Does Turnbull have an impossible task?

By Professor Helen Sullivan. Outgoing Director, Melbourne School of Government

Regardless of whatever fist Malcolm Turnbull’s Coalition makes of approaching the new Parliament, arguably it is already too late. Too late for sound decision making, too late for sustainable public policy, and potentially even too late for democracy.

The new Parliament will be inherently unstable and divided, within - as well as between - parties.

The conservatives within the Coalition are already on the attack criticizing Malcolm Turnbull for neglecting the party’s base in favour of the middle-ground. Cory Bernardi’s new ‘movement’ is a telling example of how relations might deteriorate within the Liberal Party.

Bill Shorten

The Labor Party – according to its leader Bill Shorten - might ‘be back’ but it recorded its second lowest primary vote ever and this might be enough to renew debates about its leadership and direction.

And there is the composition of the new Senate, which reflects the broader disillusion with the main parties and the turn to more populist, nationalist and niche or parochial interests. This is in evidence in other advanced democracies as illustrated by the rise of UKIP and the phenomenon of Donald Trump.

Faced with this scenario there is a strong argument for the adoption of a more consensual style of governing in which the major parties seek to co-operate on the big issues facing Australia. This is not to say that they should abandon core principles, but it is to acknowledge that no party won a clear mandate to govern and no party leader received a ringing endorsement from the public.

However there is little hope of this happening. The Labor Party’s past behavior has given no indication that it will be anything other than hostile in its opposition buoyed by what it believes to be a successful campaign.

Consequently, the Prime Minister will need to be prepared and able to spend a huge amount of time negotiating to get decisions through the House and Senate, negotiating with factions, minor parties and Independents that will extract maximum benefit for their support.  

Ask former Prime Minister Julia Gillard how tough this can be – and she was known to be an excellent negotiator, which isn’t necessarily the case amongst the current leadership.

There is every likelihood that the management of politics will overtake the development and delivery of policy; and that Parliament and the parties will become absorbed by leadership fights, factional positioning, and the rehearsal of ‘culture wars’.

The media will of course love it, though it will complain bitterly at the lack of attention to ‘real’ issues and bemoan the absence of ‘great’ leaders with a vision for the country.

Public servants will become embroiled in the process of getting policies through regardless of evidence base or real value. Key concerns  - climate change, inequality and budget repair will fail to be addressed, again.

And the public will watch on, disappointed but not surprised at the spectacle, and offended at the suggestion that ‘this’ was what they voted for.

In this context the prospect of an early election promises no relief as there is every chance that we will end up here again. Fertile ground for further loss of trust in politicians and disaffection with democracy and what it delivers.

General elections are times when countries tend to look inward as publics contemplate their needs and aspirations and consider who is most likely to deliver on these.

Political parties must walk the line between convincing the public that they can deliver without losing sight of the fact that in our globalized economy no country’s future is entirely in its own hands. This is a difficult line to walk at the best of times when the public is confident in its country’s institutions and future. The results of the election highlight what we already know, that public trust is declining and that communities are more open to parties who promise to protect them and their ‘way of life’.

This too reflects a broader trend in democracies as nationalism and populism shape the political conversation, as Brexit has in the UK and Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’ has in the US.

Donald Trump looking angry

These are unwelcome developments but they should not surprise us. The seeds of the discontent and disillusion so ably represented by populist appeals were sown decades ago as governments pursued the advantages of a globalized, marketised world, without paying sufficient attention to harnessing these advantages for the benefit of all and putting safeguards in place where necessary.

The levels of in-country inequality, individual insecurity and political instability we are now reaping are the unintended outcomes of this ‘light touch’ governing. Addressing them is critically important, but will only be possible if we also acknowledge and address some related features of our contemporary societies.

Fear is central to this discussion. Individuals, families and communities experience fear and anxiety in a myriad of different ways. Some of this is the product of the global financial crisis in 2008; some the product of the fear of ‘the other’ ever present since 9/11 and stoked by the ugly rhetoric of many politicians; and some the experience of inter-generational deprivation and exclusion.

Whatever its source, we are less optimistic and more anxious about the future and what it might hold for future generations. We fear that our institutions are not up to the task and that we ourselves are not in control of our own destiny. This is partly why Turnbull’s declaration about there never being a better time to be an Australian did not resonate. People didn’t see themselves as being part of the world of innovation and opportunity that he described.

This is accompanied by our increasingly confused relationship with expertise. Traditionally, expertise is associated with a high level of technical knowledge or skill coupled with considerable experience. But in public policy we have acknowledged that there are other sources of expertise that don’t fit this definition but are important for making good decisions. ‘Lay expertise’ is expertise derived from the lived experience of something  - a disability, extreme disadvantage, or discrimination.

This nuancing of our understanding of legitimate forms of expertise has become conflated with a more populist argument that dismisses expertise as somehow reflective of an out of touch elite and contrasts it instead with the truth of ‘ordinary people’s lives.  This is evidenced in Australia most vividly in the debate about climate change. And where the reign of ‘shock-jocks’ promotes a particular kind of political exchange that is rarely afforded the luxury of nuance.

Integral to any resuscitation of our political system and the recovery of our democracy is a determination to take citizens and their concerns seriously. This means not patronising or dismissing the people who voted for minority parties, but engaging directly with their concerns. But, it also means engaging seriously with Indigenous peoples, and drawing on their expertise in shaping their communities’ futures. The neglect of Australia’s first peoples in the election campaign is indicative of how insular our politics could become.

Beginning with the different communities in and of Australia is one way of understanding the country’s multiple and deep connections into its region as well as with Europe and North America. This not only encourages us to look outwards, but also enables us to understand public policy as a global endeavour requiring appropriate skills to support it.

We need to acknowledge that our democratic institutions and practices are no longer fit for purpose and should be replaced by more inclusive, participative and flexible models.  This includes how we engage in political debate and exchange within our Parliaments as well as how we do politics in the world.

Leadership is of course important but leaders, however able, cannot save us. By rehabilitating our democratic system we may get to save ourselves.

The 45th Parliament could and should be a turning point. But will it?

This article was co-published with Fairfax and Pursuit

Image of Donald Trump credit: Greg Skidmore/Flickr


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