From the perspective of 2020 it’s a bit hard to recall just how disconnected from its constituents the political mainstream had become before the 2016 election campaign. No wonder they churned through so many prime ministers.
The readjustment began just as the campaign began, though few saw what was coming. Even the bleaching of a large part of the Great Barrier Reef did not at first get much reaction. True to form, the major parties gave it minimal lip service. It was only as large swaths of the Reef turned brown and ugly over following weeks that widespread concern began to surface. The Government might still have squeaked in, but it had set itself a 10-week-plus campaign.
Whether it was the Reef or just the weight of other issues we will never know: tipping points are notoriously hard to pick. In rapid succession other issues suddenly rose to front and centre in the public mind. Massive tax avoidance by corporations and the wealthy. Long-simmering resentment at extortion by banks. Overt corruption around State Governments. The even bigger implicit corruption of all governments pandering to the rich, especially to coal mining.
Suddenly many more people credited the links between coal mining, global warming and the destruction of the Reef. Perhaps primed by the rapid spread of rooftop photovoltaics and the promise of battery storage, interest in clean energy ramped up. A study arguing that a transition to clean energy would actually save us money suddenly caught on, though it was only the latest in a long series of such studies.
Disturbing reports of the rapid spike in global temperatures continued month after month. Clearly the so-called hiatus in global warming was blown away. Australians needed no education about super storms, mega fires and mega droughts. Long-suppressed fears began to be widely shared.
If the Government’s right-wing zealots had not insisted on tax cuts for the rich in its May budget, they might still have got away with it. Slowly at first, but like a building wave, resentment grew, then broke.
It was in the last couple of weeks of the campaign that things started to go seriously pear-shaped. The Government’s poll numbers plummeted, but so did the Opposition’s. Decades of me-too-ism had hollowed out Labor’s support, and people no longer saw much difference. They heard the Xenophon and Windsor independents and thought they heard sense. Some even started listening to the Greens.
The result was not just a hung parliament but a throwback to the first decade of Federation: three “Elevens” contending on the same pitch, Liberals, Labor, Greens plus Independents. No-one could command a majority. Labor would have nothing to do with the Greens. Extremist Liberals would have nothing to do with anyone. The stalemate only fed the electorate’s resentment and impatience.
The Liberals split, or rather ejected the moderates. The moderates and Labor found they hated each other less than they hated being out of power. A minority government was formed. However old tribal allegiances were sundered and the ground continued to shift beneath them.
The shifting alliances of that tumultuous Parliament frequently over-ruled the corrupt centre and accomplished many unexpected things. A strict and low limit on political donations was enacted, and businesses were completely prohibited from donating to political parties. All lobbying contacts had to be made public immediately. People became alert to the movements of their politicians and many were dobbed on social media.
Even the commercial media felt the anger as people saw them protecting the wealthy and still trying to minimise warming and the Reef destruction. A real code of conduct was enacted that penalised persistent untruth and persistent blatant distortion. Comment and innuendo had to be separated from news reports and clearly identified. Inflammatory pictorial front pages were not excepted.
The farce of Murdoch’s foreign ownership was ended and empires broken up. Audience ownership was encouraged. The ABC Board was reconstituted and distanced from political parties.
Fossil fuel subsidies were ended and clean local energy began to develop rapidly, following the German model. The national electricity grid was reclaimed and its transformation to a smart grid begun. Destruction of productive land, and land clearing, were dramatically slowed.
Tax reform, banking reform, a transaction tax on financial markets, speed bumps on the flow of foreign money, real limits on foreign ownership, many reforms were begun though some had to await a new Parliament. Secretive “free” trade agreements that subverted our sovereignty were abandoned.
The world of 2020 is not a comfortable place as global warming begins to bite seriously. How much of the world we once had can be saved remains to be seen. However, after another election cycle, we have a constructive Parliament focused on the urgent tasks instead of fighting old battles, old demons and each other’s egos.