Much of Australian politics is broken at the state level. Pervasive corruption and integrity problems pervade the Victorian and Queensland governments. The Berejiklian government in NSW was characterised by pork-barrelling, cover-ups and serious integrity questions about its premier. Yet all continue to effectively deliver services and provide basic, competent government.
At the federal level it’s a different story. Not merely is the Morrison government the most corrupt in federal history, not only has it been characterised by truly rotten standards of personal conduct and abuse of public office, it has been entirely incompetent at anything requiring even the most straightforward level of complexity.
The fact that it remains competitive in this election is a testimony to the skill of its campaign strategists, using techniques honed for right-wing politicians in the US and the UK and relying heavily on the cooperation of the country’s dominant “media” group, the foreign-owned political party News Corp, Coalition-aligned journalists in media outlets at Nine and Seven, and a cowed and neutered ABC.
Moreover, Scott Morrison’s remarkable and in a way quite admirable ability to rigidly adhere to his talking points no matter what has now been tamely accepted by most of the media, enabling him to deliver his messages with little disruption.
But even if the Coalition wins on Saturday, that won’t change (it will, if anything, reinforce) that the federal Liberal Party operates as a donations-for-policy scam: you pay and support the Liberals, they give you the policy you want. On fossil fuels, on financial regulation, on the gambling industry, on industrial relations, on media regulation — the list goes on.
This is state capture and it operates through a broad variety of mechanisms, and it’s the defining feature of federal politics.
While not as openly corrupt, Labor has its own problems of state capture. The dominant role of the union movement within its policymaking process doesn’t necessarily accord with the national interest significantly more than shareholder interests do with the Liberals. The Gillard government’s abandonment of gambling reform illustrates Labor too is prey to powerful corporations. The Andrews government in Victoria has vividly demonstrated how a single company, Crown, can essentially co-opt a state government, using basic state capture techniques such as donations, revolving-door appointments and media campaigns. The sordid history of the last NSW Labor government speaks for itself.
Labor cannot rely on a foreign billionaire’s political party for support like the Liberals can, but nor will Labor take on News Corp, perhaps the key vector of state capture in Australia after the political donation system. And it is incapable of taking serious action on climate change, despite having worked out what NSW Treasurer Matt Kean long ago realised — that climate action is a major economic opportunity, not a financial cost.
The consequences of permitting the continuation of state capture extend far beyond who forms government next week. They extend to obvious areas of policy hijacking, like climate inaction or wage suppression, but also to the deepening alienation and polarisation that characterises the Australian electorate.
If not yet as bad as the toxic divide in the United States, the persistent sense that government is there not for the public interest but for vested interests will see more and more voters deeply disaffected. And the lunatic fringe of conspiracy theorists will steadily grow — not because their specific conspiracy theory is right, but because there is an nebulous truth to their view of the world: that the fix is in, that the game is rigged, and not in their favour.
State capture can’t be disrupted from within the political status quo. It is a cancer that has become the organism itself, a sci-fi movie creature straight out of The Thing that mimics the major party political system but has replaced it — and push too hard on it and you’ll get devoured by something putrid and monstrous. A business-as-usual outcome tomorrow will perpetuate state capture, with the only difference being the degree of debauching of the public interest.
The only outcome that will disrupt state capture is for non-major party candidates to make it into Parliament and exploit whatever leverage they can to force an aggressive agenda of major reform; not merely climate action and a worthwhile federal ICAC but fundamental reform of political funding (a royal commission into political funding would be a good start), radically greater transparency, removing politicians from grant allocation, comprehensive revolving-door laws, the break-up of major media companies like Seven and Nine, and aggressive action against News Corp, including breaking it up and forcing it to register as an agent of foreign influence.
These will start to address the most egregious vectors of state capture, but powerful interests will respond and seek to distort a reformed system, as well as use the media and News Corp to demonise reform. The ongoing presence of a solid bloc of independents that can leverage their power in both houses is crucial to preventing the rollback of reform.
That, in turn, will require communities to become active again in grassroots politics, but outside the major parties. The Voices Of movement provides a good template for what can be achieved. There needs to be 151 Voices Of movements, reinvigorating an ossified and broken political system nationwide. That needs to start tomorrow.