Australian democracy? We fixed it
But if we want to entrench these changes, campaign finance reform is essential
Note from Tim Dunlop: As promised, I am commissioning articles for this newsletter, and the latest one is below, by Jane Gilmore. More are in the pipeline. Your subscription helps pay for the publication of these articles and all the work published here. Thank you.
Jane Gilmore was the founding editor of The Kings Tribune (2007-2014). She is now a public speaker, consent educator, & freelance journalist. Her book Fixed It: Violence and the Representation of Women in the Media, was published by Penguin in 2019.
Anyone else wake up on Sunday with a hopeful bounce?
Not only because change happened but because this change proves even more change is possible. We are no longer waving impotent signs at an outsized bulldozer. We demolished the bulldozer and built a new coalition in its place.
We can—and we should—pause to enjoy this moment. It is a remarkable change across every state and every demographic.
Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah, a woman of colour, won Peter Costello’s deep blue seat of Higgins for the Labor party, and that result, to me, sums up the change that happened right across the country. Everything history has told us to expect about the two-party system of politics is gone.
This change, however, is new and fragile.
There’s a special kind of rage that happens when you take power away from people who’ve never had reason to question their entitlement to that power. Remember Tony Abbott’s long and venomous tantrum after Julia Gillard won the 2010 election? That will have nothing on the hailstorm of toys being hurled out of conservative prams over the next three years.
So, after everyone has had time to recover from the shock of what happened on Saturday, reaction will set in, and the backlash will be shattering.
This time it’s not just one woman taking the Rightful Place of a Man With A Future; there’s a whole team of them. Smart, dedicated, articulate, empathetic women stormed out of their consulting suites and knocked over the entitled white men like they were skittles.
And it’s not just the Liberal politicians. Their cheerleaders in the Murdoch press will also have to take a long, painful look at their own irrelevance.
The Murdoch press cut its own throat when it chose dishonest propaganda over honest journalism, and anyone with lingering doubts about the demise of their ability to sway elections should now let those doubt go. Saturday’s result proved that no amount of hysterical caballing against Labor, the Greens, or the “fake” Independents will stop people voting for candidates they believe in.
Still, don’t expect to see the Liberal Party’s media arm take their relevance depravation with grace.
I still remember their vicious campaign against Julia Gillard’s “illegitimate government”, and her hair, her partner, her clothes, her voice, even her earlobes made headlines. Similar campaigns against women such as Margaret Simons, Roz Ward, and Therese Rein leave a trail of breadcrumbs to their likely response to the Green and Teal takeover of previously safe Liberal seats.
This time, however, we will see them coming. We’ll know that ignoring them is not the right response. And we’ll know, because this election proved it, that we now have more power than them.
The backlash will happen in Parliament too.
Independents and minor parties are an existential threat to the two-party system. That might be good for democracy and voters, but it’s very bad news for the major parties.
Labor strategists know their marginal seats will be targeted by more Independents in the next election, especially if the 2022 Independents prove to be a successful force for change in the 47th Parliament. Liberal strategists will be looking for anything they can shake out of the Independent trees to wave at the leafy green suburbs and say, “we told you so, don’t make this mistake again”.
If they can’t find something, they will create it.
The one genuinely bipartisan agreement over the next three years, then, could be to destabilise the Independent movement. The new Independent women are professional and highly competent, but they are still new to politics. Their inexperience could be a potent weapon against them.
When Tony Windsor was guiding Rob Oakeshott through minority government in the 43rd parliament, he had the knowledge gained over almost two decades in parliament, including several years in NSW minority government with Nick Greiner. The Independents coming into this parliament might think about having Windsor and Cathy McGowan at the top of their daily call sheets if they want help to avoid the inevitable traps that will be set for them over the next three years.
But the most important aspect of the hope and change this new parliament brings, is that it is the best chance we’ve ever had to achieve the one reform that is the bulwark against all others: campaign finance.
It’s not something an Integrity Commission will necessarily cover, at least not directly, but it is the reason politicians can’t commit to real action on climate change, wage increases, housing affordability, gambling, corporate tax evasion, industrial relations, and media ownership, among many other issues.
Political donation reform is the silver bullet in the heart of government inaction on the issues that carried this election, but it is an issue Labor and the LNP refuse to address. As Michael Yabsley wrote in Crikey recently:
The major parties will never take this cause on without external pressure. It’s a gravy train that suits both sides of politics and most other political players as well… The only way to kill this disease is by rendering so insignificant the amount of money that can be lawfully donated that it could never be considered an inducement that affects policy, commercial transactions, preference deals or any other goings-on that characterise the often byzantine, sometimes nefarious world of politics.
The Greens and the Teals have benefited from large political donations.
The funding from Climate 200 was not entirely responsible for their wins, but their longevity may, paradoxically, depend on jettisoning that funding model in order level the political playing field.
Here is the bottom line: the newly installed Independents cannot achieve their stated aims of action on climate change without Labor’s collaboration, and Labor can’t do it under the current political funding model.
The Independent’s longevity also depends on more community-backed Independents joining them in parliament in the next few elections. That cannot happen if the people who could become those candidates are blocked by major parties with the weight of large bank accounts and infrastructure behind them.
I have personal experience of the difficulties involved. I tried to be one of those candidates in the 2022 election.
I started far too late—in January this year—and four months is not nearly long enough to jump through all the bureaucratic hoops deliberately designed to prevent new, independent candidates entering parliament. Even if I’d had a year, I didn’t have the connections, staff, infrastructure, experience, or knowledge—or the money it takes to buy those things—that I needed to get a campaign off the ground.
With three years to plan for the next election, I might be able to do it. Might.
But if there is no effective reform to campaign finance, no amount of time will be enough for me, or any other new Independent, to run a successful bid against the million-dollar candidates selected by large donors.
We were lucky this time.
Holmes à Court supported smart women with conviction and integrity, while Clive Palmer splattered millions of dollars over Queensland and the entire internet to no effect. But if Palmer (or others like him) were taking notes over the last six weeks, we might get a very different result next time.
Campaign finance reform is our only protection from state capture and the whims of billionaires.
If the Teals and Greens want to prove that integrity and climate-change action truly are their guiding lights, campaign finance reform—and the sacrifices they will have to make to get it—must be their first move. Everything else gets much easier after that, and they will have entirely justified the hope for change that swept them into parliament on May 21.
The Future of Everything is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.