Friday Dec 08, 2023

A new era in politics may be here. But don’t count on it

The Tragic Case of Nikki Catsouras’s Death


Although two thirds of the nation may have breathed a sigh of relief at the demise of the Morrison government, claims that its defeat marks the end of an era of divisive politics and the birth of a newer more inclusive one are premature.

For one thing, the response of the electorate at one juncture in our history is not frozen for all time.

Former British prime minister Harold Macmillan is credited with the phrase “events dear boy, events” as being the single greatest determinant factor for any political leader.

And the events that could determine the fate of the new Albanese government are already confronting it.

We have the perfect storm of rising interest rates and exploding energy and transport costs.

Australians, particularly the so-called middle class, have become used to seeing their wealth increase thanks to the value of their homes rising exponentially.

But this property boom has been fuelled by record household debt used to pay off million-dollar mortgages.

Interest rate hikes will add hundreds of dollars to monthly mortgage bills this year.

Families so highly leveraged now face the prospect of rising interest payments at the same time as their gas and electricity bills soar and petrol prices threaten to break fresh record highs.

“No government can survive the middle class feeling poorer” is the view of one newly marginalised Liberal MP.

A Labor insider consoles himself with the fact that these price shocks are happening in the first weeks of the Albanese tenure, meaning there is time for events to improve before the next election.

We shall see.

For now though, as one of Australia’s most eminent former public servants Dennis Richardson told RN Breakfast: Albanese and his senior colleagues are off to a flying start.

Like all new governments, they come to the task without the baggage and the barnacles of the past ten years.

They also came to government not by appealing to Australians’ darker angels, playing off fears and prejudices that have fuelled the culture wars for the best part of two decades.

The emergence of the “teal” independents in six of the Liberals’ blue-ribbon seats is hailed as the surest sign that we are now in a new era where voters’ loyalty to a party brand no longer overrides more fundamental concerns over the survival of the human race on a warming planet, the denial of equality to women and the gender diverse, or integrity and accountability in government.

Urban voters, long derided as “woke” chardonnay-sipping or latte-drinking dreamers, were no longer prepared to be held to ransom by the vested interests of the hardline conservatives who have dominated the Coalition in recent years.

The racism and bigotry that was a feature of our border security politics going all the way back to 2001 lost its potency this time, though we shouldn’t think another wily, unscrupulous populist couldn’t revive it in future.

Fear after all is one of the biggest drivers of voting intention, but it is not the only one. Hope as we saw almost four weeks ago is not always denied.

The success of the ‘teal’ independents revealed an appetite for a different politics in Australia.

For those of us who despaired at the longevity of a border policy that smacked of deterrence of asylum seekers through cruelty, the return to Biloela in Central Queensland of the Nadesalingam family was cathartic.

Prime Minister Albanese spoke for many when he said a family with two young girls spending four years in detention was something “Australia can’t be proud of”.

“We are a better country than that – we can do better than that,” he said.

Albanese’s challenge is to bring the nation with him as he strives to deliver on this sentiment.

Governments never look better than when they have just won an election and Albanese has shown considerable political smarts capitalising on this.

But the risks for Labor are in the rigid and more extreme right being as loud as ever and feeding off the more extreme elements of the left to destroy a pragmatic consensus on a range of issues but particularly energy and climate change.

It is not the new teal independents who have some key government strategists worried but the more inflexible elements in the Greens, who, with their numbers in the Senate, could sink a broad consensus being achieved on an orderly transition to renewables and emissions reduction.

Politics is the art of the possible and the 2022 federal election appears to have heralded all sorts of wonderful new possibilities. But for now, they remain just that.

Paul Bongiorno AM is a veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery, with 40 years’ experience covering Australian politics


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