Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The rise of issues based morality politics

Back in May, my first quick reaction (Gillard's refugee deal)  to the Australian Government's refugee proposals was instinctively positive. It quickly became clear (When perfection's not possible: Gillard & refugees) that my view was not shared by all.

Since then, I have watched the whole affair spin out of control with a degree of bemusement. As I write, there are reports that an MOU with Malaysia is close to signature. This may help the Government re-assert a measure of control over the issue.

The thing that most interested but also concerned me about the whole matter was the nature of the debate. The unusual sight of independent MP Andrew Wilkie and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott both arguing that the Government had lost its moral compass was actually pretty typical of the whole thing.

Morality has an important place in politics. However, we seem to be in a period in this country where morality has devolved to assertion of rigid positions on an issue by issue basis. This actually makes it very hard to have a sensible discussion on the issues themselves; "morality" becomes an issue driven end point rather than sets of principles to guide discussion and decision. The winner is the person who can in some way assert or create a moral majority, to use a US phrase from a different context, or at least create a strong enough position that the pain of opposing them becomes too great.

I am not alone when I assert that the Australian system of Government has become less effective over recent years. Part of the reason for this lies in the rise of issues based politics combined with a see problem, fix problem mind set. We expect Government to fix things, but only those things that we consider to be in some way right.

In the withering glare of the twenty four hour media cycle with its insatiable thirst for new material and its love of issues based adversarial politics, the capacity of Government and its advisers to actually think shrinks. All Governments spend their time running around doing things and responding to things on a quick-quick basis within that space set by fluctuating public opinion as orchestrated by the advocates. The media watches the whole process waiting for the inevitable misstep.

In all this, Government is its own worst enemy. In playing to the media cycle and the advocates, Governments have ceased to set agendas. Politicians don't have to play this game. To illustrate this, my next post will be called simply the art of being boring.    

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