This is part eight in a series. For the full series, go here.
Not all is lost in Australia’s democracy. There are some key areas where it is alive and well — and producing results. Can we learn how to approach other — in some cases much more fundamental — areas where democracy is failing by working out what is working well?
This is an unlikely candidate for an area where democracy is working well. The cause of Indigenous recognition continues to flounder, stymied by the reluctance of Prime Minister Scott Morrison to lead on any issue, the resistance by some — but by no means all — on the right to a voice to Parliament (or, in the case of the Institute of Public Affairs, to any idea of Indigenous recognition at all), and a general inability on the part of the political class to see the issue as a priority.
On closing the gap, however, long years of failure have induced a significant change in approach.
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After an extended review of the first decade or so of Closing the Gap and its list of failed outcomes, the government committed to genuine partnership with Indigenous communities on program design and delivery, including by resourcing the capacity of Indigenous communities to work with governments at both a peak and lower level. This part devolution of power to local communities will both enhance democracy and improve policy outcomes — although the road to partnership has been too long and too painful.
State leadership on climate
In the face of outright corruption of the federal government by fossil fuel companies to stymie climate action, the states have taken responsibility for climate action.
New South Wales and South Australia have 50% reduction targets by 2030; Victoria has 45-50%; Queensland has 30% by 2030, all ahead of — and except in Queensland’s case nearly double — Morrison’s 26-28% target. Significantly, it’s the two extractive industry states, Queensland and Western Australia (which has only a net zero target for 2050) that are the least ambitious along with the Commonwealth. (In Queensland, the mining and energy industry, along with property developers, are the most assiduous at influencing policy.)
In NSW, home to the most ambitious climate policy in the nation outside net-zero Tasmania, support for the policy extends right across the Coalition government, with the Nationals very much on board given the benefits of regional investment.
Despite all the attempts to undermine the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption, the resignation of Gladys Berejiklian shows a democratic system working as it should.
After the state leader demonstrated profound misjudgment and a wilful ignorance of the corrupt conduct of her partner, the ABC investigated specific grants involving his electorate and revealed Berejiklian’s role in a grant to his electorate. ICAC’s resulting decision to extend its investigation of Daryl Maguire to Berejiklian precipitated her resignation. It wasn’t merely two institutions of a functioning democracy working well, it was a political system that — finally — operated according to established norms of conduct: a premier with a serious question mark over them cannot stay in the role, no matter how badly trashed political norms have been in Canberra or elsewhere.
The Jenkins review
Despite the failure of Morrison’s response to it, and his mishandling of workplace issues all year, the review by sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins was a rare moment of limited accountability for the nation’s most toxic and corrupt Parliament. Engendered by the remarkable bravery of Brittany Higgins in detailing her personal experiences of working in a ministerial office and the sexual assault she alleges she suffered, and that of Rachelle Miller in detailing her treatment by Alan Tudge — a minister finally forced to stand aside for allegations about his behaviour — the report shone light into one of the darkest recesses of all: the private behaviour of politicians and staffers.
The grassroots movements for independent political candidates targeting self-described Liberal “moderates”, who have refused to represent their electorates’ views on climate action and integrity, is a healthy response to democratic failure within the political system, with unhappy voters deciding to rebuild politics from the ground up, rather than relying on the major parties to deliver for them.
While the government and many in the media can only view Voices of candidates through a partisan prism, they represent a democratic reaction to polarisation and the dysfunction of major parties.
What we’ve learnt and are still learning
The lessons from Indigenous policy are limited — we’ve only just witnessed the start of an embrace of partnership after generations of failure. But part of that has been driven by Ken Wyatt, who has decades of experience in education and health policy, being the relevant minister — reflecting how both a greater diversity of parliamentary experience and having a high level of expert knowledge can make a difference in dealing with complex policy.
The lesson from the Jenkins review is that it took individual women paying an immense price to force a broken system to deliver change, against powerful forces — the prime minister and his office, predators within Parliament and their media supporters, the profound institutional inertia of an organisation that had to be shamed into action.
State leadership on climate, however, offers a more useful lesson. The smaller role of extractive industries in the economies of NSW and Victoria and the lesser capacity of fossil fuel companies to dictate policy (and, in the case of NSW, not having the toxic presence of fossil fuel-based unions inside policymaking), is a clear indicator of what happens if the power of malignant interests is neutralised at a systemic level.
It’s also worth noting — despite Barry O’Farrell’s embrace of James Packer’s Barangaroo ego trip — that the woes of Crown began with an inquiry in NSW, where the company had failed to establish the same kind of industrial-scale political donations to the major parties that it had in Victoria and WA, meaning the protection racket that Victorian Labor ran for the company until it was shamed into action early this year was never a feature of NSW politics.
Absent the toxic influence of powerful corporate interests at the very foundation of policymaking, politics can deliver effective government. There are no climate wars in NSW, no disgruntled Nationals threatening to cross the floor — just ambitious government committed to massive investment in renewables and emerging tech such as electric vehicles.
One industry that is powerful in NSW is property development. But its power has been curbed following the prohibition of political donations from property developers — with the High Court explicitly recognising the logic that developers posed a particular threat in terms of corruption, and the state was right to ban their donations. The planning process in Sydney was also transferred to expert panels, and an aggressive regulator established to go after shonky apartment builders.
NSW, and to a lesser extent Victoria, also offers a lesson about independent institutions. Absent interference from malignant actors, independent institutions will do their job. The media did its job on Crown. IBAC in Victoria is doing its job on branch stacking and misuse of public resources. ICAC is doing its job in NSW; the courts system, which has finally locked up Eddie Obeid and Ian Macdonald, has eventually done its job on Labor crooks.
Independent institutions can work to protect democracy — if they’re left independent, if they’re properly resourced. It’s clear why Morrison, leader of the most corrupt government in federal history, is opposed to a federal integrity body, has cut funding to the Australian National Audit Office and savaged the ABC.
Getting rid of toxic corporate influences and malignant actors delivers results. The alternative, as the Higgins/Miller cases demonstrate, or Indigenous policy shows, is that entire generations can pass without politics delivering the most basic of outcomes — inflicting widespread misery along the way.