We’re wedging ourselves to death

On a whole host of issues, political opponents divide the community and stir up fears that make actual progress impossible.

This list of serious problems that Australian governments are unwilling to address is growing, thanks to a political culture in which serious reforms are cynically opposed and milked for political advantage.

In some respects, we're back in 1977, when Liberal MP and dumped minister Don Chipp decided the parliament was in gridlock, and he'd break away to form the Australian Democrats to "keep the bastards honest" and get things moving again. 

Reading his resignation speech, it is easy to imagine a mainstream MP with a history of dissent saying the same – Malcolm Turnbull or Barnaby Joyce on the Coalition side and, on the Labor side ... actually, they all resigned or lost their seats at the last election, but Kevin Rudd, Simon Crean and Greg Combet might have done the job.

In 1977 Chipp said: "I have become disenchanted with party politics as they are practised in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties. 

"The parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder if the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence political parties and yearns for the emergence of a third political force, representing middle-of-the-road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group. Perhaps it may be the right time to test that proposition.

That proposition is now being tested by the Greens, with nine senators and Adam Bandt in the lower house; and the Palmer United Party, with three senators and Sir Clive himself in the lower house. 

The difference, as former PM Malcolm Fraser reminded me this week, was that neither the Greens nor PUP have the centrist, mainstream character of Chipp's Democrats. 

"You tell me one substantial area in their policy platform that was different to ours," demanded Fraser with more than hint of the old enmity between him and Chipp flaring up. 

Though Chipp listed many policy gripes that had angered him as a Liberal Party MP and minister, he was essentially breaking away to claim power of his own – he was sick of his own party telling him to shut up, and in the long run it's a fair bet they regretted ever doing so. 

By contrast, the Greens are well to the left of even the ALP's left faction, and Palmer occupies a kind of Tea-Party radical right place on the political spectrum. 

When Chipp called for support for his breakaway party, he said: "That move will have to come from those people in Australia who believe in the encouragement of free enterprise, who believe it has not had a 'fair go' from interfering Governments who regularly change, without warning, the conditions under which they operate. 

"It must come from people who believe in true justice for the work force and compassion for those in need, but who believe that actions must be taken to prevent social problems from occurring rather than trying to cure them and hide them once they have arrived."

Both the Coalition and Labor would claim to live up to those imperatives, yet as the WA senate election re-run showed, something is pushing voters into the arms of Clive or the Greens. 

Chippy continued: "Above all, it must come from those people who are disgusted with those politicians and political parties who indulge mainly in cheap political point scoring in the endless pursuit of votes at any price and from people who want their Parliament to identify the real and significant problems of the future and to take action now which will make the country a good, safe and sound place for future generations."

Cheap political point scoring has prevented policy progress in a number of important areas, including:

– the pressing need to broaden the tax base, through such means as higher capital gains taxes, a wider and higher GST, decent resource rent taxes (MRRT and PRRT) carbon emission permit revenue, and attempts to whittle away super tax concessions and negative gearing. 

– incentivising business investment and job creation by substantially lowering corporate tax (and not raising it again with a 'levy' as Abbott has done) and replacing it with the broader tax base mentioned above, plus reining in of some penalty rates

– cutting transfer payments to those who don't need them and targeting spending to those who do

– discouraging non-productive asset speculation (housing)

– genuinely increasing competition in banking and grocery retailing

– joining the global push to minimise the costs of anthropogenic climate change

– and working with neighbouring nations to find a genuine solution to refugees and people trafficking.

There is a lot to be said on all those issues, but the important point to note is that they do not all belong to a 'left' or 'right' agenda, but can all safely be put in the 'wedge' basket.

That is, each of these issues allows a political opponent to divide the community and stir up fears that make movement on the issue impossible. 

Why is that a problem for Australia? Because on each of the above issues, the failure to enact serious reform harms the welfare of the very voters who are divided by wedge politics. They are structural problems that won't go away of their own accord.

Between December 2009 and early 2013, Malcolm Turnbull was thought by many (including this columnist) to be preparing a political rupture of his own – a mainstream, centrist, liberal force to keep the bastards honest à la Chipp. 

That did not happen, and now that he's a cabinet minister in a government that will tear up carbon pricing (the policy over which he was deposed) it would seem almost impossible. 

So keeping the bastards honest will fall to the Greens and Palmer. 

Economist Richard Denniss, now head of think tank The Australia Institute, but once chief of staff to Democrats leader Natasha Stott Despoja, argues that the only publicity-generating power a balance-of-power party has is in saying "no". 

Once that's done, the road to "yes" is a long one, as it was for John Howard when he worked tirelessly to convince Democrats leader Meg Lees to help him legislate the GST.

Denniss also sees a major difference between Palmer and the Greens in saying "no" to Tony Abbott - Palmer knows the Liberals and Nationals intimately, knows where all the bodies are buried, knows where the sensitive nerves are to be tweaked, and where major internal feuds can be sparked. He will say "no" with maximum tactical and strategic nous.

The Greens think they know all this.  Clive was there, inside the tent, for 40 years. He knows.

Whether he will use that power to force movement on some of the growing structural problems facing Australia is another matter. For now, he only cares about building electoral support with nonsensical promises such as being able to hand back all of WA's GST.

There are bound to be surprises when the new senate sits from July 1. One can only hope some of them are constructive – that is, that we're surprised to find a number of wedging opportunities removed from the national political debate, at least for a while.