Monday, April 12, 2010

Threads in current Australian politics

The Australian political theatre is quite interesting if also a but depressing at the present time.

In NSW, the Government has announced yet another major scheme to bring in automated ticketing on NSW public transport. Wikipedia has quite an interesting article on the history of the previous T Card proposal, while an article by Andrew Clennell and Linton Besser in the Sydney Morning Herald provides another interesting historical perspective. The whole thing would probably make a good novel.

At the same time, NSW Premier Kristina Keneally has ordered a Corrective Services audit of the state's 750 worst criminals to identify those who do not take responsibility for their crimes or are refusing rehabilitation. The apparent intent is to consider amendments to the NSW Crimes Act to allow the Government to keep them in jail indefinitely or to put them under some form of electronic surveillance and restraint of the type used for sex offenders.

What in Australia is called the "law 'n order" debate - the words should be spoken as one - has a long history actually dating back to convict days. I am not sure that it has advanced much over the years.

What I find interesting is that a control system developed for one class of offender is now being generalised. I am not a libertarian, but I have long been concerned that once government is given or acquires a power or capacity, you can be sure that it will be used in ways unforeseen at the time.

Meantime, debate on border protection and boat people continues. The Australian Government's decision to suspend the processing of refugee claims for six months for those coming from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan attracted a fair bit of international coverage. Here on Al Jazeera, for example.

Using the headline How the West was lost: a lack of faith in civilisation, an article by Phillip Coorey in the Sydney Morning Herald reports on a meeting held in Melbourne to launch The Foundations of Western Civilisation Program. Coorey writes: 

There is a growing belief among Australia's most formidable conservative thinkers that the foundations of Western civilisation in this country are being eroded.

As a consequence, the grounding which Western civilisation has given everyday society - especially the behavioural and moral influences of Christianity - is disappearing and needs to be reaffirmed.

The article is worth reading because it does present a picture of one of the fault lines in current Australian thinking. I am naturally sympathetic to some of the arguments put: I do feel that Australians have destroyed some of the traditional pillars in Australian thought, culture and values without putting anything in their place. Yet this debate quickly translates to a defence of "traditional Australian values", and here I have a problem.

Those who read this blog on a regular basis will know that my personal and political background is country. I grew up in an environment where far right organisations such as the League of Rights, were constantly trying to nibble away at the Country Party base using "values" as a weapon.The Liberal Party and, to somewhat lesser extent, the Labor Party did the same. All were trying to appeal to a regional voter base perceived to be increasingly conservative. As a Party official and sometimes reformer, I had to try to balance in an environment where I strongly supported what I saw as the core traditions and values of the Party, yet was in opposition to some of the more socially conservative expression of "values". Indeed, I saw some of these as antipathetic to the traditional core values of the Party.

This is not a lecture on Country Party history or ideology. Rather, my point is that my experiences have left me with a deep ambivalence on "values" issues.

To my mind, the great Australian social achievement of the first decades after the war lay in the creation of a more open and tolerant society. This included:

  • the end of the White Australia policy and its replacement by a more open, inclusive non-raced based approach.
  • rise in gender equality and the recognition of the rights of women to make their own choices.
  • recognition of past injustices done to Australia's Aboriginal peoples.
  • withdrawal of the state from areas that properly belonged to individual morality and choice. I have in mind here especially the ending of laws governing homosexual behaviour that, driven by previous morality, had such disastrous effects on individuals.

These are not inconsiderable achievements. However, there have also been downsides. These include:

  • growing disparities within Australian society, including the creation of a multi-generational underclass of a scale and type never seen before in this country. We have ended the old social contract, but put nothing in its place.
  • the progressive and conscious severing of our links with the past, leading to loss of knowledge of many of the traditions and principles on which our system depends.
  • the rise from the start of the nineties of a new authoritarianism and worserism that threatens to overturn past achievements.

In all this, economic man retains his liberty to rise or fall, while social man must be controlled.

Given these opinions, I find that while I actually agree with some of the points raised, I also find that I react to those involved: with Mr Howard I think of social and political controls and what I saw as the growing inhumanity of his administration; with Archbishop George Pell I think of his attitudes to homosexuality; the involvement of the Institute of Public Affairs reminds me their role in the spread of ideas about the role of the state and the application in the public sector of principles that I once supported but now think to be deeply flawed.

All this leaves me somewhat confused!

Finishing, the really big drama on the Australian political stage at present is, of course, Mr Rudd's dramatic and theatrical performance on health care. The environment has been put aside as the moral cause of the century, at least for the moment. Instead, we have shot after shot of Mr Rudd at public hospitals, with constant dribbles of new announcements intended to place more pressure on the states to agree.  

I haven't commented on this one for a while because I have been waiting for enough details to emerge. However, we can at least point to a few of the key issues that seem to be important from a policy viewpoint:

  • Governance and management: at the moment at least, no one is sure just how the new arrangements might work in a practical sense.
  • Transition arrangements and costs: linked to the first, no one is sure of the path to be followed in moving from current to the proposed new arrangements, while the transition costs in moving to the new arrangements appear to be quite high. We appear to be talking billions of dollars. The question of who might pay for this is still uncertain.
  • Articulation: the way the various bits might fit together is still unclear.
  • Funding: present cost estimates appear to be on the low side.

In a post on my New England blog I referred to a survey on current attitudes to the Australian system of Government. I wrote that post from a particular perspective. However, the post contains a link through to an article setting out broader results.

The survey shows considerable dissatisfaction with the performance of all levels of Australian Government.

Mr Rudd's health campaign is by far the most complex policy exercise attempted, I think, in Australian history. I don't think that I am exaggerating when I say this. It is also one that works on three interacting levels, political, policy and delivery.

I am not in a position to make judgements as to how these three things fit together because I am not privy to thinking in the Rudd camp. However, I think that we can say two things with a degree of certainty:

  1. At a policy and delivery level, success depends finally on the Commonwealth's capacity to manage the whole thing. I may be forgiven for a degree of scepticism here.
  2. At a purely political level, the best percentage outcomes for Mr Rudd are either a rejection by the states or, as seems most likely, a qualified acceptance in principle. The first would allow him to go to the people, presenting himself as the champion for reform in a double dissolution election with a referendum on health powers on top. The second could be presented as a success, while buying time to work out at least some of the bugs.   

Whichever way it goes, the whole thing is likely to be important to the future of the Federation because of its impact on popular perceptions. 

No comments: