The political winners and losers of 2023
Once again it is the time of year to crown those whose success warrants acknowledgement as one of this year’s winners. Unfortunately some, despite their best efforts, ended the year on the other side of the ledger. For them, brickbats as this year’s losers.
In a year dominated by the Voice referendum, the first winner this year has to be my former colleague Jacinta Nampijinpa Price (pictured).
Look, nobody wins a referendum on their own. It would be wrong to downplay the hard work of the many contributors to the ‘No’ campaign, including Warren Mundine and numerous others.
But it was Jacinta who captured the nation’s attention, and redefined the conversation. The stakes were high for her: as a recently elected Senator, and an Indigenous woman, failure could have crippled her career before it started. Now, people are talking about her as Prime Minister material.
Critics accused her of being a puppet for white voices but nothing could be further from the truth. Jacinta just has a different view of the place of Indigenous Australians in modern Australia — one that is hostile to the post-colonialist vision that fuelled the Yes campaign.
Or perhaps, more accurately, the affirmative action mindset and separatism motivating the Voice inherently conflicts with mainstream Australia, which sees the world a lot more like Jacinta.
While Jacinta was the winner, a number of leading proponents of the Yes campaign were the biggest losers of the year. None more so than the Prime Minister, whose signature policy ended up in tatters.
In retrospect, flaws in the process that developed the Voice set the idea up for failure.
The government lost control of the process early on and was consigned to a role as increasingly uncomfortable spectators as the proposals got more radical. Indigenous activists quickly rejected recognition that they deemed symbolic, and began to coalesce around a model based on Indigenous sovereignty.
Specifically, the model envisioned the entrenchment of a representative institution in the Constitution through the referendum, which would subsequently be given real power by legislation and treaties.
Over time the Voice would have become an institution of significant political, legal and cultural power. Separate, though partially subordinate, it would have been a tangible manifestation of Indigenous sovereign rights.
This would have been a major change to the governance of Australia, and the more people became aware of the proposal, the more concerns grew.
These flaws were undeniably compounded by a terrible Yes campaign, crippled by the initial decisions and internal frictions. The decision to refuse to provide detail on the Voice, fobbing off the media and No supporters with increasingly implausible refutations was clearly ‘fighting the last war’.
However, if you provide no information yourself, you don’t get to complain about the other side’s supposed ‘misinformation’. It was this vacuum that empowered the No side’s scare campaign.
Labor’s Minister for Indigenous Australians, Linda Burney, was completely overshadowed by her shadow counterpart. Other leading spokespeople responded to questioning with increasingly bitter personal attacks.
Wheeling out corporate sponsors, and celebrity endorsements, who were clearly there to tell the supposedly ignorant public to just shut up and vote yes, predictably backfired.
Of course, the biggest losers were not the corporates, the activists or the politicians who wasted everyone’s time.
It was the Indigenous people whose lives could have been improved had we spent that time implementing evidence-based education policies in Indigenous schools.
Or improving governance and the rule of law in remote communities.
Or encouraging the development of businesses and the creation of jobs for Indigenous people.
Not that there are no positives to take from the referendum. First, as much as the No campaign was lambasted as Australia’s ‘Trump movement’, the No vote actually reflected a very un-Trump-like respect for Australia’s political institutions.
Perhaps more importantly, Australians were willing to risk being erroneously branded racist to do what they saw as the right thing. It’s an unspoken truth in Indigenous policy that many policymakers are unwilling to confront the hard decisions necessary to improve remote communities for fear being condemned as a racist.
Maybe, just maybe, we will now see more brave politicians like Jacinta.
In fact, some bravery is appearing across the policy spectrum. After having sampled all the wrong policy ideas on how to tackle housing affordability, we are now seeing a consensus building on left and right around the need to build more houses.
The fledgling YIMBY movement won National Cabinet endorsement, federal financial backing, widespread support in the media and detailed plans from several states to loosen the planning restrictions that make housing expensive. They were a big winner this year.
The simple reality is that our society will fall apart if housing becomes permanently out of reach for younger Australians — and no amount of scolding over expenses or exhortations to move to ever more remote suburbs will fix the problem.
It’s been a bad year to be a NIMBY and next year is shaping up to be worse. Once a seemingly unstoppable political movement, many a NIMBY has been revealed to be an emperor with no clothes; a rather unedifying image.
Affordable housing needs to be built where people want to live, and it looks increasingly like it will be. When that day comes, the handful of enterprising politicians, activists and humble think-tankers who have worked tirelessly towards that goal will deserve a hearty pat on the back.
There have also been a number of honourable mentions this year, most notably Treasurer Jim Chalmers for his RBA reform (a work in progress) and his surplus (despite having almost nothing to do with it).
There were a couple of close calls on the loser side too, especially at the Reserve Bank of Australia. Turns out lifting rates month after month after month makes a lot of people very angry.
Regardless if you were a winner or a loser this year, everyone should remember the golden cliché: a week is a long time in politics. There will be plenty of chances to be a winner (or a loser) next year.
Simon Cowan is Research Director at the Centre for Independent Studies.