The use of labels in the public debate is too often a lazy way of dismissing an idea or an opponent. However, Richard Denniss’ use of neoliberalism in his recent Quarterly Essay works well. He uses it as a catch-all for the ills of public policy formulation in Australia over the past several decades – in essence, the over-emphasis on economics as the only determining factor of our national wealth and individual happiness, and the dire consequences of that emphasis.
I’ve lived in Australia for almost 30 years, originally from Norway – which like Australia was once a poor country made wealthy by underground riches.
Lang Hancock flew over the Pilbara in 1952 and identified iron ore sites and then took possession, making him and his descendants some of the richest people on the planet. But when Phillips Petroleum found oil and gas in vast quantities in the North Sea in the late sixties, they had to acquire licensing rights from the Norwegian government to extract it, making the country the richest in the world.
In Norway this principle was a legacy of hydro electrical power plants built in the late 19th century, which established once and for all that the land (and by extention the continental shelf) belongs to the nation, and the government grants licence for its use for the benefit of the people.
It was never a source of much debate. Nor was the establishment of the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, now worth close to 1.5 trillion dollars. Not bad for a country of five million. As the fund can only invest overseas, it also shields the economy from the effects of oil riches which could otherwise have seen Norway become a bit like an Arab state, sans Bedouins, but with a one dimensional economy.
Australia does not have a one dimensional economy either, but we have done a very poor job of managing our vast resources in a way that benefits everyone. Yet, as Denniss points out, Australia is still a wealthy country, and he does indeed advocate the establishment of a wealth fund – better late than never.
For a fleeting moment back in 2010, I thought that Kevin Rudd was going to right the wrongs of the past when he introduced the ‘Mining Tax’. But instead of promoting it on the basis of national ownership of resources, and as a new way of looking at wealth sharing – as opposed to the misused ‘wealth distribution’ – it was introduced as just another tax on the rich mining companies, opening him up to immediate attack, ultimately costing him his job.
It was (and is) a perfect illustration of the kinds of leaders our political culture fosters: partisan, short-sighted and self-centred neoliberalists. And although Denniss recognises that, his solutions fall short.
In addition to proposing a wealth fund, a national interest commission, a federal corruption watchdog and a charter of rights, he also highlights the need for much better education about democracy. All of them are important reforms.
But they are not enough to change how policies are debated and set in Canberra and in the State Capitals. The adversarial nature and short term focus of politics, cultivating the blinkered partisanship that dominates political discourse is at the very heart of the malaise that Denniss describes. That’s where the rot is and change needs to start.
Over time, we’ve allowed political parties to usurp control over democracy. And the raison d’être of political parties is to win elections, governing is secondary. Parties have become big business, providing jobs for politicians who are beholden to their party first, their donors second and their constituents last.
Except for the odd independent, the majority of members of both houses of Parliament are career politicians. When Bob Hawke and John Howard were interviewed together on ABC TV about a year ago, they agreed on much more than they disagreed on. In particular they both decried the need to have elected representatives with real life experience beyond politics.
A charter of rights as Denniss suggests is a must. So is holding our elected representatives to ethical standards (as proposed by Tony Fitzgerald and The Australian Institute). Our Constitution – which isn’t even our own, but an act of British Parliament – is over 100 years old and in dire need of an upgrade. The original functions of the Senate as a house of review to protect the States have also disappeared in the mire of party politics. It acts more as a house of obfuscation than as a protector of democracy.
To get more diverse representation in Parliament and attract more than just party politicians, we should review tenure and reconsider fixed terms. To start what will be a long process of reinstating respect for those who represent us, Parliament needs to heed the loud calls to remove the many excessive perks politicians have awarded themselves, take control over donations and lobbying seriously. And end the ‘jobs for the boys’ culture of entitlements.
Above all – and here democracy education as Denniss advocates is paramount – we need to demand that those we elect to represent us are capable of open minded, respectful and informed debate. As voters we deserve not just adherence to ethical standards, but also that politicians are prepared to speak openly and not just pander to media’s desire for soundbites.
I for one want to watch question time without cringing; and listen to an interview with politicians with interest, not with the lethargy that comes from what I have learnt to expect: vacuous responses defined by committee, designed not to reveal but to conceal, using any opportunity to lambaste the opposition.
In the Roy Morgan poll, the Image of Professions (2017), only 16% of Australians surveyed rated federal members of Parliament high on ethics and honesty. Nurses top the list at 94%. Until the respect for who we elect get a lot closer to those who look after our health, it may be difficult to change anything else.
Kim Wingerei is a former businessman turned commentator, writer and blogger, author of Why Democracy is Broken – A Blueprint for Change. Follow @ kimwingerei.com.