a national reconstruction fund, a national arts policy.

It’s not a short list, especially when viewed against the past 10 years. And yet there is a sense, in the aftermath of the Voice defeat, that voters would struggle to tell you what the government has done. Is this because the media has ignored important policies? Because we prefer grand battles to slow change? Or because the changes are, in fact, quite small? If the latter, it remains possible that, over time, the bits and pieces will interact with each other to create a set of forces that reshape our nation: lifting wages, putting care at the centre of the economy, reducing inequality. If this is the experiment the government is conducting, it may be hard to assess the results for some time. It is likely the most important way that 2023 may look different to us in future: perhaps a crucial step along a patient journey, perhaps a timid year in a set of timid years, perhaps a pause before acceleration.

In the meantime, others will keep urging the government to do more. This year, prominent economists pushed the government hard on tax, to no avail. Paul Keating prodded hard at the government’s eager embrace of AUKUS. The government should probably – but definitely won’t – thank the Greens, for putting its housing policy up in lights, by at first refusing to pass it and demanding more. The crossbench remains a reminder that replacing a few individuals can make a world of difference. For the Australian Financial Review’s “Power Issue”, my old colleague Annie O’Rourke pointed out that changes were occurring in leadership of “the RBA, the BCA, the High Court, the Productivity Commission, the AFL, the ABC, Qantas, state governments, the governor-general and even the monarchy”, leading to a “pivot of power”. On the other hand, Philip Lowe, pilloried for raising rates, gave way to a new Reserve Bank governor, Michele Bullock, who soon raised rates. At News Corp, Rupert Murdoch stepped back, leaving Lachlan to take over. The next day, Tony Abbott was nominated to join Fox Corporation’s board.

Leaving us with essentially the question of the year: how much has really changed? In so many areas, we seem to end the year where it began, or worse. The things that seem to be changing for the better – our much-improved relationship with China, say – are first steps in lengthy processes. The truth, as I wrote at the outset – which makes it no more satisfying as conclusion – is that we really cannot know how this year will look in years to come. The year 2023, which for so long seemed destined to be forgettable, may yet turn out to be a turning point, or a set of them. Or – outside of war and referendum – it may simply be forgotten.

 

CORRECTION: The original version of this essay included reference to a claim about the protests at Sydney Opera House that has since been discredited.

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is the author of The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison, a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.

@mrseankelly

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