Coming Round to Bill

Are Australia's political foundations starting to shift? Trust in Canberra has fallen to a new low. Is this a temporary or a permanent condition of Australian political life? and what does it mean for future Australian governments?

The Liberal-National Coalition is the natural party of Australian government. Why? At its best the conservative coalition of urban and rural politicians perfectly mirrors the social, political and cultural conservative qualities of mainstream Australian civic life. In 240 years the most remarkable thing that Australians have done is to meld several colonial administrations into a Federal system of State administrations overseen by a Commonwealth government. Practical minimalism is the general tenor of government and society. The Federal constitution, accepted by Australians in 1900, is designed not to be tinkered with by the people and as a result it retains many of its horse and buggy colonial features. This is why aviation, the dual national citizenship of politicians are not conceivable  nor is the original ownership of the continent by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Queen is still sovereign and Australians arguably have more loyalty, admiration and affection for its mother colony than the other way round.

Until now, individual mainstream Australians have been well served by social, cultural and political conservatism. In world terms Australians are very wealthy. Australia has the highest median income in the world. Its natural resources are abundant and in demand particularly within the fastest growing region of world economic development the Asia Pacific.

The main contribution of the Australian Labor movement has been to work within the economy and society to ensure that Australian citizens are fairly renumerated and that employment practices are not exploitative. But this has also contributed to the tendency for Australian citizens to vote conservative for Commonwealth and State governments.

One other feature of Australian society, compulsory voting, also ensures that change in Australia is generally conservative and gradual. A Donald Trump figure is unlikely to ever emerge, although some argue that a popularly elected President of a future Australian Republic might throw up the possibility of a demagogue at odds with Australia’s Westminster parliamentary political structure. My own view is that given the archaic qualities of the Australian constitution there is sure to be crises that will require interventions by parliament, the High Court, referendum and eventually by a popularly elected President with circum-scribed powers. Eventually too Australians will have to face up to the inappropriate structure of post-colonial governments and the lack of constitutional recognition of local government.

But such issues rarely enter the minds of affluent Australians. Liberal National governments who uphold the status quo and are cautious about change, fiscally conservative and defensive of national structures have governed the country for fifty of the past 69 years. Liberal National governments  only lose power in times of war, social or economic crisis or through lack of discipline or incompetence.

Lack of discipline and complacency is the major reason why the Liberal National Coalition is in major trouble in the lead up to the next Commonwealth election in May 2019. The question is: could there be something fundamentally different in the unrest of the past few years and has something shifted in the relationship between the Australian electorate and the natural party of government in Australia?



The Australian Labor Movement has the longest and one of the proudest histories of any national social reform movement.  It was one of the first in the world to form a political party. The Australian Federal Labor government of 1910 was the first national labour government in the world. The traditions and experience of Australian Labor far outdate those of the Liberal National party. Though the traditions of conservatism and classical liberalism drive the more thoughtful Liberal National politicians the living examples of successful Liberal National leaders such as Menzies and Howard are more important in terms of managing the party. The problem is that neither Menzies nor Howard were writers or intellectuals. They ruled by appealing to Australians sense of safety and they gained approval by being steady fiscal conservatives and protectors of Australia’s rising affluence. From its earliest days the Labor movement learned to lance its many aspirations and ambitions by creating factions: the left, the centre and the right. In the most difficult period for socialists and Labor, during the Cold War that ran from the late 1940s through to the early 1970s, the most successful Labor governments learned to allow the right and centre factions to lead the political sphere. NSW was for Labor the shining example of factional discipline – the 24 years of consecutive Labor government from 1941-1965 – were a beacon that inspired Neville Wran and Gough Whitlam to come to power in the 1970s. The NSW centre right had learned that division was fatal and splits between rival leaders were political suicide in the early 20th century. Whitlam is often held up as a social reformer and it is true that in many ways he was an unusual, intellectual leader with a great comprehensive agenda but the heart of his power, like Wran, lay with the centre right. Whitlam’s NSW backers were the most critical, within the Labor movement, of the complacency and ill discipline of the Whitlam years. When Labor had the opportunity to come to power in the early 1980s it was the centre right of NSW that called the shots behind the scenes. The centre right surrounded Bob Hawke, ironed his weaknesses, sobered him up did not allow him to deviate too far from a centrist path and above all tried to create an ethos of steady, rising affluence, fiscal conservatism and national development.

And so in 2018 we come round to Bill Shorten. Shorten’s great advantage is precisely that he is not overly charismatic and he is a rusted on centre right labor movement leader. It may be that a man like Anthony Albanese could, in the rough and tumble of political life, find himself one day Prime Minister just as the left’s Luke Foley found himself a potential leader. But the power lies with the centre right factions if the Liberal National party are the natural party of national government, the centre right are the natural leaders of the Australian labor movement and its political sphere. What can be given can easily be taken away.

All this is the natural order of Australian politics, all things being equal, the rules of the game are: Liberal Nationals are the natural party of Federal government and the Centre Right are the natural rulers of the Australian Labor Party. When government’s change there is not too much difference. Outliers on the left and independents within the parliament are allowed to tinker in minor areas so long as they do not get in the way of fiscal conservatism and gradualist development. The country, as it stands, has not done too badly from this formula.

But something has emerged from the world stage and within the Labor movement of the past twenty years which will hopefully shift the order of things. The signs are from the Wentworth by-election and the re-election of the Andrews government in Victoria that the social contract of affluence, conservatism and gradualism is now being seen as a potential problem for the future. A large majority of Australians who grew up in a period of social freedom and idealism during the 1960s are coming to maturity, the numbers of the more conservative generations of the pre and post War period are starting to decline. This combined with the threat of climate change, which is a potent social and political force for younger generations and is a new consensus between young and old means that business cannot go on as usual. The sure steps of conservatives and centre right figures are no longer gaining traction. Over the past few months the Liberal National party have made profound errors. The debacle of changing leaders was not the main issue. The conservatives were prepared to walk away from a pragmatic national energy policy and to indulge in personality based leadership contests. It was not just that Nero was madly fiddling, Rome was burning and no-one seemed to notice. The appeal to the hip pocket that Tony Abbott and his cronies could usually rely on to justify a pragmatic conservatism looks more like incompetence and selfishness than any kind of safety. The evidence suggests that something deep within the Liberal and National class of supporters has been torn and broken. Neither a balanced Commonwealth budget or a steady hand at the wheel of government will  bring the trust back, nor will the Liberal National guarantee that Canberra politicians will not change leaders between elections so readily.

The other x factor represented by the Andrews government and a series of State Labor governments in South Australia, West Australia, Queensland and the Northern Territory is that competency is starting to take a social reform flavour. Daniel Andrews might well have been a nerdy, marginal outlier in another period of Australian history. Now he and his government represent the new standard of development, social reform and security that people are seeing as a bare minimum to feel safe and comfortable in the world. Unlike the Whitlam period where no-one in the entire administration had any experience holding the reins of power nor was there a sympathetic bureaucracy to translate policy into administrative action, now there are many layers of experience in government across the left, centre and conservative sides of the Labor movement. There is a seasoned mandarin class who have shifted from State to State as Labor governments have come in and out of office. In Victoria indigenous matters are not a protest based movement, there is a class of seasoned Aboriginal young people working in a wide range of portfolios inspired by their parents and grand parents and determined to use the wheels of government to bring about sensible reforms that are increasingly supported by a large majority of the community. This is the shape of things to come at a Commonwealth level and the very impressive team of parliamentary Indigenous talent from Linda Burney to the father of Australian reconciliation Patrick Dodson are without precedent in the Commonwealth arena.



There are several things we should expect from a future Shorten government and there are several new features of Australian political life that he will have to navigate.

It is not just business as usual. Labor cannot just shadow the Liberal National party to hold onto power. At a Commonwealth level Labor must build its tenure from competent social reform and action. Australians are looking for government that wont just throw money at problems but build long term solutions and plans. Elegant technically sophisticated competence in government is an increasing expectation of the electorate that will only grow stronger. But a new paradigm is emerging. Australians like frogs in slowly boiling water are waking up with alarm. The political scene is therefore more elastic than it has ever been. If I am right the Berejiklian government will survive in NSW when ever the Commonwealth election is held and Australians will reserve their anger for those who have, in some ways like the end of the Keating Labor government, become complacent and ill disciplined at an important time in our history.

In future articles the policy foundations and possibilities of a Shorten Labor government will be carefully examined.