Government and governance | Australia

7 April 2015

Many have tried, few have succeeded, but there’s never been a better time for a new political party in Australia, writes John Hewson.

The time has never been better for a new, third force, for a new political party in our national politics.

Many have tried – the Democrats, Bob Katter, Clive Palmer, and a host of others, but none have succeeded to sustain an influential role. I would also throw the Greens into this category.

This week saw Jacqui Lambie emerge as the most recent aspirant with the launch of her Jacqui Lambie Network, not a party, mind you!

Echoes of Pauline Hansen, you might say. Well yes, and no, but probably destined to the same fate.

Yet, both major parties are increasingly on the nose, preferring self-absorption, and very short-term politicking, to good government.

The electorate has had enough. They have the simple expectation that governments should govern, should solve problems and meet challenges, should deal effectively and equitably with issues as they arise.

The media now refer to a ‘trust deficit’, whereby our politicians have progressively eroded their standing with the electorate. They have done this essentially by promising what they know they can’t deliver, by saying or doing whatever is required to win the media, on any day.

Politics is no longer seen as a contest of ideas and ideologies. Both major parties have pursued small target strategies, reducing policies to mere dot points or sound bites – “stop the boats”, “fix” the budget, “create two million jobs”, etc – not attempting to provide any policy detail so as to hopefully avoid a scare campaign from the other side. Neither is prepared to spell out, in detail, a genuine vision for our nation.

This has been compounded by the way some powerful vested interests are seen to easily get what they want from government – the miners, the big polluters, some industries, casino owners, etc. – while so much of what else governments do is seen as unfair. It has also been compounded by some conspicuous weaknesses in the campaign funding arrangements.

The suspicion is that we have the best government that money can buy.

To be an effective new force, a new party would need to begin by restoring trust, by committing to clean up politics and political processes.

The Democrats began well in this respect, committing to simply “Keep the bastards honest” but, unfortunately, their electoral support ultimately waned as it wasn’t clear who would keep them “honest”.

Clearly, a new party would need to commit to clean up and enforce electoral funding rules, by banning all but capped personal donations, perhaps even moving to publicly funded elections. Lobbying would also need to be made fully transparent and accountable, with continuous and immediate disclosure.

The Parliament would also need to be cleaned up, with truly independent Speakers, outlawing ‘Dorothy Dixers’ and ministerial statements in Question Time, by elevating the role and power of parliamentary committees, and a host of other reforms.

In policy terms, initially at least, it would be important for a new party to focus on a few key areas of particular national significance. Areas where they would hope to set the political agenda, to lead the debate. Areas such as a genuine growth, productivity and jobs strategy, a substantive response to climate change, and broad-based and significant reform of our Federation and tax system would seem to be priorities.

In social policy, areas such as a national strategy on drugs and domestic violence should also be priorities.

In each area, a three stage process would be required – initially, build broad community recognition and acceptance of the policy challenge, then lay out the mains policy options and, finally, select an option and fight for it.

The aim would be to ultimately drag the major parties into the debate, hoping to force the mature debate they always claim they seek, but never deliver, and then to force a substantive policy response.

I doubt Jacqui can do it, but the opportunity and need is certainly there.

This piece was also published by the Southern Highland Times

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