It’s been an unedifying fortnight in the Australian parliament. Ugly scenes in both chambers compounded violent protests outside Victoria’s Parliament House – so-called ‘freedom rallies’ opposing vaccine mandates. Threats towards elected representatives at all levels of government, their families and staff (public officials are also receiving protective security) have escalated alongside concerns that civil unrest fomented by organised interests was fanned by opportunists, including government members. All this stoked a febrile atmosphere. It was no doubt too the product of collective exhaustion after another year punctuated by lengthy lockdowns and the new threat of the COVID-19 Omicron variant. Perhaps parliamentarians were also contemplating the war of attrition they know will characterise a long and brutal federal election campaign in 2022. But whatever the cause, these disparate strands converged to create a combustible backdrop to what may have been the last sitting period before the next federal poll.
Own goals about his honesty and disunity on both the Coalition’s moderate and right flanks saw the Prime Minister struggle to assert his previously unassailable authority. Five rebel senators crossed the floor. Others from Scott Morrison’s right-wing fringe threatened to withhold support for key legislation, while Liberal moderates complained about both the priority being afforded to controversial religious discrimination legislation and its potential unintended consequences.
Amid the posturing and tumult shone three moments of clarity that highlighted the gulf between cynical efforts to divide Australians and the leadership needed to bind the nation together at a time of unprecedented uncertainty and challenge. Each revealed the potential to rediscover and reconnect with the ‘holding centre’ that has defined Australian politics and to overcome a decade of complacency, policy drift and lost opportunities. Such leadership exists within this 46th Parliament, but it lacks sufficient strength. This and the toxic culture of the parliamentary workplace exposed by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Set the Standard report is something to care about and focus on as we weigh who best to represent us in the 47th.
The first moment of clarity came courtesy of independent Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie during debate over a One Nation motion that sought to empower the Commonwealth to override state vaccine mandates because they were ‘discriminatory’. Lambie castigated One Nation for championing the freedom of the unvaccinated over fully vaccinated Australians – as of 29 November, that was 86.6 per cent of Australians over the age of sixteen. The firebrand Tasmanian accused One Nation of peddling lies and misinformation and of ‘using people’s fear to boost their own election campaigns’, describing the legislation as a ‘fundraising exercise’. In a passionate speech later adapted for TikTok, Lambie argued:
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Dr Anne Tiernan is a leading Australian scholar in public policy. Her career spans higher education, federal and state government, consultancy and teaching. Now managing director of mission-led consultancy firm Constellation Impact Advisory, Anne consults regularly to organisations committed to purpose and positive impact. She has written extensively on the political–administrative interface, governmental transitions, policy capacity and executive advisory arrangements. Her publications include The Oxford Handbook of Australian Politics (co-edited with Professor Jenny Lewis, 2021), Lessons in Governing: A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff and The Gatekeepers: Lessons from Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (both with RAW Rhodes, Melbourne University Publishing, 2014), Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities (with Patrick Weller, Melbourne University Press, 2010) and Power Without Responsibility: Ministerial Staffers in Australian Governments from Whitlam to Howard (UNSW Press, 2007).
Dr Tiernan is a National Fellow of the Institute of Public Administration Australia and a Fellow of the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). An Adjunct Professor with Griffith University, and previously a member of the university’s senior leadership team.
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We are entering a uniquely dangerous time in Australian politics Not just from the economic threats following Australia’s performance at COP26 in Glasgow. Compounding these existential threats is the risk that core tenets of Australian democracy, which have become weakened and frayed in the past two decades, will be completely eroded.