Does Australian federal politics need a “circuit breaker”?

Posted on August 5, 2010 by

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Do you feel like your voice is being represented by someone in Parliament? Does one of the Big Two parties seem to hold the same beliefs and opinions you hold?

No? Well, that’s not surprising, we’re all unique individuals after all. But thinking more generally, is there one party that seems to hold more or less consistent values to you, so that it generally supports any legislation you would support, and generally opposes any legislation you would oppose?

Even a basic sense of partisan commitment seems to be breaking down at this election. Sure, voters are still lefties, righties, libertarians, authoritarians and common or garden fruit bats, but it’s increasingly difficult to find one who’s satisfied with their most preferred party, rather than simply resigned to it as better than the alternatives.

Adam Bandt, the Greens candidate for the House of Representatives seat of Melbourne, puts the blame for this state of affairs squarely on two-party politics and its obsession with “a world saturated by markets”. In a talk at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne last week, Bandt described a culture in which the space of political debate has shrunk due to the merging ideologies of the Big Two:

“For the last 30 years-odd, both of the major parties, Labor and Liberal, have converged around a core of pretty common ideas about society, the economy, individual freedoms and the role of government. And the current political debate is being played out within some pretty narrow confines.”

Bandt argues for smaller parties to act as a political “circuit breaker” to shift political debate to address the challenges of the 21st Century.

Some obvious rebuttals come to mind:

1. He would say that. He’s from a minor party. This is just another self-interested plea for votes.

2. The Greens are confused and compromised in their political messages just like any other party. For example, they oppose the internet filter, but last year they ran Clive Hamilton, arch-defender of the filter, as the Greens candidate in the by-election for the seat of Higgins.

On the other hand, he’s right. Nobody seems to feel comfortable with the political debate we’re getting at the moment. Progressive voters are particularly disenchanted with the Labor Party’s modern incarnation as “the place where progressive voices go to be silenced” (most famously in the case of Peter Garrett), but even millionaire entrepreneurs who think the country should be run like a private company with a profit motive are confused about who to vote for. And the focus of public debate has shifted from substance to strategising: where we used to get policy debates sprinkled with political speculation, we now get political debates sprinkled with the odd bit of policy.

What little policy debate exists is almost exclusively discussed in economic terms. Economics is vitally important, but it shouldn’t be all we hear about. As Bandt put it, “I just wish the parties would extend to the planet the same courtesy they extend to the merchant bank.”

I asked him why he thought the Greens polled so strongly in Melbourne, more than any other seat in Australia. He described the area as a mix of two of the Greens’ typical support bases: people who have traditionally been progressive voters (presumably, although he didn’t say so, young and highly educated urbanites) and people “doing it tough”. He pointed out that Melbourne was the district with close to the highest proportion of housing commission flats in the country, many of which were occupied by refugees.

You can watch the speech below. It’s worth your 16 minutes, whether or not you support the Greens, if only because it breaks out of the banality of the major political parties’ campaign debates. Bandt covers a few other topics in addition to what I’ve mentioned here, including the question of how else our economy could be contructed if not around constant economic growth, and a useful simile for describing global shifts in temperature in terms of a bodily illness.

Words – Fraser Allison

Image – The Victorian Greens

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