From 1949 to 2007, Australian federal governments were defeated at the polls on only five occasions. Voters’ reluctance to rock the political boat over those six decades was not necessarily a reflection of great satisfaction with politics. Rather it was a symptom of their desire for, at least, stability.
A one-term government was unthinkable then. Governments were generally regarded as committed to nation-building and governing in accordance with a set of transparent political values. Leaders were not embarrassed to talk about their sense of vision and purpose; political idealism was expected.
But since 2007 no prime minister has survived his or her government’s full term. The Liberal-National coalition government was returned to office in 2016 with the slimmest possible majority – one seat – in the House of Representatives, surviving only through the strong showing of the minor coalition partner. The Liberal Party itself lost 13 seats and now holds just 45 in its own right, compared with Labor’s 69.
But there’s a deeper truth to be discerned in the 2016 election result: the days of political stability are over, at least for the time being. The power of incumbency has waned. The recent defeat of first-term governments in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory is a sign of scepticism, disillusionment and increasing alienation emerging in the Australian electorate.
It is as if there are now two contrary currents running through Australian politics. On the surface, the major parties carry on as if they are the invincible primary force. They act increasingly like institutions corrupted by their own power, determined to protect their territory and to preserve their sources of funding. They look inward, not outward, for their sense of direction.
Like so many other institutions in Australia – the churches, mass media and trade unions – political parties are suffering a major slump in public esteem and respect. Party memberships are dwindling. Voters are more likely to swing than ever before. In response, parties resort to simplistic slogans in a desperate attempt to recapture lost hearts and minds.
Those slogans are a major part of the problem. Not only the words themselves – “stop the boats”, “jobs and growth”, “continuity and change” – but the mentality that says political leaders and parties are brands. When voters see political parties being marketed like Coca-Cola the whole political process is trivialised in their minds.
If you think the most creative and best-funded ad campaign can win you an election, then you have lost sight of the very essence of democracy. If you think a slogan can capture the minds of voters, then you have abdicated any right to be taken seriously. Perhaps if politicians treated their opponents with the respect due to them as legitimately elected members of parliament – and as fellow human beings – voters might re-engage and take them more seriously.
But the undertow is also a reaction to the failure of too many contemporary politicians to accept responsibility for moral as well as political leadership, their failure to inspire and to engage us in the process of dreaming of a better world while articulating strategies for getting there.
Following Keating’s loss of office in 1996, ‘the vision thing’ became a term of opprobrium in Canberra. Ever since, politics has lacked what Keating called the ‘overarching narrative’, a coherent story that would bring all the strands of policy together and help people make sense of what was happening to them and to society.
Instead, society has become ‘the economy’. Ideals have too often given way to raw pragmatism. Concepts like equity, fairness and egalitarianism have become lost in the rapidly growing chasm between high and low income earners, with Australia’s gap now well above the OECD average. Short-term populism has swamped serious long-term planning for a sustainable future.
Moral leadership lacking
There was a glimpse of moral leadership when Kevin Rudd declared that global warming was the greatest moral challenge of our time. But there was no convincing policy follow-through. When Rudd then sought to reduce the fuel excise so motorists would not be hit too hard by rising fuel costs, the citizenry assumed he was not serious. Public consciousness of the issue quickly evaporated.
Malcolm Turnbull excited the nation fleetingly when he deposed Tony Abbott in 2015. That excitement – indeed euphoria – arose from the expectation that this was the kind of leader Australians were waiting for. On both sides of politics there was momentary confidence that Turnbull would offer just the kind of visionary, small ‘l’ liberalism Australia needed.
It was a moment when citizens’ faith in the idea of real reform might have been reignited. In everything from global warming, tax reform or marriage equality to poverty and homelessness, or stopping the shameful mental torture being inflicted on asylum seekers, Turnbull seemed to offer the promise of a fresh start.
Alas, like Rudd, the over-investment in Turnbull was soon exposed and a searing sense of disappointment set in. And so the power of the undertow was restored. The sense of disconnection was reinforced. Disappointment finally gave way to a shrug of despair.
Anxious and depressed
But perhaps there’s an even deeper undercurrent operating here.
Australia’s epidemics of anxiety and depression suggest that all is not well. There are many reasons for that, but a big contributor is that, in spite of the information technology revolution – and, in part, because of it – and at a time when a deeply uncertain future demands strong social cohesion, Australians have become more socially fragmented.
Humans are, by nature, social creatures. We need a strong sense of belonging to communities if we are to experience the sort of wellbeing we yearn for.
Budget repair is an urgent and worthy goal, but not a lofty one. It is only when politicians begin to address human needs for sustainable wellbeing – physical, emotional, social, cultural and moral, as well as economic – that we will start listening again. The rest is noise.
Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author. His latest book, Beyond Belief (Macmillan, 2016), examines the changing role of religion in Australia. This article is part of a series from East Asia Forum (www.eastasiaforum.org) in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.