Monday, August 02, 2010

Why I remain optimistic about Australian politics

I felt like taking a break from some of the things that I normally write about in my weekly Armidale Express column. So in my current series I am talking about that first election campaign at the end of 1919 into early 1920 that saw my grandfather enter the NSW State parliament. The story will go on line over the next three weeks.

We are all formed by our experiences. In my case, one of the reasons why I am not cynical about politics and politicians, one of the reasons why I still strive in my own way to try to improve things, lies in my  involvement with politics from a very early age. On the hustings 1943

This photo from Cousin Jamie's collection shows a country election meeting from 1943. My grandfather, the man with the hat, is standing  just behind the speaker on the ute tray.

People have come from a distance to hear the candidate, gathering in an open paddock. There is no mike, no placards. Just a gathering.

Growing up in country politics, I was not blind to bigotry or prejudice, nor was I blind to human frailty. They were all present, if less censured than today. However, I did grow up with certain expectations.

To begin with, I expected the politician whether candidate or member to have personal views. They were human beings. I wanted to know what they stood for. Even fifty years after my grandfather's first campaign when I ran for pre-selection myself, there was still an expectation that I would have my own platform over and beyond that set by the Party. Indeed, I and the other pre-selection candidates were criticised by the Party's General Secretary for treating the pre-selection as though it were something akin to a job interview!

During that first election campaign of my grandfather's, Don Aitkin tells the story of Mick Bruxner, another Progressive Party candidate for the multi-member Northern Tablelands' seat. Bruxner arrived in a small village for a well publicised whistle-stop. No-one was there. After a little while, a young stockman came out of the pub. Bruxner hesitated, then gave his speech to the audience of one. At the end of the speech the stockman came up: "You'll be right, mate", he said. "I was asked to listen to you. You will get the votes around here"!

The point of the story is that politics was not just party, but also personal. They were selecting their member. I actually think that this remains true today, especially in the country, despite the rise of the presidential approach.

On the other side of the coin, my experience with  members of parliament from all parties is that they generally take their duties to their electorate very seriously. Of course there are exceptions, but I still think that the statement is generally true.

Over the years, it has become harder to meet basic electorate needs. Government is larger, more complex, electorates are larger, while boundaries shift all the time. MPs now have staff, but even so the demands of electoral work continue to increase: complex government increases the range of elector concerns; larger electorates mean that there are more electors with concerns; constantly shifting boundaries requires the member to put aside some, while learning the needs of new electors.

I see very little discussion about the actual dynamics of being an MP, about the changing role of the MP at an electoral level. The discussion that does take place is too often expressed in generalities that have little to do with on-ground realities.     

Look back at that first election campaign of my grandfather's, one of the things that stands out is what would now be called naivety.

As today, there were slogans intended to capture the message. Then "Decentralisation, Development and Decent Government", now "Looking to the Future". However, the slogans actually carried a content that is now arguably missing in the sense that people expected them to have a meaning beyond a unifying tag.

As today, various action proposals were put forward. These were not necessarily sensible or achievable. Words like "effective" or "efficient" did not exist. There was also less knowledge than there is today in areas like economics. Further, this was the Party's first ever campaign. As the Party gained seats and especially once it gained office, it began to behave more like the political parties we know today; the past came to constrain the present and the future, as did the need to win or hold power.

All this said, there were certain expectations about parties and parliamentarians that would, I think, seem strange today. Of course the pork barrel was present; but then, what else is the modern marginal seats approach? Yet the people running in that first campaign, the people who supported them, actually expected all the words to mean something. Looking back, we know that some of those expectations were to be dashed, that some of the ideas were simply undoable. Still, the expectations were there and indeed much was achieved.

Now here I want to finish with a broader point, one that goes to the heart of my continued belief in the political process.

By their nature, the historical studies that I have done have had a strong political focus, including politics at an electoral level. They have also had a focus on particular policy and regional concerns.

Necessarily, those studies have drawn out some of the continuing failures in the political process; human failings including blind prejudice, over-ambition and venality; political failings, including bitter fights; policy failings, the failure to deliver. It is sometimes hard not to become cynical when you study a government tearing itself to bits, its members blind to the damage that they are doing to each other and the causes they have supported.

Yet the thing that also stands out is the continuity in the political process, the way in which particular aspirations, hopes and dreams actually do shape the political process. Somehow, with time, the dross gets shaken off, the achievements remain.

In all this, just being a good manager is not sufficient. This is a mantra that has become quite fashionable with the rise of the idea of Government as a service, paralleling the rise of "efficiency" and "effectiveness", of measurable outputs and outcomes. Good management is important, service delivery is important, yet an obsessive focus in these areas can lead to an arid sterility in debate that actually blinds participants to the fact that, in reality, they are still dealing with ideas and values.

Like many, I am frustrated with what passes at present as policy debate. Yet it does help to know that, in the longer term, our process is likely to shake out the dross. Many of the current headlines will be relegated to footnotes or, at best, interesting paragraphs in history books. The things that will remain will be those things that, for both good and ill, are judged to be of longer term importance to the Australia as it stands at the time the history is written. 


Anonymous said...

I live in perhaps the safest National Party seat in the country. Ask anyone on the street, whom they are going to vote for and they will say either Gillard or Abbott.

As you say, a Presidential style election! Oh for the chance to vote for either of them, but I can not give the nod to either the one, whose common accent makes me cringe or the other, whose inability to to string two words together without a prolonged "aaaahhhhh" makes me think that the 'strine' of the other is almost more acceptable.

My vote is restricted to voting for the people standing in my local electorate. I cannot vote for a Ranga or a pair of Budgie Smugglers!

Was it not our Grandfather who said to someone in parliament and perhaps it applies to both leaders, "Sir, if I were to say you were a wit, I would only be half right!"

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Jamie. I hadn't heard that story! Nice one.

I am not sure that you are completely fair. But certainly both sides have been treating the voters as though they are halfwits!