“When I was young I thought South Africa would always be apartheid. I never thought the Berlin Wall would come down. I thought Russia would always be Communist. Leaders didn’t bring these changes. They came from the people. All of us as individuals must turn up.”
– Tony Windsor, Carnegie Conversations, Sydney Opera House, 3 May 2015
On Sunday, the Sydney Opera House hosted the Carnegie Conversations – a series of discussions about a variety of topics broadly themed around what is wrong with Australia and how can we fix it – ideas for a better Australia.
Refreshingly, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten were barely mentioned if at all. It seemed broadly agreed that “we cannot wait for the political class to deliver.”
It was suggested that there is a dirth of political talent and even further, that some Senators are not just questionable but “evil”. We have people of dubious merit who we have never heard of gifted preselection by powerbrokers, and others who are elected on a sliver of the vote.
Tony Windsor suggested that the two major parties have morphed into management teams vying for power. They are beholden to donors or factions or organisations. Individuals have to bow down to the executive.
The party ‘management teams’ have to make it divisive by concentrating on the few things they differ about rather than the many things they agree about
As Nick Bryant put it, politics has become obsessively oppositional. It has become petty. We have a “period of reform followed by a period of revenge.”
The rise of professional politicians has led to a lack of fresh ideas from a group of people who, every three years, must once again face the polls. They do not have time or inclination to make long term reform as their focus is on renewing their job.
There was talk of a longer term in government – 4 or 5 years – but also of finite terms for individuals. At the 2010 election, over 50% of those elected were career politicians which has led to government becoming overly politicised.
It was also pointed out that, because our parliament only sits for about 60 days – in the UK they sit for about 120 days – debate is curtailed and legislation is rushed. We now have “retail politics which has sunk to the level of a $2 shop”.
Infrastructure spending has degenerated into “hero projects” rather than what would most benefit communities.
Benjamin Law discussed how the demographic composition of our parliament is unrepresentative of our population. To those who think we live in a meritocracy where the cream rises to the top, he reminded them that “cream is white”.
Both Chris Berg and Marcia Langton spoke of the frustration of dealing with politicians who clearly do not understand the legislation on which they are voting.
Marcia suggested that rather than a cavalcade of politicians descending on Aboriginal communities for photo shoots that they stay away unless invited and give all that money wasted on charter flights and entourages to the Empowered Communities program which is enabling Aboriginal people to help themselves rather than being the “native mendicants” that the government paints them as.
Holly Ransom spoke of the entrenched disadvantage that is arising from growing youth unemployment with university graduates contributing a growing proportion to this statistic. When assessing the gap between education and employment, Australia ranks 33 out of 33 in the OECD.
Everald Compton spoke of the need for older Australians to form partnerships with young entrepreneurs, marrying the innovative ideas of youth with the business acumen and experience of older people.
It was suggested that governments reflect national priorities and that our prosperity has made us complacent about necessary change. We can probably all agree that something has to be done about taxing superannuation and changing the negative gearing laws but it doesn’t have to be done in one fell swoop. Grandfathering clauses would allow investors to adjust their investments accordingly, but the major parties are hesitant to alienate voters by embarking on necessary reform.
This is only a brief selection of the problems and ideas that were discussed by an impressive array of guest speakers and audience members. The general consensus was that it is the constituency who must look at the longer term problems and come up with ideas to address them. We must lead the change. We must demand it. The fact that we even had an argument about the NBN and action on climate change shows we cannot rely on our politicians for long term thinking.
We must have the conversation with the electorate. We have the means. It is incumbent on all of us to inform ourselves and each other, to continue the conversation, to stop the trend of fears trumping ideas. We need to temper the outrage culture and use social and independent media to force change.
As Tony Windsor so rightly says, it is we who must turn up. Rather than being disempowered, despairing victims of others’ greed and ambition, or combative adversaries promoting division and disunity, we must find our common ground and come up with and unite behind the ideas that will drive this nation forward.
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