Winners and losers of a year of uncertainty

ROLLERCOASTER: After an unstable 2017, Simon Cowan says Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten might believe that eternal vigilance is the price of leadership.
ROLLERCOASTER: After an unstable 2017, Simon Cowan says Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten might believe that eternal vigilance is the price of leadership.

As 2017 began with the resignation of a cabinet minister, you would have been forgiven for thinking that might have been a defining moment of the political year. Forgiven, but wrong all the same. For 2017 revealed more of how the titanic changes of 2016 continued to unfold — for example, Donald Trump's presidency really is proceeding much like his campaign. Yet while the importance of many events remains unknown, some clear winners and losers emerge.

While many have been critical of the postal plebiscite, same-sex marriage is now legal in Australia. While many people deserve credit for this, no resolution would have been reached this year without courageous action by Liberals such as Dean Smith, Tim Wilson and the national director of Liberals and Nationals for Yes, Andrew Bragg.

Another winner – paradoxically, given the scrutiny it faced – was the High Court. When confronted with several deeply tricky decisions with severe political outcomes, in the marriage equality and citizenship cases, the court came to thoroughly defendable conclusions based on legally sound reasoning. Particularly, it must have been tempting for the justices to read down section 44, resolve the rapidly escalating citizenship crisis, and effectively remove the court from centre stage. Yet they gave effect to the clear meaning of the words “subject or citizen”.

Of course, given the nature of politics, there were many more losers than winners this year. First and foremost were the mob dubbed “the citizenship seven”, though their ranks have swollen so rapidly that, at some point early next year, it may be quicker to name MPs who haven't been the subject of section 44 issues than those who have. That some were subsequently re-elected in no way detracts from the fact that a sizable minority of those who write our nation's law gave so little thought to the rules that they were evicted from parliament. In truth, it is the citizen taxpayer who is the loser here.

Perhaps it is this perpetual status as loser that occasionally makes the ordinary citizen irrationally lash out at a couple of favourite targets – and boy oh boy, did the banks cop it in 2017. Politicians on both sides lined up with steel-toed boots: new taxes, restrictive codes of conduct and public shamings all culminated in a royal commission.

Of course, given the merry-go-round of political leaders in recent years, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten may well be thinking eternal vigilance is the price of leadership. After all, neither could be said to have had an unequivocally good year.

Until the end of the year, Shorten would have comfortably felt a clear winner. Yet, in quick succession, he was made to appear two-faced on the citizenship issue, lost a senator in Sam Dastyari and then underperformed in the Bennelong by-election despite recruiting a star candidate. Labor maintains a sizeable lead in Newspoll but Shorten himself isn't popular. Turnbull didn't have a great year but finished on a high: history is more likely to remember him as the prime minister who delivered marriage equality than to remember the circumstances in which it happened. And Bennelong was another reminder that polls aren't everything.

While the volatility makes predicting the future a mug's game, it seems clear uncertainty will continue. The citizenship issue is far from played out, the ideological cracks on both sides of politics are more likely to widen than shrink, and the global landscape is hardly stable. In such circumstances, we can only hope for a happy new year.

Simon Cowan is research manager at the Centre for Independent Studies.


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