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‘I Lost in Politics to Money’: Rob Oakeshott on Corporate Interests in Politics

Read Sunday, 10 Aug 2014

When former independent MP Rob Oakeshott spoke at Epic Fail recently, he shared what his time in federal parliament taught him about power, money, the influence of corporate interests and the benefit of hindsight.

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‘This is epic!’ yells my three year old son Ben last weekend as he lets his legs go on a steep rocky trail, his arms spread wide and his head up. He’s looking at the canopy of one of the last east coast literal rainforests in a small pocket of green at the end of our street in Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie – otherwise known as Biripai country.

It was always going to end in tears – an epic fail, three year old style; nothing a dust-off and hug can’t fix. But in the highs and lows of that fifteen second emotional rollercoaster of a young boy’s life on a walking trail last weekend lies a reaffirmation of a great truth.

If you want to live – and I mean really live, with all the ‘epicness’ that truly living requires – then wise up to the ‘Greek tragedy’ bedfellow that Epic shares. A pillow partner called Failure.

It is why the seat belt was invented. Failure is expected when an epic tool like speed is given to us.

Like a hand in a glove, Failure wraps its ever present self around anything Epic. It is the strangler fig of our own human rainforest, forever present in the bird shit of human activity. The most colourful tree with the juiciest fruit attracts the birds – who turn this epic beauty into the seeds of a brown distorted stinking mash of death.

It is the zero sum game of where Epic and Fail collide. My son chooses to use the word Epic as a reflection of his new generation – let’s call them Generation ABC – and it is shaped around a popular kids movie by the same name. So what was once cool, or wizard, or funky, or deadly, or massive, or unreal, or awesome, or happening, or even it, is now epic.

The movie Epic is best summarised as a kids version of Avatar. And if you haven’t seen this, it is summarised in exactly 25 words as:

Forest creatures fighting forest-destroying monster. Humans get involved and stuff it up. Happy ending where all decide to get on and play nicely.

It’s The Lorax meets the great, great Graham Base’s Uno’s Garden – and any number of books and movies about the theme of environment versus the economy.

My epic fail is not what I see in the collective thought bubble above all your heads – that question you all seem to be asking yourselves about how on earth this guy is going to do a 10 minute speech about a 17 minute one.

And it was neither epic nor failure to do what I said I would do when I stood, successfully, at two federal elections and stayed true to my personal platform of getting an emissions trading scheme and the National Broadband Network rolling in Australia.

It is my view that it’s actually biodiversity loss that is Australia’s greatest environmental challenge by a country mile.

The Fairfax press defined me on day one, after the 2010 election, as a ‘rural progressive’ who wants both of these issues resolved. They even had a breakout box describing how my home was used for refugee Australians as part of Rural Australians for Refugees. That the News Limited media, and others, then chose to turn this all into some act of disloyalty and betrayal is their problem, not mine – and therefore not any reflective epic fail on my behalf at all.

No, my epic fails are many, but not there.

Rather, they are in the policy areas of biodiversity loss and carbon pricing. And they are in my inability to recognise, and then handle, the big shift happening in Australian politics: a shift towards what I call corporate conflict theory, and the flow-on consequences of this shift where I, and we, have failed in epic proportions to put a check on the privatisation of democracy in Australia today.

Firstly, the epic policy failure of climate change. In 2010, my thinking was fairly brutal, and simple. I knew Peter Costello had tried and failed in 2001 to get an emissions trading scheme through cabinet. I knew former prime ministers Howard and Rudd had both taken the advice of scientists and economists seriously and promoted an ETS at the 2007 election, and now famously, I knew the bipartisan deal was nearly done in 2009 between Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull.

My view at the time was that bipartisanship on evidence and common sense wasn’t really under threat, and that the 2010 election idea of Direct Action was really just a quickly cobbled together marketing tool by the LNP to neutralise the electoral pain and stop the internal bleeding amongst their own ranks.

So my view was to help ram an ETS through, clean up the edges as we go, and then let the scientists and economists – as well as logic, common sense and evidence – win the politics. How wrong I was. I lived the birth of the false tax debate, I watched it grow, I watched it win. I watched an emissions trading scheme get reframed as a carbon tax, and die as a consequence. An epic fail all round.

It is my view that it’s actually biodiversity loss that is Australia’s greatest environmental challenge by a country mile. Yet trying to initiate discussion or programs in this regard have politicians running that same country mile, as they all remained locked in carbon wrestlemania.

I lost in politics to money. I poked power in the eye and got an almighty punch in the nose in return.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if I was dropped back into 2010 and had this opportunity again, I would make biodiversity loss the top of the pyramid of what we were trying to address, instead of making the science of a gas the top of the pyramid. By doing so, community engagement on some simple facts like the death of the species known as a koala in our lifetime – without behaviour change – would be an easier conversation than the more challenging discussion around a colourless, odourless gas.

More importantly, the broader suite of tools required would have also been an easier discussion. Things like a national bio-banking scheme, national biodiversity corridors of scale and significance, the use of biomass and the role that the public tree can play in energy security and emissions trading, a serious (as opposed to the current piecemeal) crack at invasive species – and importantly, how urban planning can better embrace biodiversity gains, as compared to the current planning realities of death by a thousand cuts.

By doing some of this broader work, we could have lowered the temperature on carbon politics, and we’d have had – still could have – a much greater chance of getting a long term ETS. It would have been a broader, more bipartisan conversation on a number of fronts – reducing the chance for all the concentrated hoopla of $100 lamb roasts and Whyalla wipeouts.

Now, the deeper question on all of this is the one about advice. When every single MP is getting exactly the same strong and urgent advice, the unanswered question is how on earth have we all allowed this epic fail on carbon policy to happen.

My answer is money – political donations – and the extreme influence of the Business Union in Australian democracy today.

And this is where my other two epic fails combine. I lost in politics to money. I poked power in the eye and got an almighty punch in the nose in return.

Sociology textbooks don’t talk about conflict theory being used by the powerful to create dissent and division and uncertainty in a community. Conflict theory is supposed to be the tool of the marginalised and disadvantaged. It’s the basis of the concept of unionism, and the concept of street protest.

But if this was all true, why was Australia’s richest woman getting off the bus to personally street protest, as if she was marginalised and disadvantaged?

Or why were other high profile West Australian mining magnates photographed weekly in their hi-vis safety wear, presenting themselves as a worker in an effort to position themselves as power-poor?

Or why was the late Paul Ramsey, the LNP’s biggest donor in 2010, handing out pamphlets to patients in regard private health insurance reform, or getting a $300k salaried CEO of a local hospital to manufacture a protest outside my electorate office with paid nursing staff – captured as a lead story on Prime Television, which happened to be owned by the same Paul Ramsey?

We seem comfortable being the first generation to consume and waste more than we can produce and collect.
We seem comfortable to allow our children a shorter life expectancy than our own.

What was it with the radical but early and repeated calls for an ‘early election’ by the Murdoch media – based on a completely false premise that an elected Parliament that didn’t suit their business interests was enough of a trigger to accuse it relentlessly of being, of all things, undemocratic?

How poor and marginalised and disadvantaged this mob were, I say sarcastically. But oh how skilful they were in the use of conflict theory for their own return, I say with non-sarcastic respect.

Throughout that period of 2010-2013, I met and personally dealt with six of the top ten richest people in Australia. I did not ask to meet any of them. They chased me. At the time, they were all, individually, a pleasure to deal with. But as a collective noun of wealth in Australia today – a whale of money, or a pride of oligarchs – their behaviour throughout that period confirms for us all just how much they are intimately involved, and crawling all over your democracy.

In truth, real democracy was the strongest it has been for a long time in that 43rd Parliament, because no-one, or nothing, owned it.

The epic failure was the Business Union of Australia using a new corporate conflict theory to allow our Parliament to be perceived as undemocratic. They did it successfully, and now we have the select few back in their happy place of command and control. The pussycat called Power is purring again.

The epic fail of our time is that right when we had the chance to embed real democracy, we have in fact entrenched a privatised model of democracy.

So my most epic of epic fails is that I am part of a Generation X and Y that is a really a Generation Zzz. We will be looked back on by my three year old Ben, and many others, as a failed generation, asleep to the great challenges of real democracy for our times.

We seem comfortable being the first generation to consume and waste more than we can produce and collect.

We seem comfortable to allow our children a shorter life expectancy than our own.

And specifically in Australia, we all know future standards of living will be higher with comprehensive tax reform that involves some bad medicine being swallowed now – and we all know our children’s future is more secure with real action on climate change. Yet we choose do reject doing anything on both. If actions speak louder than words, we do not care about tomorrow.

So the sequel to today’s kid’s movie Epic will be the adult version called Fail. They’ll watch it in about thirty years’ time. It will be about us, sloth-like and asleep.

Thankfully, it will frustrate and bore them. Thankfully, the circle of life – the yin and the yang, the whatever you want to call it – will, I believe, inspire a great generation. One of epic innovation and entrepreneurship. A time of progress based on evidence and logic, not inertia-based on shrill adversarial politics.

They will be great and epic, because they have to be. They have to be, because of our failures today – epic failures that I carry as a burden more than most.

So run, Ben. Run. Run fast down that hill. Scream ‘epic!’ until your lungs burn. Because you are Epic, and your Generation ABC is the one that will have to be more Epic than ever before.

We, Generation X/Y/Zzz, have left you no option.


This is an edited version of a talk given at the Wheeler Centre’s Epic Fail event on 30 July. You can view the video online.

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