ENGAGING THE NATION
Seeking out a better brand of politics in Australia right now is a bit like the joke about a lost tourist asking the wily old farmer for directions. "Oh, I wouldn't start from here," the clever cocky responds.
The near universal view is that the country has never had it so bad. A government that lurches from the mud of scandal into the soap opera of leadership rumblings, an opposition that believes that simple three- or four-word slogans can solve every problem.
If 2010 gave us an election about nothing - politics without policy, a circus with only clowns - then the contours of the 2013 campaign are shaping up as miserably similar.
But what if it didn't need to be this way? What if, like the symbolic gesture Russia and the US undertook in 2009 as a way of dispelling post-Cold War tensions, Australia's political leaders stood beside a big red button marked by the word "reset" and pressed down hand in hand?
If Australia could banish the ugliness of the past few years, start afresh and enjoy the kind of election many people claim to want, rather than the election we seem destined to get, what are the topics the nation should be debating? How should we appeal to our better instincts, "the ideal of Australia as a country that has an independent spirit, but one open to engagement", as philosopher Tony Coady puts it.
Education, healthcare and preparing for an ageing population are undoubtedly key issues. So is seriously confronting the reality that indigenous Australians live shorter and poorer lives than the majority.
"I'd like to see a lot more bipartisanship," says Peter Doherty, who in 1996 won the Nobel prize for medicine. "The oppositionist attitude for whatever party is out of power is just crazy ... it is impossible to get any reasonable public debate."
Increasing scientific research, by government and business alike, is the issue he'd most like to see on the table. But wise heads also know that elections are almost always won or lost on the economy. Surplus or deficit, living within the means of today or borrowing to invest in growth for the future, a sweetener here, a sop to a lobby group there.
Certainly, the parties will offer a policy on just about everything, but these are often touchstones - safer taxi ranks, harvesting stormwater in Adelaide - to give a campaign the appearance of momentum. Australians are in a sour mood and in a compulsory voting system like ours, the angriest few are plied with the most attention. Swinging voters, never satisfied, are convinced the country has gone to pot. Never mind the standout ranking among other industrial economies after a decade of unprecedented wealth dug from the ground.
Perhaps Australians just have a bad attitude, prone to see the world through a glass darkly. "We are not getting into substance, we're looking at personality for an election that is supposed to be about running the country," says indigenous leader Pat Dodson. In politics, an appeal to hip pocket might trump all, but there are other ways to debate the economy and appeal over the heads of particular interests.
How we choose to look at problems conditions our politics. To take an example, Australians whinge about our high dollar and are understandably distressed at the demise of the manufacturing sector, exemplified by the decision by Ford to abandon car production in the country. But we seemingly ignore the potential benefits: that every point the dollar now comes down will go straight to the bottom line of those exporters who survived by making their business as lean and efficient as possible. Or that a high national wage, far from leaving us uncompetitive, makes Australia a desirable destination for motivated immigrants, if only we were more welcoming.
Dodson, for his part, wants greater development of northern Australia to be on the national agenda. An investment fund or banking account to help Aborigines turn traditional land title into commercial opportunities, for instance, amid all the talk of transforming Australia into the food bowl of a growing middle class in Asia.
"We are still dealing with Aboriginal peoples as if they are fourth world," says Dodson, convinced the legacy of "terra nullius" haunts the nation still. No real political appetite exists for a treaty like the one New Zealand struck more than a century ago with its indigenous people, despite Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott being quick this month to express sorrow at the passing of the artist Mandawuy Yunupingu, who gave a theme song to the cause of a treaty.
But an immediate challenge, as Dodson sees it, is to eliminate the competition between the states on questions of infrastructure development, dividing Australia in vertical chunks, such as when Western Australia hopes to win at the expense of Queensland the tender to build a port to rival Darwin, rather than seeing a horizontal line to link the nation.
"Build a rail line from Cairns across to Port Hedland - getting the best outcome for the country, rather than the best outcome for each state," Dodson says.
Investing in hospitals and schools to stop people resorting to distant options in Adelaide or Brisbane - in other words, to see a better result from all the wealth that comes out of the north. Abbott's pledge to make the north the next frontier, repeated on Friday with a promise to produce a white paper within a year of winning office, doesn't promise an escape from the state versus federal tensions.
Vision seems to have become a poisoned word in politics since Paul Keating adopted it as a mantra; vision has surrendered instead to carefully calibrated and pedestrian talking points. But whatever it is called - hope, foresight, world view - there is still a demand to outline what kind of Australia we want to see in the years ahead. "One of the big issues for me is courage and leadership," says business leader Carol Schwartz. Harnessing the role of women - "all the fabulous, educated, motivated women in this country" - means increasing the availability of childcare places, she says, and forgoing a one-size-fits-all approach that ignores the different needs of women who work as nurses, teachers or investment bankers.
Again, the key here is to cast the debate as a benefit to the nation, improving the economy overall. It is also a motivation for Susan Ryan, the federal age discrimination commissioner, who sees a striking parallel in a deep cultural prejudice against people over 50 years of age and the 1970s struggle for women's rights.
"People need to ask themselves, 'Why do I think that 50 is old?'," Ryan says. The demographers are charting an ageing population, with an average lifetime creeping ever closer to a century. Forcing people out of the workplace in their 60s, or earlier, is just bad economics, estimated as a $10 billion loss to the nation.
Ryan says it is also a common mistake to regard older Australians as frail. "Most people in their 70s are very vital - getting about doing things like volunteering, working, running a business or working part-time," she says, and looking forward to another 20 years of life. "I don't think an art gallery or museum would exist without the volunteers."
What is undoubtedly true is that health costs to government, some associated with an ageing population, some with medical advances, have ballooned. Greg Lindsay from the Centre for Independent Studies would like to see a debate about reining in the cost of Medicare. "If you're going into an election campaign, people don't want to hear bad news, but that is what we confront."
Lindsay goes further. Public finances must be disciplined, in surplus and sustainable. The aim should be less red tape and lower taxes. Environmental compliance measures have become a massive burden for business, he says, competing with state controls.
"The imperialism of the federal government," as Lindsay bluntly puts it, "it's been going on too long." Industrial relations should also be on the agenda, much more than education, public hospitals, and law and order, which are largely state matters.
For Tony Nicholson of the Brotherhood of St Laurence, the ideal national debate is simple. Work and home. "People are able to build a better life if they have a job and access to affordable housing. But I fear this won't be talked about." The economic case motivates him as much as the social cause. More people in work - and more work for the underemployed - means more taxes collected, less reliance on public housing and other welfare payments.
"While we are setting the world to rights, I'd like to see some party find a much more mature approach to taxation," he says, arguing for a recasting of company tax, superannuation and negative gearing. "That requires government to be bold but if we are going to have the resources for infrastructure ... [and] to pay for people with disadvantage, it's what's needed."
Multicultural proponent Hass Dellal worries that the vicious character of asylum seeker debates could undermine the strength Australia draws from its diversity. "We don't live away from the rest of the earth - we are part of it."
Jan Owen, from the Foundation for Young Australians, sees an antiquated education system in desperate need of reform, unable to foster an enterprising spirit. "How do we become a nation of job creators, not just job seekers?"
And Patrick McGorry, a tireless campaigner in support of mental health, is disturbed that a problem 10 times larger than disability has again slipped from the agenda.
But whatever the passion or cause, Australia's moment of despondency clearly does not stem from an absence of ideas. It is politics that is failing.
When the Americans pressed that symbolic red button, they discovered to their embarrassment that what they thought was Russian for "reset" in fact read "overload". Perhaps our politicians pressed it after all.
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