'A rare outbreak of decency and common sense. Time will tell if it’s a new dawn for our politics'

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By Mick Le Moignan

Jersey’s rejection of political parties at last year’s election was matched in Australia, where seven ‘Teal’ candidates were elected to Parliament in seats that the outgoing Liberal Party once regarded as their ‘blue ribbon’ heartland.

The Teals are all professional women who argued that the Liberals had lurched too far to the right, indulging tendencies to misogyny and racism, embracing the fossil fuel lobby and enjoying its largesse, allowing and engaging in corrupt practices such as ‘pork-barrelling’, favouring their own electorates with lavish grants and assistance after bushfires and floods.

While not uniting as a formal party, the Teal Independents shared a platform urging much stronger action on the climate emergency and a standing national commission to investigate corruption in public life, particularly by politicians.

After the election, the polarised major parties seemed inclined to revert to business as usual, bickering and pointless point-scoring, but recently there has been a rare outbreak of decency and common sense, at both State and Federal levels.

At last month’s State election in NSW, outgoing Liberal Premier, Dominic Perrottet, and Labor leader, Chris Minns, conducted interesting and informative TV debates without resorting to personal abuse. Perrottet conceded early on election night and congratulated Minns warmly, both on his victory and on conducting a fair and civil campaign. Minns replied in kind and they both confessed to ‘liking’ each other.

Previous PMs such as Paul Keating and Tony Abbott, famous for their withering invective and ‘shirt-fronting’ style, would have been bemused by such a sportsmanlike approach.

When the pugilistic Abbott seized the leadership of the Liberal Party from Malcolm Turnbull more than a decade ago, he decided that being leader of the opposition meant opposing everything the government stood for or supported. Abbott fired an arsenal of three-word slogans, specially designed for TV grabs and newspaper headlines: ‘Stop the Boats’, ‘Axe the Tax’, ‘Repay the Debt’.

And it worked. Abbott’s monosyllables ran rings around the intellectual complexities of Kevin Rudd and he was duly elected. Only – opposing things isn’t enough, when you’re in charge. You have to propose things as well – and people didn’t like what Abbott proposed, especially when he tried to increase charges for the national health service, Medicare.

Turnbull took his revenge on Abbott by deposing him, but was then too worried about losing his job again to propose anything controversial. Turnbull fell to ‘Scotty from Marketing’ Morrison, who famously sat on his hands in Hawaii while Australia burned and, during the pandemic, appointed himself secretly to five Cabinet ministries – Health, Finance, Industry & Energy, Home Affairs and Treasury.

At the time, Morrison’s disturbing megalomania was only known to the Governor-General. Morrison didn’t even tell his own ministers he was ‘shadowing’ them. It only became public knowledge last year, after Labor’s Anthony Albanese defeated Morrison in the election. Parliament took the unusual step of censuring the ex-PM for abuse of his powers and legislated to stop anything similar happening in the future.

The latest Liberal leader is Peter Dutton, an unpopular ex-policeman from Queensland who clearly relishes confrontation. His only admirers seem to be Australia’s cartoonists, who delight in caricaturing him as a ‘Mr Potato-Head’ figure.

At a by-election in the Victorian seat of Aston, before Easter, voters gave Dutton’s leadership a resounding thumbs-down. It became the first by-election since 1920 where a government had taken an opposition seat.

Several commentators have observed that Adam Bandt, of the minority Greens Party, despite having only four seats in the House of Representatives, is proving to be a more effective leader of the opposition than Dutton. The Greens have 11 out of 76 seats in the Senate, giving them, with other cross-benchers, the balance of power and the final say on all new legislation.

The Greens promised to allow no new coal or gas projects. For the past year, this has put them on a collision course with Albanese’s Labor Government, whose climate targets are modest. Labor proposed a series of taxes and other measures known collectively as the Safeguard Act, but no outright ban on new fossil fuel ventures.

The Greens are haunted by having voted, in 2009, against Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, an attempt to impose a carbon price on emissions. They demanded more stringent legislation, which was not forthcoming. The result was no price on carbon. By Labor’s calculations, this has resulted in an additional 200 million tonnes of Australian carbon emissions and higher electricity prices.

Armed with this evidence, Labor thought they could wedge the Greens into supporting their Safeguard Act. Bandt chose negotiation, rather than confrontation. The result was the passage of a much stronger Safeguard Act, which severely cuts the financial viability of any new fossil fuel ventures – but does not ban them entirely.

It was a face-saving measure for both sides. Neither the government nor the Greens could have caved in on this issue without appearing weak and losing support. The compromise is far from ideal but still a vast improvement on any climate protection achieved by the Liberal/National Party Coalition during their decade in power.

The latest IPCC report warns there is only a slim chance of preventing global heating from tipping over into catastrophe. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said there must be ‘no new coal (and) the phasing out of coal by 2030 in OECD countries and by 2040 in all other countries’ and an immediate end to ‘all new licensing or funding of new oil and gas’. So the Greens were right, and even under the new safeguards, this country is not yet doing its share of the heavy lifting.

Until recently, ‘bipartisan’ has been a dirty word in Australian politics – in spite of numerous opinion polls suggesting that voters would like their representatives to work together constructively, to address the nation’s problems, rather than indulging in playground squabbles and petty, personal rivalries.

Time will tell whether the recent improvement in politicians’ behaviour is a golden new dawn or just a flash in the fossicker’s pan.

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