In 2018 policy and politics in Australia will probably be exactly like it was in 2017. Confused, confounding and contradictory. Because the policy positions of the major parties on so many key issues are nearly identical, whether there’ll be a federal election during the year and whether there’ll be a change of government is almost irrelevant.
Australian politics is caught in the slipstream of a phenomenon impacting on liberal democracies around the world.
“Populism” is what it’s usually termed, but a more accurate summation of what’s happening would describe the frustration of voters with politics “as usual”. It’s the perceived failure of political and policy elites to improve people’s standard of living, a lack of trust in “experts” and the sense that individuals are powerless to bring about change.
In Australia the Liberals and Labor are reacting to these trends by shifting their economic policies to the left, just as the Tories and the Labour Party are doing in Britain.
In contrast while President Trump’s rhetoric on trade might be left-leaning, his policies on tax, red tape and energy are firmly at the centre-right, or even libertarian end of the political spectrum. Contrary to popular belief, responding to the concerns of “populism” doesn’t necessarily require moving to the left.
The two most interesting events of liberal democracy in the last decade, Brexit and Donald Trump, are manifestations of populism at the ballot box. Our system of compulsory voting has so far shielded the major parties from from the electoral reality of populism – although the South Australian state election in March and Nick Xenophon might prove that theory wrong.
Australia hasn’t, however, been able to avoid the policy reality of this populism. So for example, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten have decided it’s popular to attack the banks.
Formulating coherent policy when trying to be populist can be problematic.
To wit, at the same time as the Coalition says it wants to cut corporate tax rates, it’s imposed a bank levy and a regulatory regime on the sector that amounts to quasi-nationalisation. The Coalition says it wants to one day cut personal income tax – but last year it announced it was increasing the Medicare levy.
Lack of evidence
Politicians and policymakers love talking about “evidence-based policy”. However neither the Coalition nor Labor are willing to explain what evidence shows that reducing this country’s emissions of carbon dioxide will make any difference to the world’s climate.
Meanwhile Australians live with the evidence of ever-escalating power prices. According to KPMG, 42,000 Australian households are in “energy poverty”.
First, the Victorian Police said it did “not accept for a minute that we do have gangs”. A few days later the police said the exact opposite. Last month Victorians were told by police that the actions of a man who drove his car into pedestrians outside Flinders Street train station and who subsequently talked about “the mistreatment of Muslims” were not “of a terrorist nature”.
When the civil institutions of a democracy become partisan and political it’s inevitable that trust in democracy wanes.
If any Australian taxpayer attempted to duck and weave the application of the Income Tax Assessment Act the way federal MPs are trying to avoid the consequences of the High Court’s citizenship decisions, they’d be confronted by the full weight of the Australian Taxation Office in the Federal Court. Voters have every reason to think there’s one law for their elected representatives and one law for everyone else.
It should be no surprise at all that the 2017 Lowy Institute Poll revealed only 60 per cent of Australians believe “Democracy is preferable to any other kind government”. According to a survey of Australians between the ages of 16 and 25 commissioned by the Institute of Public Affairs in 2016, only 31 per cent of young people in this country believe it is important to live in a democracy.
Whether Australians have lost faith in democracy itself, or only in democracy as it’s currently practised is a moot point. The dissatisfaction is real. That dissatisfaction will not be going away anytime soon.
John Roskam is executive director of the Institute of Public Affairs