‘All progress is an illusion’. Cheryl Kernot’s unique perspective on bipartisanship in Australia

By and

Thursday September 10, 2020

Then-shadow Employment minister Cheryl Kernot speaks with Stephen Martin & Bob McMullen during Question Time in the House of Representatives chamber at Parliament House Canberra on 6 November 2000 (AAP Photo/Alan Porritt)

Having led the Australian Democrats, before turning to Labor and then standing as an Independent, Cheryl Kernot has great stories to tell and great insights into Australian politics. She was interviewed by Scott Hamilton and Stuart Kells.

Early life and entering politics

For some reason I blame my grandfather, who was a Labor party organiser apparently, but he died when I was 12, so I never got to have a really good political discussion with him. There is not another person in my family who is interested in politics.

I had two fantastic teachers at the public girls’ high school I attended. When I was 14 I had an English teacher called Miss Paine, who gave us a really hard essay to write: ‘all progress is an illusion’. Writing about that when you are 14 is quite a challenge. She really made us think. I really credit her with opening up horizons for thinking more widely.

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My second formative influence was my history teacher, Wendy Jonas, who is still alive. From my viewpoint as a 16 year old, she was very bohemian. She used to smoke and wore fishnet stockings. She would make us write challenging essays, too, and have debates. One was the republican debate. We are talking in the 60s here. The other ones were ‘that economists should have two votes to everyone else’s one because they really know what they are doing and run the system’. We were just kids and it was very provocative and great discussions.

Early speech on racism

I gave a speech one day at school assembly on racism. It was written up in our school magazine and it came up when journalists were looking for stuff to write about me.

I remember I had to give that speech in front of Oodgeroo Noonuccal and our local member, Milton Morris, a Liberal who was state transport minister for years. He was our prefect’s patron and after that speech he took me aside and said I really think you should consider going into politics. He thought he was recruiting me. I went to his office and we chatted and he showed me the electorate map of Maitland [Lower Hunter Valley, NSW] and where the boundaries were. How that (pointing) boundary was going to be moved as he lived just a bit outside. But I wasn’t enthused. He didn’t talk to me about Liberal Party philosophy or anything. I think he might have made some assumption. He missed his opportunity.

Anyway, I went to Sydney University, did a little bit of government, but my forte was in linguistics and history. I was interested in government but not active – except in the anti-Vietnam War marches. It took Gough Whitlam’s dismissal to completely politicise me like just so many of my generation. I made some exploratory looks into the Labor party, but I found it incredibly blokey.

Becoming a Democrat

Eventually, I moved to Queensland to teach and was confronted with the Joh Bjelke-Peterson goings on. That was a huge political awakening. I couldn’t believe it. My political antenna was just going all the time. I was the coach of the debating team and one of the boys in the debating team said to me one day that his mother had just joined this new political party called the Democrats. He asked if he could bring me a copy of the policy document. I said sure.

I read it and really liked it. I liked the participatory processes most of all and very sensible policies for the time like mixed economy, environment, human rights. The fact that the members participated and elected the leader – the egalitarianism of it. It’s quite ironic to me that those who used to laugh at us like the Labor Party now do the same thing. The media were really scathing when we had our Democrats leader elections. They’d say, ‘Oh, yeah, the country will wait for’, you know, ‘six months while it was worked out’. Now they do grumble a bit about how long it takes for Labor if they have a proper contest and not just anoint someone uncontested.

The Democrats were formed in 1977, so it would have been ’78 when I joined. Don Chip was the leader. Don told me something important for your bipartisanship thesis. He told me very early on, ‘If you get enough good people with goodwill around the same table for enough time, you can solve nearly anything.’

I did let that inform me quite a lot in my political life and I did have quite a few roundtables. I can’t say we solved many big things, but we did make progress. I thought it was interesting and useful advice.

I can’t think of too many examples of bipartisanship. And I have to say this to you – ‘bipartisan’ presumes two parties. And Robert Tickner amended the wording of the setting up of the Aboriginal Reconciliation Council, at my request, to reflect cross-party representation.

I did things in the Democrats that I’m still really proud of; what we did with the balance of power on votes like the native title legislation. There’s another one that’s not very well known but a good one, which is parental leave. I started all that parental leave stuff by going to the industrial relations commission and arguing for paid leave for parents for sick children and frail and elderly parents. Born of my own experience; mostly mothers had to ring up and say they were sick when their kids were sick and I thought that was wrong. Our system had to recognise that workers were parents.

On economic reform

I can’t see too many other examples that have sprung out of a shared belief that we really need to do something. At the time, economic policy was captured by neoliberalism. People not even questioning, ‘Could this be another fad?’. It was a shock to think that there could be such a strong economic fad. Paul Keating said, in late 2018 or early 2019, it was an economic theory that had outlived its time. He said that recently, yet some state Labor parties still cling to it.

I think to myself, ‘There’s your permission, Labor: the early adopters are now saying it’s OK to change’. You will find me in Hansard opposing the outsourcing of employment services, which are now such a mess. Everything we said about that outsourcing has come true. Complete disaster.

Privatisation was a shared neoliberalism agenda and the Democrats spoke against it every single time. There are some universals in life, whenever you put profits first. First they say, ‘We are going to put strict conditions in place’, like when they privatised Telstra, and the trade-off was service obligations, or ‘We’re going to put really strict rehabilitation requirements on mining companies’. Then you live through it, you live long enough to see that they often didn’t honour those obligations at all.

I think you only have to understand human beings, human motivations, to understand that if you give people pretty much unfettered control, the sort of people who will take it up are the sort of people who need regulation and control.

The days after the Port Arthur massacre

It happened on a Sunday. We were in Parliament House because my office got the call to say Mr Howard was taking a plane to Port Arthur and he invited me, as well as Kim Beazley, who was then Opposition Leader. I had sort of struck up a relationship with Howard over parental leave because, like many fathers, he had a grown-up daughter who didn’t agree with some of his ideas about working women.

I accepted Howard’s invitation because it was important for politicians who could do something about it to be there and to understand how it could have happened. He was pretty quick to react, maybe to give people hope that some good around gun control might come out of it.

It was a very moving thing. That footage still gets shown and I see myself in that checked jacket of the time. We didn’t have to change any policy to be in agreement with what he had to do. Tim Fisher [of the National Party] did. A lot of us tried to support Tim, to say, ‘We understand this is hard for you Tim, you are being very courageous, it’s really important’. I went to other gun-control debate events with them. I can remember one on the Gold Coast and one in country Queensland – not one where I had to wear a bulletproof vest, though.

That’s a good example of true bipartisanship. I don’t actually think all of the bipartisanship around asylum seekers and refugee policy has been a positive thing. It’s been born out of fear. Of losing votes, rather than necessarily doing the right thing. And born out of fear of being seen to be weak on national security, which the conservatives have developed into an artform.

Turning to Labor

It is not widely understood how debilitating it can be to sit in a balance of power position for eleven years, where everybody says, ‘Labor thinks this’, ‘LNP thinks this’, and then occasionally you might get the last paragraph in a story. Nobody is interested in your policies. Except for one time, when I think Downer might have been leader of the Opposition and the Democrats produced a complete alternative budget. We got Sydney Morning Herald editorials and things saying we were the real Opposition of the country.

It’s completely frustrating that, despite all the work you do on policy development, it really is the government of the day’s agenda, and all they cared about was whether the Democrats would block it or support it. Under Labor we had starting points in common, like on compulsory superannuation. We would find ourselves trying to improve the legislation, and we did often. But under the Liberals, the starting points for me weren’t there.

As Gough Whitlam said, and as I put in the beginning of one of my books, ‘History will have to take its chances comrade’, and that’s exactly what happens. I talked to Gough about IR reform when I was in the Democrats. He would often write me letters with suggestions. I asked him, ‘How can we maintain the supremacy of collective bargaining in this new enterprise bargaining regime?’ and he said put it in the Objects of the Act. We did manage to get Peter Reith to do that.

Bipartisanship or multi-partisanship

Greg Jericho wrote this fantastic piece in the Guardian that centrism is a dead-weight dragging us all down. It’s this kind of media script that says, somehow, you’ve got to find this mythical ‘sensible centre’, which is a euphemism for bipartisanship. That’s how Leigh Sales and others use it. There is a media script. Once you agree to meet a minister on an issue, there is this immovable wave that there has got to be a negotiated outcome.

Very few people say, ‘No I’m not meeting anymore, there’s nothing we can do’, people keep going and going and going and there’s an outcome – that’s what all those crossbenchers do at the moment. Some of that is pushed on by a media script of negotiated outcomes being better for the country irrespective of what the outcomes are down the line.

When Telstra was privatised and it was Brian Harradine’s casting vote, all he got was call centres in Tasmania. I said at the time, ‘And how long will that last?’ What sort of a price is that for selling out? Those call centres went within five years. (I recall dancing on the table at the Democrats’ Christmas party after we lost that vote. I was crying, and singing ‘It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to!’)

There is bipartisanship when you go on foreign delegations – but not a bipartisanship where you drop your beliefs. I was on a yacht in San Francisco Harbour with Alexander Downer and a group on a young political leaders’ exchange. A merchant ship was coming towards us and Downer said, ‘Look out Cheryl, the live exports are coming towards you, you better windsurf out!’

Genuine bipartisanship

Tweaking stuff is not bipartisanship. For true bipartisanship, you’ve got to find a common centre. You would hope that there would be true bipartisanship around parliamentary processes because public trust and respect for the institution of parliament is fundamental to democracy. But you can’t even find that.

Look at the Prime Minister and the Premiers during Covid, because that’s just not bipartisanship. It’s faux bipartisanship. They were pretending to be bipartisan to get brownie points. Also the bipartisanship on foreign policy. When is Labor going to walk back from this bipartisanship when it is exposed to be stupid? There is still this big reluctance to break supposed bipartisanship on a number of foreign policy issues.

That ‘bipartisanship’ is a bad thing for the country. Because of Trump it is in sharp relief at the moment. Trump and China. I saw a tweet by the New York media commentator Jay Rosen, who said the American media has only weeks to get its head around what Trump will do if he loses – and what the media should do. That’s true. They have only just worked out how to deal with his lies after four years down the track. I think there could be mass riots and deaths because he is inciting that now.

We shouldn’t have picked a fight with China. We didn’t need to say we will send the virus inspectors as though they were weapons inspectors. We could have said we were concerned but we didn’t need to go that far so early. That’s just Morrison’s oafish bullying, which is his natural mode.

If Joe Biden becomes President, Morrison might find himself in a lot of trouble on climate policy. And so might Tony Abbott, negotiating trade agreements for a country that has signed up to climate change targets.

Some observations from us

There is a classic political advertisement from the 2004 Bush–Kerry presidential campaign. The ad has Kerry windsurfing – as a metaphor for his changing positions on major issues such as the Iraq War. Americans don’t like their politicians to backflip or sharply change tack – and nor do Australians. John Howard said we would ‘never ever’ have a GST – and then he supported it with gusto. Few people forgot.

Apart from back-flippers, Australia has a long history of ship-jumpers and renegades. In the Great Depression, postmaster-general Joe Lyons in the Scullin Labor government got the message that he would become acting treasurer after Ted Theodore resigned. Lyons didn’t, however, get the memo on Keynesian economics.

He cut spending and this was popular neither with the public nor his PM. Lyon was sacked from the ministry and subsequently resigned from the Labor Party. With another splitter, Billy Hughes, he started the United Australia Party – a precursor to today’s Liberal Party. (Hughes, who defected from Labor in 1916 over conscription, is the only Australian prime minister to have led both Labor and conservative governments.)

Senator Mal Colston quit the ALP in 1996, then voted with the LNP to privatise Telstra. Sitting as an independent, he was elevated to Senate Vice President, with additional perks and pay. Robert Ray called him ‘the quisling Quasimodo from Queensland’. The Mal-move meant the Howard Government no longer had to negotiate with the Democrats, who were enjoying a high water mark with seven Senators. Cheryl Kernot made the jump to Labor in 1997.

Peter Slipper was first elected as a member of the National Party but then slipped back in as a member of the Liberal Party and served as government whip during the Howard era. But a fight over preselection after the 2010 election saw him do a deal with the minority Gillard government to become speaker of the House, when Labor’s Harry Jenkin’s suddenly resigned as speaker.

Harry Jenkins said he resigned so he could move from being non-partisan to re-enter policy debates within the Labor party and the parliament. Maybe it shouldn’t have been such a shock. Earlier in the year, during another contentious debate on carbon pricing, he had declared a ‘global warning’ to all speakers. He was also rolled as speaker on the suspension of ‘named’ Liberal Bob Baldwin. Ironically, the suspension failed on the casting votes of independent Rob Oakeshott, and Tony Crook of the National Party of Australia (WA) Inc., a splinter on the National Party of Australia.

Tony Abbott – not known for his bipartisan tendencies – called Jenkins an ‘adornment to the Parliament’ and said his resignation came ‘out of the blue’. ‘He has conducted himself in the chair with good humour, with impartiality, with forbearance, and with patience, and for that he has our thanks and our enduring respect.’

With inter-party movements and policy horse-trading and flip-flopping, it is no wonder voters sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between parties. Changing policies is never easy, and changing parties is even harder. Cheryl Kernot changed parties and stood as an independent because she was holding true to her values, and that is of course admirable.

Kernot rightly points out that ‘bipartisanship’ implies just two parties, whereas there has really only been a relatively short period in Australian political history when we had just two dominant parties. Today, the days of just two parties running the show are well and truly in abeyance. Will the current political landscape mean more ship-jumpers and renegades? And would that help or hinder bipartisanship?

The words of Don Chip are key. With enough time and goodwill, we can solve the most difficult policy challenges. Bipartisanship should not be a race to the bottom, and it should not be about sacrificing values or civility when competing to find the centre ground.

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