On Saturday, Australia’s political system crossed a line. From the normal messiness of democracy into fragmented incoherence. From voter unrest to potential revolt.
The implications are clear: instability is no longer a one-off in Australian politics but a pattern. Out-of-touch political leadership is no longer an individual failing but systemic
The enemies of the major parties may no longer be each other. Their principal enemy is fast becoming the ballot box.
Nearly one in every four Australians directed their first preference away from the major parties. The Labor Party is on track to record its second-lowest primary vote since 1949. The Coalition has done worse on its first preferences only three times in a similar period.
This so-called protest vote against the political establishment has grown at each federal election since 2007.
The trend is inescapable. Voters are doubly disillusioned.
Tellingly, in their election-night speeches neither the Prime Minister nor the Labor leader spoke principally to the country: their primary audience was party members. Faithful as they are, that audience is ever diminishing and ever less representative.
Mr Turnbull’s silence since becoming Prime Minister on the issues that generated his popularity was deafening.
Mr Shorten’s embrace of some bold ideas and essential human services secured a comeback, potentially to government.
But his party secured the first preference of only one in every three Australians.
At least he understood Saturday night was about “the Australian people” and not the police.
The growing schism between Australia’s democracy and the people cannot be papered over, irrespective of who emerges in charge.
Yet, based on their election-night speeches, both major parties – and the political class generally – seem to be in denial about the depth and breadth of disaffection.
Life governing in Canberra will continue to be nasty, brutish and short unless we find a way to reform the system and bridge our yawning democratic disconnect.
Successful democracies are stable but they are not static. And that is what our system has become.
How do we rebuild trust and engagement in Australia’s democracy?
We need to rebuild its current 19th-century delivery system to align with the new realities of the contemporary world.
The ideas and roadmaps for renewal are there. The urgency has been lacking, however – until now.
Reform means giving the public a more direct and active role in policymaking through citizen panels, not mistaking compulsory voting for political engagement.
It means real-time, continuous funding disclosure to expunge corporate money from the political system and the “privatisation” of policy that it buys.
It means resourcing our public sector so it can identify and help those who are losing out in a globalised, hyperconnected world.
It means moving to four-year electoral cycles, and ensuring careerism in politics is the exception, not the rule.
It means letting backbenchers vote however they like sometimes.
It means respecting evidence that leads to good policy, not demeaning experts for partisan gain.
It means embracing coalitions and new measures of progress.
It means putting ideas at the heart of a new policy consensus that is inclusive of and relevant to the lives of everyone, not just a select few.
Make no mistake about Saturday’s outcome. The public was not offering mild criticism. The mood has shifted distinctively.
That’s why the most important action the new band of independents and minor-party winners can achieve is putting reform of our democratic system at the top of their agenda.
Dr Mark Triffitt is a CPD fellow and lecturer in politics at the University of Melbourne.
Travers McLeod is CEO at the Centre for Policy Development.
This piece first appeared in The Age on 5 July 2016.