Australia’s political culture is failing, so elect independents

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Independent Zali Steggall memorably beat Tony Abbott at this year's Federal Election (image via YouTube).

In order to function effectively, our Government needs an injection of independents, writes Dr Geoff Davies.

OUR ENTIRE MAINSTREAM political culture – the old parties, tribes and labels, the media, the commentariat, the adversarial process, the petty squabbling – fails comprehensively to serve our needs and insults our capabilities. Independents offer a glimmer of hope, and we need to get more of them into parliament.

The Coalition Government is with little doubt the most vacuous, incompetent, deluded, irresponsible and malicious of our short federated history. This is the rabble Labor failed to defeat in the 2019 Election. Labor still seems to have little idea what to do. Anyway, they have been complicit in much of the damage done to our society since 2001 and in the neglect of urgent issues.

The media share a great deal of responsibility for this situation. The Murdoch media are arguably more powerful and regressive than the parties themselves. The commentariat mostly argues from the same tired old left-right dichotomy without noting, or noticing, how it disguises radical shifts to the right since 1983. The adversarial process dissipates our political energy in petty put-downs, wedging and fights over the increasingly irrelevant disputes of last Century.

The deep issues facing us now are how to ensure our society’s survival beyond the next few decades and how to ensure everyone has access to a dignified, sufficient and fulfilling life in the new world bearing down upon us. The old ideologies, tribes and labels only get in the way of the constructive discussions we need to engage in.

The election of Helen Haines and Zali Steggall show it is possible to get independents into Parliament. Kerryn Phelps also came close. We can also note independent Andrew Wilkie from Tasmania and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie and Senator Rex Patrick, who are unconstrained by the old parties.

The Greens have good policies and progressive independents should cooperate with them. But they have been stuck around 10 per cent of the vote for some time and they are identified as part of the old tribalism: evidently many people could not bring themselves to vote for them. That may be the fault of the media and the other parties, but we can’t wait. If they can break out too, then that's a positive.

Haines, Steggall, Phelps and possibly others want to see real action on the climate crisis. Resist the temptation to apply the old labels to them. In the new reality, people like them allow us to get on with urgent business.

In contrast, the Coalition is blindly wedded to coal and Labor is completely compromised by factional gridlock and past positions. Both sides are corrupt, accepting "donations" from the wealthy and doing their bidding against the clear wishes of the electorate. They have squandered two critical decades. We can’t wait.

Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have shown that if someone is willing to step away from the mainstream and into what we need and want they can rapidly attract a large following (I did not say Corbyn is a saint and a genius, but he did increase Labour’s vote despite being undermined by Blairites, Tories, the media and a general political meltdown).

We have no such messiah. It is time to acknowledge that we are the ones we have been waiting for.

In the U.S. there is talk of a Green New Deal, in which governments would actively promote the transition to clean energy while reducing inequality. We could do that and more, promoting regenerative agriculture, reforestation, healthy rivers and adjacent seas. We ought immediately to stop reckless land clearing, new fracking, new coal, and oil exploration in the Great Australian Bight. We can work to transition employees into clean industries that provide more employment than fossil industries.

Done sensibly these initiatives can revive the moribund economy and reduce unemployment back to the 1-2 per cent levels of the postwar decades. It is possible, Ben Chifley and Bob Menzies did it.

A few other policy changes could deliver more relief to battlers and win them over. Immediately increase unemployment benefits and the minimum wage, so money gets spent and starts to circulate again. Don’t balance the budget: that only constricts the economy. Dispense with the fiction that the Federal Government needs to borrow money. It does not, it creates and spends money, and the money supply and inflation can be managed using taxes.

While we’re about it we could stop highly counter-productive invasions of other countries on behalf of the deeply misguided United States, and save lives and money. We could slow immigration, it actually costs us half a million dollars per new person to provide "durable assets" including roads, houses, shops, trains and water for them. We could restrict the debt private banks push onto us to keep property prices spiralling endlessly upwards, along with their profits. Menzies used to do it, it was called a "credit squeeze".

We would be well advised to circumvent the mainstream media, and promote and use the struggling alternatives already available. As opportunity presented we could enforce some minimal standards on the mainstream, like separating reporting from editorial opinion and not propagating obvious falsehoods. Even some modest policing of the more flagrant abuses would serve our society without turning us into North Korea.

There needs to be a much better balance.

Fifteen independents in the House would shift the political culture and the dynamic and give us a glimpse of the possible. We had minority governments for the first decade of Federation and a great deal was accomplished. The minority Gillard Government also accomplished a lot. Such arrangements are fairly routine in many European countries. In the longer run, it would be best to dispense with the old parties and have an assembly of people focussed on constructively debating the best way forward and then doing it.

We need to break out of our fearful stupor. The mainstream political culture is unwilling or unable to do it so we must do it ourselves. Electing independents provides a way forward.

Dr Geoff Davies is an author, commentator and scientist. He is the author of 'The Little Green Economics Book' and 'Desperately Seeking the Fair Go'. Geoff blogs at BetterNature Books.

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