Given the omnishambles that was the past year in federal politics, it might come as a surprise to find there were some smart political decisions made in 2015.
In stark contrast to the worst political decisions of the year, the best ones did not come easily – many were contentious and challenged the way things are “usually done”. Accordingly, they were met with both acclaim and resistance.
That’s not to say the best political decisions of the past year were necessarily altruistic; very little in politics is done purely out of the goodness of someone’s heart.
But each strengthened the chance for the Australian polity to rise from the squalid mire in which it’s been bogged over past years; the base politics that has favoured the electoral sugar rush of a cheap political win over the much less headline-worthy collegiate approach that is needed to implement good policy.
Having sifted through the mire for the nuggets of political sagacity, here are this writer’s nominations for the five best political decisions of 2015.
Changing the guard I
It took most political watchers by surprise when the Greens emerged from an apparently everyday party room meeting to announce they’d just conducted a wholesale cleanout of their leadership group.
Even more unexpected was the victor in the shakeup, the mild-mannered Victorian Senator Richard Di Natale, who until that time had perhaps been best known as the be-spectacled Green who wasn’t Adam Bandt.
It quickly emerged that Di Natale had out-manoeuvred his doppelganger for the party’s leadership, and that this development foreshadowed a decisive move by the new leadership group away from the politics of protest to the politics of pragmatism.
Progressive pragmatism appears to be the cornerstone of Di Natale’s plans for the Greens to become a party of government.
The Greens leader unashamedly laid claim to voters looking for a sensible middle-ground in Australian politics, stating soon after his election to the top post that the Greens was “the natural home of progressive, mainstream Australian voters”.
Since then, the newly pragmatic Greens have agreed to a number of compromise decisions, allowing amended Government legislation to pass the Senate.
This has included changes to the pension asset test and increased scrutiny of multinational corporations’ tax arrangements, both of which have frustrated and sidelined the obstructionist ALP while causing some Greens’ supporters anxiety over the unaccustomed and less-than-purist approach.
While ill-intentioned pragmatism can be as deleterious as base politics, Di Natale’s practical approach appears as much focused on improving our political discourse as it is growing the Greens’ membership base.
This smart decision by Greens MPs provided a welcome – and much needed – addition to the Australian polity in 2015.
Changing the guard II
Equally shrewd was the decision by Liberal Party MPs to change leaders. Admittedly in so doing they won Australia the dubious honour of having five prime ministers in five years, but they also excised the source of political poison that had infected almost every aspect of the nation’s political discussion since 2009.
Not only did former prime minister Tony Abbott make a string of bad policy decisions during his short time in office – such as the 2014 federal budget, hanging on to the exorbitant paid parental leave scheme, and knighting an Englishman on Australia Day – he also deliberately created an atmosphere of suspicion, division and fear within the community in the desperate hope that anxious voters would turn to him for protection.
The tactic thankfully failed, but the residue of Abbott’s reign still taints the way contemporary Australian politics is conducted.
However, along with the change in approach precipitated by Di Natale’s Greens, the wise decision to elect Malcolm Turnbull as the new Liberal leader and PM has given the Government a chance to reset, drop its aggressive tone, lay off demonising convenient (but undeserving) political targets, and work towards policy outcomes that genuinely benefit the community, instead of just scoring a cheap political win.
Turnbull is a long way from proving to be the great prime minister he aspires to be, but in resetting the tone of our political conversation he’s made a good start.
Changing the language on Islamic extremism
Almost as soon as he became PM this year, Turnbull took advice from Australia’s security agencies and then made it clear the Government would change its language on Islamic extremism.
Their spiritual pace-setter has become increasingly shrill since being cast into exile. While Prime Minister, Abbott graduated from calling some Islamic leaders “foolish” for taking offence at his call for Muslims to join Team Australia, to calling for more Muslim leaders to describe Islam as a religion of peace more often, and mean it.
Now from the freedom of the backbench, Abbott has seemingly launched a full assault on Islam itself, demanding that it undergo a “religious revolution” because “all cultures are not equal and … a culture that believes in decency and tolerance is much to be preferred to one which thinks that you can kill in the name of God.”
In contrast, our nation’s leader will no longer single out a particular religion and call for it to be held responsible for the extremists who enact atrocities in its name. Instead, communities and families are to be embraced and supported in an effort to counteract the feelings of isolation and resentment, particularly within disenchanted young adults, that foment violent extremism.
Shattering the surplus myth
If the decision to take a non-aggressive approach to terrorists was an affront to Liberal conservatives, another of the smartest decisions taken this year would have been a slap in the face.
Ever since the Howard government years, a healthy budget surplus has been depicted (by the Liberals and Nationals) as the gold standard for good economic management. But in fact, all but the most one-eyed of economists would tell you that government budgets can run into deficit and end up with debt for very good reasons.
Keeping the economy afloat during a world-wide economic meltdown would be one of them.
Even though he didn’t do it for altruistic reasons, Treasurer Scott Morrison did the nation a service late this year by deciding to dispel the “deficit is bad” myth. In fact Morrison had no choice, given the Government’s own burgeoning debt.
In doing so, the Treasurer broke the stick that’s traditionally been used by Liberals to beat big-spending Labor governments and oppositions.
But he also unshackled himself, other politicians, economists and the media from mindlessly talking about the deficit and when it will end, leaving them to talk instead about the budgetary things that matter such as where and how taxpayers’ money is being spent.
Getting serious on domestic violence
Finally, the decision by Australian governments at the national, state and territory level to acknowledge domestic violence as a key issue this year was a very good one.
However, politicians’ fine words only go so far, and it would be fair to say many taxpayers would like to see more of their dollars go towards combating domestic violence given the horrifying rate at which women and children died at the hands of male partners and relatives this past year.
A strong contender for the best decision of 2016 would be an early commitment of funding for more beds in women’s shelters, and for better ways to be found for the police and legal systems to protect women and children at risk.