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So this is Christmas: why pollies need to make it a better new year

The near and the dear ones, the old and the young

A very merry Christmas with this election near

Let’s hope it’s a good one, not just about fear

And so this is Christmas for weak and for strong

The rich and richer, the trough is so long

And so happy Christmas for black and for white

Our planet’s much hotter, let’s stop all the fights …

Another year of fading faith in the major parties.

Another year of fading faith in the major parties.Credit:Andrew Campbell

Not surprisingly, voters have had enough of our politicians and political processes. Support for both major parties has declined consistently from over 90 per cent in the early 1970s to 70-75 per cent.

Expect it to continue in the next election, probably with more significant individuals running as independents and winning in their own right, and in recognition of their skills and experience, perhaps to collectively hold “the power of balance” in both Houses.

Voters have tired of the political games, the point-scoring, the blame-shifting, politicians’ almost exclusive focus on themselves and on what they can extract from the system, the scandals, and the snouts in the trough. All while the big challenges have been left to drift.

They have tired of the crude attempts by both sides to set and control the “narrative” and their attempts to confirm this by negativity to create fear and anxiety about the other side.

The endgame of politics today is not good government, based on good policy, responding to voter needs and aspirations, but simply winning elections at all costs, saying and doing whatever feels necessary to win – hence the daily barrage of supposedly clever sound bites, stunts, and slogans, rather than leadership and substantive public debate.

Responses to the big challenges such as climate, education and training, health, productivity and ageing are mostly seen as an opportunity to be tribal and partisan, to serve short-term political objectives rather than the national interest.

One clear lesson of the recent Wentworth byelection is that voters are starting to reject such political strategies. Morrison’s ill-considered, opportunistic attempts to exploit issues such as advertising on the Opera House sails, ABC independence, white supremacism, the treatment of gays in schools, refugee children, and our Israeli embassy all backfired.

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On climate and energy policy voters are frustrated and dismayed. How can our political masters continue to ignore their consistently expressed concern about the need for urgent and decisive action, as revealed by some 70 per cent in many surveys and polls over many years?

It is a national embarrassment that, having been a leader in the Kyoto process in the 1980s, we are now globally condemned as a laggard, especially as one of the highest per capita polluters, the second largest exporter of fossil fuels, while we have enviable natural endowments of solar and wind resources and the technology to exploit them and to lead the world. How many jobs have been missed? How much investment and growth has been squandered?

This week the government went to great lengths to spin the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, not only to claim victory for the prospective surplus but to exaggerate the strength of our economy and outlook, hoping to confirm the perception that it is the “better economic manager”.

This rhetoric doesn’t resonate with the lived experience of voters. Most struggle daily with the costs of living, and they don’t see any overarching government strategy to deal with the the costs of housing (for renters or buyers), power costs, medical insurance, child and aged care, and so on.
They are therefore quite suspicious of claims about the efficacy of budget management, when just a few years ago we were facing a “budget emergency”, and especially as both sides now seem to have embraced the old politics of spending the assumed surpluses on new initiatives and/or further tax cuts, in an attempt to buy the next election.

Voters understand the realities: our economy is slowing; their wages are flat and you just can’t assume they will rise, as did MYEFO; recent job growth is not being sustained; and they have had to run down their savings (not out of confidence, but of necessity) and run up their debts to record levels (to almost the highest household debt burden in the world), with their house values falling, just to get by week in, week out.

And so this is Christmas and what should we do? It is time to reflect on what is best for our Australian family, not just running up to the next election, but well beyond.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.

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