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Are Australia’s political parties past their use-by date?

Australia’s political leaders were silent on a number of key issues during the election campaign. AAP/Lukas Coch

Are Australia’s political parties past their use-by date?

In the wake of an unusually dreary election campaign much commentary has focused on Malcolm Turnbull’s lacklustre performance, dwindling support for the major parties, high levels of voter disengagement and the possible revival of Hansonism.

But the fundamental problem of Australian politics lies elsewhere. It is time we faced two unpalatable questions: Are our political parties up to the challenge? And has Australia’s political establishment outlived its usefulness?

The 2016 election campaign confirms a trend long in the making. From the barren Howard years, through the Rudd-Gillard and Abbott-Turnbull charades to the recent Turnbull-Shorten jousting, the signs are unmistakable. Political parties are a shadow of what they used to be.

We should, of course, take care not to romanticise the past. Political parties were imperfect organisations even in their heyday. But today they have become largely dysfunctional.

A shift towards discontent

The egomania of incumbent and aspiring “leaders”, the tendency to make promises that will not or cannot be kept, increasing reliance on rich donors to fund election campaigns and shameless exploitation of the perks of office are now the staple diet of party politics.

In the meantime, as the Panama Papers and other leaks make clear, tax evasion has become rife in the corporate sector, while the public sector is afflicted by diminishing capacity and the lure of corrupt practices.

Not surprisingly, public disillusionment borders on seething discontent. Disturbing though they are, these failings are but the symptoms of a deeper ailment.

The turbulence of globalisation

Political parties, in Australia as in other parts of the Western world, are finding it increasingly difficult to navigate the turbulent currents generated by globalisation.

In a globalised world, cross-border flows have reached extraordinary speed, scale and intensity. This is true of the flow of goods and services, money, technology, carbon emissions, viruses, information, images, terrorists and arms. It is equally true of population flows, as people flee violence, persecution, environmental breakdown and economic hardship.

Political parties, operating as national formations and exercising power within national jurisdictions, seem unable to adjust to the transformation and weakening of national borders.

Simply put, parties are struggling to comprehend, let alone effectively manage, the cross-border flows that are at the core of globalisation. Theirs is a narrative that no longer resonates with electorates discomfited by what they see as a dangerous or at best uncertain future. As a result politics is reduced to short-term remedies, meaningless rhetoric and endless spin.

How are parties responding?

Let’s consider how Australia’s political leaders tackled a few key issues during the campaign – and why they glaringly failed to mention many others.

The mantra of Malcolm Turnbull’s pitch was the Coalition’s economic plan for “growth and jobs”. But in speech after speech all he could offer was a tax cut to businesses with a turnover of less than A$10 million, a meagre “science and innovation” program and a youth training and employment initiative.

We heard little about China’s declining GDP growth and its implications for Australia’s mining sector, the continuing decline of Australia’s manufacturing sector, the risk of further financial crises in the absence of effective international financial regulation, or the generally uncertain regional and global economic outlook.

Australia’s manufacturing sector is in decline. AAP/Dean Lewins

And on the sharply rising inequality of wealth and incomes in Australia – part of a wider trend in much of the Western world – a deafening silence.

For its part, Labor made much of its “plan for education” and its promised A$37.3 billion investment in school funding. But it had little to say about the growing gap between public and private schools – in funding, in the quality of teachers and in student academic performance – let alone how the gap might be remedied.

Funding aside, many of the most critical questions were ignored. How should Australian schools and universities respond to the pressures of globalisation? How will they facilitate Australia’s engagement with Asia? How can education prepare young Australians to develop inquiring and innovative minds and a better grasp of what constitutes responsible citizenship in this period of transition?

And what of the policies needed to raise the standards of teacher training, professional development of teachers, principals and lecturers, engagement with parents and, more generally, our educational culture?

Much the same can be said of the approach to climate change. Though all major parties recognised the need to move towards renewable sources of energy, only the Greens advocated the ending of subsidies to the coal industry.

But even the Greens failed to come to terms with the cross-border dimensions of climate change – in particular the need to improve on the reporting and transparency mechanisms envisaged by the 2015 Paris agreement, the specific role Australia could play in renewed formal and informal multilateral initiatives, or the funds it should provide to help finance climate mitigation and adaptation measures in developing countries.

These glaring gaps in policy formulation and advocacy were even starker when it came to the relationship with China. Australia’s economy has become overwhelmingly dependent on China’s economic rise, while its security policy remains hopelessly tied to America’s apron strings. How to reconcile these contradictory directions, especially in the context of rising tensions between the two major centres of power?

Australians seeking answers to these questions would be looking in vain if they turned to their political parties.

The answers are no more illuminating when it comes to how to respond to terrorism at home and abroad, to the balance to be struck between safety and civil liberties, or to large refugee flows and the balance between national anxieties and international obligations.

The problem confronting political parties is that the people in leadership positions are intellectually and emotionally ill-equipped to grasp the complex transformation in human affairs now under way.

It is ironic that, at a time of rapid globalisation, political parties should have become more insular, less internationally connected and seemingly oblivious to the need for political education, whether of their membership or of the wider electorate.

Internationalisation and Asian engagement may have become buzzwords, but parties bring little substance to either of these aspirations. The need for institutional, constitutional and cultural innovation has never been greater.