AS WE enter a new year, thoughts turn to resolutions and hopes. In a federal election year, The Sunday Age hopes the standard of politics lifts. In particular, we would urge candidates to not only treat each other with respect and courtesy, but to pay the people of Australia the respect we deserve. The people, polls indicate, are sick of the bickering and vilification, the plotting and unseemly behaviour, the constant negativity. What is needed is a debate about ideas and fully-fledged policies.
The 2010 election was widely seen as one of the most ideas-free contests in this nation's political history. Little wonder, then, that voters were unable to give either side a clear mandate, precipitating an excruciating limbo during which the leaders of both main parties struggled to form a minority government.
Perhaps in part as a result of the tightness of the numbers in this Parliament, politics has been unedifying. Politics is a realm in which some of our best and brightest are supposed to generate and debate ideas to make the world a better place, to seek equality of opportunity and to care for the most vulnerable and marginalised.
Lately, though, it seems so often to bring out the worst in our elected representatives. This was exemplified by the tawdry events surrounding former speaker of the House of Representatives, Peter Slipper, and by the amount of time spent on the alleged misbehaviour of former unionist and former ALP federal politician, Craig Thomson, who now sits as an independent. The way in which asylum seekers, some of the most desperate people on the planet, have been demonised adds to the list of disappointing conduct in Canberra.
There has been much ugly behaviour as political leaders seek to gain advantage by denigrating each other, rather than inspiring community support through grand ideas and exemplary behaviour.
That is not to say that after winning the contest to form a minority government, Julia Gillard sought to merely cling to power. She has legislated action on climate change. She sought to spread the proceeds of the mining boom more broadly, although that measure is yet to prove its worth. She is seeking to introduce a national disability insurance scheme and to buttress the education system.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has kept his party in a winning position throughout. But he has done so through negative tactics, rather than fashioning ideas and policies to earn support from voters. That his personal approval ratings remain so low shows that his modus operandi leaves people cold. The Prime Minister, too, continues to suffer low approval ratings, which probably reflects two main concerns: voters were disillusioned when she broke her promise not to introduce a carbon tax, and many people still resent her for her role in deposing Kevin Rudd, a first-term ALP prime minister. Gillard and Abbott have an opportunity - and The Sunday Age would say a responsibility - to make 2013 memorable for all the right reasons.
We would like to see them ordering their colleagues to focus on policy ideas, rather than robotically and perfunctorily tearing down their opponents.
Voters are sophisticated. While they know there is inevitably some pantomime in politics, they vote on the basis of which policy platform they believe will most benefit themselves, their families and the nation.
There is much more to be done on improving the education and health systems. Much more infrastructure is required to underpin economic prosperity for generations to come.
The debate on asylum seekers needs to be elevated from the dog-whistle cesspit to which both main political leaders have consigned it. Australian taxpayers are being hit for about $1 billion a year for unnecessary and inhumane mandatory detention and offshore processing. There needs to be much more debate about increasing our humanitarian intake, while putting real pressure on our many Asian neighbours who are not signatories to the UN charter on refugees, of which Australia is a founding signatory.
There needs, too, to be a national debate about how to best treat people with drug problems. Prohibition and the so-called war on drugs have clearly failed. Our politicians know this and will admit it in private, but they steadfastly refuse to say in public what they really believe, for fear of an electoral backlash. Another debate that needs to feature in 2013 is how to make better progress with indigenous issues; the plight of indigenous Australians remains a national tragedy.
So, let us all hope that in 2013, we get the national discussion we deserve, for we have not, by all appearances, been getting the politicians we deserve.
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