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Australia's political class risks missing the election's key lesson


The federal election resulted in a historic splintering of voter choice, but the major parties don’t seem to understand the key issue underpinning this landmark change, writes Emma Fletcher.

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The monumental and history-making win for the “teal” independents and the substantial swing to the Greens in this federal election make it hard to step back and look at what megatrends were playing out. The obvious bend towards ‘green issues’ masks some underlying community concerns.

Were addressing climate change and the need for a federal integrity body huge issues in the campaign? Yes. Did these have a big impact on the outcomes of this election? Absolutely.  Were these issues of significant importance for all electorates or even most electorates? Definitely not.

The truth is different issues have been instrumental in determining the outcomes in different seats. As Labor’s Tanya Plibersek said when she appeared on the ABC’s election coverage on election night – “electorates were splintering all over the place”, making it difficult to work out what was going on.

I believe the reason behind that splintering wasn’t support for a particular policy issue or even any policy issue at all, but rather it was the community’s universal concerns about governance and their lack of trust in our political system.

Across the country, communities are not feeling like they are being listened to. They don’t feel heard. They don’t see or hear their local member of parliament standing up for their community’s concerns publicly and fighting for those issues on their behalf. Quite often, they don’t see or hear from their local member at all until the lead up to an election – an oft-cited cynical move.

As community engagement professionals, we are constantly listening to communities – that is part of our job, to facilitate conversations and understand what communities need or want. This gives us an unusual level of insight. You would think that what we learn would be confined to the precise topic being engaged on – but you would be surprised.

The challenge is not how they get their ‘messages out’ – the community has switched off from messaging.

What never ceases to amaze us is that no matter what topic we engage on, what keeps coming out time and time again is that most people don’t feel like their governments are listening and responding to their needs or the needs of the Australian community. They don’t feel respected by government. Distrust and cynicism prevail.

This election, more independents gave Australians more choices that responded directly to local needs and the community voted with their feet, increasingly choosing the new options on offer.

The question is – is our political class listening? Or rather are they interpreting this message correctly?

You don’t have to explore many electorates to find evidence of the importance of listening and responding to the electorate. The electorates of Bass and Fowler provide some interesting insights.

Bass was the most marginal Liberal-held seat in the country (on a margin of 0.4%) but was retained by Liberal MP Bridget Archer this election. Why? No doubt there were many reasons, but it is easy to see the respect that Archer has for her constituents and the measures she takes to represent their views/interests and to demonstrate to them that she is doing so.

In the last few years, she has crossed the floor twice – on the ICAC bill and the Religious Discrimination Bill. She has stood up within the party and publicly for their interests. Archer understands the importance of representation and what her community expect from their representative. On ABC Hobart she said: “I think what Australians want and certainly what people in my community want is a return to representation, a return to representatives listening to their community and working together to achieve outcomes in the best interests of Australians.”

The constituents in the seat of Fowler, over a thousand kilometres away and with a very different demographic, echoed a similar sentiment when they voted out Labor in favour of a local independent – in an overwhelmingly safe Labor seat. The resounding sentiment from this electorate was that Kristina Keneally, parachuted into the electorate, couldn’t represent them and their needs and there was resentment towards them for the disrespect they showed in thinking she could.

This is the challenge for political parties.

The challenge is not how they get their ‘messages out’ – the community has switched off from messaging. The challenge also isn’t about adopting specific policies that appeal to particular interest groups. It’s not about throwing money at small projects in marginal electorates – clearly this doesn’t work. Rather, the challenge is about how local members listen to their communities – how they better understand the priorities of their electorates and how they demonstrate to those communities that they have heard them. Ultimately, it’s about how local members genuinely and transparently ‘represent’ their communities.

The challenge for our political parties is in this act of ‘representation’. Our political parties need to better understand what the community expects from its representatives and then enable that representation within the party structures.  Party structures need to allow more flexibility – enabling local members to openly vocalise the needs/wants of their communities publicly whilst retaining the strength and stability that comes from the traditional party structure and practices.

However, it isn’t just the majors.

There is an opportunity for local members of all persuasions to innovate in how they hear from the community: how they better communicate with the electorate, how they understand where the polarised views of the community coalesce, how they build mutual understanding between themselves and their communities.

Our politicians could do worse than having a conversation with their communities and seeking to understand what “representation” means to them.

Emma Fletcher is CEO of Adelaide based representative democracy consultancy, democracyCO.

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