The WestConnex debacle is a metaphor for 2023’s rolling political disasters, which have left voters seething

December 12, 2023

Anthony Albanese’s government is at a nadir, voters are furious and our politicians have never seemed more impotent.

The miserable gridlock that has engulfed my community these past few weeks feels an apt metaphor for the end of 2023, a year when we seemed to get trapped in a logjam of our own creation.

Sydney’s WestConnex debacle is a morality tale of the corporate capture of our ship of state, a spaghetti car-bonara cooked up by the sale of public energy assets, the proceeds “recycled” to fund this implausible portal into the ever-growing network of privatised motorways.

But it is in more than just the Sydney traffic where stasis reigns; the silencing of the First Nations voice, a housing system devouring our young, the stuttering steps to avoid climate collapse – the challenges we face seem greater than our capacity to meet them.

Our elected representatives are rendered impotent by the global forces driving domestic inflation while local retail duopolies gouge prices, energy companies gold plate their assets and banks cash in on our misery. At every step it is we, the citizens, who pick up the tab.

This final Guardian Essential report shows that as the year draws to a close the nation is quietly seething; 2023 was worse than we expected, a bad year for just about everyone, except big business. And we think 2024 will be even worse than that. Grrr.

Meanwhile, the civic renaissance of the pandemic years is a distant memory with trust in our public institutions in freefall.

This presents an existential dilemma for the Albanese government as it hits a nadir at the end of its first full year in power.

How can you be a successful government when the majority of people think governments are the problem? More profoundly, how can Labor fashion a model of government that rebuilds trust and, consequently, maximises the value of its incumbency?

While the prime minister has been right to eschew the Morrison cycle of faux outrage and calculated division in favour of a more sober and methodical approach, he risks creating a vacuum that is vulnerable to our Politico-Media Complex’s insatiable hunger for red meat.

Sucked into this vortex of distrust, confusion and grievance, the government’s best defence might be to start articulating a more expansive notion of its mission by switching from the noun to the verb.

Government (as a noun) holds the benches, passes laws, allocates resources and manages our international relations. Governing (as a verb) is a more active notion that talks to the way in which power is exercised, by whom and to what ends.

Other findings in the Essential report point to this deeper contradiction in our conception of government. A majority agree with the proposition that the “government has too much power”, yet even more want it to do more on just about everything.

Maybe these two things can be true at the same time. We reject the noun that wields power from the top down but we are crying out for more of the verb to respond to our material needs by addressing issues from the ground up.

The car wreck of the WestConnex is a timely reminder of the diminution of community voice, the collapse of what the great American economist JK Galbraith coined “countervailing power”.

Galbraith argued civil society was critical to democracy because it bridged the gap between the state and individual citizens, providing a counterpoint to that power imbalance by creating centres of shared influence.

We learned in the heartbreak of this year’s referendum that today’s civil society is a weakened version of Galbraith’s idyll when an institutional consensus for change was rendered ineffectual and, worse, became compelling evidence of an elite agenda.

The good news is that, as 2023 draws to a close, there are some green shoots for both the Albanese government and we whom it governs.

Laws to protect nature and get wages moving, both designed and delivered with the active input of civil society and feedback from a good faith crossbench, passed in the final sitting days of the year.

Taking grassroots engagement to a new level was last week’s NDIS review, tasked with rescuing our world-leading disability support scheme from buckling under the weight of a decade of neglect when the merchant bankers, literally, took over.

Over the past decade and a half, the disability sector has got itself organised: people with disability, families, advocates, workers and not-for-profit providers committed to a broad rather than sectional interest, first to demand the better deal the NDIS undoubtedly is, and then to resist its undermining.

This is not to suggest the NDIS review is universally embraced; but the government’s commitment to implement these changes in partnership means people with disability are in control of their own destiny rather than victims of someone else’s reform agenda.

It’s not just the NDIS where people with disability are taking on the challenge of redesigning their future: after this year’s disability royal commission there is a renewed commitment to phase out segregation in education, employment and housing.

People with disability are the world’s greatest innovators. They demanded accessible streets and buildings and gifted every parent with a pram or older person with mobility challenges better access as well. Now they are forging a more accessible model of government that might well break the gridlock.

This just might be the sweet spot for any of us who wants to break the gridlock of late-stage capitalism, where access to power is purchased, disagreements are weaponised and the project of governing crawls at snail’s pace.

As we reflect on this year of inertia, let’s all commit to finding new ways of working together, untangling the spaghetti junction of modern government by ensuring everyone has a viable on-ramp.

  • Peter Lewis is an executive director of Essential, a progressive strategic communications and research company. He has worked extensively with the disability sector for more than a decade and is launching the Centre of the Public Square, a new initiative with the independent thinktank Per Capita

Originally published in The Guardian Australia, 12 Dec 2023