Friday, December 19, 2014

The foundations of Australia’s nationhood - solvency and security - are under challenge at the same time.

This week, events called Australia's political leaders to grow up and get serious.

On Monday, the Treasury laid bare the political system's betrayal of Australia's younger generation. Successive governments have bungled the nation's longest boom. They have delivered a big, intractable deficit. The legacy of a 23-year boom and a once-in-a-century mining bonanza is a mounting debt.

In truth, Australia remains on a trajectory of unending deficit and generational betrayal. 

And the Treasury midyear report on the budget showed that the problem is worsening. A change of government was not enough to fix it.

On Tuesday, an act of violent hatred in our biggest city imposed a test on our maturity and national unity. 


Terrorists have killed and maimed Australians and Australia's interests abroad for a dozen years now. But this week a terrorist penetrated the systems of homeland defence to kill civilians at will in Australia's main commercial precinct.

These events challenge national solvency and national security. In other words, they test Australia's very sovereignty. Can we meet the challenge?

Not if we persist with politics as it is now conducted. It has been an indulgence of petty squabbles, ideological excesses, and straight-out betrayals of the national interest in pursuit of political advantage. It has favoured stoushes over solutions.

Both sides and all parties are guilty. The central urge has been to "game" the system for partisan advantage, not to use the system for national advance. "China's rise gave Australia a lot of protection through the commodities boom," the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama tells me.

A close student of Australia for 15 years, the author best known for The End of History says: "It made it easier for Australia to balance the budget and work in a more consensual way." 

More consensual? It looked frantically fractious here, but Fukuyama means that it has been more consensual than in the US. In his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, he  argues that the US has entered a stage of political decay.

It is an object warning for Australia and for other democracies too. Australian political parties and leaders have mimicked US political tricks and trends for years. Are we heading for the same outcome?

Symptoms of American decay include the fact that Congress cannot pass budgets without a rolling series of crises and near-shutdowns of government, a frantic partisanship, an extreme concentration of wealth, and a paralysis of government that Fukuyama calls "vetocracy". 

It's not just that one branch of government vetoes any action by the other but that rich lobby groups have the power to exercise veto over the US government as well.

The "capture" of government isn't limited to the success of rich lobbies and powerful industries, says Fukuyama, but also capture by tribalism and ideology. "It's an intellectual rigidity," he says, which prevents adherents from clearly seeing reality. For instance, conservatives refuse to see that deregulation of the financial sector was a key cause of the 2008-09 financial crisis.

The result: "The financial sector is more concentrated than ever and we're just as vulnerable as we were."

Politics and governance, Fukuyama warns, "is an area where you do not want to emulate us".

Australia's institutions are designed differently to those of the US government is inherently more manageable in a Westminster system. And compulsory voting gives Australia a greater protection against the extreme fragmentation that the US suffers, Fukuyama says.

But some parallels seem clear. The Abbott government brought perhaps the most ideological approach to the  budget that Australia has seen. John Howard certainly didn't attempt to deregulate universities or introduce a Medicare co-payment. The attempt to repeal section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act was a pure ideological indulgence.

Each time it has launched Australia onto an ideological course, it has got itself into trouble as public opinion has pulled it up short through the mechanism of the Senate. 

If the Coalition is "captured" by ideology, Labor is captured by its tribalism with the trade union movement in an increasing grotesque dislocation from the mainstream of the workforce. Gough Whitlam, much lauded in eulogy, first had to break the union monopoly over Labor to make it electable before he could achieve anything. 

But Bill Shorten is content to allow an ever-shrinking and publicly disgraced union movement to retain its veto over the Labor Party.

And powerful special interests have exercised veto over both Coalition and Labor alike. Regardless of what you think of the policies involved, it's undeniable that the ACTU campaign against Work Choices vetoed the Howard government and helped bring it down.

And that the mining campaign against the mining tax vetoed the Rudd government and helped bring it down.

"The Americanisation of politics around the world is something to worry about," says Fukuyama. In Australia's case, he foresees that "if now you have declining government revenues and more painful choices" with the collapse of the mining boom, "you are likely to have less consensual politics". In other words, a risk of going from bad to worse.

In one of the conclusions of the second of his two-volume treatise on political order since prehuman times, he writes: "No one living in an established liberal democracy should therefore be complacent about the inevitability of its survival.

"There is no automatic historical mechanism that makes progress inevitable, or that prevents decay and backsliding. Democracies exist and survive only because people want and are willing to fight for them; leadership, organisational ability, and oftentimes sheer good luck are needed for them to prevail."

If the tendency to follow the US towards political decay has been the direction in Australian politics, the sobering news this week give our country a chance to arrest it.

Events are calling Australia to end its era of indulgence. We have entered an era of consequences.

We can't say we hadn't been warned. It was four years ago that the  Counter-Terrorism White Paper said that the terrorist threat had become a "persistent and permanent feature of Australia's security environment".

Even before the so-called Islamic State existed, the white paper it warned that an attack "could occur at any time".

Of course, the attacks and the plots have been under way continuously. Terrorists of Jemaah Islamiah bombed nightclubs in Bali in 2002. They killed 202 people including 88 Australians. The Australians were not an incidental target but a central one. 

JI bombed the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004. They killed 11 people including four embassy staff.

In the interim, Australian courts have jailed 26 locals for terrorism-related crimes in the last decade. They include Melbourne's Benbrika ring for plotting to attack an AFL grand final and to assassinate a prime minister.

This year a gang of Sunni barbarians has sought to strike back at a gang of Shiite thugs in Iraq. It calls itself Islamic State. Its sudden success in this extremist civil war has roiled Muslim communities worldwide, including in Australia.

It's estimated that between 70 and 250 Australians have travelled to Iraq to join the killing. ASIO says that about 20 have died there, and another 20 or so have returned. The domestic spy agency says that it has advised the government to cancel some 100 passports to prevent more Australians joining the bloodletting.

The Australian people understood the danger. In the Lowy poll this year, 65 per cent of respondents saw international terrorism as the foremost threat to Australia's vital interests in the next 10 years, with 65 per cent seeing it as a critical threat.

In September the federal government raised the threat level warning from medium to high. This signalled that a terrorist attack was "likely". Yet the country still seemed unprepared for the success of an attack at home.  The enemies of Australia and the enemies of civilisation can take some satisfaction from the hyperventilation over the event and divisive recrimination over its causes.

Similarly, we had been extensively warned by experts for a decade that the federal budget, temporarily boosted by the mining boom, was in structural disrepair and that economic reform was fatally sclerotic.

The Reserve Bank governor, Glenn Stevens, had pointed out that the boom was temporary yet Australia was behaving as if it were permanent. The eminent economist Ross Garnaut had warned in his book Dog Days: Australia After the Boom that political dysfunction and policy sclerosis was leading inevitably to many years of painful falls in national income. 

Any number of fiscal experts, notably Saul Eslake and Stephen Anthony, have been warning from as far back as the Howard years that the government was spending recklessly the fruits of a temporary boom.

These warnings have now become our reality. When Kevin Rudd helped ward off recession with Australia's big fiscal stimulus, he promised that net government debt would peak at 7 per cent of GDP then taper off. This week Treasury's midyear report projected that net debt would peak at 17 per cent of GDP before tapering off. In truth, Australia remains on a trajectory of unending deficit and generational betrayal.

Can Australia's political leadership grow up and confront an era of consequences?

The Abbott government so far is failing to adjust to the budget realities. It needs a more fairly based program to address deficits. And Labor is being plain irresponsible. 

But the terrorist attack has brought forth a better side of Australian political character from the leadership. 

A few months ago Abbott was playing pathetic political games of division, singling out women wearing burqas as some sort of social ill. But after the Martin Place terrorist murders, Abbott has grown up. Playing divisiveness no more, he defended Islam as a religion of peace and stood as a leader of national unity This is a hopeful development in Abbott, prime minister. Shorten, too, has acted for national unity and not sought advantage.

If this is the template for Australian politics from now on, our country can dare to hope. 

Peter Hartcher is the political editor for SMH


No comments:

Post a Comment