Government and governance | Australia, The World

10 June 2016

As voter trust in the major parties erodes, independent candidates appear more attractive – but they won’t deliver what the electorate needs, writes John Hewson.

Donald Trump has, so far at least, effectively tapped the electoral mood that is anti-Washington, and anti-Congress. This mood takes on many forms but, basically, people feel disenfranchised, ignored, neglected, taken for granted and poorly represented, by their politicians, in a political system where money and vested interests have undue influence. Government is out of touch, and has let them down.

Trump was also able to tap into a concern about disadvantage and mounting inequality, appealing to those mostly white, low-middle income males that hadn’t seen an improvement in their standard of living in some 15 to 20 years. This also saw a focus on those regions and industries that were in decline in a globalised trading world.

This week, now moving into the second half of our federal election campaign, we saw the release of polling that suggested considerable and growing interest in the minor parties and independents. This similarly reflects an anti-Canberra, anti-politician view of the Liberal/National Coalition, the ALP, and the Greens.

It also reflected concern about our economy slipping into an “income recession”, implying declining living standards, especially for low to middle income earners.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten has been at pains to capitalise on this by not only focusing on education and health, but also by promising “fair” budget repair, and attacking Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull for being “out of touch”, and governing for the “top end of town”.

However, Shorten is struggling to resonate, largely because he wants voters to both listen to what he says, while accepting what he does.

That is, he says he is “not going down the route of big spending”, while spending more and more, daily, as he moves from issue to issue, and seat to seat, around the country. He doesn’t seem to be able to see such messages as mixed. Yet, in doing so, he further erodes the electoral trust in him.

Similarly, all three parties claim to have “a plan”, but all fail to provide adequate detail, and especially detail as to how their plan will work, and be funded. The electorate is left to doubt whether these plans are actually deliverable.

Basically the electorate is either not listening, or if it is, it certainly doesn’t seem to believe what it hears. There is doubt among Australian voters that they are being told the truth about our current and prospective economic circumstances, and the magnitude of the policy challenges ahead.

Instead, they imagine that whomever wins government will claim, pretty early on, that  “the economy is tougher than we feared”, so we will need to recalibrate our budget/plan.

Shadow Treasurer, Chris Bowen, has already admitted as much, as he has promised to release a more honest assessment of our economy (using the Parliamentary Budget Office rather than the Treasury), within 100 days of being elected. That suggests that things are indeed worse, which he has also foreshadowed already with his criticisms of the optimism of the Government’s Budget forecasts.

Bowen has also promised to bring down a mini-budget in response.

I fear a new government will face an even larger budget repair task, some election commitments will be soon abandoned, and the mini-budget will have to be tougher than foreshadowed.

Do you hear echoes of the first Abbott Budget? Do you fear a repeat of Senate rejections? Do we then drift on even further, with Budget repair just being kicked further down the road? Will we have gained nothing, but having lost another four years?

Is it any wonder that even very non-traditional outsiders are being contemplated? I can hear the argument. You can’t trust the current lot. So why not give these outsiders a go? They surely can’t do any worse?

As appealing as many outsiders might seem, it is unlikely that they will deliver the good policy and stable government that we so desperately need.

This piece was also published in the Southern Highland News.

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Hewson, J. (2016). The year of the outsider? - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: