Politics in Australia has got itself a singularly bad name. And without the likes of Tony Windsor, Judi Moylan and Rob Oakeshott, who is going to lead its rehabilitation?
Despite its under-valued success in enacting important business, the 43rd Parliament has failed to halt the slide in the reputation of politics and of many of those who engage in it. The leaders and managers of the major parties must take the responsibility. To the ongoing turmoil of the Labor Party's leadership situation has been added the persistent refusal of the Opposition to fully accept its status as an opposition and the validity of the elected Parliament.
It is ironic that Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, who have resolutely provided the support the Gillard Government has needed in order to govern, made improved parliamentary processes an important part of what they required for cutting the deal. The Parliamentary Budget Office has been strengthened, which should mean greater clarity about the cost of commitments made in the election campaign. There has been a significant focus on regional health infrastructure - not just in New England and Lyne - and the two have played a key role in nation-building changes in taxation, disability and education. But many of their aspirations for improved parliamentary processes and behaviour have not materialised.
The Parliament now ending has been industrious, including on matters of interest and importance to the people of rural, regional and remote areas. There have been a great number of Parliamentary Inquiries, including those of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Regional Australia which owes its existence to the regional Independents: on the FIFO workforce; and on the Murray-Darling Basin. Senators such as Claire Moore, Sue Boyce, Rachel Siewert and Fiona Nash have done a power of work with and for the people of rural and remote Australia. But the profession within which they work is let down by its systems and the systems' managers.
But hopefully all is not lost. Here is an eight-point plan for rehabilitating professional politics in Australia.
- The focus of political discussion should be on policy issues, not power and leadership. The citizens of Australia need to see the connection between what politicians are discussing and the citizens' daily lives - and what they care about beyond that.
- There must be a much more bipartisanship, rather than continual 'oppositionalism' in the name of party brand differentiation. Voters don't mind if political parties agree on issues, and they can be trusted to differentiate between the various parties on other grounds. The current bipartisanship on Closing the Gap in Indigenous health and wellbeing, and on DisabilityCare Australia, are good examples of the sort of credit political parties can easily earn.
- The corpus of politicians should reflect the whole community. There should be equal numbers of men and women; and representatives of ethnic and cultural groups in due proportion. This is something that only the systems can achieve, not individual politicians.
- Whatever political model or principle our politicians adhere to, top priority should be given to the needs of Australia's most disadvantaged and marginalised people. Until it is so, the divide will increase between those who have substantial education, work, good income, housing, safety and health - and those who do not.
- Whatever issue is at stake, the politicians' search should be for the national interest - not just for the next three years, but for future generations as well. Investments in nation-building infrastructure such as the NBN, and in major social reforms such as DisabilityCare Australia, should not be judged by their costs and returns in the life of a single parliament.
- Politicians must recognise that Australia is a wonderful part of a fabulous but fragile global system: ecologically, economically and socially. The identification of Australia's national interest will take account of how it impacts on other people, other economies and the global environment. This is the context in which Australia's decisions on refugees and migrants, climate change and the UN's eight Millennium Development Goals should be made. People want their politicians to help them contribute to "building a better world" for the future.
- When politicians talk to the public or to each other, one would like to hear real people exchanging real views. It is disappointing to hear the same practised catch-phrases and daily lines being spun from the mouths of those with responsibility to think and make policy decisions.
- It is fine for the major political parties to insist that they are 'broad churches'. This is something to be celebrated rather than used only as a justification for party members who fail to follow centrally-agreed party lines. (It is so depressing that the best speeches are heard triennially as valedictory addresses.)
Good luck to those who, right now, are considering a life in politics and are willing to risk some independence. We need you. And thanks to those who have tried to be better than cogs in a party machine. We understand about the personal costs but it's a great pity the wisdom of the electorate won't be tested on the value you have given.
"It's good to be with you."