How to sum up this decade of politics in Australia? Numbers-wise, we had six prime ministers (counting Kevin twice), three National Party leaders, ten budgets, seven environment ministers, two apologies, one plebiscite and a Hercules-load of hubris.
First Australians remained unrecognised in the constitution, asylum seekers mostly remained imprisoned offshore, broadband stayed laggy and Pauline Hanson and Bob Katter became rusted-on fixtures of Australian political life. So what changed? Apart from the deckchair-swapping, not much, at least not for the better.
Is there a future?
The big issues for anyone interested in a future on this continent – energy, water and climate – remained unaddressed. Mining and Murdoch maintained their vice-like grip on Australian politics and the minds of the masses. The rich got richer, and the poor got homeless.
We were absorbed a little more by the USA and China. We slid a little deeper into the glutinous embrace of Peter Dutton. We forgot about our old role as a leader in international contests of ideas. We continued fighting other countries’ wars. We became more insular, and more stupid, both in terms of educational rankings and in terms of political leadership.
The ALP wasted years scrapping with itself rather than with its opponents in parliament, and all sparks of intelligence on the other side were quickly snuffed out by people who wouldn’t be able to pass a high school science exam.
The Greens flailed after the departure of the saintly Bob Brown; Clive Palmer stayed out of prison, and spent millions of dollars so he could make more millions digging a new coal mine; Malcolm Turnbull bought a shiny new Prime Ministership but didn’t know how to drive it, and One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts survived both dual citizenship and a TV grilling by Professor Brian Cox to find himself back in the senate, perhaps the least qualified person in history to occupy that position, in spite of stiff competition.
The banks survived the Banking Royal Commission. The union-bashing accelerated. Shorten beat Albanese for the ALP leadership, then Albo inherited the poisoned chalice after Bill lost the unloseable election.
George Christensen increased his majority in Queensland in spite of spending most of his time in the Philippines.
The ABC’s budget was cut, repeatedly, but there was plenty of money for new planes and submarines, whether or not they worked.
The National Party got control of water and made a complete mess of the Murray-Darling. Land clearing got worse. Adani didn’t quite start but didn’t stop either. The revolving door between government, and industries affected by government, spun faster than ever.
A brief candle of hope in relation to energy policy and climate under the ALP minority government with Tony Windsor, at the start of the decade, fizzled out completely under Tony Abbott and the brutal ‘retail politics’ of his dark lady, Peta Credlin.
The very clever but utterly ineffectual Malcolm Turnbull disappointed everybody, including himself.
Satire or reality?
But it wasn’t all bad. While satirists found it harder to differentiate their work from reality, political cartoonists had the decade of their lives.
In regional Victoria’s seat of Indi, the triumph of Cathy McGowan over she-of-the-Satanic-lipstick Sophie Mirabella showed what could happen when people became engaged with politics and elected a truly community-based independent.
Driven by soaring conventional power prices, uptake of renewables surged in spite of open hostility from most levels of government during the decade. South Australia showed that it was possible to lead in renewables beyond the political cycle, maintaining their momentum even after a change of government.
Australia elected its first female Prime Minister in Julia Gillard, and there were more women in parliament than ever before, unfortunately including the whiteboard-hiding Michaelia Cash and ex-asbestos company lawyer and serial deputy, Julie Bishop, who was outmanoeuvred by even more Machiavellian characters in her own party for the leadership before taking her toys and going home.
The inspiring Jordon Steele-John was re-elected in the Senate for WA, and made a number of stirring speeches to an almost empty chamber, which didn’t prevent him from finding a completely new audience on YouTube.
Power of people
The big political story of the decade was outside the parliament, with the rise of potent community-led campaigns to stop unconventional gas, and Adani, to free Julian Assange, for gay marriage, and for real action on the climate emergency – all great examples of citizens leading from below.
Popular musicians and sportspeople found a political voice which hadn’t been heard since the last century. Great writers and historians like Richard Flanagan and Bruce Pascoe rose to fill the progressive vacuum and oppose the Bolts and Joneses.
Community-based, volunteer-driven responses to fire and flood disasters showed a way ahead, making the ineffectiveness of big NGOs and the obstructiveness of government obvious.
The decade with no name was brought to its conclusion by a strange federal election in which the rich voted to do something about global warming (seeing off Tony Abbott in the process), but were outnumbered by the poor and aspirational, who voted for franking credits most would never see, and against a death tax which didn’t exist.
In the end, in spite of all polls to the contrary, Scotty from Marketing found himself in the miraculous, exalted company of his fellow Clowns-in-Chief across the Pacific and in the old country. This was hailed by some as the greatest of victories, but was in reality wafer-thin, and entirely dependent on the ongoing largesse of Lord Rupert, whose metaphorical ring our Prime Minister kissed at a smoky harbour-side party in December for son Lachlan.
Time of essence
If Scott Morrison had studied history, instead of economic geography, he would know that what got Marie Antoinette into trouble was a climate-driven wheat shortage, along with some very bad empathy training.
The ongoing bushfire catastrophe has shown cricket is not up to the job of distracting people with no water or clean air to breathe. Letting them eat coal isn’t going to cut it either.
Right now, genuine leadership is needed. After ten years of missed opportunities, there’s no time left to waste.