Allegra Spender and Kate Chaney, The AFR
A year on, the teal wave has been rebutting oppositional politics
The politics, the processes and even the layout of parliament itself do not make for open-minded or brave policymaking.
We come from opposite sides of the continent, but we’ve both been carried into parliament on an Australia-wide wave of community concern about political inaction on the most challenging issues our nation faces.
It’s been a huge year in the new job, one of learning, growing and challenges. The expanded crossbench has changed the parliamentary dynamic so that more diverse opinions are heard. As MPs, we are demanding a higher standard of how parliament and government operates.
Anniversaries are a good time to reflect. With 12 months on the job, we decided to share notes on what has been achieved, what has changed, and where we need to go.
There are three areas where the impact of independents has been felt most keenly: policy, process and values.
Our communities asked for action on climate, integrity, compassion and inclusion, but also a responsible, balanced approach on the economy. They asked for evidence-based policy. Our job has been to use all the tools in our power – through working across the parliament, driving campaigns, running national and community processes – to get outcomes on these issues. We haven’t always got what we wanted, and there is more to be done, but many of our communities’ priorities have turned into action.
On climate action, the crossbench has strengthened legislation, in the Climate Change Bill and safeguard mechanism, and pushed the government on household electrification and fuel efficiency standards to increase access to electric vehicles – two areas where Labor did not have meaningful policies at the election, and which can help household budgets.
On integrity, we have a National Anti-Corruption Commission, and serious discussion about improving transparency of political donations.
The decision that 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers now have a pathway to permanency after visa limbo promises a return to Australia’s natural compassion. A referendum on the Voice is also approaching. Increased paid parental leave shared between parents, implementation of the Respect at Work report, and positive changes to childcare are all critical to female economic empowerment and passionately supported by our communities.
Standing up when the major parties lack courage is the hallmark of an effective crossbench.
On these issues, our communities’ voices are being heard.
The economy will increasingly dominate the national debate. We both have a focus on keeping policy in the sensible centre and addressing the long-term issues we face – on productivity, taxation, housing and the next steps in decarbonising and growing our economy – when the choices are difficult, there are vested interests and many solutions have been ruled-out because of decades of political wedging.
On these issues and others, our country is caught between policies that sound good but don’t make a difference, such as for generations of first home buyer policies, and the stance the prime minister took to the election on tax, which is “don’t worry, I won’t do anything”.
To break the gridlock, we need to change our approach and do politics differently. Standing up when the major parties lack courage is the hallmark of an effective crossbench. A willingness to return to the first principles of democracy – representation with open minds, a focus on the evidence and the courage to have difficult conversations.
Parliament isn’t set up well for that. For so long, much of the meaningful political debate occurs behind closed party room doors. The public doesn’t get to see it. Their only insight into the legislative process is the unappetising spectacle of parliamentary shouting matches.
This oppositional culture dominates relationships, processes, and even the layout of parliament itself. It leads to poor-quality conversation and a lack of curiosity, despite the many good people across the parliament.
We are trying to counter that in the way we use question time, in how we engage our communities on major legislation, and by running our own processes, such as Allegra Spender’s tax white paper initiative and Kate Chaney’s community submissions on the National Anti-Corruption Commission and wellbeing budget. The feedback has been positive – people want a thoughtful, respectful, evidence-based debate on the issues that are most important to our country.
Like other crossbenchers before us, we try to work with government and opposition to improve our laws. The result has been improved legislation in many areas, from industrial relations to climate. It doesn’t matter that these wins are not always visibly “ours”.
Despite being on opposite sides of the country, the Wentworth and Curtin communities value long-term thinking, a fair go, courage and optimism. They want to live in a country that makes them proud, with a forward-looking economy and a willingness to take on the tough issues.
We don’t claim to have all the answers, but what’s for certain is that we will continue to work hard to ensure the “teal wave” of last year is just the first step on a more positive journey for our country.