Sep 5, 2017

Voters are hungry for alternatives – Opinion – The Australian

A royal commission into whether Islam is a religion, public funding for new coal-fired power stations and massive punitive cuts to funding for the ABC — there certainly are some interesting ideas emerging from minor political parties in this country.

Many of these ideas fall into the crackpot category.

But what is more interesting than their substance is what they say about the state of politics in what has become known as the age of disruption.

Across the world, political outsiders from the left, right and centre are advocating a shake-it-up approach to politics and are winning public support as voters abandon orthodoxy in favour of candidates offering something — anything — different.

Donald Trump won power from the political right, telling millions of Americans their political system was broken. In Britain, the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn almost won this year’s election running a similar argument from the left. And in France, Emmanuel Macron became President leading a party that did not exist a year ago.

Australia also has its self-styled outsiders who seek to capitalise on public disenchantment with the mainstream political parties.

But while debate about this phenomenon has focused on how major political parties can respond, the more sensible first step is to isolate the cause of voter discontent.

The fact is that many voters who feel disengaged from the political process have good reasons to feel that way.

Economic disempowerment caused by globalisation sits at the heart of the problem.

While globalisation has delivered substantial benefits in recent decades, it is an undeniable fact that some people have gained more benefits than others.

When politicians tell people who have lost their livelihoods to the changes wrought by globalisation that economic change is a great thing, it’s no wonder they turn off.

More recently, the global financial crisis has reinforced this feeling of alienation.

Across the world, millions of innocent, hardworking people lost their jobs and/or their homes because of corporate greed and inadequate government regulation of the banking sector in the US and Europe.

These people suffered through no fault of their own.

But they have had to watch as those who were responsible — bankers and careless regulators in Britain and the US — escaped comparatively unscathed. The GFC was the starkest demonstration in my lifetime of the inequality of power distribution in our globalised world.

To its victims, it provided genuine lived experience to back up their suspicions that the establishment is indifferent to their suffering.

That is why the political mainstream will never adequately confront the age of disruption by attacking the outsiders who seek to offer alternatives, no matter how strange those solutions might seem.

The Donald Trumps of our world might not offer workable solutions, but they resonate because they identify genuine problems that the establishment has, to its discredit, downplayed.

The starting point for a revival of the political mainstream is an acceptance that, for many voters, the existing order has not delivered for them.

If we worry that the age of disruption might trigger a downward spiral of disrespect for our institutions, we have a responsibility to engage positively to avert such a scenario.

We must secure outcomes in the national interest.

This requires a greater focus on real, practical solutions to the problems that concern people in their daily lives — health, education, infrastructure, job security and the cost of living.

We must have more discussion about the changing nature of work and the impact that technology will have on our future workforce.

Our focus must be on outcomes, not ideological contests or culture wars, which seem to have obsessed the federal government.

Two simple examples from current Australian political debate illustrate the wrong way to treat Australians who worry about their place in an uncertain world.

Labor has been arguing strongly for reforms to improve equality in this nation, such as ensuring corporations and wealthy people pay their fair share of tax. We’ve also argued for reforms to negative gearing and capital gains tax to address housing affordability.

In both cases, the government has dismissed our concerns.

In doing to, the government insults the intelligence of Australians who see inequality parading in front of them every day of the week.

In the same way, pretending that there is no housing affordability crisis in this country is to fly in the face of the lived experience of tens of thousands of young people in communities who can’t get a foothold in the property market.

Where Australians are troubled by real problems affecting their daily lives, the very worst thing a government can do is tell them their problems are somehow not real. Sometimes in political life it’s a good idea to stop talking and start listening.

Anthony Albanese is the opposition spokesman for infrastructure, transport, cities and tourism.