The Coalition government’s use of taxpayer money for political advertising – as much as A$136 million since January, according to Labor figures – is far from an aberration in Australia. It is part of a sordid history in which public resources have routinely been abused for electoral advantage.
For example, the Coalition governments of Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull spent at least A$84.5 million on four major advertising campaigns to promote their policies and initiatives with voters. The ALP governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard spent A$20 million on advertising to promote the Gonski school funding changes and another A$70 million on a carbon tax campaign. Going further back, the Coalition government under John Howard spent A$100 million on its WorkChoices and GST campaigns.
This is also a history in which hypocrisy is not hard to find.
When in opposition, Rudd condemned partisan government advertising as “a cancer on our democracy”. His government, however, exempted its A$38 million ad campaign on the mining super profits tax from the government guidelines put in place two years earlier.
In 2010, while an opposition MP, Scott Morrison decried such spending as “outrageous”. In 2019, his government may be presiding over the most expensive pre-election government advertising blitz in recent history.
Few restrictions on government advertising
All of this is perfectly legal.
The High Court in Combet v Commonwealth made clear that legislation authorising government spending (appropriation statutes) imposes virtually no legal control over spending for government advertising, because of its broad wording.
In the absence of effective statutory regulations, there are government guidelines that prohibit overtly partisan advertising with government funds, such as “negative” ads and advertising that mentions party slogans and names of political parties, candidates, ministers and parliamentarians.
These guidelines nevertheless provide ample room for promotion of government policies under the guise of information campaigns – what Justice Michael McHugh in Combet described as “feelgood” advertisements. They permit advertising campaigns such as the Coalition government’s “Building a better tax system for hardworking Australians” (which essentially promotes the government’s tax cuts) and “Small business, big future” (which burnishes its “small business” credentials).
Crucially, the guidelines fail to address the proximity of such taxpayer-funded advertising campaigns to federal elections. They fail to recognise what is obvious – the closer we get to the elections, the stronger the governing party’s impulse to seek re-election, the greater the likelihood that “information” campaigns become the vehicle for reinforcing positive images of the incumbent party.
This risk is clearly recognised by the caretaker conventions, which mandate that once the “caretaker” period begins with the dissolution of the House of Representatives:
…campaigns that highlight the role of particular Ministers or address issues that are a matter of contention between the parties are normally discontinued, to avoid the use of Commonwealth resources in a manner to advantage a particular party
The conventions further state:
Agencies should avoid active distribution of material during the caretaker period if it promotes Government policies or emphasises the achievements of the Government or a Minister
The problem with these conventions, however, is that they kick in too late. By the time the House of Representatives is dissolved prior to an election, the major parties’ campaigns have usually been in high gear for months.
A pseudo-notion of fairness tends to operate in the minds of incumbent political parties when it comes to taxpayer-funded advertising.
When she was prime minister, Gillard defended her use of government advertising by pointing that the Howard government had spent more. And now, the Morrison government has sought to deflect criticisms of its current campaign by drawing attention to ALP’s use of government advertising when it was last in power.
Our children are taught to be better than this – two wrongs do not make a right.
Indeed, government advertising for electioneering is a form of corruption. Corruption can be understood as the use of power for improper gain. It includes individual corruption where the improper gain is personal (for instance, bribery) but also what philosopher, Dennis Thompson, has described as institutional corruption, where the use of power results in a political gain.
Government advertising to reinforce positive impressions of the incumbent party is a form of institutional corruption – it is the use of public funds for the illegitimate purpose of electioneering. Its illegitimacy stems from the fact that it undermines the democratic ideal of fair elections by providing the incumbent party with an undue advantage.
It is an instance of what the High Court in McCloy v NSW considered “war-chest” corruption – a form of corruption that arises when “the power of money … pose(s) a threat to the electoral process itself”.
A longer government advertising ban?
I propose a ban on federal government advertising in the period leading up to federal elections.
Such bans are already in place in NSW, which prohibits government advertising during roughly two months before state elections, and the ACT, which bans government advertising 37 days before territory elections. To take into account the longer campaign period at the federal level, a federal ban should operate for at least three months before each federal election.
The absence of fixed terms in the federal parliament is not a barrier to adopting such a ban. With an average of two and a half years between federal elections, a three-month ban of sorts could take effect from two years and three months after the previous election until polling day of the next election.
By dealing with government advertising for electioneering, this ban will improve the integrity of federal elections.
This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.
When the “mighty Roman” Gough Whitlam died, Indigenous leader Noel Pearson delivered a memorable eulogy. Channelling Monty Python, Pearson asked what had Whitlam ever done for Australia? Pearson then reeled off a long list of achievements, including Medibank, no-fault divorce, needs-based schools funding, the Racial Discrimination Act and many more. This was a blistering set of reforms by a truly radical and activist government.
After close to four years of the Turnbull and Morrison Coalition government, we might well ask: “What has the Coalition done for us?”
It is hard to think of a single notable achievement for which the government will be credited or remembered. If we take another government as ideologically driven as Whitlam’s – albeit from a different vantage point – in this case John Howard’s, we can still recall a significant range of policies and changes. Chief among these was gun control.
In contrast, we are hardly likely to remember the Turnbull-Morrison governments.
Since then, what have been the major policy achievements?
The National Energy Guarantee? If the government is likely to be remembered at all, it will be for the deep-seated divisions that meant Malcolm Turnbull was entirely unable to deliver a clear and coherent energy and climate policy. This was, after all, a government that chose to ignore Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s call for a Clean Energy Target.
Tony Abbott’s reversal on withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement (under Turnbull), but then arguing Australia should stay in (especially with Angus Taylor’s masterful handling of the data on emissions) reflected a policy agenda dogged by internal divisions and incoherence.
Scott Morrison’s major contribution to the debate was to bring a piece of coal into the parliament.
Perhaps immigration? Turnbull was forced to rescue a deal initially brokered with the Obama administration, after new President Donald Trump mocked the deal as “stupid”. With the government wedded to a “tough” border policy, including re-opening the detention facility on Christmas Island, it even lost the vote on “medevac” legislation to ensure medical treatment for suffering refugees.
Any lasting achievements that seem to have happened were only because the government was either forced to, or reluctantly accepted it needed to, make changes. On the banking royal commission, Morrison – a political leader resolutely wedded to remain on the wrong side of history – had initially described it as a “populist whinge”. Any systemic changes to the banking sector will emerge, in spite of, rather than because of the government’s actions.
Turnbull will point to legislating for same-sex marriage as one of his government’s signature policy achievements, following the plebiscite. Yet Morrison will hardly be trumpeting this achievement, given that he voted against it.
Yes, same-sex marriage should be a lasting and welcome change, but again, the Coalition did much to resist it.
In stark contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel enabled a parliamentary vote but then voted against it – a more principled position than the unnecessary plebiscite. This was a government that consistently showed it was behind public opinion on a range of issues.
There is a case that underneath the general political and policy mess of the Turnbull-Morrison era, the government notched up some quiet achievements. These include a free-trade deal with Indonesia, entering the fourth phase of the bipartisan national plan to reduce family violence, and trying to embed the Gonski 2.0 schools funding.
Many public servants across a range of portfolios were busily, professionally carrying out a range of important policies and programs out of the media glare. This reflects a long-standing view of government as policy incrementalism – carrying out the everyday, important, but unglamorous work of running the country.
Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity of the Turnbull-Morrison era has been a consistent failure to adequately represent the concerns and issues of the centre-right of Australian politics. Neither Turnbull or Morrison understood the promise of Burkean conservatism or even John Stuart Mill’s liberalism.
Worse still, in the case of the Nationals, there was an almost wilful inability to offer a coherent and reasoned case on behalf of regional Australia. As Coalition MPs scratch their heads and wonder where it all went so horribly wrong, they might well look at South Australia and now New South Wales to remind themselves what a “liberal” government looks like.
Indeed, if we needed a lasting image of the Nationals’ mishandling of the water portfolio, then the dead fish of the Menindee will suffice.
As Scott Morrison most likely exits the prime ministership, a different kind of Roman to Whitlam, his only comfort might be that he is not Theresa May.
This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.
School’s policy and funding
Glenn C. Savage, Senior Lecturer in Education Policy and Sociology of Education, University of Western Australia
The Coalition’s approach to schooling policy since the 2016 election has primarily focused on its Quality Schools agenda. This centres on increased funding (A$307.7 billion in total school recurrent funding from 2018 to 2029). It also attempts to steer national reform in areas such as teaching, curriculum, assessment and the use of evidence.
changes to the Australian Curriculum through the development of “learning progressions”. These describe the common development pathway along which students typically progress in their learning, regardless of age or year level
developing an online assessment tool to help teachers monitor student progress
reforms to improve the consistency and sharing of data
a review of senior secondary pathways to work, further education and training
establishing a national evidence institute to undertake research on “what works” to improve schooling outcomes
developing a national strategy to support teacher workforce planning.
The agreement ensures that by 2023, private schools will receive 100% of the recommended amount under the Schooling Resource Standard (SRS) funding model, whereas most government schools will be stuck at 95%.
But Labor also shares a great deal in common with the Coalition.
Both preference a strong federal role in schooling. Both support (at least in theory) the principles of the SRS, and there is significant alignment between parties when it comes to reforms in the National School Reform Agreement.
Labor has also been promoting the idea of a national evidence institute for some time and many reforms in the school reform agreement build directly on those established by Labor as part of its “education revolution” agenda from 2007-2013.
While the parties will draw dividing lines to make a choice between them look stark, they have more in common than they would like to admit.
Tim Pitman, Senior Research Fellow, Curtin University
Since the last federal election, the Coalition has been mostly dealing with the fallout from their ambitious policy agenda conceived under Tony Abbott, as laid out in the 2014 Higher Education Reform Bill. The chief aims of this policy were to:
cut higher education funding by 20%
increase subsidies to private providers
deregulate tuition fees.
The reforms were voted down by the Senate in late 2014 and again in early 2015.
This meant the government had no clear pathway to enact their vision for higher education and fewer options for reducing higher education expenditure. One way to do the latter would be to increase the maximum student fee payable.
Another option would be to freeze increases to the amount the Commonwealth subsidised the universities to teach students, so in future years it would spend less, in real terms, on higher education. The government took this option in 2017, saving an estimated A$2.2 billion. Research funding also took a hit.
The government further announced it would introduce performance-based higher education funding, though it is still not clear how, exactly, performance will be defined.
Labor says if it is elected, it will end the freeze on increases to the Commonwealth student subsidies. Labor will also conduct an inquiry into post-secondary education, with one aim being to repriotise the importance of vocational education, so it sits alongside, not beneath, higher education.
Labor heads are also promising a A$300 million University Future Fund to fast-track funding for high priority research and teaching projects.
For both the Coalition and Labor, regional Australia is shaping up as a key battleground and this is already being reflected in higher education policy. In February 2018, the Coalition announced it was funding 22 regional study hubs across regional Australia to provide
study spaces, video conferencing, computing facilities and internet access, as well as academic support for students studying via distance at partner universities.
In November 2018, it followed with a further A$135 million in additional support for regional universities affected by their freeze on funding.
In response, Labor has upped the ante on the regional hubs, saying it will not only maintain support for the study hubs but will fund mentoring and pathways programs in the communities that have the hubs. It will also commit an additional A$174 million for equity and pathways funding to support students from areas with low graduation rates, many of which are in regional Australia.
Susan Irvine, Associate Professor, School of Early Childhood and Inclusive Education, Queensland University of Technology
There are some recurring and predictable storylines in early childhood education election policies in Australia. At the last election, the Coalition’s main storyline was affordability.
Its central platform was the Jobs for Families Package – a controversial bill that promised a simplified and more generous fee subsidy to help parents cover the rising cost of education and care.
It was controversial because it tied children’s access to early education with their parents’ participation in the paid workforce. To get the subsidy, families had to meet a new work activity test. Children whose families did not meet this test had their hours of early education cut in half.
A drawn-out battle in the Senate saw the bill eventually pass with some hard-fought amendments to support more equitable access for children and families experiencing disadvantage.
On the whole, the childcare subsidy has been a positive change for most Australian families. However, there is evidence that the continuing focus on parent work participation means some of our children in low-income families – who research shows will benefit the most from access to high quality early education – are missing out.
The Coalition’s other 2016 election commitment was funding for universal preschool education, focusing on four year olds in the year prior to school. However, this has been doled out on an annual basis. The result being no security for children, families and service providers.
In the 2019 budget, the government committed funding for universal preschool for all Australian children only until the end of 2020.
This is one of two key differences between the Coalition and Labor’s early childhood policies. Labor has committed to secure and sustainable funding for universal preschool. It has also committed to expanding access to three year olds, providing two years of early education prior to school entry.
The other key difference relates to broader investment in the early years workforce. The single most important factor influencing quality and children’s outcomes are the teachers and educators working with children. Australia urgently needs a new Early Years Workforce Strategy. The Coalition allowed the previous strategy to lapse and has remained silent on matters relating to pay and conditions.
Labor has announced a commitment to investment in the workforce, including funding to train more educators and teachers, and, has previously pledged support for professional wages for professional work.
Never has more data been held about us by government or companies that we interact with. Never has this data been so useful for analytical purposes.
But with such opportunities come risks and challenges. If personal data is going to be used for research and policy purposes, we need effective data governance arrangements in place, and community support (social licence) for this data to be used.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods has recently undertaken a survey of a representative sample of Australians to learn their views about about how personal data is used, stored and shared.
While Australians report a high level of support for the government to use and share data, there is less confidence that the government has the right safeguards in place or can be trusted with people’s data.
In the ANUPoll survey of more than 2,000 Australian adults (available for download at the Australian Data Archive) we asked:
On the whole, do you think the Commonwealth Government should or should not be able to do the following?
Six potential data uses were given.
Overall, Australians are supportive of the Australian government using data for purposes such as allocating resources to those who need it the most, and ensuring people are not claiming benefits to which they are not entitled.
They were slightly less supportive about providing data to researchers, though most still agreed or strongly agreed that it was worthwhile.
Perceptions of government data use
Community attitudes to the use of data by government are tied to perceptions about whether the government can keep personal data secure, and whether it’s behaving in a transparent and trustworthy manner.
To measure views of the Australian population on these issues, respondents were told:
Following are a number of statements about the Australian government and the data it holds about Australian residents.
They were then asked to what extent they agreed or disagreed that the Australian government:
could respond quickly and effectively to a data breach
has the ability to prevent data being hacked or leaked
can be trusted to use data responsibly
is open and honest about how data are collected, used and shared.
Respondents did not express strong support for the view that the Australian government is able to protect people’s data, or is using data in an appropriate way.
[think] about the data about you that the Australian Government might currently hold, such as your income tax data, social security records, or use of health services.
We then asked for their level of concern about five specific forms of data breaches or misuse of their own personal data.
We found that there are considerable concerns about different forms of data breaches or misuse.
More than 70% of respondents were concerned or very concerned about the accidental release of personal information, deliberate hacking of government systems, and data being provided to consultants or private sector organisations who may misuse the data.
More than 60% were concerned or very concerned about their data being used by the Australian government to make unfair decisions. And more than half were concerned or very concerned about their data being provided to academic researchers who may misuse their information.
The data environment in Australia is changing rapidly. More digital information about us is being created, captured, stored and shared than ever before, and there is a greater capacity to link information across multiple sources of data, and across multiple time periods.
While this creates opportunities, it also creates the risk that the data will be used in a way that is not in our best interests.
There is policy debate at the moment about how data should be used and shared. If we don’t make use of the data available, that has costs in terms of worse service delivery and less effective government. So, locking data up is not a cost-free option.
But sharing data or making data available in a way that breaches people’s privacy can be harmful to individuals, and may generate a significant (and legitimate) public backlash. This would reduce the chance of data being made available in any form, and mean that the potential benefits of improving the wellbeing of Australians are lost.
If government, researchers and private companies want to be able to make use of the richness of the new data age, there is an urgent and continuing need to build up trust across the population, and to put policies in place that reassure consumers and users of government services.
This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.
When it comes to data security, there is an inherent tension between safety and privacy. The government’s job is to balance these priorities with laws that will keep Australians safe, improve the economy and protect personal data from unwarranted surveillance.
This is a delicate line to walk. Recent debate has revolved around whether technology companies should be required to help law enforcement agencies gain access to the encrypted messages of suspected criminals.
While this is undoubtedly an important issue, the enacted legislation – the Telecommunications and Other Legislation Amendment (Assistance and Access) Act – fails on both fronts. Not only is it unlikely to stop criminals, it could make personal communications between everyday people less secure.
Rather than focus on the passage of high-profile legislation that clearly portrays a misunderstanding of the technology in question, the government would do better to invest in a comprehensive cyber security strategy that will actually have an impact.
Achieving the goals set out in the strategy we already have would be a good place to start.
The Turnbull government launched Australia’s first Cyber Security Strategy in April 2016. It promised to dramatically improve the online safety of all Australian families and businesses.
In 2017, the government released the first annual update to report on how well it was doing. On the surface some progress had been made, but a lot of items were incomplete – and the promised linkages to businesses and the community were not working well.
Unfortunately, there was never a second update. Prime ministers were toppled, cabinets were reshuffled and it appears the Morrison government lost interest in truly protecting Australians.
So, where did it all go wrong?
A steady erosion of privacy
Few Australians paid much notice when vested interests hijacked technology law reforms. The amendment of the Copyright Act in 2015 forced internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to sites containing pirated content. Movie studios now had their own version of China’s “Great Firewall” to block and control internet content in Australia.
In 2017, the government implemented its data retention laws, which effectively enabled specific government agencies to spy on law-abiding citizens. The digital trail (metadata) people left through phone calls, SMS messages, emails and internet activity was retained by telecommunications carriers and made accessible to law enforcement.
The public was assured only limited agencies would have access to the data to hunt for terrorists. In 2018, we learned that many more agencies were accessing the data than originally promised.
Enter the Assistance and Access legislation. Australia’s technology sector strongly objected to the bill, but the Morrison government’s consultation process was a whitewash. The government ignored advice on the damage the legislation would do to the developing cyber sector outlined in the Cyber Security Strategy – the very sector the Turnbull government had been counting on to help rebuild the economy in this hyper-connected digital world.
While the government focuses on the hunt for terrorists, it neglects the thousands of Australians who fall victim each year to international cybercrime syndicates and foreign governments.
Australians lose money to cybercrime via scam emails and phone calls designed to harvest passwords, banking credentials and other personal information. Losses from some categories of cybercrime have increased by more than 70% in the last 12 months. The impact of cybercrime on Australian business and individuals is estimated at $7 billion a year.
So, where should government focus its attention?
Seven actions that would make Australia safer
If the next government is serious about protecting Australian businesses and families, here are seven concrete actions it should take immediately upon taking office.
1. Review the Cyber Security Strategy
Work with industry associations, the business and financial sectors, telecommunication providers, cyber startups, state government agencies and all levels of the education sector to develop a plan to protect Australians and businesses. The plan must be comprehensive, collaborative and, most importantly, inclusive. It should be adopted at the federal level and by states and territories.
2. Make Australians a harder target for cybercriminals
The United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre is implementing technical and process controls that help people in the UK fight cybercrime in smart, innovative ways. The UK’s Active Cyber Defence program uses top-secret intelligence to prevent cyber attacks and to detect and block malicious email campaigns used by scammers. It also investigates how people actually use technology, with the aim of implementing behavioural change programs to improve public safety.
3. Create a community education campaign
A comprehensive community education program would improve online behaviours and make businesses and families safer. We had the iconic Slip! Slop! Slap! campaign from 1981 to help reduce skin cancer through community education. Where is the equivalent campaign for cyber safety to nudge behavioural change in the community at all levels from kids through to adults?
4. Improve cyber safety education in schools
Build digital literacy into education from primary through to tertiary level so that young Australians understand the consequences of their online behaviours. For example, they should know the risks of sharing personal details and nude selfies online.
Encourage the adoption of existing industry certifications, and stop special interest groups from introducing more. There are already more than 100 industry certifications. Minimum standards for government staff should be defined, including for managers, technologists and software developers.
The United States Defence Department introduced minimum industry certification for people in government who handle data. The Australian government should do the same by picking a number of vendor-agnostic certifications as mandatory in each job category.
6. Work with small and medium businesses
The existing cyber strategy doesn’t do enough to engage with the business sector. Small and medium businesses form a critical part of the larger business supply-chain ecosystem, so the ramifications of a breach could be far-reaching.
The Australian Signals Directorate recommends businesses follow “The Essential Eight” – a list of strategies businesses can adopt to reduce their risk of cyber attack. This is good advice, but it doesn’t address the human side of exploitation, called social engineering, which tricks people into disclosing passwords that protect sensitive or confidential information.
7. Focus on health, legal and tertiary education sectors
While health sector breaches could lead to personal harm and blackmail, breaches in the legal sector could result in the disclosure of time-sensitive business transactions and personal details. And the tertiary education sector – a powerhouse of intellectual research – is ripe for foreign governments to steal the knowledge underpinning Australia’s future technologies.
A single person doing the wrong thing and making a mistake can cause a major security breach. More than 900,000 people are employed in the Australian health and welfare sector, and the chance of one of these people making a mistake is unfortunately very high.
This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.
Long before the Turnbull government failed to land its climate-energy policy, the new Liberal prime minister had signalled his reluctance to pursue progressive causes, voluntarily garaging the republican campaign bus he had so famously driven.
Reasonably or not, the hopes of millions of Australian republicans had spiked when Malcolm Turnbull replaced the conservative monarchist Tony Abbott in September 2015.
Yet those hopes would quickly be dashed, as the erstwhile face of the Australian Republican Movement turned Liberal prime minister would relegate constitutional self-determination to third-order status. In the process, he depicted himself – only half tongue-in-cheek – as a modern “Elizabethan”.
In the blink of an eye (or was it a royal wave?), republican ambitions returned to Labor’s Bill Shorten. They were no doubt sobered by the thought of further delays and the grim reality that the fleeting alignment of a republican prime minister and a republican opposition leader had still produced nothing.
But if Shorten becomes prime minister in 2019, will he drive the case for an Australian head of state forward? More fundamentally, can the feted republic even come to pass in the absence of muscular support from both hemispheres of politics?
A history of disappointments
Self-evidently, it is a difficult project burdened with overblown hopes, largely intangible benefits and commensurate disappointments. Reversals have been costly.
Well might Turnbull have described John Howard as the “prime minister who broke this nation’s heart” after the 1999 referendum defeat, because it would be a hardness in his own heart that would lead him to dismiss a republic while Queen Elizabeth II remained on the throne.
And Turnbull would go further, essentially telling voters it no longer mattered anyway. In January 2016, just months into his prime ministership, he said:
There are many more urgent issues confronting Australia, and indeed confronting the government, than the momentum or the desire for Australia to become a republic.
No politician, no prime minister or opposition leader or premier, can make Australia a republic – only the Australian people can do that through a referendum.
Presumably, this statement of the obvious served to remind proponents that, in matters of constitutional change, even starting with majority public support is merely that – a start.
It’s no revelation that constitutional reform is supremely difficult in Australia, given the need to secure a so-called “double majority”. This means a majority of votes nationwide plus a majority in at least four of the six states.
But withdraw the crucial ingredient of governmental leadership and that degree of difficulty switches to impossible.
Shorten’s two-step strategy
This is why Shorten wants to build support in stages. He has pledged to put the case to Australians “in principle” first via an indicative first-term plebiscite. The would be followed by a formal referendum, probably held over to a second term.
Typically reserved, Abbott branded this “completely toxic”. He argued it would “delegitimise the constitution we have without putting anything in its place”.
Some republicans had favoured this in 1999, but Howard saw the danger to the Crown’s authority arising from any popular republican mandate and the reform momentum it might generate.
So he determined to make an ally of the higher bar for success required by referendum, along with the divisions emerging in the republican camp between minimalists and direct electionists.
Perversely, Shorten’s two-stage approach has a more contemporaneous justification in the form of the calamitous 2016 Brexit referendum in Britain.
For all that country’s post-ballot dysfunction, Brexit graphically demonstrates the power of an initial yes or no choice when clearly expressed as an abstract principle. That is, when it is separated from the thornier and potentially deal-breaking details to be faced subsequently.
Few doubt that had Britons been fully apprised of the extraordinary extent of the changes and the enormous economic costs of withdrawing from the European Union, many more would have voted to remain.
However, a simple yes or no question is not the position of the Australian Republican Movement. Its national director, Michael Cooney, told a Museum of Australian Democracy forum in February 2019 that it favours a double-barrelled approach first up.
This would ask voters if they want an Australian head of state, and then how they would like that person to be chosen.
This is based on the group’s social research, which shows support for a directly elected president is as high as 75% among republicans. But that support trails away quickly if the head of state is to be chosen by the parliament – a model pilloried by many as a so-called “politician’s republic”.
That division, with its echoes of the unsuccessful push in 1999, underlines just how fragile the support for a republic is, and just how easily it can crumble when the details are considered.
A question of constitutional priorities
In any event, there are concerns that even a Labor government could delay the plebiscite, for fear of compromising a separate push for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians.
The government likes to issue the list of Labor MPs retiring at the election, to argue that Coalition senior people jumping ship is nothing out of the ordinary.
That, of course, is sophistry. However many ALP people are leaving, no-one can suggest it is because they are pessimistic about Labor’s chances in May.
It’s also implausible for the government retirees to maintain their coming exits have nothing to do with assessments of the Coalition’s prospects.
Kelly O’Dwyer might have sounded credible when she explained she wished for another child. Some might have sympathised with Michael Keenan wanting to see more of the four kids he has.
And no doubt politicians in their 40s (Steve Ciobo) and 50s (Christopher Pyne) can desire new fields after long parliamentary stints. (In Pyne’s case, it became clear last August, after Julie Bishop stepped down, that his political career would never include the job he’d always coveted, foreign affairs.)
Look at these retirements collectively, however, and ask one blunt question: would they all be departing if the government were leading Labor 55-45% in Newspoll?
Of the five who are going from the ministry (four of them from cabinet) only Nationals Senate leader Nigel Scullion, at 62, is within cooee of a workforce retirement age. (Scullion has said he doesn’t know what his future holds beyond some shooting and fishing.)
The loss of a batch of ministers leaves an even bigger hole because some of those remaining are wounded (think Small and Family Business Minister Michaelia Cash) or sub-optimal (think Environment Minister Melissa Price).
The overall impression left is of an administration held together with a frayed hayband.
Morrison has kept all the departees in their current jobs except Ciobo who has been replaced in the defence industry post by West Australian senator Linda Reynolds.
Reynolds, previously an assistant minister, has been elevated into cabinet (where Ciobo was) and promised the defence portfolio, now held by Pyne, if the government is returned.
Her military reserve background giving her a no-nonsense style, Reynolds has so far been a good performer. She chaired a parliamentary inquiry that sensibly highlighted the need to overhaul section 44 of the constitution (which the government ignored). She deserves promotion.
But Morrison’s motives were transparent. With this addition he can now point to seven women in cabinet, more than in any former government.
That won’t deal with the problem of too few women in Liberal ranks generally, or prevent gender arguments coming into preselections. But it gives him something positive to say. On Saturday, as he went to the swearing in of Reynolds, he promised that if he were re-elected he’d keep that many women in his new cabinet (just don’t call it a “quota”).
Reynolds will obviously be working full bore through the campaign (she also retains her previous responsibility for emergency management, which has come to the fore with the Queensland flood disaster).
But the departing ministers will be winding down, reducing the government’s fire power in the coming weeks.
And what about the efforts of that other high profile retiree, Bishop?
Bishop delayed her announcement about leaving parliament so she had the best chance of influencing the choice of her successor in her seat of Curtin. But now she and Senate leader Mathias Cormann, who’ve long vied within the WA Liberal party, are at odds over the preselection.
The field includes four women and a man. Bishop is understood to back foreign affairs specialist and academic Erin Watson-Lynn, but Cormann is believed to support former University of Notre Dame Vice-Chancellor Celia Hammond.
If Bishop, a superb fundraiser, does not see her preferred candidate win, will she be even angrier than she has been following her WA colleagues failing to vote for her in the leadership contest? As a safe seat Curtin doesn’t need much money but several WA marginals do. If Bishop dropped off the money trail the Liberals would feel the pinch.
And speaking of marginal seats, the Liberal Party is in the extraordinary position that in the Sydney seat of Reid (on 4.7%) Craig Laundy, a former minister, has yet to announce his future. He is widely expected not to recontest, making the electorate harder for the government to hold.
Whatever Morrison thinks privately about his thinning senior ranks, publicly he is stoic. “I don’t get flapped by things like this. I just keep going,” he said on Saturday. Not much choice really.
Julie Bishop has reopened wounds in the Liberal Party with a
provocative interview declaring she could have beaten Bill Shorten if
she had become prime minister and attacking Christopher Pyne and
Mathias Cormann over their behaviour in last year’s leadership coup.
Bishop told Perth’s Sunday Times that at the time she was “confident”
she could defeat Shorten, and “that was Labor’s thought too”.
In the August ballot Bishop received only 11 votes, when the moderates
got behind Scott Morrison, judging he had the better chance of
stopping Peter Dutton winning. Bishop was angry at her colleagues’
behaviour, especially that none of those from her home state of
Western Australia voted for her.
In the interview she said that before the party meeting she believed
she had the support of at least 28 colleagues.
“I am now told that there was a view, led by Christopher Pyne and
others, that even though I would have 28 votes – which was many more
than Scott Morrison – it wouldn’t be enough to beat Peter Dutton. So,
they wanted to make sure that happened.
“If I had known that was what their thinking was, I could have
dissuaded them of it but also I would have pointed out that the
question was: Who could beat Bill Shorten? And I was confident that I
In a direct challenge to Cormann, whose decision to support Dutton was
one of the pivotal factors in Turnbull’s fall, Bishop said: “I don’t
understand his motives in seeking to change the leadership to Peter
Dutton last year.
“You still wish he would explain his motives in backing Peter Dutton
over Malcolm Turnbull and causing enormous instability within the
“He backed Peter Dutton who had very little support in WA and who
fought against WA getting a better GST deal.”
Bishop explained her decision to step down as foreign minister thus:
“I didn’t want to endorse what had happened and by continuing to
accept what had happened I would have been endorsing it.
“And also, there had to be a level of trust with your cabinet
colleagues and I thought that had broken down and it would be better
for them to have a new team and for me to step back”.
Bishop denied she was backing anyone in the preselection for her seat
of Curtin, despite the speculation she supported Erin Watson-Lynn. She
also denied she was pushing for a woman. “I didn’t say I want a woman.
I want the best person. I will back whoever the preselectors come up
with,” out of the field of four women and one man.
Australia has not proved immune to the politics of democratic malaise. Australia’s leading institutions, including government, business, NGOs and media, are among the least trusted in the world at a time when Australia has experienced 27 years of economic growth.
The level of democratic satisfaction has decreased steadily across each of the last four governments from 86% in 2007 (John Howard), to 72% in 2010 (Kevin Rudd), 72% in 2013 (Tony Abbott) and 41% in July 2018 (Malcolm Turnbull).
By 2025, if current trends continue, fewer than 10% of Australians will trust their politicians and political institutions. The result will be ineffective and illegitimate government, and declining social and economic well-being. Whoever wins the 2019 federal election must address this problem as a matter of urgency.
Without trust we have diminished capacity to meet complex, long-term challenges. Weakening political trust erodes authority and civic engagement, reduces support for evidence-based public policies and promotes risk aversion in government.
This also creates the space for the rise of authoritarian-populist forces or other forms of independent representation. Hence the rise of populists such as Pauline Hanson and independents such as Cathy McGowan and Kerryn Phelps.
The reform project
Bridging the trust divide between citizens and government is no easy task. The results of our 2018 survey reveal the connection between the Australian people and their politicians is hanging by a rather tenuous thread. What needs to be done to reverse the decline?
A reform project aimed at bridging the trust divide must be framed by recognition not only of the scale of the problem but also its complexity. There are at least four dimensions to exploring the trust divide, which suggests we are tackling a very puzzling issue.
The first is that there is no one simple explanation for what drives or undermines political trust. The research on the issue of political trust is one of the most voluminous in the social sciences – the issue has been a concern in many countries for decades.
The literature can be loosely organised around demand-side and supply-side theories of trust.
Demand-side theories focus on how much individuals trust government and democratic politics and explore the key characteristics of the citizenry. What is it about citizens, such as their educational background, class, location, country or cohort of birth, that makes them trusting or not? What are the barriers to political engagement? And what makes citizens feel that their vote could deliver value?
In general, the strongest predictors of distrust continue to be attitudinal and are connected to negativity about politics.
Demand-side interventions therefore focus on overcoming various barriers to social, economic or political participation (or well-being). So most interventions tend to focus on dealing with issues of social disadvantage through education, labour market activation, public participation, improved representation, place-based service delivery and other forms of empowerment.
Supply-side theories of trust start from the premise that public trust must in some way correspond with the trustworthiness of government. The argument is that it is the performance (supply) of government that matters most in orienting the outlooks of citizens, together with its commitment to procedural fairness and quality.
Supply-side interventions therefore seek to enhance the integrity of government and politicians, and the quality and procedural fairness of service delivery or parliamentary processes through open government or good governance. This includes transparency, accountability, public service competence and anti-corruption measures.
A second part of bridging the divide between citizens and government is that reforms that seem to provide part of the solution can sometimes make the problem worse. Offering more participation or consultation can turn into a tokenistic exercise, which generates more cynicism and negativity among citizens.
Providing performance data – the bread and butter of modern government – so that citizens can judge if promises have been kept does not always produce more trust.
Rather, it can lead to government officials trying to manipulate the way citizens judge their performance. Positive data is given prominence, less helpful data sometimes hidden.
On the ground, frontline public servants and many citizens find the claims of success contrasting with their own more negative experiences. Far from promoting trust, the packaging of performance may in fact have contributed to the emergence of populism and loss of trust by citizens.
The implication of this observation is that the reform project needs to focus as much on the issues of democratic practice as the principles. Part of the ambition of the project is to establish mechanisms whereby good practice can be specified, elaborated and shared through learning. This means good practice becomes the norm rather than the exception.
In summary, the quality of democratic practice, as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen has argued, is the key measure of the quality of a democratic culture: “formal rules are not enough without good democratic practice”.
A third part of the puzzle is who should be driving the push for change? In any reform movement there must be leaders of change. But are politicians the right group to lead the charge? If they are deeply implicated in the processes that led to the trust divide, can they be leaders of a more positive path forward?
It is difficult to imagine a substantial shift in political practice without politicians’ engagement. Yet the past decade has probably produced more instances of politicians trying to exploit the trust divide to garner support rather than attempts to resolve the issue.
The emergence of a populist trope – in which the hopeful politician presents themselves as the one who speaks the truth, is not part of the corrupt elite and who will get things done – in both established and challenger parties is one of the most dominant political trends of the last decade.
The reform project must therefore recognise that engagement with the increasingly isolated political class will be part of the dynamic needed for reform. But, equally, there will be a need to develop other partnerships with (among others) the public service, the media and the private and community sectors.
Above all, we need to engage citizens in the process. There can be no solution to the puzzle of political trust without their engagement.
A final and tricky part of the trust puzzle is that no-one is clear about what is the right level of trust. The twin enemies of democracy, it could be argued, are citizens who are either too cynical to engage or too naïve in providing support to the political system. What is the equilibrium point between political trust and distrust?
Survey respondents were asked to rate to what extent they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements on the topic of democratic reform drawn from across the political spectrum and featuring in reform programs internationally.
There was very strong support for democratic reforms that ensure greater integrity and transparency. Examples included limiting how much money can be spent on election campaigning and how much political parties and candidates can accept from donors (73%).
There was also very strong support for reforms to ensure greater political accountability of MPs and political parties to their electorates and members, such as free votes in parliament (60%), the right to recall local members (62%) and internal party reform that emphasises community preferences (60%). In addition, there was strong support for reforms that stimulate greater public participation such as the co-design of public services with citizens (71%) and citizen juries (60%).
The least popular democratic reforms proposed were those that had to do with quotas for demographic representation (such as by age, gender or ethnicity). When broken down by political alignment, Labor and Liberal views on reform are remarkably uniform. The greatest differences between parties on reform ideas can be found between Liberals and Nationals.
Democratic reform is ultimately about creating a space where Australians can reshape their democratic practices in ways that are better suited to the realities and challenges of the 21st century. The good news for political parties that take up the cause of democratic reform is that the citizenry is ready to take up the challenge.
This is part of a major series called Advancing Australia, in which leading academics examine the key issues facing Australia in the lead-up to the 2019 federal election and beyond. Read the other pieces in the series here.
For the second federal election out of three, a change of government is in prospect a long time out from voting day.
Labor has been consistently ahead in the polls, despite its leader, Bill Shorten, remaining unpopular. It’s a repeat of 2013, when the Coalition had polled strongly through the government’s term while opposition leader Tony Abbott’s ratings were low.
But campaigns can count, and upsets can come, as happened dramatically in 1993. Right up to the Saturday of that poll, the Keating Labor government had appeared doomed. But it snatched “the sweetest victory of them all”, thanks to a scare offensive against the Coalition’s radical reform program and a faltering performance by opposition leader John Hewson.
A key point about this next election is that, whichever side wins in May, the incoming government will inherit a bitter, sceptical, exhausted electorate.
Australians are over their politicians. All the stridency, the bad behaviour, the lying, the relentless campaigning, the judgment by opinion poll, and the media shrillness have taken their toll on the tolerance of the average voter.
The election will be fought in this climate of unprecedented public distrust of politics and cynicism about its practitioners.
This disillusionment has been turbo-charged by the bipartisan cannibalism that’s toppled multiple prime ministers in a remarkably short period.
If Labor wins, polling analyst John Stirton says:
… it will be the second change of government in a row that will be a negative change rather than a positive change. Negative in the sense that voters may once again elect an unpopular opposition leader, with their desire to get rid of a poorly performing incumbent government outweighing any concerns they may have about the opposition that will replace it.
The public sullenness will make the task of the next government harder, whether Labor or Coalition.
Contrast the mood in 1983, when Labor’s Bob Hawke was given power by voters who had not only wanted to embrace him personally, but felt more trust towards leaders generally than today. Though it wasn’t smooth sailing, this helped the Hawke government undertake major, difficult reforms. He was even afforded a degree of tolerance when he broke some promises.
In 2007, Australians were also in a relatively positive frame of mind when they turned to Kevin Rudd. Since then, the national mood has gone downhill.
Labor went through self-imposed hell between 2010 and 2013, set off by the ill-judged 2010 dumping of Rudd. But out of office it recovered remarkably quickly.
Labor’s bold ‘big target’ approach
As the opposition shaped up over the past two terms, it has made relatively few major mistakes (Shorten’s boast that his MPs had no problems under Section 44 of the Constitution was one).
Of course, that assumes being bold and taking big risks with policy doesn’t turn out to be the ultimate mistake.
Labor has eschewed the “small target” approach favoured by John Howard in 1996 and indeed Rudd in 2007.
Its proposed crackdowns on negative gearing and cash refunds for franking credits are designed to maximise its pot of spending money as well as fix flaws in the tax system.
Monash University’s Paul Strangio, an expert on prime ministers, suggests this “policy adventurism” may also have been motivated by Labor’s determination to obtain a positive mandate for government. After all, the rot began for the Abbott government when measures in its 2014 budget were not just harsh but unflagged in
But Labor’s controversial policies leave it exposed to scare campaigns. Each measure has a significant number of losers, and retirees, especially, are highly sensitive to anything that hits their cash flow.
Border security is one area where Labor has tried to stay as close as possible to the government. But it had little choice but to back the crossbench-initiated legislation facilitating medical transfers from Manus Island and Nauru. Despite Shorten securing “middle ground” amendments, this opened another front for Coalition scare tactics.
Shorten has kept an impressive degree of unity and discipline in his party, despite the obvious ambitions of his rival Anthony Albanese, whose gloved hand was ready to strike if the opposition leader did badly in the July 2018 Super Saturday byelections.
But many questions remain about Shorten. Strangio raises an important one:
While he has been an effective manager of a team in opposition, how will this translate into government – for example, what degree of licence will he give to senior ministers like Chris Bowen?
Coalition its own worst enemy
In contrast to Labor, the Coalition has squandered this parliamentary term – and, for that matter, the one before. Its follies have given the opposition repeated advantages.
After a bad campaign, Malcolm Turnbull had the closest of calls in 2016, being returned with a one-seat majority and a bitterly fractured Liberal Party. A vengeful Abbott led the dissent, determined to inflict revenge for the 2015 coup that had ousted him.
The Liberals have presented to the public as warring tribes who can’t agree on policy or personnel. Infighting over ideology – especially on energy policy – and leadership climaxed last August with Turnbull’s overthrow and the installation of Scott Morrison, beneficiary of a putsch instigated by Peter Dutton.
The rise of an aggressive right within the Liberals, and voters’ growing antipathy towards the main parties, have encouraged the popularity of “community” independents.
Those of particular interest in this election are pitching to progressive, right-of-centre voters in heartland conservative seats. Several are backed by strong local citizen movements and are attracting significant funding.
Eyes will focus on whether Zali Steggall can dislodge Abbott in Warringah, and Kerryn Phelps can retain Wentworth, which she won at the byelection following Turnbull’s departure. Julia Banks, the member for the Victorian seat of Chisholm who defected from the Liberals to the crossbench, is making a bid in Flinders against Health Minister Greg Hunt.
In a separate category is former independent MP Rob Oakeshott, part of the balance of power in the Gillard years, who is a threat to the Nationals in the New South Wales seat of Cowper.
While the highly visible push from independent candidates is a feature of this election, and voter angst puts wind in their sails, the House of Representatives’ electoral system will limit their success.
A clear choice of ideologies
This can be seen as a very ideological election. Labor, focusing on “fairness” and “inequality”, is proposing higher taxes. And while careful to keep its program fiscally responsible, it is fanning workers’ discontents and talking up the need to reverse cuts in penalty rates and stimulate wages growth.
The Liberals have struggled, largely because of their internal rifts, to craft a narrative about what they stand for. Nowhere has this been more evident than in energy policy. Rejecting a carbon tax was a successful political battering ram in 2013, but carbon mitigation has turned into a nightmare issue for the Coalition ever since.
An approach that plans to subsidise new power projects and threatens errant energy companies with draconian actions, even divestiture, is an extraordinary landing place for a Liberal government.
The government has doubled down on its “direct action” policy by announcing $2 billion for emission reduction projects over the coming decade from January 2020.
Instead of being accepted as a practical challenge that needs substantial bipartisanship to underpin investment, the Coalition has made energy policy and climate change perhaps the most divisive ideological battleground of contemporary Australian politics.
Business watches with despair: in the past three years, it has been willing to get behind various policies (most recently the National Energy Guarantee) only to see them fall victim to infighting. It is an open question whether the next term will bring any long-term resolution in this most crucial policy area.
We can group the dominant issues in this election under the rubric “economic”.
These range from the government’s boast about economic management and its claim the economy would weaken under Labor, through to stagnant wages growth and Bowen’s assertion that “under the Liberals, the economy is not working for working people”.
The economic umbrella also covers competing income tax cuts and the broader battle over taxation, with the government homing in on Labor’s proposed imposts.
A contest of voter interests
Ian McAllister, director of Australian National University’s long-running Australian Election Study, observes that “the new battleground on tax is people’s assets not their income” – that’s housing (owner plus investment), shares, superannuation. And this is in the context that “Australia has more money in personal assets than any other country of a similar or larger size”.
McAllister also sees this as “almost a generational election”. The millennials in particular “have a lot of pressures on them – they are having difficulties breaking into the housing market, they feel they are not economically prosperous. It affects their level of trust in the political system, in politicians and in democracy.”
Notable, and complicating the campaigning challenges for government and opposition, is the geographical divide, epitomised by Victoria versus Queensland, and requiring varied messages. One insider quips it is “doctors’ wives [progressive Liberal voters who are deserting] versus rednecks”.
After Super Saturday, all the talk in the Coalition was about Queensland, which is loaded with marginal seats. The government’s failure to wrest Longman from Labor fed into the subsequent Dutton assault on Turnbull.
But then came the November 2018 Victorian state election rout of the Liberals. Suddenly the government was looking south, fearing big losses in that state.
In Queensland, the Coalition grapples with fragmentation on the right, with the Hansonites, the Katterites and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party chipping away at its vote. The Liberals and Nationals are joined in one party in that state; if the Nationals were still separate they might be better placed to contain the problem.
The election matrix is complex. Government and opposition have their national messages, but they must also tailor their appeals to different parts of the country, as well as to each electorate. It’s not quite true that “all politics is local”, but it’s half true and may be becoming more so.
Beyond that, whether in the old-fashioned way (door-knocking) or by using modern data collection and individually tailored, targeted online communications tools, the parties pursue the individual voter.
Normally, a government behind in the polls will have some fat to absorb the first brunt of a swing. Not so this time. “The government has to win seats to survive,” says ABC election analyst Antony Green. Taking into account the redistribution, the government will go into the election with a notional 73 seats, with Labor on 72.
This election is special for the upper house, because the voting changes made by the Turnbull government will operate for the first time in a half-Senate poll. With the seats of 13 crossbenchers (including Greens) in play, Green says they’ll be lucky if half get back.
He predicts a Labor government should have a significantly easier time with the Senate than the current government has had. Indeed, so should a returned Coalition government, “because the crossbench must shrink”.
In search of stability
One of the most important imponderables about the election is this: will it produce more stability?
Remember that apart from the coups, since 2010 we’ve had two hung parliaments, the second resulting from the loss of Wentworth.
On the leadership front, things should be better. Both major parties have responded to the prime ministerial turnover with rule changes that essentially provide that the next PM, whether Shorten or Morrison, will not face an internal challenge during the term (albeit no rule is immutable).
If there is a Coalition victory, it surely could not be anything but a very close result, even a hung parliament. After the first flush of surprised exultation, the fight for the soul of the Liberal Party would likely resume.
If Labor wins with a solid majority, that probably would restore some more general stability – although the tyranny of the opinion polls suggests caution about such a prediction.
Will the mantle of office finally secure for Shorten some belated goodwill from the electorate? If not, and voters remain grudging to him and polls precipitously head south for his administration, we may be condemned to yet another period of instability and poor, reactive government.
Some electoral goodwill is necessary for effective, and certainly for reformist, government over the longer term.
But if voter disillusionment and distrust have become so heavily ingrained in the electorate’s psyche, it is hard to either prescribe or expect a cure.
Governments change priorities all the time. Some argue governments will focus on developing regional areas at one point in time and then refocus on major cities at another.
Our research shows that there are cycles in how much priority governments attach to regional issues. But these fluctuations are overshadowed by a larger, long-term trend towards greater involvement with regional communities.
Our findings show that regional Australia matters more today than it has at any other time since the 1940s.
Cycles of regional commitment
Inattention to particular constituencies can be costly. Victoria’s Kennett government lost office in 1999, when regional communities such as Ballarat and Bendigo became disillusioned with what they saw as a Melbourne-centric government.
This was a time when governments in other states, and nationally, were paying more attention to regional voters, with the Howard Coalition government nervously watching One Nation as a growing political force. In Queensland, the pressure was more acute, with a few regionally focused conservative politicians claiming seats in parliament.
Appointing a minister with regional responsibilities is one clear marker of intent in the government of the day. John Sharp, the Howard government’s first minister for transport and regional development, released a budget statement with 19 major investments in regional areas. These included money for drought assistance, rural roads, and counselling and support services for young people and families.
The Coalition government has not simply sat idly as regional Australia continued to suffer from neglect.
There are now six ministers and one parliamentary secretary for regional development in Australian parliaments. Bridget McKenzie (federal), Michael McCormack (federal), Tim Whetstone (South Australia), Jaclyn Symes (Victoria), John Barilaro (New South Wales), Alannah MacTiernan (Western Australia) and Mark Shelton (Tasmania) are the most recent expression of a trend that started almost 30 years ago.
We examined all state and Australian government gazettes from 1939 to 2015 to find out how many “regional” ministers were in place over time. Our criteria were for the term “regional” to be in the title and for the representative to have responsibilities associated with improving the well-being of rural and remote communities.
We then used our data to develop an index, in which we gave a score of 1 for each month in the year where an identifiable regional minister held office.
For each jurisdiction the maximum possible score in any year was 12. For Australia, with six states and one federal government, the maximum possible score was 84.
Our results, in the table above, came as a surprise. It is clear that political engagement with the regions has grown rapidly since the late 1980s.
Previous research has suggested the 1940-1960s period was one of strong governmental commitment to the regions. This was reflected in announcements on the need to “decentralise” the population.
But our data suggest the notion of a “golden era” of regional policy and government support prior to the 1970s is misplaced.
Nation-wide policies in support of agriculture, mining or infrastructure development supported regional communities. But the well-being of these places was not the primary goal.
From 1972 to 1975, the Whitlam government was committed to addressing inequalities associated with where people live. This brought fresh enthusiasm for regional portfolios in state governments, but that tide quickly waned as the political climate changed.
Australian governments did not begin to appoint regional ministers as a matter of course until the late 1980s. This was a period linked to the end of old-fashioned, class-based politics and the rise of our more complex political landscape.
The trend has continued since and the presence of the six regional ministers and one parliamentary secretary in the halls of political power means there has never been a better time for regions to lobby governments.
There are now more ministers than ever before ready, able and willing to receive delegations and advocate for country towns, rural industries and remote Australia.
This means regional leaders have an opportunity to be heard in the run-up to the NSW and federal elections. The challenge is to determine the key messages and how they should be delivered.