Looking at recent events in Britain and the US, Australia appears to have had a lucky escape.
Britain’s mad electoral system and elitist selection of its Prime Minister has led to a catastrophic economic hiatus diminishing the quality of life for most of its citizens.
Successful prime ministerial candidate Liz Truss had to pander to the mainly well-off 200,000 Conservative Party members voting in her leadership contest. She promised tax cuts for the rich. When the new Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, now inevitably nicknamed “Kamikazi”, the borrowing to fund them, the UK economy went into a tailspin, requiring a Bank of England bailout.
In the US, the prospect that time will run out before Congress can bring to account the 6 January instigators; the threat of disruption if the Republicans win the mid-terms; and the collapse of respect for the US Supreme Court are undermining democracy.
And the misuse of power and wealth in both countries to increase inequality and rape the environment make Australia’s polity look quite healthy.
But, until 21 May, that was the way we were headed. An indication of that comes with last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference Australia. Members of what is left of the Liberal Party rejoiced in the defeat of “leftie” Liberal MPs by independents and promised Liberal candidates with a more conservative social agenda next election.
(Thud! I hear the sound of bullets hitting feet.) The Coalition lost the election not because it was too conservative, but because it was not conservative enough, according to Katherine Deeves, the Liberal candidate for Warringah who lost (scoring a lower vote than the Coalition got in 2019) because she had been “silenced” over of her views on transgender people.
The CPAC event is an Australian version of the long-running American Conservative Political Action Conference. Trump administration officials and British Brexiteer Nigel Farage were invited to join a bevy of local trickle-down low-tax fantasists, opponents of anti-corruption bodies, monarchists, anti-Voice campaigners and fossil-fuel profiteers, all of whom already have a big voice to Parliament called “money”.
Of course, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott was there extolling his version of public health – let them die. He said Covid lockdowns had turned Australia into “a prison island”; government Covid interventions were “virus hysteria” based on a “neurotic fear of death”.
(Hands up all those conservative heroes not scared of dying from Covid.)
Margaret Thatcher was there in spirit, as Sky News panellists at the conference referred to those in the Liberal Party in favour of the Voice and the National Anti-Corruption Commission as “bed wetters”. Remember Thatcher branding moderate Conservatives opposed to her “dry” economic program as “Wets”.
All this would be funny if it were not so dangerous.
So, it is worth looking at what turned the Australian polity away from this garbage in a way that the US and Britain have not. And what still poses a threat.
Our electoral system is perhaps the most important guard. Preferential and compulsory voting combined with easy registration and physical voting processes are critical. As is an independent Electoral Commission that draws up electoral boundaries and runs elections.
Conservatives in the US have succeeded in corrupting the system, making it harder for people in lower socio-economic groups to register and to vote. Politicians (nearly all Republicans) have redrawn boundaries to ensure Republicans get a greater portion of candidates elected than their vote would warrant.
In Britain, the unfair first-past-the-post system has kept the Conservatives in power for years with fewer votes than progressives, because the system splits the progressive (Labour and Liberal-Democrat) vote. In 2019 Boris Johnson got a landslide 80-seat majority with just 43.6 per cent of the vote.
Conservatives in Australia have toyed with voluntary voting and tighter identification requirements, but, mercifully, they have not come to much.
Secondly, our courts system remains robust. Nonetheless, dangers emerged between 2016 and 2019 as the Coalition stacked the Administrative Appeals Tribunal with cronies, staffers and hangers-on. It should be enough to abolish the tribunal and start again. And some senior lawyers at least privately have been critical of some of the Morrison Government’s appointments to higher courts.
But Australia’s highest court, the High Court, has received almost universal respect for its independence and legal excellence generated by sound appointments. The appointment last week of Federal Court Justice Jayne Jagot to the High Court was a case in point. Appointments should be guided by legal acumen gauged by wide consultation by the Attorney-General, not politics.
It contrasts the with US Supreme Court which has been unfairly stacked with political hacks by President Donald Trump. The justices now bicker with each other in public in a way that has shattered public confidence.
Third, is money’s influence in politics. Money can drive policies which beget money for the wealthy, causing a self-perpetuating mechanism resulting in ever-increasing inequality. Here Australia remains in danger.
The new NACC must have the power to expose, not just brown-paper-bag corruption, but the insidious, quiet corruption of corporate donations being used to promote policies that are in the corporations’ interests, not the public interest – especially weak regulation and the corruption of using public money for political purposes – rorts.
Australia must avoid what has happened in the US where billionaires’ campaign contributions have risen from $31 million in 2019 to $1.2 billion in the most recent presidential cycle.
For that they have been given tax cuts, privatisations and deregulations enabling them to weaken unions, monopolise markets and put their hands out for government largesse.
According to a Congressional Budget Office report last week the richest 1 per cent of US families increased their share of national wealth from 27 per cent to 34 per cent. Families in the bottom half now hold just 2 per cent.
In Australia, the Coalition loosened donation requirements. In 2005 it raised the disclosure threshold to $10,000 indexed. Corporations can give multiple donations to various entities of political parties and stay under the radar. Also, they can finance policy propaganda directly without disclosing their spending.
Along with climate, the integrity question is why so many erstwhile moderate Liberals turned to independents. The lesson for Labor is not to weaken integrity legislation to get Coalition support, but to strengthen it to bolster independent, Green, and public support.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 4 October 2022.
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