Australia on the edge?
by Erin Maclean
Australia is, in so many ways, in a period of transition.
The ‘revolving door’ of prime ministers in recent years, along with the rarely seen double dissolution of the federal parliament, signals the end of an era of stable government. Likewise, the mining boom has turned to bust, suggesting the period of reliable economic growth is over. We are also, as some have feared and others celebrated, entering an era of digital and technological innovation.
But Australia has not yet come to terms with the new directions of our nation. Instead, we are in the liminal state of political, economic, social and digital disruption. This idea — of Australia in transition — was the theme for a recent panel in Brisbane to discuss George Megalogenis’ most recent Quarterly Essay, titled ‘Balancing Act: Australia Between Recession and Renewal’.
Paul Barclay, ABC Radio National presenter set the scene of political transition, describing the ‘weirdness’ that is the recent ‘revolving door’ of prime ministers.
“Stability was once a feature of Australian politics. Long-term governments abounded at the state and federal level … In recent times though, politics has gone really weird,” Barclay said.
According to Griffith University’s Professor Anne Tiernan, co-editor of the ‘Fixing the System’ edition of Griffith Review, that weirdness can be attributed to our leaders’ systemic inability to learn from the past and the experiences of their colleagues.
This problem is structural — political power is increasingly centralised in ministerial offices, so those who now advise premiers and prime ministers are primarily partisan political staffers, rather than the non-partisan public servants that weather out leadership changes.
On the night, this confounded young activist, author and panellist Yassmin Abdel-Magied, who said businesses are all about learning from past mistakes — it stands to reason that government, which should be one of our highest performing organisations, should similarly prioritise learning from the past.
The current political landscape — heavily impacted by social media and the 24-hour news cycle — instead emphasises the winning of power. That means many governments in recent years have struggled to make a successful transition from campaigning to governance, leaving Australia in a state of transition between governments.
This has particularly served to alienate and disengage young people from politics, who are poorly represented in both state and federal parliaments. According to Abdel-Magied, many hot political topics affect young people disproportionately — especially when it comes to politicians “rolling up the red carpet behind them” and removing benefits that they themselves benefited from in years past.
While young people are still, broadly speaking, interested in ideas and engaging with issues that affect them — such as costs of education and negative gearing — politics is anything but an attractive hobby or job. That begs the question, as Abdel-Magied poignantly asked: “What kind of people are ending up in government?”
To that, Professor Tiernan responded “young fogeys” — a breed of young people who live in the distorted political world and go on to become lifelong politicians. Unfortunately, these people are not the best equipped for taking our nation forward, because they lack the real-world experience that allows them to connect with the plights of 21st-century voters. That, combined with the shift in the advisory systems of our leaders, prevents the kind of long-term thinking and planning that is sorely needed in this time of transition.
Alongside this political instability has been a significant turnaround in Australia’s economy. Thanks to the mining boom of the 2000s, as well as the pay-offs from the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the economy has largely run itself for years — it was, as journalist and author George Megalogenis described, “politician-proof”.
After 25 years of reliable economic growth, the boom has ended — and, to make matters worse, the riches were supposedly squandered. According to Megalogenis, it is time for the government to reengage in the economy as the fifth arm of the open market, to complement the low tariffs, floating dollar, independent interest rates and deregulated wage system.
“The market can’t cope with success. The market only really wants to build houses — it doesn’t want to build roads, schools or hospitals, or put extra trains on the train track. It doesn’t care about any of those things. That has always been a role for the government. And, at a time when Australia has been winning, there has actually never been a better time for the government to intervene in the economy,” Megalogenis said.
This is especially the case in light of a stagnant global financial system, when interest rates are at 500-year lows — or, as Megalogenis highlighted, at their lowest point since the Bubonic Plague. While an international financial crisis hardly builds confidence, it does allow governments to borrow money cheaply and reinvest in long-term infrastructure that would, if done later, cost much more to fix.
As the main thesis of Megalogenis’ essay, this is the type of long-term thinking that is desperately needed to help Australia while it is in transition. As a nation, our economy overachieved for a long time, so — while things may seem dire with mounting concerns about debts and deficits — we need visionary politicians to buckle down, invest in the future and muddle through this time of transition. For Abdel-Magied, this means building “the Sydney Harbour Bridge of internet, when people were only needing one lane.”
Such visionary thinking about public infrastructure underpins equality, because the alternative is a government tightening its purse strings, as we saw in the 2014/2015 budget. According to Professor Tiernan, the flipping of governments and prime ministers in rapid succession is a distress signal from ‘real’ Australia to “the political class that they’d offended a fundamental value of Australian politics, which is inclusion and horizontal equity.”
This sense of inclusion and social cohesion is said to be one of Australia’s greatest achievements since settlement. While certainly there have been threats to it before — notably, when former Prime Minister Billy Hughes played the politics of division with the conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917 — most of our leaders have avoided tearing Australia apart along racial, religious or gender-based lines.
But the panel raised concerns about social cohesion in 2016, referring to the aftermath of Generation W — the first generation where women and migrants became better educated than men — and the backlash against Muslims since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the current fight against violent extremism.
Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was said to be one of few leaders since Billy Hughes to use division as a political tool — first against former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then using his own policies, such as his attempts to repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act. Of course, Abbott was ultimately ousted — perhaps, in part, as a backlash against these threats to Australian equality.
Though the panel covered many ways Australia is in transition, each panellist returned to growing inequality. For Abdel-Magied, part of the solution is diversifying parliaments, so that our political minds reflect the variety of modern lived experiences to address issues that are increasingly complex.
“The problems that we face in society today … are complex, not complicated. There was a time where problems were complicated, and it was like a ladder. You’d have to go this step, this step, this step, solved. Now, they are more like a web, where you’ve got a whole bunch of intersections in order to fix any of the issues. It’s not solely a technical or solely a social or solely an economic issue,” Abdel-Magied said.
“In order to deal with that, and reflect the fact that we need truly global solutions, you have to have different sets of minds at the table. You have to have different experiences.”
This is, as Megalogenis highlighted, particularly important when our demography is changing so rapidly. Over the past 10 or 15 years, we have experienced unprecedented levels of immigration — not seen outside of the 1850s. He referred to statistics that describe 28 per cent of Australians as born overseas and another 20 or so per cent of people as having at least one parent born overseas.
With that, Australia is also seeing a very different type of immigrant. Americans, for example, now surpass the Lebanese population in Australia. Meanwhile, entering into the Asian century, Australia now has over one million Chinese and Indians — surpassing it’s British population. Unlike the British, however, who are often retirees, the Chinese and Indian immigrants are in their 30s and ready to work.
We are, according to Megalogenis, the world’s first rich Eurasian nation — forming right before our very eyes.
Ultimately, Australia is in all kinds of transition. After years of political stability and reliable economic growth, we are now awkwardly trying to forge a plan for the future — one that does not rely on a once-in-a-lifetime mining boom. By no means will it be easy, especially with the current political chaos.
For George Megalogenis, a big part of that is returning to long-term planning and using low global interest rates to invest in public infrastructure. Only then will Australia be able to successfully transition for the 21st century.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erin is a freelance journalist and PhD student at Griffith University.
Erin specialises in news media depictions of popular culture, but is particularly interested in the way media framing affects public perception and politics.
In her spare time, she runs her own video gaming blog for women at LadyGameBug.