A failure of political will
Date: March 21 2017
If you want to know why public trust in our politicians has been shattered, just examine three crucial, basic and unfortunately completely integrated issues: energy, housing and immigration.
We've argued about these issues for years, either directly or through their proxies, such as climate change, tax arrangements and asylum seekers. Nevertheless, despite the increasingly overwhelming sensation that something is broken at the heart of the Australian "project", none of our politicians appear willing to show the leadership that's needed to address any of these fundamental problems.
That's because dealing with these issues requires the courage to do something different, and it seems no one's prepared to risk alienating any potential vote. This is part of the reason we've been condemned to such a revolving shuffle of prime ministers. It's little wonder Australia has now surpassed the Italian record for government instability, a catalogue that will become worse when Malcolm Turnbull himself moves out of The Lodge.
No one sensible on the government benches regards him as anything more than a temporary placeholder. After the devastating defeat of the Barnett government in Western Australia, the Liberals' focus is now turning to hanging on to the federal furniture.
This demands Turnbull's replacement by the end of the year. Honourable members will use this fortnight's sittings to make subtle evaluations of likely contenders for the leadership. Nothing will be overt, no one's going to do anything silly, but the fix is in. That's because Turnbull won't be able to do anything to turn this horrible dynamic around – not without addressing the three central problems that have bedevilled every prime minister since the turn of the century.
It all began with Peter Costello pretending he'd slain the dragon of ever-increasing prices. We were told inflation was dead and the commentariat played along. This was never anything but a joke to people needing to buy houses, of course, and property remained the one sector of the economy that remained sacrosanct, inviolable, never to be allowed to fall. That's because every politician knew that if house prices fell, they'd be next.
So poor economic policy flourished. Successive governments introduced an orgy of policy settings designed to fire the market off into the stratosphere, without any regard to the capacity of young home owners to pay.
In conjunction with increasing inequality of wealth distribution, this left many unable to buy property while negative gearing guaranteed that the wealthy would continue to outbid new families. Rather than tackle the fundamental issues, the government lurchingly gravitated towards an ersatz solution: first-home owner grants. This put more pressure on prices, further exacerbating inequality.
So did immigration. The easy way of boosting the economy in a time of low inflation has been to import growth from overseas through the low-cost option of encouraging migration. If it hadn't been for the money we've brought in this way, we would have fallen into recession. As it was, we escaped by importing immigrants, high-net wealth individuals, who fuelled our economy. Unsurprisingly, however, they wanted houses, too. They could (and did) outbid others, compounding the problem and fermenting discontent, which saw the rise of One Nation.
The marginalised, those who weren't receiving the pay increases being pocketed by the big end of town, began to stop listening to the common discourse our leaders peddled. They could see – no matter how many 2020 summits prime ministers' called; no matter how often they insisted "good government had lost its way"; no matter how often they promised a "new start" – nothing ever seemed to change. And energy finally became the hip-pocket reminder of how the political class was failing to provide even life's basic necessities.
As Australia has grown, so has our need to consume resources we once exported abroad. We now have the choice: pay the global price for gas and energy or subsidise our own needs and take a cut. The necessary solution is distributed solar and battery generation. Instead, the Prime Minister has come up with a feasibility study into nation-building still bearing the stamp of the 1950s. And perhaps, if the project ever goes ahead, it might even coincide with the inaugural flights to Sydney's second airport or a very-fast train proceeding along Australia's east coast.
We've become jaded of these big announcements because we've heard too many of them in the past decade. Just a year ago in Western Australia, Turnbull promised he'd tackle "politically difficult" reforms. What a joke. The limit of his ambition is now clear: he simply wanted to become prime minister. He's swimming way out of his depth, yet we're the ones who are drowning.
Nevertheless, and amid such gloom, how lovely to learn something new: obeying laws is, apparently, optional. The ACTU was once a respectable institution that spoke for most Australian workers. Today, it's been reduced to little more than a small, sectional, interest group, limited to producing Alice-in-Wonderland statements. In this post-truth world, you're free to make anything mean whatever you want it to mean.
We call such things political promises.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.