Law & Politics

Changing the optics of politics

Almost everyone will have ideas on what should be the priorities for the incoming Albanese government.

While the manifesto was policy lite, there were many significant institutional proposals, such as rebuilding the Public Service and depoliticising it. The ‘Thodey review’ would be a good start, but a better one would be just to get back to the traditional concept of a professional, apolitical, expert group capable of helping formulate policy and implementing it.

Purging the Morrison appointments to so many public institutions and replacing them with skilled and appropriate ones is also critical.

But the first issue will be climate change. Despite his protestations, it is obvious that Albanese has to compromise on the 2030 target. Labor is probably terrified of being accused of breaking a promise.

However, not even the Murdoch media would be capable of making that into a casus belli in a bid to make Labor a one-term government at a time when the Murdoch’s preferred lackeys will be engulfed in factional turmoil which will make 1960s Labor look like a rather polite tea party.

Peter Dutton, with Morrison’s departure, will move into the role of Australia’s most distrusted politician (he was second on the list already) and will bellow and threaten – helping to give the teals two terms instead of one.

The Greens will mount their usual maximalist demands and be unwilling, as usual, to compromise. Their commitment to climate is genuine but they also see it as a powerful weapon against their real enemies – Labor.

However, Albanese will probably find it easier to shift his inadequate 2030 target in negotiations with teals and other independents rather than with the Greens. Indeed, the teals would probably be better discussing the issue in their own right rather than as a bloc with the Greens.

The Labor-Independents consensus on integrity will also result in relatively quick action on that suppurating sore.

Much of the early government – minority or majority – activity will be about such issues and such negotiations.

However, there is another issue – a ‘soft’ issue to factional hacks, but a significant one which has the potential to make a big difference to the attitudes of Australian voters to politics and politicians.

The issue is that of parliamentary culture. In recent years, parliament has probably never been worse than since those few months around 1975.

Albanese can act on this quickly. He has also already promised to do much of what is needed procedurally and in terms of parliamentary operations.

On top of that, meaningful roles for parliamentary committees will be strengthened by the arrival of competent and intelligent Independents committed to ending parliamentary games.

In recent years parliament has probably never been worse than since those few months around 1975.

But there is also an urgent need to do something about the parliamentary optics.

An end to backbenchers baying like banshees; an end to Morrison-like sneers; ministers actually answering questions; a degree of courtesy (it’s not impossible; it’s just that we have forgotten it’s possible); and listening respectfully to what people on all sides of the house say would all add to a change of culture.

The unprecedented influx of strong, intelligent committed women into the parliament will make this much easier. It was women who played the biggest role in getting rid of Morrison and women who have been most disgusted at politics-as-usual.

We shouldn’t imagine that politics can return to some imagined pre-lapsarian mode. For all the talk about the grand days of Menzies, he was a ruthless politician although he nurtured a degree of civility between himself and some opponents. We might have warmed to Fraser in later years, but 1975 can never be forgiven.

Abbott was a destructive disgrace; Turnbull ineffectual and untrue to himself; and Morrison was a unique piece of work whose like we hopefully never see again.

Albanese can do something worthwhile for Australia, something which will win widespread public support and even possibly improve Labor’s derisory primary vote. All it will take will be something missing from politics for far too long – some courtesy, some active genuine listening and the recognition of the immense power of ‘soft’ issues.

This article was originally published as ‘What’s next? Some soft power perhaps?’ on the author’s personal blog here.

Photo by Aditya Joshi on Unsplash.

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About Noel Turnbull

Noel Turnbull retired after more than 50 years experience in journalism, communications strategy and issues management. He worked as a Parliamentary Press Secretary and communications head of Victoria’s Environment Protection Authority before establishing his own public relations consultancy.

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