On climate change, peace and social justice, we have the means. But who has the will?
The capacity of governments to disappoint those who elect them seems boundless. It is now almost a year since Australians ejected a government that obstructed progress on climate change, sharply escalated tensions in the Asia Pacific region, refused to establish an anti-corruption commission, stalled hard on a national Indigenous Voice in the Constitution, brutally removed the rights of welfare recipients (most evident in the Robodebt scandal), and doggedly pursued economic settings which caused low productivity, low wages, insecure employment, unaffordable housing, loss of public services and a trend of growth in all types of inequality including income, wealth, gender, intergenerational and political inequality.
Obviously, the trust and patience of the electorate was tried so sorely that by 2022 the Coalition government could no longer stand. But has the newly elected Labor government established a good foundation on which we might see an eventual reversal of our fortunes in any of the areas where Australians have been disappointed over the last two decades? And is it likely that a foundation has been created for restoration of trust in government or faith in democracy? It’s early days yet, but so far the answer to both questions would have to be verging mostly towards No.
Australians had high hopes that climate change might be addressed if the government could be changed. It is a matter of record in Lowy Institute polls that in the 16 years between 2006 and 2022 the proportion of Australians who wanted the government to do something to prevent climate change never dropped below 80%. But Labor’s policies of a 43% reduction on carbon emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050 are obviously insufficient (and too late in the day) to stop global heating above 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world is likely to crash though the 1.5 degree limit before 2030, if not by 2025, and no amount of tinkering at the edges with a “safeguard mechanism” that limits emissions from a few domestic users will enhance our chances of avoiding more heating, particularly given the amount of room for corruption in emission offset schemes and the failure of the government to take a leadership position on climate on the international stage.
Australians also had high hopes for peace and a more thoughtful and consultative approach to our entry into wars. Multiple surveys show that well over 80% of Australians want parliament to decide whether our troops are sent into armed conflict abroad and only 10% say they favour the current system whereby the prime minister and the cabinet alone decide if Australia goes to war. So they would have been expecting that at the very least the Labor government would prioritise development of health services, education and cost of living initiatives above acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines and other defence expenses that make Australia both an aggressor and a target in any war that may be started between the US and China. But the opposite is occurring and Australians are being sorely disappointed on defence policies, on security on several fronts (climate, regional relations, potential nuclear war), on maintenance of our independence and sovereignty as a nation, and on our prospects for an acceptable level of health, wellbeing and access to education. The chances of young people being able to afford a home (owned or rented) are showing no signs of improving.
As to restoring trust in government, the ANU’s Australian Election Study 2022 shows clearly that Australians approached the 2022 election without being at all sanguine about the integrity of either of the major parties and their commitment to people. When given a new choice of who to vote for – Teal independents – they deserted the major parties, as well they might have when considering the fact that both major parties refused in 2020 to commit to a binding code of ethics for parliamentarians. As the ANU has observed, “Political partisanship for the major parties reached record lows in 2022. The proportion of voters that always vote the same way is also at a record low (37 percent). This growing detachment from the major political parties provided the conditions that supported the Teals’ success.”
The ANU study makes it clear that “levels of political trust” in recent years are “exceptionally low”. Political trust has always bounced around in Australia but in the post-war years from 1969 to 1998 it bounced around at an average rate of 39%. Since 2010 it has averaged 30% and that is where it was stuck in December 2022. Not a ringing endorsement for a new government. Nor should it expect one, given its actions on two issues that are absolutely central to the wellbeing of Australians – climate and war. Confidence in the trustworthiness of governments has not been boosted by the decisions of the Labor government in its first year of office.
For their part, those who have formed the new federal government cite budgetary limits as a justification for saying that they can’t do everything and that disappointment will always arise not so much from failure by the government but rather because of excessive expectations of the public. The electorate is apparently insatiable, the implication being that every Australian is as greedy as the next and that we are always wanting to live beyond our means. However, new research shows that this is very unlikely to be true. Contrary to the preferred conservative version of Australians as culturally focussed on individual achievement born of equal opportunity and the “fair go” (but not fair sharing of national wealth), the research paints quite a different picture of the national character that Australians genuinely prefer. (See Chapter 5 of The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy.) The results show a distinct preference of Australians for a compassionate, fair, socially oriented (as opposed to individually self-centred) society where people and governments are concerned for the welfare of all. In particular, they show we value peace in the world. For Australians, it seems that harmonious relationships (in the family, nationally and internationally), and the personal safety such relationships make possible, matter more than straight down the line individualism and assertion of nationalist virtue or supremacy.
All up, while optimism about the national direction – particularly towards a more compassionate and cooperative cultural focus – may have increased a little after the electorate discarded the Coalition in 2022, any hopes for a positive change on security and wellbeing have been, if not dashed, at least dented, and this is clear in the cynicism of the electorate about the level of trust they are willing to vest in the new government.
On a more promising note, though, the Labor government is – refreshingly, without compromise or double-dealing – taking the high ethical ground on the issue of the Indigenous Voice. It is to be hoped that this is not the only exhibition of commitment to principled policy and to following through on delivering something that Australians want. Support for constitutional recognition of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples moves around between the 60% and 80% marks, depending on how the question is posed. And if the Indigenous Voice turns out to be the only policy on which the Labor government rises above base politics, then Australians at least stand to reap the benefits of an unprecedented improvement in the system we use for democratic governance in our Constitution.
By assenting to a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice, Australians will gain much more than a reprieve or absolution for the faults of our founding as a colony. More than a symbolic recognition and the possibility of amends, the Indigenous Voice offers non-Indigenes at some point within this decade a model for enshrining a voice of their own, a voice that can give them greater control over their destiny and enable their children to flourish in a world of climate change and superpower confrontations. If an Indigenous Voice and a national Voice for all Australians can be established alongside each other this would open the way to a full form of democracy – much fuller than the one we have now where, after we have voted, we are effectively ejected from any further influence over how power may be used by those we elect.
If Australians are not to suffer endless disappointment, they will need to find their Voice. More specifically they will need to acquire the skills and a constitutional framework that empowers them to express their sovereign will clearly to those they empower to make laws and implement policies in the public interest. The constitutional Indigenous Voice is a forerunner for this. Say Yes to it and we open up the possibility of a voice where all our children will flourish. Say No and we close the door perhaps forever on genuine democracy – where each voice has equal value. Labor’s stance on a national Indigenous Voice is probably the one bright spot in the possibility that Australia may tread a safe path to a better form of democracy. That is worth a lot. It’s a foundation that must be established because wealth is not our problem. We have more than enough of it to go around. And as is shown in The People’s Constitution, we also have the will to act together as a decent nation caring for each other. What we don’t have is an arrangement of our governance that is genuinely democratic. We don’t have a constitution which accords Australians a fair share of power and the means to express the purpose and preferred destination of their nation.
Everything else in our national situation sets us up really well to be able to achieve wellbeing and security. We have the means – technical and financial. And as a nation, we have the will. But if we wish those we elect to understand our will, and if those we elect want to escape the endless cycle of disappointments they always seem to visit on the populace, we will need a constitution which empowers both the electors and the elected to a reasonable degree. In the lead up to a referendum on a republic, The People’s Constitution: the path to empowerment of Australians in a 21st century democracy offers a few ideas on how a constitution that rightly and fairly empowers everybody can be made for and by the people of Australia.