Collaboration and the power of ‘we’

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IT’S BEEN AN unedifying fortnight in the Australian parliament. Ugly scenes in both chambers compounded violent protests outside Victoria’s Parliament House – so-called ‘freedom rallies’ opposing vaccine mandates. Threats towards elected representatives at all levels of government, their families and staff (public officials are also receiving protective security) have escalated alongside concerns that civil unrest fomented by organised interests was fanned by opportunists, including government members. All this stoked a febrile atmosphere. It was no doubt too the product of collective exhaustion after another year punctuated by lengthy lockdowns and the new threat of the COVID-19 Omicron variant. Perhaps parliamentarians were also contemplating the war of attrition they know will characterise a long and brutal federal election campaign in 2022. But whatever the cause, these disparate strands converged to create a combustible backdrop to what may have been the last sitting period before the next federal poll.

Own goals about his honesty and disunity on both the Coalition’s moderate and right flanks saw the Prime Minister struggle to assert his previously unassailable authority. Five rebel senators crossed the floor. Others from Scott Morrison’s right-wing fringe threatened to withhold support for key legislation, while Liberal moderates complained about both the priority being afforded to controversial religious discrimination legislation and its potential unintended consequences.

Amid the posturing and tumult shone three moments of clarity that highlighted the gulf between cynical efforts to divide Australians and the leadership needed to bind the nation together at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and challenge. Each revealed the potential to rediscover and reconnect with the ‘holding centre’ that has defined Australian politics and to overcome a decade of complacency, policy drift and lost opportunities. Such leadership exists within this 46th Parliament, but it lacks sufficient strength. This and the toxic culture of the parliamentary workplace exposed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Set the Standard report is something to care about and focus on as we weigh who best to represent us in the 47th.

THE FIRST MOMENT of clarity came courtesy of independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie during debate over a One Nation motion that sought to empower the Commonwealth to override state vaccine mandates because they were ‘discriminatory’. Lambie castigated One Nation for championing the freedom of the unvaccinated over fully vaccinated Australians – as of 29 November, that was 86.6 per cent of Australians over the age of sixteen. The firebrand Tasmanian accused One Nation of peddling lies and misinformation and of ‘using people’s fear to boost their own election campaigns’, describing the legislation as a ‘fundraising exercise’. In a passionate speech later adapted for TikTok, Lambie argued:

Being held accountable for your own actions isn’t called discrimination, it’s called being, you wouldn’t believe it, a goddamn bloody adult… That’s right, being an adult. It’s putting others before yourself. And that’s what this country is supposed to be about.

In a subsequent op-ed for The New Daily, Lambie described the torrent of abuse and threats she received after her speech, including calls and messages to her private phone after a One Nation candidate published her number online. Labor Senate Leader Penny Wong was asked whether we were reaching a ‘new low’ in political life:

Yes, I think we are…[when Senator Mathias Cormann left] I talked about the importance of contained conflict, and that there are some things – we’re going to disagree with each other – but some things have to be off limits. And the problem at the moment is that leaders in this place and senators and members in this place are not ensuring that there are boundaries to the contest. And this was an example of it.

While Lambie lambasted Pauline Hanson, whom she described as ‘just so divisive, so awful’, she doesn’t demonise those drawn to support populist leaders, nor others who have joined recent protests. She concedes she was like them when she first entered the Senate for the Palmer United Party in 2014; she understands that people are disgruntled and acknowledges they have good cause to be angry:

They are sick of all the rorting, sick of pissing money up against the wall. Politics has got worse. People don’t like what’s happening to our country. There’s no accountability, there are no repercussions… People here [Parliament House] are untouchable. People are onto ’em, it’s in their face, they’re sick of it.

Lambie fears the right-wing fringe is growing and being manipulated into greater extremity by some, including public figures and some journalists. She believes a Federal Integrity Commission is the start of a solution and strongly supports the bill drafted by Independent Member for Indi Helen Haines with the assistance of integrity experts.

Another Tasmanian – Liberal moderate and Member for Bass Bridget Archer – provided the second moment of clarity when she broke ranks to vote with the crossbench and Labor to bring on debate about Helen Haines’ private member’s bill to establish this commission. As Archer told The Guardian, she was ‘perplexed’ by the government’s failure to progress a key election promise, noting that she was ‘a bit offended, in a way, that we are prioritising – in a rush I might add – the religious discrimination bill over an integrity commission’. She lamented the ‘real tribalism in our politics at the moment’ and that this sometimes comes ‘at the expense of governance’. Archer argued the integrity commission should be ‘above politics’ and ‘the government and the opposition ought to be working with Helen Haines on her bill’.

Archer seconded the procedural motion to allow debate of the Haines bill, which the government lost sixty-four to sixty-six. Confusion reigned, but eventually, after extensive consultations with the clerks, newly installed Speaker Andrew Wallace ruled that an absolute majority of seventy-six consulting would be required to carry the motion. This was an impossibility given that pandemic restrictions continue to limit the number of members and senators attending in person. Haines slammed the ruling, arguing that the motion had been ‘prevented by an undemocratic technicality’. She accused the Prime Minister and the government of ‘standing in the way now of not only the will of the people, but the will of the parliament. This is an extraordinary moment, I think, in the House of Representatives’.

For Haines, Archer’s courage in crossing the floor for this vote made her ‘the absolute lioness of the 46th Parliament’. Photographs of the aftermath – one of Haines with her arm around the Tasmanian MP as they left the House, the other of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg appearing to stand over a tearful Archer in the chamber – captured the contrasting dynamic. Labor MPs claimed she was being intimidated, which Archer denied, explaining that Frydenberg had been checking on her welfare. Later it emerged that after inviting her to meet in his office, Frydenberg instead ushered Archer to a meeting with the Prime Minister. This was despite Archer repeatedly telling Morrison’s staff she wished to defer the conversation until she had time to collect her thoughts. Morrison characterised the talks, at which ‘PM for women’ Marise Payne was also in attendance, as ‘friendly’. Archer described the meeting as an ‘ambush’.

Former Liberal MP Julia Banks drew parallels with her own experience of the ‘politics of control’ within Morrison’s government, while journalists noted that none of the dissident male MPs or senators had been similarly summoned. Archer resented Morrison’s implication that she was being offered ‘pastoral care’ (the PM offered her a ‘pair’ for the last sitting week, which she declined), arguing she had been ‘very frank about the issues that I have’. She called on the PM to act on an integrity commission, reportedly telling him, ‘We should do it now and we should be prepared to collaborate with other parties to achieve something.’

The third moment of clarity emerged as the central theme of the address made by Sam Mostyn AO, as president of Chief Executive Women (CEW), to the National Press Club on 24 November. This was that care and economic performance are inextricably linked to and provide the foundations for Australia’s future prosperity. Mostyn outlined a powerful case for Australia’s post-pandemic recovery to focus on ‘the human and social infrastructure of the care economy, one that is powered by women who are often underpaid, if they are paid at all’. She highlighted the disconnect between current policy priorities and Australians’ lived experience, noting ‘inequalities have been growing at alarming rates; how a breakdown of trust in our most basic institutions is increasingly causing tears in the very fabric of our society’. These have impacted disproportionately on women – leaving them more vulnerable in their employment, financial security, mental health and safety than they already were.

The CEW president urged governments to heed the lessons of the pandemic and to ensure Australia’s recovery from the long-term impacts of COVID-19 through ‘significant and innovative investments in social infrastructure, in people and in care’. She called for ‘wholesale immediate change’ as governments had demonstrated was possible when the pandemic first hit. This would include investments in ‘accessible early childhood education and care, government leadership on paid parental leave and superannuation’ and ‘secure well-paid jobs and careers in the care industries’ as well as ‘respect at work for all’. Mostyn outlined a vision for Australia to realise its potential, exhorting leaders ‘to seize this moment, because our luck is running out and luck is not a strategy’.

CEW was formed in 1985. Its shared mission supports ‘women leaders enabling other women leaders’ through advocacy, research, targeted programs and scholarships. It now has more than 825 members from business, government, universities, the health and scientific sectors, and civic organisations – all working to achieve gender equality and ‘a community where women and men have equal economic and social choices and responsibilities’. Importantly, as Mostyn noted, ‘[at] CEW we are not defined by our personal politics, economic status or cultural backgrounds. We are women holding senior or influential leadership positions across our communities and we come together on issues that matter to us all.’

IT’S WORTH EMPHASISING that women have provided all of the moments of clarity highlighted here. Jacqui Lambie, Bridget Archer and Sam Mostyn are reaching out across partisan, sectoral and other divides. Each understands the risks of growing division and polarisation and is concerned that something of profound value might be lost – connection, collaboration and the social contract that underpin Australian democracy. All have showed courage in challenging cynicism and political expediency and have stood up, even in the face of intimidation, threats and, in Mostyn’s case, decades of patient advocacy and a (apparently not satirical) Financial Review article titled ‘Half of men in corporate Australia are fatigued by gender equality’.

Their calls to action are optimistic – an appeal to Australia’s uniquely pragmatic political culture, which as political scientist Lisa Hill notes ‘is less concerned with personal, individualised rights than with utility, fairness and equality’. This inheritance creates mutuality between the Australian state and its citizens, who in return for the provision of high-quality public services – such as education, health and emergency services – exhibit ‘an unusually strong willingness to perform such civic duties as obeying laws, paying taxes and voting’. Australians consistently cite having access to reliable and affordable public services as fundamental to their quality of life and were concerned about growing inequality even before COVID-19 revealed its ubiquity and dangers. This underscores the resilience of Australia’s public policy tradition, which was founded on a strong commitment to ‘social protection’ and to insulating people against vulnerability to exogenous shocks. This is why swingeing cuts in the 2014 federal budget met such fierce blowback. Whether or not they thought that personally they would be worse off, many voters who had supported the Coalition to gain power were concerned about the impact that cuts, savings and other measures would have on their children, grandchildren and friends.

Amid the alienation and despair many feel about the state of our nation’s politics, Sam Mostyn reminded Australians of their capacity to forge a different, more inclusive future, one more aligned with the Australian tradition of progressive liberalism. Historian Miriam Dixson – who, like Mostyn, is highly critical of gendered and racial exclusion – nonetheless urges recognition of the positive legacies of Australia’s formative Anglo-Celtic culture. It fostered expectations about institutions, rights and values that persist. These include expressed support for egalitarianism, pragmatism, scepticism of authority, respect for democratic practices, a degree of respect for ordinary people and the public’s belief in an activist state. This created an effective ‘holding centre’ for the more diverse Australia of the late twentieth century, in which ‘celebration of difference became tied to some form of solidarity or belonging’. While noting that rapid demographic change and greater diversity will and must bring change, Dixson argues that ‘today the challenge is not merely to put a stop to the current erosion of those institutions, ideas and values which constitute our strengths, but to radically expand their effectiveness’.

IN HIS COMPELLING book Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, journalist George Packer surveys the cleavages that brought American democracy to the precipice in the lead-up to and wake of the 6 January Capitol riots. Packer concludes that if his fractured nation is to come back from the brink, Americans need to relearn the skills of ‘self-government’ – the ‘habits and skills that enable us to run our own affairs’. He argues this is ‘what Americans no longer know how to do, or even want to do together’. Self-government is hard:

It depends on the ability to argue, persuade and compromise in order to achieve things for the common good… It requires you to imagine the experience of others, to recognise their autonomy, and yet to think for yourself.

It also requires trust, which has been lost in so many places, structures and institutions.

After the ruptures caused by decades of precarity, inequality, political, social and cultural alienation, racial division, corruption and incompetence, Packer no longer regards America’s degraded political class as part of the solution. Instead, as his title suggests, the American people are their own ‘last best hope’ if they are going to save their democracy and avoid a descent into chaos and violence. They have to ‘make changes at the largest and most personal levels – in economic structures and in habits of thinking and acting. We have to create the conditions of equality and acquire the art of self-government’. Packer is cautiously optimistic, noting America has successfully faced comparable moments of challenge in the past. He is encouraged by the fact that ‘no other people in this era of elected authoritarians have been able to get rid of theirs – only Americans’. Most of his compatriots still want their democracy: America’s institutions may have ‘sustained a tremendous shock, but they survived’. But repairing American democracy depends on its people embracing the ‘tools of citizenship’ – journalism, government and an ‘activism of cohesion’ that ‘brings Americans together across tribal lines’.

Packer argues that ‘a condition for action is the clarity of mind that lets you believe you can and must act, and the inspiration of a positive vision’. Throughout this series, I have referred to the courage and activism of networks of Queenslanders who connected and collaborated in hope that a corrosive, corrupt regime could be brought down more than thirty years ago. I see the similar potential for change at the federal level in women’s activism, in the leadership shown by Lambie, Archer and Mostyn and in the rise of community independents across the country. Archer is right; the tribalism of our politics is damaging our democracy. The Set the Standard report reinforces how dangerously out of step it is with the leadership and governance practices of other sectors. Power without values or purpose makes Australians vulnerable to the nihilism of populists and renders our institutions and deliberative processes incapable of the reform and change needed to secure future prosperity.

As is the case in the US and the UK, nothing will change here unless Australians care enough to challenge the status quo of our debased politics by re-embracing their commitment to defend Australia’s distinctive political inheritance. Only political engagement and a willingness to exercise the ‘tools of citizenship’ can confront the arrogance and hubris of a governing elite that sees no further than the news cycle, a PM who inhabits the office but lacks a vision for the nation’s future and apparently feels no obligation to govern for anyone except an angry, narrow base. Australians deserve better.

The first step is to decide that the 47th Parliament will be more representative and accountable. And to understand the power that we have, as voters, to insist on that.


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