Crikey isn’t alone in thinking Australia’s political system is having difficulty coping with the 21st century. It was a big issue at the 2020 summit as well.

It’s fair to say the summit consensus was that Australia’s biggest governmental problem lay in the federation, which pretty much everyone stressed needed urgent and major reform. The Rural group actually came close to recommending the abolition of states, and the Governance stream invested considerable time and energy in developing a process for fixing our federal structure.

But one of the most striking aspect of the summit as a whole was the sheer centrality of government to the thinking of the delegates. It wasn’t so much a summit about what Australia should be like in 2020, as about what Australian governments should do between now and then. This of course begged some big questions, but no one was asking them that weekend.

It’s not exactly surprising. The cause of small government is a lonely one in this country. There’s no political constituency for it, for a start, and certainly not in the Liberal Party, which continues to pretend to be for small government. The Howard Government, after some early promise, became the most profligate government in our history, churning vast revenues into electoral bribes masquerading as welfare. The Hawke-Keating Government did more for the cause of small government, introducing means-testing to curb welfare and reducing the level of government intervention in the economy, but it also adopted a “social wage” model centred on the Accord as a social justice and inflation-fighting tool. Only the Kennett and Greiner Governments successfully, if briefly, implemented a small-government agenda.

In the meantime, voters’ sense of entitlement has grown. There’s no strain of rugged individualism in the Australian character. We like our governments, and always have, and can’t really picture life without them. But in recent decades, voters seem to have become convinced they’re entitled to consistent government support. It’d be convenient to blame the spendthrift Howard Government for this, but one suspects longer-term forces are at work. Since the economic reforms of the 1980s, voters, and especially middle-income voters, have become obsessive about the level of government support they receive and fiercely resentful of any support they can’t obtain, no matter how deserving the recipients. It’s almost as if, rather than adjusting to the more competitive economic environment ushered in by the Hawke-Keating reforms, Australians came to believe they were entitled to compensation for being made to compete in the marketplace, regardless of how much their incomes have increased as a result. Perhaps it’s less a sense of entitlement than a psychological balm, a comforting reassurance that in an era of open markets and global competition, government will always be there to hold our hands.

No wonder Australians want their politicians to Do Something about petrol prices.

A conviction that government was the answer was also central to the 2020 summit. The agenda that emerged from the governance stream – bill of rights, constitutional preamble, republic, reform of federation, more participative democracy – had a similar sense of making sure government would be there for us. And while it’s a bit of a stretch to compare petrol prices and a bill of rights, it might suggest that the summiteers, while more elitist in their concerns, were rather more reflective of ordinary Australians than their critics might’ve made out.

Of course, it also suggests there were too many lattesippers from GetUp at the summit, and not enough small-government types from the IPA, who might’ve made the Governance stream less productive but a helluva lot more interesting.

Interestingly, there was no discussion in the Governance stream – at least that I heard, and I spent my time running around all the sub-groups – about non-compulsory voting, despite Australia’s status as one of the few countries that compels its citizens to vote with the threat of gaol. In fact, the only suggestion along those lines was automatic enrolment at 18. But as Crikey reader Jeff Wells noted to me last week, the issue of fixing our political system can’t be kept isolated from the impact of compulsory voting.

While I tend to the libertarian view that compulsory voting is an outrageous imposition and the Left should stop clinging to it just because they think it favours Labor, its impact on the ability of Australia’s political classes to address challenges like climate change, rising global demand and housing affordability is unclear. It might encourage lowest common denominator politics and vote-buying by the major parties, sinking complex debates in a mire of populism. But voluntary voting could also lead to US-style polarisation as parties seek to secure their base rather than govern from the middle, leading to gridlock and a dialogue of the deaf.

The fact that the issue wasn’t even considered at the 2020 summit gives a clue as to how traditionalist in thinking that event was about the entire role of government in Australia’s future.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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