An Old and Dan­ger­ous Ar­gu­ment

How pol­i­tics works in Aus­tralia, and how to fix it

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Scott Lud­lam

My own ex­pe­ri­ences over the decade from 2007 bore out this early in­tu­ition, and what I’m about to say may shock you.

It’s re­mark­able how fast you can fall off the back of a wave you’ve been on for a while. Not long af­ter leav­ing the Se­nate, I re­alised that it was half­way through a par­lia­men­tary sit­ting week and I had no idea what my friends and col­leagues were work­ing on, or even that they’d been sit­ting. Now, with fresh eyes, the caf­feinated jum­ble of in­ten­sity, bore­dom, skir­mish­ing and hi­lar­ity that makes up a Se­nate sit­ting looks in­com­pre­hen­si­ble. Worse, what lit­tle of the life of that place that does bleed into mass con­scious­ness tends to tox­i­c­ity. This is rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy at its ugli­est: the rit­u­alised in­tel­li­gence-abate­ment known as ques­tion time; the cal­cu­lated me­nace of na­tional se­cu­rity fears, cul­ti­vated and ex­ploited; and the hy­per-par­ti­san mes­sages of the day, crafted only for rep­e­ti­tion, con­tend­ing for mar­gin-of-er­ror vi­bra­tions in opin­ion polls. No one both­ers to feign shock at peo­ple’s in­creas­ing re­pul­sion from this fes­ti­val of medi­ocrity, but dis­en­gage­ment is a dan­ger­ous and self-ac­cel­er­at­ing thing. We need to am­plify the op­po­site. That place be­longs to all of us. It is one of the most im­por­tant in­sti­tu­tions we have. It was es­tab­lished at great cost, and it is list­ing heav­ily and tak­ing on wa­ter. It needs fresh ideas and fresh faces. Be­cause, some­times, you can make good things hap­pen. In mid 2005, Greens se­na­tor Bob Brown spot­ted an op­por­tu­nity to el­e­vate the tragedy of petrol sniff­ing in Cen­tral Aus­tralia, cast­ing it briefly onto the front page and into the cen­tre of na­tional at­ten­tion. Read­ing the mood of shock and shame at the hu­man cost of this avoid­able pub­lic-health scan­dal, the gov­ern­ment waved through a Greens mo­tion for a Se­nate in­quiry. That’s where Se­na­tor Rachel Siew­ert took it up with months of pa­tient ev­i­dence-gath­er­ing, hear­ings, re­search and quiet be­hind-the-scenes col­lab­o­ra­tion across party lines. She helped land a unan­i­mous com­mit­tee re­port rec­om­mend­ing the roll­out of “un­snif­fa­ble” Opal fuel, which set off an­other round of sharp me­dia com­men­tary and gave ad­vo­cates a uni­fied set of de­mands. Months later, the then health min­is­ter, Tony Ab­bott (yes, that was a thing that re­ally hap­pened), an­nounced that the gov­ern­ment would be­gin man­dat­ing un­snif­fa­ble fuel across Cen­tral Aus­tralia. I’d been one of Rachel’s staff mem­bers for a year or so by the time the team got this over the line, and watch­ing it hap­pen at close quar­ters was a reve­la­tion. This was dur­ing that bale­ful spell when the then prime min­is­ter, John Howard, had a ma­jor­ity in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the Se­nate, and wins of any kind were rare and hard-fought. A com­bi­na­tion of skil­ful me­dia work, cross-party con­sen­sus-build­ing, and tak­ing the time to ac­tu­ally show up on coun­try and lis­ten to peo­ple had de­liv­ered an out­come. We hadn’t needed a Greens–La­bor Se­nate ma­jor­ity to pull it off ei­ther; just for a change, pol­i­tics wasn’t a num­bers game. It oc­curred to me that maybe this place was more com­pli­cated than the ir­re­deemable shit-show it ap­peared to be from the out­side. Nat­u­rally, I was hooked. My own ex­pe­ri­ences over the decade from 2007 bore out this early in­tu­ition, and what I’m about to say may shock you. There are good peo­ple in there, on all sides of the cham­ber. Some­times, the sys­tem works. Some­times, you’ll find your­self in a com­mit­tee room where the ev­i­dence ten­dered by pas­sion­ate and ex­pe­ri­enced wit­nesses is be­ing weighed up and so­lu­tions sought, and ev­ery­one has left their party af­fil­i­a­tion at the door. You’ll sit in mild dis­be­lief as amend­ments are pro­posed and ac­cepted with­out a fight, and you’ll know by the end that your close-knit lit­tle team helped make the law kinder, or fairer, or smarter. When the sys­tem is work­ing it barely makes the news, but you can hardly blame the press gallery for fail­ing to re­port on those times when your elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives are be­hav­ing like adults. The nerd in me is still ut­terly fas­ci­nated by what par­lia­ments do in the ab­stract sense. Here is a phys­i­cal place struc­tured to make and jus­tify bind­ing de­ci­sions, an ar­chi­tec­ture of choice and con­se­quence. On in­duc­tion – well af­ter elec­tion but well be­fore you get to take your seat – you get three days of Se­nate School, con­ducted by peo­ple who live and breathe the build­ing’s som­bre role as a brake on tyranny. In the open­ing pages of the 12th edi­tion of Odgers’ Aus­tralian Se­nate Prac­tice, there’s a quote by econ­o­mist Scott Gor­don: His­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence … is not an un­re­lieved record of fail­ure to deal with the prob­lem of power. A num­ber of so­ci­eties have suc­ceeded in con­struct­ing po­lit­i­cal sys­tems in which the power of the state is con­strained. The key to their suc­cess lies in recog­nis­ing the fact that power can only be con­trolled by power.

My po­lit­i­cal the­ory – that we should all just be nicer to each other – was dashed be­fore I’d even started. I’d have to rec­ol­lect ev­ery­thing I’d for­got­ten about the taut re­la­tion­ship be­tween the ex­ec­u­tive and the par­lia­ment, which hadn’t fea­tured strongly in my quiet sub­ur­ban up­bring­ing. I have a vivid mem­ory of trac­ing my way to one of the more ob­scurely lo­cated com­mit­tee rooms, with Paul Si­mon’s “Grace­land” float­ing through the cor­ri­dor and the ir­re­duc­ibly cheer­ful clerk as­sis­tant, Cleaver El­liott, wait­ing for his bright-eyed in­ductees to ar­rive. The Se­nate, he puts to us, is a bi­nary de­ci­sion-mak­ing ma­chine: at any given mo­ment it is in the process of de­cid­ing yes, no or whether to put that ques­tion off un­til later. Se­quences of nested A/B de­ci­sions that spool out for days or months, gen­er­at­ing, among other things, leg­is­la­tion that shapes com­mu­ni­ties, ru­ins lives, binds or un­binds pow­er­ful eco­nomic ac­tors, and trans­fers vast blocks of cap­i­tal from one place to an­other. The DNA of a coun­try, be­ing as­sem­bled and edited, thrash­ing around on stacks of A4 pa­per right in front of us. Some­thing about that still feels deeply strange. On a good day, these totemic scripts are is­sued af­ter care­ful com­mit­tee de­lib­er­a­tion, on the best avail­able ev­i­dence and the most di­verse points of view – and maybe af­ter cross­bench and Op­po­si­tion num­bers have im­proved a good de­ci­sion or blocked a harm­ful one. On a bad day, and there are plenty of those, a law writ­ten by the min­ing in­dus­try gets bashed through on weight of num­bers, and you know peo­ple and places a long way from this build­ing are go­ing to get hurt be­cause you couldn’t pre­vent it. Com­mit­tee re­ports and dis­sent­ing views are shoul­dered out of the way, cross­benchers are bought off, or the Op­po­si­tion caves in and re­duces the rest of the per­for­mance to a shell. Lit­er­ally, go­ing through the mo­tions. You’ll know one of these zero-sum de­ci­sions is im­mi­nent when a thin, reedy buzz sat­u­rates the build­ing from every elec­tronic pore. A discreet red or green square be­gins to blink on the ubiq­ui­tous clocks. Divi­sion. It doesn’t mat­ter what dead­line you’re on, what conversation you’re in the mid­dle of, how good your fresh cup of cof­fee smells … go, now, be­fore the at­ten­dants lock you out of the cham­ber and you face the risky hu­mil­i­a­tion of miss­ing a vote. You have four min­utes. There is some­thing com­pelling, and prob­a­bly mildly ad­dic­tive, about the fran­tic real-time assem­bly of a Se­nate ma­jor­ity on some­thing you re­ally care about. Thirty-eight votes to block some­thing. Thirty-nine to pass some­thing. Put it up on a white­board. How far short are you? Who else do you need? Peo­ple will have been on phones mar­shalling sup­port all morn­ing, and key cross­benchers will be in­ter­cepted on their way into the cham­ber with last-minute pitches. On a tight vote, with the whips stand­ing up the front and the clerks cross­ing names off, half a dozen in­for­mal counts will be go­ing on as peo­ple across the cham­ber try to fig­ure out what’s about to hap­pen. Pho­tog­ra­phers up in the gallery aim long lenses at this chatter, snap­ping the nuances and body lan­guage of this elab­o­rately ba­nal spec­ta­cle. Wave at the school groups watch­ing from be­hind plate glass, be­cause it never fails to de­light when one of the cap­tive spec­i­mens ac­knowl­edges those on the out­side. The pres­i­dent calls the place to or­der, shut­ting down the buzz of conversation so as to an­nounce the re­sult of the vote. Some­times, you win. This con­vo­luted ma­chin­ery of law­mak­ing is gen­er­ally oc­cluded by par­lia­ment’s other prin­ci­pal role: as a plat­form for pub­lic ar­gu­ment, for shap­ing so­cial norms, for mak­ing your case and be­ing tested on it in front of live mi­cro­phones. As long as you re­mem­ber that a seg­ment of the press gallery is there prin­ci­pally to am­plify its own com­mer­cial in­ter­ests and cul­tural ob­ses­sions while cut­ting down any­one who gets in the way, you’ll be fine. Many of them are thor­oughly de­cent, if heav­ily over­worked. This tier of your democ­racy is in trou­ble too. Com­mer­cial pres­sures and man­age­ment cul­ture are dis­em­bow­elling the Fair­fax mast­heads. The ABC lies per­ma­nently be­sieged by cir­cling preda­tors, some of them now well in­side the gates. The net ef­fect of de­pop­u­lated news­rooms and nim­ble new on­line play­ers has been to fur­ther po­larise and ac­cel­er­ate the pace of ev­ery­thing, such that even the con­cept of a 24-hour news cy­cle now feels kind of quaint. Some­how, the au­di­ence it­self is gain­ing a mea­sure of power in this at­ten­tion­d­eficit econ­omy, but as yet it re­mains a fickle and fever­ish kind of power.

Maybe you’re think­ing of com­ing to work in this place as an elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive? That’s ex­cel­lent news. Please check your cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus im­me­di­ately.

Maybe you’re think­ing of com­ing to work in this place as an elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive? That’s ex­cel­lent news. Please check your cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus im­me­di­ately. If you’re con­sid­er­ing run­ning for One Na­tion, keep an eye on your wal­let and maybe don’t bother. Oth­er­wise,

If you ever visit Par­lia­ment House, check out the pho­to­graphs of your rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the pub­lic foyer, and then con­trast these youth­ful, ea­ger vis­ages with the grey­ing stress-wrecks you see go­ing bald on the evening news.

I ap­plaud your de­ci­sion, as long as your de­ter­mi­na­tion is not such that you’re el­bow­ing other peo­ple in the face in or­der to get pre­s­e­lected. This job is an un­for­get­table, ir­re­place­able, ex­haust­ing and ex­hil­a­rat­ing mind-bend. It is also just a job, and it has its lim­its. We’ll get to that in a mo­ment. First, there is the small mat­ter of an elec­tion. These are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly fre­quent as Aus­tralia’s self de­vour­ing po­lit­i­cal ouroboros coils ever tighter, so chances are you won’t have long to wait. Once cam­paign­ing be­gins, watch your life dis­solve into a slew of pub­lic meet­ings, door­knocks, so­cial-me­dia posts, press re­leases and end­less tele­con­fer­ences. At the end of the cam­paign, ground zero: a sub­ur­ban high school wrapped in acres of plas­tic; a queue of good peo­ple who’d mostly rather be some­where else, scoff­ing democ­racy sausages and await­ing their turn to num­ber all the boxes in the or­der of their pref­er­ence. Peo­ple have died, and con­tinue to die, for the right to swap out their ex­ec­u­tive gov­ern­ments in this strangely en­dear­ing way. If you’re suc­cess­ful, aban­don im­me­di­ately the idea that you’re go­ing to be able to do the job alone. You can al­ways judge the qual­ity and ef­fec­tive­ness of an MP by their staff and ad­vis­ers. Every speech, press con­fer­ence, pub­lic meet­ing, intricate itin­er­ary or pol­icy ini­tia­tive bears many au­thors be­sides the one whose name shows up in Hansard. The smooth run­ning of an elec­torate of­fice is a mir­a­cle of com­plex­ity, given that no one ever got pre­s­e­lected for their staff-man­age­ment skills. Only hire peo­ple smarter than you – it worked pretty well for me. An­other thing: throw out any ideas about need­ing a law de­gree or a pol­icy doc­tor­ate or an ap­pren­tice­ship in stu­dent pol­i­tics or any other stereo­type. Up to a point, you can do this thing your own way: just con­trast Bob Brown’s iconic style with Chris­tine Milne’s pol­icy smarts, or Rachel Siew­ert’s tenac­ity and at­ten­tion to de­tail. There are for­mi­da­ble struc­tural bar­ri­ers to par­tic­i­pa­tion at this level, but slowly, through thou­sands of acts of per­sonal de­ter­mi­na­tion, the par­lia­ment may come to more closely re­sem­ble the so­ci­ety it claims to rep­re­sent. Now, be ready to fight a daily bat­tle of at­tri­tion over your to-do list. The prime min­is­ter gets up and de­cides to call a press con­fer­ence in front of masked killers heft­ing au­to­matic weapons – that’s your day taken care of. An in­nocu­ous-sound­ing bill tar­gets Abo­rig­i­nal fam­i­lies to host a ra­dioac­tive waste dump – that’s 2012 done. You can’t not show up for these fights: that’s what you’re paid for, and it’s where your heart is. But get­ting enough space from such daily emer­gen­cies to craft your own agenda is an en­dur­ing strug­gle. If you want to en­gage with some­thing as heavy and deep-rooted as our hous­ing af­ford­abil­ity cri­sis, you’ll need to not do other things. In a sit­ting week, some malign time di­la­tion runs all the clocks way too fast, and days smear to­gether in jit­tery fast-for­ward. If you ever visit Par­lia­ment House, check out the pho­to­graphs of your rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the pub­lic foyer, and then con­trast these youth­ful, ea­ger vis­ages with the grey­ing stress-wrecks you see go­ing bald on the evening news. This is a place that can be pe­cu­liarly un­kind to peo­ple. Against this, you have a cam­paign toolset to die for. In my for­mer life as an en­vi­ron­men­tal cam­paigner, I could barely have dreamt of the agency that the se­na­tor’s job pro­vides: a fo­cused team of staff, the abil­ity to travel to flash­points al­most at will, a par­lia­men­tary li­brary full of sub­ject-mat­ter spe­cial­ists whose only job is to help MPs be bet­ter at what they do. You’ll ac­cess the pro­ce­dural levers and ac­count­abil­ity sys­tems that sup­port the Se­nate’s role as a brake on an in­creas­ingly ma­li­cious ex­ec­u­tive gov­ern­ment: ques­tions on no­tice; or­ders to pro­duce doc­u­ments; com­mit­tees of in­quiry with the abil­ity to get out of the Can­berra bub­ble and call for ev­i­dence and com­pel wit­nesses if nec­es­sary. Three times a year, bud­get es­ti­mates ses­sions un­fold over long hours in win­dow­less rooms, and these ses­sions re­ally mat­ter. Here, the top ech­e­lons of the pub­lic ser­vice re­luc­tantly lift the lid on their depart­ment’s fi­nances and ac­tiv­i­ties, or they sit mute and watch while se­na­tors brawl and snipe at one an­other. In what other job can you ask the sec­re­tary re­spon­si­ble for im­mi­gra­tion to ac­count for the tax­payer-funded tor­ture is­lands he runs, or bring in the peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for the next gen­er­a­tion of mass-sur­veil­lance tech­nolo­gies to ex­plain what they think they’re do­ing. One rea­son the fed­eral po­lice raid on the Aus­tralian Work­ers’ Union late last year blew up so vis­cer­ally on the gov­ern­ment is that it took place dur­ing the Oc­to­ber es­ti­mates ses­sions. Your Se­nate at work. Among other things, you get to wedge open the door of this place to or­di­nary peo­ple, cam­paign­ers and ac­tivists for whom par­lia­ment might oth­er­wise seem dis­tant and im­pen­e­tra­ble. This is one cen­tral ten­sion I found in the work: with one foot you’re breath­tak­ingly free to

On any given sit­ting day, par­lia­ment hosts a swarm of lob­by­ists dis­tribut­ing pre fabbed opin­ion polls and eco­nomic mod­el­ling prov­ing that any at­tempt to tax or reg­u­late their pa­trons will cost jobs and cause the Earth to spi­ral into the Sun.

travel to where you need to be, set pri­or­i­ties, try out new ideas and push bound­aries, but the other foot is nailed to the floor – locked into the Se­nate sit­ting cal­en­dar, com­mit­tee hear­ings and the other obli­ga­tions that come with the role. Add the walk-ups, the peo­ple who come to you with rea­son­able ex­pec­ta­tions of get­ting help, then stir in that in­creas­ingly fren­zied elec­toral cy­cle. You look up and sud­denly it’s March. I learnt quickly that the things par­lia­ment chooses not to do are just as sig­nif­i­cant as the ones it does. Maybe this should have been ob­vi­ous at the out­set, but it still came as some­thing of a shock. I was fresh to the job and barely able to find my way to Aussies, the edgy lit­tle cof­fee shop tucked just out of sight of the pub­lic. The 2008 Se­nate in­take saw the de­par­ture of the last of the Aus­tralian Democrats, whose achingly slow-mo­tion self-de­struc­tion had long been a source of su­per­sti­tion for Greens or­gan­is­ers de­ter­mined to avoid a sim­i­lar fate. Out­go­ing se­na­tor An­drew Bartlett had left be­hind a bill drafted with the help of the widely re­spected clerk of the Se­nate, Harry Evans. The bill, when passed, would de­mand par­lia­men­tary ap­proval be­fore Aus­tralians could be sent to war, trans­fer­ring this daunt­ing power from the prime min­is­ter’s whim to the hands of the par­lia­ment, for pub­lic de­bate and a vote. This is al­ready the case in most democ­ra­cies. With the bloody con­se­quences of the in­va­sion of Iraq still haunt­ing the Mid­dle East, it seemed like com­mon sense to me. Any act of armed ag­gres­sion that you couldn’t even per­suade half of your own par­lia­ment was a good idea was prob­a­bly not a good idea. I even­tu­ally lost count of how many times we lost cham­ber votes on this “War Pow­ers” bill, un­der four suc­ces­sive prime min­is­ters. A ma­jor­ity of par­lia­ment is choos­ing to not democra­tise this re­spon­si­bil­ity. Or con­sider this: the Joint Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on Treaties is re­spon­si­ble for analysing what­ever the gov­ern­ment signs us up to over­seas, in­clud­ing trade deals, UN treaties, bi­lat­eral and mul­ti­lat­eral agree­ments on ev­ery­thing from fish­eries man­age­ment to mil­i­tary al­liances. I served on this valuable and col­le­giate com­mit­tee for six years or so, but here’s some­thing I didn’t know when I started out: the com­mit­tee doesn’t get to an­a­lyse the agree­ments and pro­nounce its view un­til af­ter the gov­ern­ment has signed up. We still go through the mo­tions of tak­ing ev­i­dence and hear­ing from wit­nesses, but the ex­ec­u­tive branch of gov­ern­ment stopped pay­ing much at­ten­tion long ago. I slowly re­alised that this goes for nearly all for­eign pol­icy and de­fence de­ci­sions. Any­thing that greatly af­fects Aus­tralia’s role in the world is de­cided in the cabi­net room or the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice with the blinds pulled down. They can trust the Op­po­si­tion will stay mute as a mat­ter of bi­par­ti­san con­ven­tion, no mat­ter how di­a­bol­i­cally coun­ter­pro­duc­tive the lat­est di­rec­tives from Wash­ing­ton might be. Any­thing re­lated to US mil­i­tary bases and the in­creas­ingly vague blank cheque made out to the na­tional se­cu­rity state is treated the same way. Pre­sum­ably this is what hap­pens in any sub­or­di­nate diplo­matic re­la­tion­ship, but Aus­tralian politi­cians do seem to have taken the prac­tice to ex­cru­ci­at­ing lengths. We once had a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest re­turned to us with sec­tions of pub­licly avail­able Hansard blacked out, which is funny but also pretty when you think about it. It was quite de­flat­ing for this shiny new se­na­tor to re­alise that par­lia­ment’s clunky but essen­tial demo­cratic ma­chiner­ies are rou­tinely made in­op­er­a­ble through the two largest par­ties’ stand­ing agree­ment to make it so. As we’re slowly ha­bit­u­ated to end­less, bor­der­less wars and an in­creas­ingly weaponised in­ter­net’s seep­age into every cor­ner of our lives, this cal­cu­lated paral­y­sis of demo­cratic agency be­comes ever more dan­ger­ous. The other way the two ma­jor par­ties qui­etly col­lapse into a one-party state is on ques­tions af­fect­ing pow­er­ful eco­nomic in­cum­bents. The con­tam­i­na­tion of the body politic be­gins way up­stream of par­lia­ment’s cham­bers, through re­la­tion­ships forged way back in elite pri­vate schools, an IV drip of cam­paign do­na­tions, or the re­volv­ing door be­tween min­is­te­rial of­fices and in­dus­try peak bod­ies. On any given sit­ting day, par­lia­ment hosts a swarm of lob­by­ists dis­tribut­ing pre fabbed opin­ion polls and eco­nomic mod­el­ling prov­ing that any at­tempt to tax or reg­u­late their pa­trons will cost jobs and cause the Earth to spi­ral into the Sun. These cam­paigns are co­or­di­nated with dis­mally repet­i­tive front-page as­saults in the Mur­doch press and ad cam­paigns tar­get­ing ner­vous re­form­ers in mar­ginal seats. A full-court press like the one that de­feated the min­ing tax can cost you the prime min­is­ter­ship if your hold on power is suf­fi­ciently un­sta­ble.

Watch­ing these peo­ple at close range, op­er­at­ing to tilt the table of democ­racy, was a jar­ring ex­pe­ri­ence. I came into the Se­nate on the in­take that swept the Rudd gov­ern­ment to power in 2007, and in the months that fol­lowed, that ad­min­is­tra­tion made over­tures to tax, reg­u­late or oth­er­wise cur­tail the power of the min­ing in­dus­try, gam­bling in­ter­ests, the na­tion’s largest telco, the fi­nan­cial sec­tor and me­dia cor­po­ra­tions – all at roughly the same time. The re­sult­ing siege was pre­dictable but still sur­pris­ing in its bru­tal ef­fi­ciency, as cor­po­rate Aus­tralia went to work on La­bor’s in­ter­nal fault lines. The in­sta­bil­ity spawned in this pe­riod con­tin­ues to cas­cade, with dis­pos­able lead­er­ship ten­ure now mea­sured in suc­ces­sive neg­a­tive Newspolls. In a bit­terly ironic twist, the same cor­po­rate lead­ers who bat­tered La­bor into a self­de­struc­tive stu­por and paved the way for Tony Ab­bott’s brief, car­niv­o­rous reign now is­sue fu­tile de­mands for sta­bil­ity. It would be funny if so many peo­ple weren’t get­ting hurt. Some­times, the in­flu­ence of preda­tor cap­i­tal­ism on the ar­ma­tures of democ­racy is sub­tle; some­times, it gets waved right in your face. “It has been such an hon­our to rep­re­sent the Aus­tralian min­ing sec­tor over the past year,” Se­na­tor Matt Cana­van told the in­ter­net in mid 2017, with­out irony. The sham­bling self-par­ody known to the world as Se­na­tor Ian Mac­don­ald, wor­ried peo­ple might mis­take his al­le­giance, wore a hi-vis “Aus­tralians for Coal” shirt into the Se­nate one night in 2014. Tony Ab­bott’s farewell speech to for­mer in­dus­try min­is­ter Ian Mac­far­lane made a blunt call on the min­ing in­dus­try to “ac­knowl­edge and demon­strate their grat­i­tude to him in his years of re­tire­ment from this place”. Ex-La­bor pre­miers and min­is­ters mu­tate ef­fort­lessly into lob­by­ists for banks and casi­nos, dif­fus­ing the line be­tween gov­ern­ment and in­dus­try ever fur­ther. How, you might rea­son­ably ask, does any­thing ever get done in such a poi­soned and com­pro­mised en­vi­ron­ment? How do the lights even stay on? Most day-to-day mat­ters of gov­er­nance are han­dled by the ad­min­is­tra­tive back-brain of state agen­cies and de­part­ments, laid down in ear­lier times, just get­ting on with the job. Be­gin­ning in 2010, Bel­gium went 589 days with­out an elected gov­ern­ment while po­ten­tial coali­tion part­ners bick­ered. At the time of writ­ing, North­ern Ire­land has been with­out an elected de­volved gov­ern­ment for about a year, and Ger­many just went through four months of ex­ec­u­tive paral­y­sis. Then there are the times that an ini­tia­tive ne­go­ti­ated be­tween ex­ec­u­tive gov­ern­ment and par­lia­ment is so re­spect­ful that it flies right un­der the radar. Last year, the then veter­ans’ af­fairs min­is­ter, Dan Te­han, pro­posed a raft of po­ten­tially con­tentious bills in an at­tempt to up­date the depart­ment’s an­cient record-keep­ing and com­pen­sa­tion claims pro­cesses. One of the bills opened up the pos­si­bil­ity of a vet­eran’s pri­vate in­for­ma­tion be­ing re­leased in or­der to fight po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, as the then hu­man

ser­vices min­is­ter, Alan Tudge, had in­fa­mously done with blog­ger Andie Fox’s Cen­tre­link records ear­lier the same year. With this abuse still fresh in peo­ple’s minds, veter­ans’ ad­vo­cates and civil rights or­gan­i­sa­tions raised con­cerns, which we were able to put di­rectly to the min­is­ter. A few days later, the gov­ern­ment cir­cu­lated amend­ments delet­ing the of­fen­sive pro­vi­sions. With­out any fan­fare, the bill was passed into law. It is hardly go­ing to make its way into po­lit­i­cal sci­ence text­books, but it sticks in my mind as one small ex­am­ple of how good­will and com­mon cour­tesy can oc­ca­sion­ally pre­vail. Some­times, a com­bi­na­tion of fac­tors de­liv­ers a gen­uine break­through when re­alpoli­tik and the pub­lic in­ter­est come into align­ment, and the right peo­ple are in the room to take ad­van­tage of it. Some­times, the op­po­site hap­pens. Nowhere has this been more starkly and trag­i­cally demon­strated than in the three-act catas­tro­phe of Aus­tralian cli­mate pol­icy. Act One be­gins in 2009, when the Rudd gov­ern­ment com­menced ne­go­ti­a­tions on the cen­tre­piece of its cli­mate strat­egy, the Car­bon Pol­lu­tion Re­duc­tion Scheme. Prime Min­is­ter Rudd fig­ured he didn’t need the Greens’ five Se­nate votes to pass the bill and had no in­ter­est in play­ing us into the conversation any­way. He froze us out of ne­go­ti­a­tions and de­signed a scheme that would in­stead per­suade the Coali­tion and their coal and gas pa­trons that the bill was no threat to busi­ness as usual. The scheme that emerged locked in steep emis­sions growth, as you’d ex­pect of a bill de­signed to ap­pease the fos­sil-fuel sec­tor and its par­lia­men­tary prox­ies. At the time, Green­peace de­scribed it as “a mon­u­men­tal fraud be­ing per­pe­trated on the Aus­tralian peo­ple”. None­the­less it was still too much for Tony Ab­bott, who seized the mo­ment to de­pose the then Op­po­si­tion leader, Mal­colm Turn­bull. To this day, the Greens’ re­fusal to vote for Rudd’s “mon­u­men­tal fraud” still em­bit­ters a small co­hort of La­bor folks, but in a cu­ri­ous twist they wouldn’t have to wait long for Act Two. The stage was set poorly. Ju­lia Gil­lard, new to the prime min­is­ter­ship, made the widely panned de­ci­sion to ab­di­cate cli­mate pol­icy in favour of a vaguely ti­tled “cit­i­zens assem­bly”. The land­scape changed yet again af­ter the dead-heat 2010 fed­eral elec­tion. Gil­lard’s gov­ern­ment, hang­ing by a thread in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives and con­tend­ing with Greens MP Adam Bandt’s pres­ence in a shared bal­ance of power, ac­cepted a pro­posal by Greens se­na­tors Brown and Milne for a novel cir­cuit-breaker: a multi-party com­mit­tee rep­re­sent­ing MPs from across the par­lia­ment and a small panel of ex­perts in cli­mate sci­ence, eco­nomics, in­dus­try and so­cial pol­icy. Ab­bott, pre­dictably, boy­cotted the whole process, leav­ing the com­mit­tee to func­tion as in­tended: to come up with a work­able scheme that could ac­tu­ally be de­bated, amended and passed by par­lia­ment. By the end of 2011, Aus­tralia had a world-lead­ing car­bon price scheme. It was de­signed to hit the largest in­dus­trial pol­luters hardest and raise enough rev­enue for a fairer tax sys­tem for peo­ple on low in­comes, a bio­di­ver­sity fund, en­ergy ef­fi­ciency schemes, and as­sis­tance for clean-en­ergy projects. It is hard to over­state the im­por­tance of the model of cross-party con­sen­sus-build­ing, and ex­pert and com­mu­nity in­put, to come up with some­thing work­able. The ex­ec­u­tive, and most of the par­lia­ment, worked col­lab­o­ra­tively for a few months on one of the most daunt­ing is­sues fac­ing us, and it de­liv­ered. On the night the bills went through, you could feel the ship turn, per­cep­ti­bly, away from the loom­ing ice­berg. The aw­ful rend­ing sound com­ing from be­low decks was, of course, Tony Ab­bott and the Min­er­als Coun­cil of Aus­tralia set­ting up Act Three. You know how this one ends: with the per­fec­tion of a crude and highly gen­dered at­tack on Prime Min­is­ter Gil­lard and the numb­ing rep­e­ti­tion of the “great big new tax” mantra, am­pli­fied out of all pro­por­tion by a sec­tion of the me­dia that had cast aside all pre­tence of neu­tral reportage. Most of the Clean En­ergy Act 2011 was re­pealed by Ab­bott’s gov­ern­ment in 2014, leav­ing only the hugely im­por­tant re­new­able en­ergy funds stub­bornly in­vest­ing bil­lions of dol­lars a year in clean tech­nol­ogy de­spite all at­tempts to de­mol­ish them. The whole cam­paign was pure bull­shit, of course. The promised $550 house­hold sav­ings never ma­te­ri­alised – sorry if you were led to be­lieve that some­one was go­ing to send you a cheque. Ab­bott’s for­mer chief of staff, Peta Credlin, caused a mi­nor stir early last year when she ad­mit­ted that mis­la­belling the Clean En­ergy

No so­cial move­ment that mat­tered was ever started or led from in­side Par­lia­ment House.

Act as a car­bon tax was no more than “bru­tal re­tail pol­i­tics”. By then, the dam­age had been done. We’ll need every megawatt of pol­icy smarts, move­ment build­ing and po­lit­i­cal rat-cun­ning to write a tri­umphant Act Four, be­cause the theatre is start­ing to smell of smoke. What the hell kind of les­son should we draw from these dis­mal episodes? Smarter peo­ple have at­tempted to an­swer that ques­tion: for me, it is the most im­por­tant re­cent ex­am­ple of how deeply in­dus­try in­cum­bents have in­fected the ma­chin­ery of democ­racy, us­ing the hol­lowed-out shell of the Coali­tion in con­cert with com­mer­cial me­dia plat­forms to delete an un­wanted cost to busi­ness while at­tempt­ing to break the spine of fed­eral La­bor. Aus­tralian pol­i­tics is so sat­u­rated with these clammy strands of patronage that some­times it’s an ef­fort to re­call where it all be­gan. For­tu­nately there is a re­minder close by. Just down the hill from the grace­ful curves of Par­lia­ment House lies the low-rise pa­tri­cian form of Aus­tralia’s orig­i­nal par­lia­ment, circa 1927. Grainy pho­to­graphs show sheep graz­ing a dusty land­scape of sparse trees and mono­lithic white build­ings: Can­berra, back when it was mostly lines on pa­per. Old Par­lia­ment House to­day is a su­perb mu­seum for the ideals and prac­tice of Aus­tralian democ­racy, but its most im­por­tant fea­ture lies out be­yond the fore­court, on the far side of a windy car park. You’ll smell the wood smoke first, and the warm fra­grance of eu­ca­lyp­tus leaves. A scat­ter of pav­il­ions, tents, vans, ban­ners and flags frame the som­bre lines of the Aus­tralian War Me­mo­rial across the lake. This is the Abo­rig­i­nal Tent Em­bassy, es­tab­lished in 1972 as the land rights move­ment gained pace and de­ter­mi­na­tion. One word is spelled out across the wide lawn, in let­ters three feet high: Sovereignty. This word speaks to the dark, foun­da­tional la­cuna in our his­tory. Colo­nial Aus­tralia be­gan as an armed in­va­sion, fol­lowed by two cen­turies of vi­o­lent dis­pos­ses­sion. There are no memo­ri­als along An­zac Pa­rade to the fron­tier wars, no mo­ments of si­lence. Our cities still light up with obliv­i­ous fire­works every Jan­uary 26. Two hun­dred and thirty years on, there are still no treaties: no for­mal le­gal recog­ni­tion paid to the so­phis­ti­cated net­work of na­tions whose peo­ple never ceded their sovereignty over coun­try. It’s com­ing, yet. Un­til it does, our par­lia­ment, its rit­u­als, its pro­nounce­ments, its phys­i­cal mass of mar­ble and wood and con­crete, will sit un­easily on Cap­i­tal Hill. A brit­tle sim­u­lacrum of gen­uine democ­racy is mask­ing the as­set-strip­ping of an an­cient land. So maybe you don’t have the in­ter­est or ca­pac­ity to spend years liv­ing out of a suit­case or pound­ing your head on the walls of this place for years at a time, and in­stead you just want your elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives to do some­thing pos­i­tive, pro­duc­tive or at least less heart­break­ingly evil. That makes you much more con­se­quen­tial than se­na­tors and MPs, so con­grat­u­la­tions. What hap­pens out­side the par­lia­ment in­ti­mately shapes and con­di­tions what can hap­pen within. More than this, it changes the scope of what’s pos­si­ble. No so­cial move­ment that mat­tered was ever started or led from in­side Par­lia­ment House. I have longed to see a modern prime min­is­ter stand up and take a fuck­ing risk for the pub­lic in­ter­est: Whit­lam on Viet­nam and Pine Gap, Keat­ing in Red­fern, Howard af­ter Port Arthur. I’m not con­vinced those days are com­pletely gone, but they are so van­ish­ingly rare they come to re­sem­ble the ex­cep­tions that prove the rule. Maybe we should snuff out the “great leader” can­dle we keep alight for some politi­cians and start think­ing harder about the ar­chi­tec­tures that work so ef­fi­ciently to neu­tralise peo­ple of good­will. One ex­am­ple, if I may. In 2009, I was thor­oughly suck­ered (and, to be fair, so was the No­bel com­mit­tee) by Pres­i­dent Obama’s beau­ti­ful Prague speech, which laid out his vi­sion for nu­clear weapons abo­li­tion. In the end, the slow-mov­ing ma­chin­ery of state com­bined forces with the blood­less work­ings of the arms in­dus­try to qui­etly de­feat their com­man­der-in-chief. He ended up ini­ti­at­ing a tril­lion-dol­lar up­grade of US nu­clear stock­piles in­stead. These bit­ter ashes helped nour­ish the In­ter­na­tional Cam­paign to Abol­ish Nu­clear Weapons (ICAN), the net­work that re­freshed the global dis­ar­ma­ment move­ment so ef­fec­tively that a sub­stan­tial ma­jor­ity of the world’s gov­ern­ments in­sti­tuted such a ban last July. ICAN, which was founded in sub­ur­ban Mel­bourne, needed coura­geous diplo­mats, MPs and prime min­is­ters around the world to put sig­na­tures on pa­per. But make no mis­take – the driv­ing force came from out­side the

com­fort­able en­vi­rons of na­tional par­lia­ments. This will also be the case when Aus­tralia rat­i­fies the ban treaty. It will be thanks to those or­gan­is­ers and vol­un­teers who make it suf­fi­ciently po­lit­i­cally safe for some near-fu­ture gov­ern­ment to sign on, even though it won’t be those cam­paign­ers’ sig­na­tures on the doc­u­ment. By cam­paign­ers I mean, of course, reg­u­lar peo­ple who care enough to reach out and make com­mon cause with those who share their hopes and be­liefs. (In a won­der­ful act of sym­me­try, the No­bel com­mit­tee re­cently rec­ti­fied its ear­lier mis­step and awarded its most re­cent peace prize to ICAN. Some­times, recog­ni­tion does fall where it’s due.) The same goes for any pow­er­ful so­cial move­ment you care to name, from the foun­da­tional achieve­ments of the trade unions to the cam­paign for women’s suf­frage to mar­riage equal­ity to the in­sur­rec­tion to shut down Adani’s sub­sidised coal atroc­ity. Vol­un­teers and com­mu­nity or­gan­is­ers do the heavy lift­ing, par­lia­men­tary ma­jori­ties come later. I don’t want to con­tribute to the malaise of low ex­pec­ta­tions that al­ready be­sets demo­cratic as­sem­blies around the world, but the work that gets done on the out­side largely sets the bound­ary con­di­tions for what hap­pens on the in­side. We still need to elect peo­ple of courage, and I’ve been for­tu­nate to spend time among the very best of them. But we have to give them more to work with. So, now that you’re plan­ning on con­tact­ing or vis­it­ing your lo­cal MP to help give strength to their bet­ter in­stincts and shift that bal­ance of num­bers, here are a cou­ple of quick things to bear in mind. The ad­viser you talk to on the phone may well agree with you, may be friends with your neigh­bour, may have just done a 12hour day. They’re not the enemy. The politi­cian you get to meet with may be mildly jet-lagged and cata­ton­i­cally busy. They may also have spent years work­ing on ex­actly the thing you’re lob­by­ing for, and it’s go­ing to gen­tly piss them off if you don’t al­ready know that. They are go­ing to need a sim­ple one-page brief on the thing you care about, and one or, at most, two sim­ple, ver­i­fi­able asks: things they can do for you, and things you can call back later to check up on. They are not the ones with the power; you are. You, and ev­ery­one you know, will de­cide every few years if they get stripped of their nice of­fice and all its en­ti­tle­ments. An oc­ca­sional re­minder never hurts. With these ba­sic cour­te­sies es­tab­lished, show no quar­ter. A ma­jor­ity of the cur­rent par­lia­ment sup­ports the in­car­cer­a­tion and tor­ture of peo­ple who have com­mit­ted no crime, in Aus­tralian-run sui­cide camps in the Pa­cific. A ma­jor­ity of the cur­rent par­lia­ment sup­ports con­tin­ued coalmin­ing and gas ex­trac­tion de­spite the warn­ings screamed at us by in­creas­ingly vi­o­lent weather. A ma­jor­ity of the cur­rent par­lia­ment is con­tent to go along with per­pet­ual war in the Mid­dle East, com­plicit in il­le­gal US drone as­sas­si­na­tions and a dystopian global sur­veil­lance regime. Sign­ing a pe­ti­tion is great. Call­ing an elec­torate of­fice is bet­ter. Stag­ing an oc­cu­pa­tion and invit­ing TV cam­eras along is bet­ter yet. Large-scale de­ter­mined or­gan­is­ing to make these atroc­i­ties po­lit­i­cally un­ten­able is best of all. If your age, health, home cir­cum­stances or other ad­ver­si­ties make par­tic­i­pa­tion of this kind im­pos­si­ble, it doesn’t make your opin­ion any less valuable: we see you on­line and in the let­ters pages, and in the hand­writ­ten mes­sages of sug­ges­tion and en­cour­age­ment. The demo­cratic space we take for granted can close fast, how­ever – just ask the Cata­lans, or Venezue­lans, or, in­creas­ingly, our friends in the United States. It re­quires con­tin­ual main­te­nance to re­sist the cen­tripetal forces of state power and our gov­ern­ment’s ugly drift into bo­gan au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. But it’s there. Many of us in this coun­try have the agency and ca­pac­ity to work col­lec­tively that peo­ple in West Pa­pua, Pales­tine or Myan­mar could only dream of. We have to make bet­ter use of it. There are bet­ter ways to make de­ci­sions at scale than crunch­ing num­bers in a late-night sit­ting. There are emerg­ing prac­tices of par­tic­i­pa­tory bud­get­ing, where di­verse juries of or­di­nary peo­ple man­age fi­nances rather than leav­ing it to two smug bas­tards with cigars. And de­lib­er­a­tive fo­rums where reg­u­lar peo­ple take ex­pert ev­i­dence on the wicked prob­lems that leg­is­la­tors, cap­tured by nar­row in­ter­ests, have ceded their abil­ity to solve. Par­lia­ment House won’t nec­es­sar­ily be the place we look to find these more evolved forms of de­lib­er­a­tion: its de­ci­sion-mak­ing pro­cesses are baked into its ar­chi­tec­ture. But other forms are out there, pro­cesses that ag­gre­gate the wis­dom of the crowd in more con­sen­sual and less ad­ver­sar­ial ways. The in­ter­net must surely be a huge part of it, but so too is spend­ing more time face to face, ac­tu­ally lis­ten­ing to each other. Par­lia­ment is a for­mal set­ting in which to con­duct a very old and dan­ger­ous ar­gu­ment. It’s a walled pres­sure cooker in which some of the rules of power, eco­nomic dis­tri­bu­tion and per­sonal agency are set. We’ve slowly rit­u­alised the big dis­putes that in other places and times were re­solved with ma­chetes and guil­lotines; in­stead we use how-to-vote cards and at­tack ads with me­nac­ing voice-overs. The trick for all of us is to throw off the tran­quil­is­ing be­lief that this is as good as it gets. Things could be worse. They could also be much, much bet­ter. Work­ing in an ad­ver­sar­ial sys­tem, in a state of per­ma­nent siege and coun­ter­siege, means you rarely get to lift your eyes be­yond what­ever emer­gency has barged its way onto your to-do list. And so, when the late-night call came through with a po­lite query as to how cer­tain I was about my cit­i­zen­ship sta­tus, it dawned on me over the course of the fol­low­ing days that it might be time for a change. Nine years in that place is a good haul, and I loved (al­most) every mo­ment of it, but it wears you down in pe­cu­liar ways. It’s a weird lux­ury now, to have time to think with­out brac­ing for the next chaotic sit­ting week, and I’m re­minded that there are many other creative ways to make trou­ble. Which­ever side of par­lia­ment’s pal­isade se­cu­rity fence you find your­self on, it turns out some­times even fall­ing off the back of a wave can teach you some­thing new.

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