The past year has shown us what happens when mainstream parties lose touch with their supporters.
That was the big lesson of 2016. And heed it we must if we are to make a success of the coming year.
The British electorate rejected their prime minister’s advice – and that of the political class generally – to leave the European Union.
The American electorate rejected all the mainstream candidates to catapault into the White House an outsider feeding off grievances that are deeply felt but rarely acknowledged by the system.
And here in Australia, the resurgence of One Nation is a warning to our Liberal National coalition that the conservative vote can’t be taken for granted.
What used to be called the silent majority, Hilary Clinton’s “deplorables”, might often lack a voice but they sure haven’t lost their vote.
They will punish governments and parties that have lost the plot – and so they should!
So that’s our challenge for 2017: to tackle real problems in a meaningful way so that people’s lives get better, not worse – and to do so in ways that make sense to our strongest supporters.
If your power bill is going through the roof; if your job is under threat; if your kids can’t afford a home; if your commute to work is getting longer and longer, government should be there to help.
If your values are being mocked; if your country’s goodwill is being exploited; and if your neighbourhood is changing, government has to ensure that change really is for the better – and stop it if it’s not.
The government’s job – to quote the immortal Ben Chifley – is not to make someone prime minister or premier; it’s not to put sixpence more or less into people’s pockets; it’s to work for the betterment of mankind, not just here but wherever we can lend a helping hand.
That was his “light on the hill” and it should be ours too.
In his inaugural a week ago, President Trump told the “forgotten men and women” of American that they were forgotten no longer.
I wonder if he knew that he was echoing the founder of our own party, Sir Robert Menzies, in his famous Forgotten People broadcast all those years ago.
Our task, then and now, is to reassure the decent people of Australia, out there having a go, that even if we can’t always help you, we will never, ever forget you.
Government can’t solve all problems – and trying to will make many problems worse.
But taxes should be going down, not up; the rules should be getting easier to comply with, not harder; and government should be getting smarter, not bigger.
So what should your government be doing this year?
Of course, we should be maintaining the border protection measures that my government put in place that have stopped the boats; and we should never let would-be illegal arrivals by boat think they can ever settle in Australia.
We should be maintaining and strengthening our national security measures at home and abroad and be ready to make new contributions to our forces in the Middle East if it’s part of a sensible plan against Islamist terrorism.
We should finally amend section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act – now that it’s hit Bill Leak and students from QUT as well as Andrew Bolt – because Australians are not sooks and robust free speech is our way of life; and we should stop official bullying by an out-of-control and unnecessary Human Rights Commission.
We should be making the most of the free trade deals that my government finalised and which work for us because Australia has long been a low tariff country. We should finalise a deal with India, the world’s coming democratic superpower. And we should swiftly do a one page deal with Britain which is an entirely complementary and comparable society and economy.
We should revive my government’s deregulatory agenda, including parliamentary repeal days, because everyone trying to get ahead struggles with too much red tape.
We should protect the wages of existing workers while trying to ensure that businesses can employ more people; and we should ensure the Fair Work Commission is not the union protection racket that Bill Shorten turned it into.
We should keep reducing the size of the Commonwealth public service which my government cut by 14,000 without any obvious complaint except from unions.
We should revisit the federation reform process to avoid the blame game and to have different levels of government more accountable for the services that they actually run.
We should revisit the tax reform process with more ambitious goals than just reducing the company tax rate to the OECD average – provided taxes are lower, simpler, and fairer with no increase in the overall tax burden.
And we must – we absolutely must – make a big new push on budget repair because if we can’t get spending down, we can’t responsibly get your taxes down.
Every year spending must be lower and the deficit must be lower as a percentage of GDP; and the best way to do this is to avoid all new spending other than on national security or where there’s a clear growth dividend.
That means not making the higher refugee intake permanent; it means taking migrants who can make a contribution from day one and stressing our unity as much as our diversity; it means not proceeding with higher childcare subsidies until the budget is in surplus; and it means supporting the efforts of Ministers Porter and Tudge to make sure that the welfare rules are obeyed.
The first rule of government should be to do no harm.
But how’s this for folly?
Australia has almost limitless reserves of clean coal and gas. We should have the world’s lowest power prices. Instead, we’re making it harder and harder to use coal and gas through the renewable energy target – so that power is getting more expensive and less reliable.
When the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, the power doesn’t flow. So until there’s base load power from low cost batteries, trying to rely on renewables is mad.
My government reduced the renewable energy target from 27 to 23 per cent but it’s still to high – that should be clear after the lights went out in South Australia – it’s obvious that it’s still too high.
Alcoa is in trouble, Arrium is in trouble, Port Pirie is in trouble, even Roxby Downs has a problem.
Yet Labor wants to more than double the renewable energy target to 50 per cent. That means a $50 billion overbuild of unnecessary wind turbines costing each household $5000 – and that’s just for starters.
But before we get too self-congratulatory, rather than making power less expensive, our own policy is to subsidise Alcoa to keep it in business; our own policy is to lift renewable power from 15 per cent to 23 per cent within four years at the cost of $1000 per household.
This is where the public are not mugs.
We can’t credibly attack Labor merely for being worse than us.
This is why our first big fight this year must be to stop any further mandatory use of renewable power.
Why is it ok for everyone to get the benefit of Australian coal and gas except us?
Why is it ok for other countries to open new power stations using Australian coal but wrong for us?
So let’s stop forcing people to use the most expensive power and make it easier for them to use the cheapest.
That shouldn’t be so hard.
If there is a crystal clear way to show families and small businesses that we’re on their side and that Labor is not – surely it’s this. So let’s get on with it.
Sure, Bill Shorten is a union puppet who will put your power prices through the roof – but that will only keep us in government if we have a clear plan.
Part of that plan should be making good government easier to achieve.
The conservative instinct is to be cautious about change.
“If it’s not necessary to change, it’s necessary not to change” applies with particular force to changing the constitution.
In one key respect, though, good government is much harder than it used to be.
We’ve become less like Westminster and more like Washington. Unlike Britain but like the United States, the Australian government can no longer expect to get its legislation through the parliament.
In fact, our Wash-minster model has the worst of both worlds, like Washington, there can be no expectation of passing contentious legislation; Unlike Washington there can be no expectation of security of tenure for the head of government.
These days Australian prime ministers, especially centre-right ones, don’t just have to win elections, make sensible decisions and run competent administrations; they have to negotiate every piece of contentious legislation line-by-line through a senate with an in-built populist majority.
And far more decisions than ever before need the senate, thanks to the Rudd-Gillard government’s “Abbott-proofing” the budget by entrenching big spending programmes in hard-to-amend legislation.
It’s almost impossible to win four senators out of six in any state (because that needs 57 per cent of the vote), so it’s almost impossible for the government of the day to have a senate majority in its own right.
This doesn’t matter much for Labor governments that want higher spending, more regulation and heavier taxes (at least on the so-called rich); but it matters a great deal for Liberal National governments that want less spending, fewer regulations and lighter taxes (on the people who create wealth and jobs).
It’s much easier for cross bench senators (surviving on just five to ten per cent of the vote) to play politics than it is for them to take responsibility for cutting spending, upsetting lobby groups, and reducing taxes on businesses and high income earners.
The last time the cross bench tried to be responsible was when the Australian Democrats amended the GST but didn’t reject it.
They were all-but-destroyed because you can’t be a protest party when you don’t side with the protestors but, instead, actually help the government to do what’s necessary but unpopular.
Consider the fate of the ABCC legislation for a tough cop-on-the-beat for the construction industry. This was clear policy at the 2013 election. It was one of just two bills that triggered the 2016 election. Yet despite this double mandate, the senate still amended it almost to the point of futility.
Over time, the senate has ceased being a house of review and become a house of rejection. The result is gridlock, not government, and it can’t go on.
John Howard recognised this back in 2003.
The Howard government released a prime minister’s department paper declaring that the “senate holds effective control over the legislative and policy agenda upon which the government of the day has been elected….In practice”, the paper said, “the minority has assumed a permanent and absolute veto over the majority”.
The paper recommended changing section 57 of the constitution to allow legislation that’s been rejected twice in the senate three months apart to go to a joint sitting without the need for a double dissolution election.
The government didn’t proceed with this reform because in 2004 it fluked four out of six senators in Queensland and, for a term, controlled the senate – the only time this has ever happened since the current arrangements began in 1984.
Constitutional conservative that he was and is, Howard stressed that the proposal was “not… an attack on the power of the senate”.
Because, we do need an effective senate for when governments get it wrong.
The senate has a right and duty to hold the government to account.
But the government also has a right and duty to put in place the policy that the country needs, including – sometimes – policy that wasn’t a specific election mandate.
Differences between the government and its opponents in the senate should be resolved by the people at the next election. They shouldn’t be allowed to stop the government from doing what, after due consideration and full debate, it believes is in the national interest.
In the end, the government of the day has to be allowed to govern – and not with one hand tied behind its back because its legislation can’t pass.
So it’s time to reconsider the Howard proposal.
The government should consider taking this reform to the people simultaneously with the next election.
That way, if it’s carried, the government will be able to reduce spending, as well as to raise it; to cut taxes, as well as to increase them; and to limit the size of government, as well as to boost it.
That way, the next election will be about the kind of country we really want: one where the government tells you what it’s going to do and does it; or tells you what it’s going to do but doesn’t because the senate won’t let it.
Do we want an Australia that’s capable of hard-but-needed reform, as in the Hawke-Howard era of relatively amenable senates; or an Australia that increasingly resembles Italy with a revolving door prime ministership and an inability to get things done because of gridlock between the two houses of parliament?
The need to negotiate so much past a cross bench of critics and rivals makes the government look impotent if it fails; and weak and unprincipled even if it succeeds.
It’s no wonder people are losing faith in sensible centre-right politics.
To win people back and to restore faith in our system of government, we’ve got to give ourselves more chance to succeed.
So let’s get on with it, so that our country can have the government it needs and so that in 2017 our political system can start to recover from the trauma of the past few years.