Is this the end of government by major parties?

PERIL: The Morrison government is completely missing the messages from Kerryn Phelps’ byelection win. Picture: Alex EllinghausenThere is widespread and growing dissatisfaction with – and disappointment in – our politicians and political system.

Increasingly, politicians are not trusted nor believed. They are seen as mostly self-absorbed, “in it for themselves”, willing to put personal and vested interests ahead of the national interest. They will say or do whatever it takesto win the media on any day, and to hopefully win the next election.

As a consequence, government and governance is increasingly poor and not generally seen as addressing the needs, or matching the aspirations, of voters.

The system seems unable to deal with the daily challenges faced by voters in meeting mounting costs of living, let alone the bigger, longer-termchallenges facing our nation economically, socially, environmentallyand geopolitically. These issues are mostly left to drift. In the end, they become much harder to deal with. Solutions will probably cost more, and require much more adjustment.

To be specific, governments are not offering solutionsto the major elements of the costs of living – housing affordability/accessibility, power costs, medical insurance, child and aged careand so on – just very limited tax relief– and are certainly kicking the bigger challenges ofclimate, tax, education, health, ageing, defenceand infrastructure reform down the road.

All this domestic policy drift and neglect is occurring at a time where our economic prospects are constrained by the most unpredictable global environment in many decades.Most importantly, emerging trade warsand the accelerating risk of another global financial crisis andpossible world recession, in turn severely complicated by global migration pressuresand geopolitical tensions. All suggesting the imperative of a complete rethink and reset of our foreign, defence and economic strategies against a redefinition of our national interests.

It should not be surprising that voters here, and in many other countries, have started to lose confidence in major political parties, turning instead to support minor, more policy specific, parties and independents, in the increasingly desperate hope that things might change.

These trends have been evident in virtually every European election in the last several years, and of course gave the world Donald Trumpin the hope that he would drain the Washington swampand Make America Great Again. He has certainly disruptedthe traditional US political parties, and the whole political system – with very significant consequences for much of the rest of the world – but will undoubtedly fall well short of “greatness”or, in the end, actually satisfying the needs, hopes, and aspirations of his supporters.

Here, in , 1 in 3 voters didn’t vote either LNP or ALP in the last federal election, and the trend away from the major parties has continued in the recent byelections. The most notable was the win by independent Kerryn Phelps in the recent Wentworth byelection, previously a blue-ribbon Liberal seat.

While the messages from the Phelps’ win are being ignored by the Morrison Government – somehow mostly blaming Malcolm Turnbull –Phelps ran on the key issues of integrity in government, climateand refugees, tapping into significant voter concern about the irresponsible neglect and failures by the major parties on these issues.

When you recognise broader voter concernson both issues, and about the performance of their sitting members, expectthat the coming Victorian and NSW elections, and the next federal election in about 6-7 months, willsee this trend away from LNP/ALPcontinue. There is a lot of activity alreadyfor high-profile independentsto challenge the likes of Tony Abbott in Warringah, and rumblings of the formation of new minor political parties/movements, although time is short.

Of course, the key question is whether this trend away from major parties will result in better government, either by forcing change in the policies and practices of the major parties, or by these independents and minor parties playing a constructive role to improve government.

So much needs to be done to reform our politics – everything from the attraction of better candidates through campaign funding, improved transparency and accountability of lobbying influence, policy development and implementation. All against a genuine and honest assessment of our national interest.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.