What Happened In Australia’s Election, And Why It Matters

People’s distrust of politicians is at an all time high. Australia is just the most recent clarion call for us all to build a more connected political life.

This article by Amanda Tattersall was first published in The Huffington Post on 20 May 2019. 

Two days before the Australia’s federal election, former prime minister Bob Hawke died. Hawke was a masterful bridge builder – he connected unions and business through the Accord, environment and people through saving the Franklin Dam, Australia and the world through protecting Tiananmen refugees.

Connection and disconnection defined the 2019 Australian Election, but not in the ways of Bob Hawke. Two social movements vied to set a direction for the country – the labour movement and the climate movement. But unlike Hawke’s 1980s, these movement worked separately from each other. Unions and much of the ALP talked about economics, particularly fairness, wages and inequality. In a parallel space, the climate movement led by hundreds of thousands of high school students, argued for meaningful action on climate change embodied in a plea to stop the proposed Adani coal mine in central Queensland. Both agendas were powerful, real, vital. But they were disconnected.

As any ad man will tell you, two messages is half a message. The disconnection between these climate and economic messages made for a confusing progressive electoral narrative. It created space for actual former ad man, and now prime minister, Scott Morrison to arrive with one scary message about the economy. Former prime minister Tony Abbott identified it in his concession speech (he was one of the only coalition MPs to lose his seat): “when climate is a moral issue progressives win, but when climate is an economic issue the conservatives win.”

In the Australian election the gap between talk about climate and talk about inequality allowed conservatives to stoke fear. The result was progressives lost. For those who care about inequality and climate change, Hawke’s passion for connectivity provides some instruction on ways forward.

Connection has two dimensions; we come together through our heads and hearts. The head bit, the ideas bit, is easier. If a separation between climate and the economy cost progressives the election, then an approach that seeks to reorganise our economy in a way that is both just, and plans to take carbon emissions to zero, looks like the way forward. Global interest in the Green New Deal agenda is a good start, and there is an appetite for this work amongst unions and climate campaigners in Australia too.

But generating new ideas is not a matter of fusing two issues together. A climate economy is an uncomfortable coupling for many. There are deep tensions in any transition. Whatever you thought of Hawke and Keating’s embrace of a global economy in the 1980s, the transition was done in a way that sought to respond to people’s fears while prosecuting economic change. Policies like Medicare and wage indexation underpinned basic levels of economic security, while other parts of the economy were privatised. There was a consensus between business and union interests – neither side got exactly what they wanted, but at the same time neither side got entirely sold out.

These times call for new forms of consensus between our economy and our climate, but these ideas will be still born if they are not midwifed by the art of connection. Relationship building will be key. We need spaces where people from across classes, geographies, identities and ages can listen, understand each other, share their fears and hopes, and together, democratically create a new climate economy together.

Bob Hawke was a union leader before he was a politician and he was successful because he could listen. While he was also deeply charismatic, his charm disguised his craft – he achieved so much because he could connect with others, across divides, first and foremost.

Across the world we are in urgent need of new forms of politics. People’s distrust of politicians is at an all time high, while the pressures of climate change and inequality press down as threats on our very way of living. But if we do not build the democratic foundations right – and create connections and understanding – we risk repeating our mistakes. Australia is just the most recent clarion call for us all to build a more connected political life.

Amanda Tattersall is an academic and a community organiser based at the University of Sydney’s Policy Lab. She hosts the ChangeMakers podcast.

Image credit: Brook Mitchell via Getty images

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