DECISIONS. Decisions. Decisions. For a couple of decades now, Australia seems to have made quite a few decisions we should not have made and we have not made decisions that we should have. For the decade or two before that it was the other way around.
I use the words “Australia” and “we” rather than “the Australian Government” because we elect the Australian Government and so, vicariously, the Government’s decisions are our decisions.
On one hand, we have the Hawke-Keating era decisions on financial and tariff deregulation; industrial relations; Medicare; superannuation; and native title and the Howard Government’s decisions on guns and the GST. These were done well, against huge odds and were in the national interest.
On the other hand, we have the present debacles over submarines; climate change; the role of women in government; the tax system; vaccines and quarantine, and dealing with breaches of integrity in government. These have been botched or dithered over.
It is apposite to talk about decision-making now. The AUSUK-submarine decision was pulled out of the hat. It had all the surprise of a magician’s performance – without the rabbit. We were left without a submarine program.
Post-hoc and ad-hoc, the magician, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, had to cobble together a temporary leasing plan with the Americans. Small wonder the magician was being booed by much of the audience.
And right now, pressure is building for Australia to do something about the greatest security and moral issue which we have botched for a decade and a half: climate change.
Decision-making has several critical elements: deciding on what to do and working out how and when to go about it.
With the submarines, having made idiotic decisions in 2016 to go diesel; build from scratch, and do it here, we got it partly right in 2021 to do the obvious and go nuclear, but pig-headedly stayed with the policy of building here from scratch.
Further the decision was arrived at in secrecy and announced with all the finesse of a Queensland copper plodding around a Versailles diplomatic ball.
As with many political morasses, the cover-up was worse than the offence. Morrison tried to distract attention (as good magicians do) from the submarine debacle with a great big new security pact directed at an exaggerated possibly imagined military threat from China.
It had the fingerprints of Defence Minister Peter Dutton’s unnecessary sabre-rattling all over it.
Yes, China is a major human-rights abuser and flagrant violator of trade rules and the rule of law generally, and it has built up its military, but it has not bombed or invaded at least 32 countries since World War II, as the US has, nor does it spend as much on its military as the world combined, as the US does.
So, Australia’s response should not be to for a big new military alliance and new submarine program based on ripping up an existing contract with no notice and no cause. Rather it should be to ensure our human-rights, trade behaviour and political processes are exemplary.
On climate change, the Rudd Government squibbed a double dissolution after the Greens and Coalition defeated its carbon tax in the Senate. The Gillard Government rectified it with a carbon tax that was working well, but did so only after having earlier promised not to introduce the tax – leaving Labor open to the wrecking ball of Tony Abbott and the Coalition whose hotch-potch of semi-denying policies ever since have been plainly against the national interest.
The reckoning has been on its way for some time. On these two issues, the Government has been warned and told the obvious truths for years. Diesel-electric submarines would never be up to the task and Australia is not capable of building any submarines in a cost-effective way. Short-term marginal-seat politics got in the way.
And the Government has long been warned that the world would not tolerate Australia’s refusal to pull its weight on carbon reduction without copping damaging trade sanctions. Even sleepy old former Nationals Leader Michael McCormack has finally woken up to this.
And as it happens, his statement this week about climate change is yet another example of why decision-making in Australia has become so rotten.
McCormack is not a fool, nor ignorant. He must have known for all the years he was National Party leader that pro-fossil fuel policies were harmful to the interests of regional Australia. Coal mining is a very minor employer; it harms the agricultural environment and it prevents the regional jobs and wealth that come from renewables. And lower-carbon agriculture is good for the regions.
Yet it is only now he speaks up, plainly in a way that will show up the populist troglodyte who toppled him to regain the Nationals leadership.
Petty leadership squabbles have always been a part of Australian politics, but since 2007 they have gone from sporadic outbursts on one side of politics or the other to a constant, festering infection of both.
This has gone hand-in-hand with a careerist approach to politics where the gaining and retention of power is the be-all and end-all of the endeavour. More and more elected politicians come from being staffers and advisers or unions and law with little or no experience in other industries.
This has led to cynicism and disillusion and a decline in broad party membership. This in turn has led corporate donations becoming more important and the major parties skewing their policies in the donors’ favour.
A shattered and segmented media landscape had pushed political leaders to look only to the short-term and the instant marketig effect of whatever they do.
Despite all the extra information and analysis, decision-making has become demonstrably poorer and trust in the political process, especially federal has fallen precipitously.
And if there are any easy answers, they are probably wrong.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 25 September 2021.
Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor | ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia