Government and governance | Australia

18 March 2016

Bi-partisanship and good policy is suffering as politicians chase a quick win in a short-term game. But it should still be a contest in the national interest, John Hewson writes.

It is a global phenomenon, currently most conspicuous in the United States with the ascendency of Donald Trump in the race for the Presidency. Trump has been able to build mounting electoral support from those disillusioned with Washington and Congress, and the inherent corruption of US politics.

Much of the decline in the standing of politics and politicians has occurred as politics and government has become little more than a very short-term game. A game played by a small political elite, self-absorbed by scoring points on each other, riddled with negativity and opportunism, while looking after the interests of a few, generally at the expense of good government. Important issues and policy challenges have been essentially avoided and left to drift, to the detriment of the majority, and the national interest.

Increasingly, voters feel ignored and isolated from their elected representatives, and the processes of government and politics, almost totally disenfranchised and disillusioned. This is compounded as they are fed “spin” rather than facts, rationalisations rather than explanations, politics rather than leadership, problem solving, and effective government directed to their needs and aspirations.

One question that is constantly put to me is why we can’t achieve bi-partisanship on issues that are clearly in the national interest, especially those of longer-term significance, and which will clearly remain important well beyond the tenure of our current batch of politicians?

How often have you heard politicians claim to be concerned about the legacy being left to our children, and our children’s children, and so on, only to see them quickly return to their short-term game playing?

Or, how often have you seen them release an inter-generational report, only to then see them deliver a budget that completely ignores the challenges of those demographic, climate and other predictions so fundamental to our longer-term national future?

Cynically, in the end, they don’t worry so much as they rationalise their inactivity with the view that these longer-term challenges will probably happen on somebody else’s watch, even if their neglect or inertia actually works to compound the magnitude and urgency of the issue.

Yet, the average punter has genuine concerns about basics, such a schools and hospitals, but is also concerned about longer-term challenges such as ageing, climate, infrastructure, the National Broadband Network (NBN), failing manufacturing, the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), and so on.

How is it that we can’t develop a bi-partisan national position in support of  the big issues like child abuse and domestic violence, mental illness and disability, ice and other drug abuse, and a host of nationally significant infrastructure projects such as a very fast train from Melbourne to Brisbane (for which I declare an interest).

An exception is, of course, defence, which seems able to get budget approvals that no other department can get, and then be subjected to less security and less accountability than all other government departments.

Why? Because, broadly, defence spending has bi-partisan support, in the sense that both sides of politics have consistently handled this issue with kid gloves.

Yet, we can see dozens of our best and finest killed in various skirmishes, without a decent justification for our participation in the first place.

Today the most important, longer-term, issue is climate change, yet, as we speak, neither side of Australian politics can yet fully explain how we can achieve even a five per cent reduction in emissions by 2020, to which both sides are committed, let alone how to achieve the committed targets of a 26-28 per cent reduction by 2030.

On this, I suspect Opposition Leader Bill Shorten will provide some policy detail on climate and the key elements on pricing carbon, which should work to wedge both Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, in his seat.

Climate will be a key issue in Australia’s forthcoming election. Both sides have much to do to win electoral support on this. Both will fall short of the mark as to what is required.

Yet, it should not be a political contest, but rather a bi-partisan position in the national interest.

It will really matter to our children and grandchildren.

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Hewson, J. (2016). When pollies play to win, we all lose - Policy Forum. [online] Policy Forum. Available at: