Kenneth Hayne is right about broken politics, but there’s a fix
Banking royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s diagnosis of what ails policy debate in Australia, reported overnight, is no doubt right, but the prognosis remains just as grim as ever. Demand for royal commissions is rising, Hayne told Melbourne Law School in a late-July speech, because they are generally independent, neutral and public, and yield reasoned reports. In contrast, he said, modern political practice emphasises party difference, and decision-making is opaque and “skewed, if not captured, by the interests of those large and powerful enough to lobby governments behind closed doors”. Trust in all sorts of institutions, Hayne said, has been “damaged or destroyed”. Fearing “democratic decay”, Hayne concluded simply, “I offer no answer to the issues.” Depressing.
A similar theme emerged from Rebecca Huntley’s reflections in June on her March Quarterly Essay, Australia Fair. In her essay, Huntley argued (in my reading) that the political class was lagging behind the Australian people, a solid “un-silent majority” of whom supported big investments in social housing and renewable energy, political donations reform, marriage equality, euthanasia, restrictions on negative gearing, a properly funded Medicare and NDIS, the Gonski reforms, a world-class NBN, and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
In the wake of the election, The Australian’s Paul Kelly argued [$] that Huntley’s essay had overreached – the country was not as progressive as she or Labor had believed. In her own post-election analysis, Huntley conceded she may have been too reliant on polls, but argued that the country was hardly trending to the right, either:
The conclusion to draw is not that Australia is no longer progressive or no longer cares about equality or is becoming like America … [It] is that the lack of trust the electorate has in politics has undermined its belief that structural reform – whether that be economic, social or environmental – is something that can be delivered by politicians running the show.
In other words, it doesn’t matter whether Labor had the right policies or not, if nobody believed that they were going to implement them faithfully anyway or that they would make a real difference to the lives of ordinary people.
Hayne and Huntley are surely both right: trust in politics is dangerously low. Debate about the answers to this problem should not be conducted in terms of policy wins to progressives or conservatives, but in terms of cleaning up politics itself. Stop the leadershite. Stop the misleading electioneering. Get rid of political donations. Establish an ICAC with teeth. Protect whistleblowers. Free the press. Bring back frank and fearless public servants. Stop politicised appointments to the judiciary and executive. Enforce ministerial standards, and make the doctrine of ministerial accountability worthwhile again. Stop the revolving door between politicians and industry. Then allow the political system to conduct policy debates, and see what reasoned laws we end up with. It’s not fanciful, or a left-wing nirvana, it’s just democracy. Many of these fixes would have crossbench support and are possible in this term of parliament.
If that’s the cure to low trust in politics, then by the same token Labor should be free to take an equally progressive platform to the next election, when the Coalition will be seeking a rare fourth term. The policy problems facing the country did not change on May 18, let’s face it, and nor did the solutions.
“We strongly deplore the Australian federal MP Andrew Hastie’s rhetoric on ‘China threat’ which lays bare his Cold-War mentality and ideological bias. It goes against the world trend of peace, cooperation and development. It is detrimental to China–Australian relations.”
“The West once believed that economic liberalisation would naturally lead to democratisation in China. This was our Maginot Line. It would keep us safe, just as the French believed their series of steel and concrete forts would guard them against the German advance in 1940. But their thinking failed catastrophically.”
“The world’s largest greenhouse gas mitigation project undertaken by the LNG industry has started on Barrow Island, Western Australia … Once fully operational, the system will inject between 3.4 and 4 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions each year into a deep underground reservoir … realising Australia’s first large-scale carbon capture and storage project … The Australian Government, under the Low Emissions Technology Development Fund, contributed $60 million towards the $2.5 billion injection project.”
“Tony Birch contracts the world to one woman’s life and inheritance, and the result is an emotionally eloquent novel in a direct line from two minor classics published in 1961: Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright and Nene Gare’s The Fringe Dwellers. Both dismantled comfortable Australian myths about mateship, inclusiveness and women.”
“I can think of no other country in the industrialised world where a union has to jump through so many hoops in order to take industrial action of any kind. No other country where the government tells a union and an employer what’s legitimate to talk about in collective bargaining – this whole ‘legitimate matters’ regime in Australia. No other advanced country where the government has to give permission for a union to reorganise itself.”
“Where possible, their journey follows the waterways, the eels slipping and sliding through the drains and culverts. If their way is obstructed they emerge from the water and slither across the ground, a spectacle sometimes observed at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse ... Were this the whole of their journey it would be remarkable enough, but it is just the beginning.”
Enter for the chance to win one of three double passes to the Canberra Writers Festival Opening Night dinner, held on Wednesday, August 21. Join local, national and international writers as they discuss work under the themes of power, politics and passion. The event will take place at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra.
Paddy Manning is contributing editor (politics) at The Monthly and has worked for the ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and The Australian. He is also the author of three books, including a recently updated unauthorised biography of Malcolm Turnbull, Born To Rule?
Banking royal commissioner Kenneth Hayne’s diagnosis of what ails policy debate in Australia, reported overnight, is no doubt right, but the prognosis remains just as grim as ever. Demand for royal commissions is rising, Hayne told Melbourne Law School in a late-July speech, because they are generally independent, neutral and public, and yield reasoned reports. In contrast, he said, modern political practice emphasises party difference, and decision-making is opaque and “skewed, if not captured, by the interests of those large and powerful enough to lobby governments...