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The problems with Australia’s political duopoly


Andrew Wong

By

June 21st, 2016


Australia appears to be stuck in a political quagmire, with neither major party offering concrete solutions to the challenges facing the nation’s future. What can be done? Andrew Wong makes the case for why you should send the two major Australian political parties a message on July 2.


With the election only a couple of weeks away, do you feel that your vote will be insignificant? No matter who you vote for, chances are the resulting policies will be bland and unadventurous, lacking innovation we need to lift Australia out of its slumber. In 2014, the ABC reported ‘waning interest’ in politics amongst the public, with satisfaction with the democratic system slumping from 86 per cent to 72 per cent. To compound this increasing disenchantment, the leaders we vote in are frequently being chopped and changed. While the Australian electorate does not actively vote its Prime Minister into power (we vote instead for the party best aligned with our interest), the leaders of the respective parties play a large role in our decision.

For those familiar with the fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, this election is like being asked to choose between Ramsay Bolton and Joffrey Baratheon. Of course, Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull are no sadistic masochist (I should hope so!). However, as a first time voter in July, voting between either the Labor of Liberal party is like choosing the worst of two rotten apples. These apples ay look shiny and lustrous, but when cut open, the apples have a tinge of black mould spreading from its core. Hidden behind the glistening campaign policies are pages of empty promises and lies.

Why then is choosing between the two parties so hard? After all, there was plenty to like about Malcolm Turnbull when he first usurped Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. Bill Shorten on the other hand was seen as a fresh start, diverging from the calamitous power feud between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard that preceded him. The Coalition has recently released a budget that promises ‘jobs and growth’ (more detailed analysis on that on our page), while the ALP is sticking to their tried and tested strengths of health and education. In general, this looks like a typical Australian election. Yes, the choice may be hard, but surely both apples are not as rotten as touched upon earlier, surely? This could never be as hard as picking between Joffrey and Ramsay- or is it?

Both parties have been scarred by the civil wars going on in their respective camps. The ALP is only beginning to emerge from years of division between Rudd and Gillard, marred by the actions of ‘faceless men’ on behalf of both Labor heavyweights. Despite having largely similar political principles, the two allowed their hunger for power consume themselves. Consequently, a series of mutinies followed, where the faceless men shifted their backstabbing knives from one target to another, culminating in the political extinction of the Rudd-Gillard Labor era at the 2013 election.

While the events of 2013 certainly succeeded in forcing the premature retirement of both Gillard and Rudd, sitting at the head of the party now is Bill Shorten. While Shorten has grown into his role as Opposition Leader over the past three years, there is a question as to whether he is truly trusted within the party. After all, he was one of the most prominent “faceless men”, responsible for bringing down not one, but two party leaders. In a scenario where Labor wins, there are no guarantees that the perpetrator will one day end up being the victim- albeit lessened by changes to Labor’s constitution post-2013 aimed at avoiding a repeat of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era.

On the other hand, the Liberal Party is enduring what its counterparts were facing the last election-diminishing figures in the polls. In an attempt to boost popularity, they have deposed Tony Abbott, who will be best remembered for his ‘stop the boats’ slogan, a slogan that even the right wing hardliners of the party were willing to set aside in favour of a more optimistic ‘Jobs and Growth’ mantra under Malcolm Turnbull. At first glance, Turnbull seemed a breath of new air in a country exhausted with the politics of his predecessor. Contrary to his predecessor’s uninspiring leadership, Turnbull represented change and seemed likeable and charismatic. The Liberal Party heaved a sigh of relief when their polling numbers experienced a much needed boost. However, all the initial promise of divergence from Abbott’s directionless policies was replaced by a man held hostage by the hardliners of the party. Ultimately, Abbott’s shadow looms over every step Turnbull takes and he has no choice but to tread ever so cautiously. Hence, the optimism has dissipated, overtaken by disgruntlement extending from the party itself to the public. The Turnbull who had a plan to save Australia, has become almost a lifeless puppet, controlled by his party, many within who still support his predecessor.

Furthermore, the credibility of both men are at question. Disregarding the failed promises of Turnbull or Shorten’s tarnished history, both leaders lack the spark that is required to rejuvenate the enthusiasm amongst the general public, especially the young. As eloquent and experienced as they may be, they are certainly no Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau or even President Joko Widodo of Indonesia. In each of their respective countries, these leaders captivated voters and reached out to the grassroots of communities. They became a symbol of hope and change.These leaders were willing to answer the challenging questions demanded of the job while we are forced to vote one of two men who either deflect these controversial issues or worse still, resort to negative politics and politics of the past. Take President Obama for example. Some may argue that the emergence of Senator Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party presidential primaries demonstrates the frustrations some voters have with Obama. However, Obama dared to venture into uncharted territory- he reformed the health care system in the United States, creating Obamacare. While there are still many unresolved issues in the States, Obama at least had the audacity to do the previously unthinkable. The reality is, are either of these two leaders capable of leaving a significant legacy? Do we not deserve better choices than, in the words of Peter Hartcher, ‘faceless Shorten’ or ‘shapeless Turnbull’?

However, arguably the biggest issue with the current state of Australian politics is the willingness or over eagerness of both the Labor and Liberal parties to engage in the warfare of ‘negative campaigning’. For those wondering, negative politics refers to the strategies adopted by politicians to attack and criticise the negative aspects of political rivals instead of promoting their own policies. Regrettably, both parties are guilty of utilising such ugly tactics in excess. Imagine a situation where you are an employer interviewing two people in the final round of the recruitment process. Instead of having two candidates who showcase their personal attributes and suitability for the position, the two prospective employees launch scathing criticisms of their respective foes, highlighting why the other is unemployable, digging up history and the past to discredit their competition. This is the state of our political arena, and we are the victims of it.

In an especially crucial period in our transition from the mining boom, it is vital that the government has clear agendas to maximise and improve our arguably our most important resources during this transformation. Australia desperately needs clear coherent plans on science and innovation , education equality and clean energy. There is no doubt that both Turnbull and Shorten have allocated some resources to the three policy areas. However, many of the policies have either been gradually abandoned in the past few years or built upon unsustainable and unrealistic figures. Since 2008, both parties have been guilty of slashing funding to the CSIRO. This is particularly unsettling as Australia is experiencing a brain drain in the science and technological sector. On the other hand, while the commitments to Gonski education funding (albeit at differing amounts from both parties) demonstrates a renewed focus on education, it is one thing to support an independent review and another to implement it fully according to its recommendations. Most importantly, both parties fail to truly recognise the vast opportunities Australia has in the renewable energy sector. Boasting one of the highest solar energy potential per square kilometre figures in the world, it is remarkable that the two major parties are not identifying our ability to harness this resource as the route to our economic future.

Why are these three policies so important? Australia’s future lies in our ability to innovate, to create new markets where we can dominate. The talent is undoubtedly there and the resources are plentiful but unless our politicians realise this, there is no point in believing in ‘jobs and growth’ or a brighter future. Perhaps, they do know this. Maybe the parties have had set realistic goals to better Australia. However, instead of being true leaders of democracy, they allow themselves to be tied down by special interests. Ultimately, we as voters are left to decide between two subpar governments who are only effective at being one thing- opposition parties, even when serving in government.

The future looks terribly bleak if the political health of our major parties are gradually deteriorating. Therefore, we as voters have to force the duopoly to reconsider their strategies, to adopt more innovative and progressive plans for the future, and to truly listen to the voices of their electorates. Although at present, it will be unrealistic to see a government formed that is neither Labor nor Liberal, we have the power to vote in independents and alternative parties in both the Upper and Lower Houses, forcing a minority government. Of course, voting for independents or minor parties can be risky- just look at the farcical collapse of the Palmer United Party for an example of when this can go horrible wrong. However, it is a risk worth taking. A greater dissatisfaction with the duopoly will force the parties to return back to the drawing board and to re-evaluate their political strategies. We could potentially see the fall of at least one uninspiring leader, and maybe even another, in due course. Polling during the campaign has showed the growing distrust the public has in both parties and this is a great opportunity to tell both parties to pull up their socks. Moreover, if there is a large enough voting base against the Liberal-Labor duopoly, it will encourage a possible formation of an alternative third powerhouse in the political arena, or consolidate the existence of the Greens as a noteworthy force in Australian politics. The Greens can arguably be considered a major player in the Senate, with 10 out of the 76 seats. They however only hold one seat in the Lower House, the seat of Melbourne. A possible new force on the horizon can be seen in the emergence of Nick Xenophon’s party in South Australia, bestowed with the most imaginative of names- the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT for short). NXT has a realistic chance of gaining seats in both houses come July 2, which will certainly throw a spanner into the works of whoever forms government.

Although, this is definitely not as hard as choosing between Joffrey and Ramsay, nevertheless, the alarm bells are ringing and there will be an imminent decline in the political health of our nation if we do not act. For the many staunch Liberal and Labor supporters that I have offended, I hope we can all agree on one thing; namely, that the past few years do no justice to the proud history of both Australia’s major parties- especially the bold reforms the likes of Menzies, Whitlam, Keating and Hawke undertook to define their parties and reform Australia. For those still undecided on who to vote for, the alternative option might be the path worth taking. Will the duopoly of Labor and Liberal survive yet another federal election? On July 2, we’ll find out.

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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