A turning of the tide?

The Wentworth by-election is a lesson for all politicians who put themselves, their party, and the special interests who support them, above the national interest.

Quentin Grafton

PHOTO: AAP / Lucas Coch

Government and governance | Australia

24 October 2018

Australia’s recent by-election result could be an indication that the time is up for self-serving politicians, Quentin Grafton writes.

Although a few thousand postal votes are yet to be counted, Kerryn Phelps, an independent, still remains in the lead in the Wentworth by-election held on 20 October.

Whether or not she is ultimately declared the winner, the fact remains that Phelps, with the help of the government’s inept antics over the past week, has been able to engineer a massive swing against the Coalition of about 19 per cent. To add insult to injury, it was in one of the safest Liberal seats in the country, which has elected Liberal MPs continuously since the 1940s.

Wentworth is not the ‘average’ electorate – it has one of the highest per capita incomes in Australia. Nor is it a standard by-election, because the seat was previously held by a prime minister. But the outcome nevertheless offers lessons to politicians of all persuasions.

In the irony of ironies, Wentworth voters were warned of ‘political instability’ should they elect Kerryn Phelps, yet it was the Liberals’ self-interested machinations that led to both Turnbull’s removal by his own party and, ultimately, the Wentworth by-election result. You would have thought that the Liberals would have learned from the policy paralysis of the last months of the 2013 Labor government and the consequences at the ballot box. After losing to Prime Minister Gillard in a leadership ballot in February 2012, Kevin Rudd worked long and hard to get back into the top job. While he eventually succeeded in June 2013, winning a leadership ballot 57 votes to 45 votes, it was all for naught: the Rudd government lost the federal election in September 2013.  

More on this: Australian politics is in desperate need of a reboot

The likely Liberal election loss in Wentworth and the inability to listen to voters is illustrated by radio host Alan Jones lambasting Sydney Opera House Trust Chief Executive Louise Herron – “You don’t own the Opera House, we own it” – when she tried to stop advertising of a horse race on the ‘sails’ of this UNESCO World Heritage site.

By ‘we’, was Alan Jones referring to horse gambling interests or the people of New South Wales? In the end, New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian allowed the advertising to go ahead rather than side with the more than 300,000 Australians who signed a petition not to have one of our most famous icons turned into a gambling billboard.

The Liberals’ nadir came this past week with the ‘It’s ok to be stupid’ 23 Coalition Senators who voted in favour of the One Nation ‘It is ok to be white’ motion.

But there are some very close competitors for the Darwin Award of Ignominy. Take for instance the thought bubble of Prime Minister Scott Morrison who, apparently against the advice of his most senior public servants, refuted his own statements on 27 September and in a break with the bi-partisan policy on Israel raised the idea of recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Were this to happen, Australia would likely suffer trade consequences in the Muslim world that would make the estimated cost of establishing an Australian Embassy in Jerusalem, at $200 million, pale into insignificance.

In response to questions on this policy change on Jerusalem, our prime minister reverted to type and repeatedly stated that as a sovereign nation we can do what we want.

On that he’s correct, but our prime minister is not our sovereign. Wentworth voters, and indeed all Australians, expect him to do (more or less) what is in the national interest rather than simply pander to short-term partisanship. After all, it’s our taxes and our country. Australia does not belong to the 226 Federal senators and MPs in Canberra, despite what some of them might think.

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Sadly, Australia is not the only country to suffer from politicians who bluster and leaders who think that if they only shout loud enough, they can convince voters that they are to be trusted and know what is best for them. Rather than shouting, talking down to them or taking them for granted, how about listening to what voters need and actually having a sensible plan for the future?

Half a world away, bookmakers offer odds that suggest Britain has a greater chance of a hard exit from the European Union than not. That is, no deal in place when the 23:00 29 March 2019 deadline rolls around. This poses huge risks for the British Economy, as Britons just might discover on 30 March that there are massive line ups at EU ports as British goods, previously tariff-free, are inspected and taxed.

Yet the bluster continues with Boris ‘Bluster’ Johnson, one of the most vocal supporters of Brexit, claiming it can be accomplished “…with zero tariffs and zero quotas on all imports and exports between the UK and EU countries”.

It is simply not good enough for politicians to put the personal before principle, interest before integrity, and special interest ahead of the national interest.  

From energy, climate change and water debacles, to more than $20 billion in government write-downs of the value of the National Broadband Network, to French submarines costing $50 billion missing in action, it is clear that decisions are not being made in Australia’s long-term interest. The voters in Wentworth know it to be so.

If politicians want to fix this gaping trust deficit, they need to listen to what voters care about and actually craft policies that really deal with the problems Australians face.

Remember the politicians who had to be dragged kicking and screaming to allow a Banking Royal Commission because the banks did not want it? It’s only up to its interim report, but that same Royal Commission has already found regulators to be asleep and bankers to have put “…short term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty.”   

Should we be surprised, therefore, that some politicians are opposed to the idea of a Federal Crime and Anti-Corruption watchdog?

Whether Kerryn Phelps wins or loses in Wentworth, the tide might just be turning for those politicians who fail to ‘walk the talk’ when they say they are “getting on with the job”. Note to all parliamentarians in Canberra: your job is to work for Australia.

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