Finally in Canberra... there's an election coming

There have been a number of moments this year where the best response to politics has seemed to be a retreat to a remote cabin in the outer reaches of Adaminaby. High and cool alpine air seems like the perfect antidote to the regular bouts of stupidity seen in hemmed-in Canberra.

But that’s a cop out.

A lot of political decision making is done by people for whom the decisions are largely inconsequential. If you had the pleasure of listening to Senator the Hon Matt Canavan on one of 54 affiliate talk back radio stations across the country last Wednesday evening, you would have heard the Minister for Resources explain away this bother about climate change.

Coal being our biggest export, he said, renewables aren’t the answer to getting down household electricity bills. So onwards and upwards for coal and boo to renewables. At least, that’s the gist.

But Canavan doesn’t have to live very long with the consequences. Youth engagement is key on climate change. The recent and alarming IPCC report on climate change charts a clear path for our lifetimes.

Consider as well the question of whether we should raise the Newstart allowance. Those who get to lock in the answer aren’t affected. Sure, they might know someone, perhaps even a close family member, who relies on a welfare payment, but they aren’t deciding whether they will be able to find accommodation themselves.

This process of decision making without consequences has been a theme I’ve returned to in this column all year. Climate change, drugs, government led by Newspoll and so on – all areas where decisions on the fly, policy on the run and politics by polling numbers dominate.

Can politicians, who are afforded a privileged position in society in order to be politicians, make empathetic decisions in policy when it will have the greatest impact on people whose experience is so far removed from theirs in this supposedly egalitarian country?

Yes, they can. But it certainly helps when voters reward that kind of behaviour. An election next year gives you a chance to show that’s what you’d like to see more of.

A new book featuring some ANU heavyweights – Professor Frank Bongiorno, Professor John Uhr and Dr Jill Sheppard, among others – argues that elections are key moments in our political history and really do offer voters a way to meaningfully engage with politics and influence governments.

The book is called, perhaps unsurprisingly, Elections Matter and is edited by Benjamin T. Jones, Bongiorno and Uhr. As Jones notes in his introduction, the book intentionally leaves out the Gough Whitlam’s 1972 “It’s time” election and other so-called landmark elections. “[E]lections can be important even when they seem relatively banal or routine,” Jones writes.

Speaking in his Coombs Building office last week after this columnist managed to locate it, Jones said that while Australians feel disempowered by their democracy, they are actually “extraordinarily” empowered. He also had a couple of pointers for political journalists.

“[Fewer] predictions would be good,” he said. “Political journalists love having a punt. If it doesn’t happen it’s forgotten. But if it does, they pull out their article and say what a great political Nostradamus they are.”

Instead, there’s a lot to be gained from history. On the question of whether the internet and the 24-news cycle disruptor tornado has had a sizeable effect on the way politics is done here, Jones said it would be “great to wait nine years to answer that question.” If only there was such a period to cobble together this final column.

But Jones does identify the “new normal”: short term governments and a lot of quick change over. “The old normal would presume that an incoming federal government will set the agenda for a decade or more. … The most pronounced feature of the new normal is the apparent ease with which a prime minister can be replaced,” he writes.

Is there any guidance the book, which is published at the end of the month by Monash University Publishing, offers us going forward into next year? Can we reach into the past for answers? There are few hard and fast rules in politics among a smattering of constantly reworked precedents, but an election will always count.

Luckily, we won’t have to wait nine years to answer the question of what happens when we do get to vote. Will the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, storm the Lodge with his apparent golden ticket? Or will Scott Morrison spin a masterful tale to win an election in his own right?

It’s been a bizarre year. Or in other words, we’ve had a year of politics. Another leadership spill. Oodles of nonsense produced by spin operatives on both sides. Close attention to the sex lives of politicians and their citizenship statuses. The very live prospect of a Peter Dutton prime ministership. And, as ever, a trip further along the road to oblivion on climate change.

There’s no need to suffer death by a thousand sound grabs, though. Retreat to the Adaminaby of your mind occasionally, but keep at it. Somewhere amongst all this noise there is something worth latching onto – and voting for, whatever side you come down on.

 

…and lastly, a coda

Chances are you’re holding the last Woroni newspaper in your hands. Perhaps use it to line a drawer as a memento.

It was killed off last week in a Special General Meeting, with only two votes to retain it (one of them was mine). There’s a good chance next year that you’ll be reading some other undergraduate bang on about politics in a glossy magazine. It certainly won’t be me.

I’m sad to see the newspaper go. Front pages still have impact and there remains a strong appetite for the printed word. It’s certainly possible to cover the news in the brave new digital world, but there is something symbolic about a newspaper that Woroni will lose.

Woroni could be – and ought to be – Australia’s most prominent student newspaper. Fiercely independent, not beholden to a hostile student union and with access to a healthy budget, it could be strident and campaigning, with a real chance to hold power to account. It could put its money where its mouth is and make a difference with its journalism.

Transforming into a magazine strikes at the heart of that. A magazine, if it’s any good, is a different creature that calls for a different kind of writing, a different view of the world.

So when student journalism matters more than ever and when professional media have fewer resources to cover the affairs of universities, the degradation of another campus newspaper into a less frequent publication is a poignant occasion.

No need to dwell. We must move on. It’s been a pleasure, but after one last press run, my time here has come to a close.

Jasper Lindell is a former news editor and Woroni’s political columnist.