Monday, August 29, 2011

Personal confusions and the need to change the direction of Australia's political debate

Having brought up the next post in the Greek series, I now want to make a brief comment on my own personal confusion about the current state of Australian politics.

I must have been one of the first if not the first to apply the term New South Walesing to the Federal Government (Is Mr Rudd being New South Walesed?, 22 June 2008, then Mr Rudd's continued New South Walesing, 18 January 2009, Saturday Morning Musings - the Walesing of Mr Rudd, 1 May 2010). The Government's recent troubles have further entrenched what is now a popular view.

  Why, then, am I confused? Surely I forecast the overall pattern?

My difficulty now lies simply in the way that the whole process seems to have spun out of control in ways that are reminiscent of the last days of NSW Labor, but which are also different in certain key respects.

Just to give you the tone of some of the discussion before going on, Professor John Quiggin wrote:

I’ve been planning for a while to write a post arguing that the one thing Julia Gillard can do to (at least, potentially) salvage her place in the history books is to secure passage of the carbon price package (and preferably the other outstanding items left over from the Rudd era, such as the mining tax legislation and health reform), then step aside, and let the Labor party choose a new leader. I was going to wait until the package was passed, but for various reasons, I’ve decided it’s time to speak up on this.

I deliberately chose John's views because of his position on the political spectrum. The comments of those on the right may differ in content (they may oppose the things John supports) and may be more savage, but you get a pattern.

Governments are there to govern

It seems to me that the role of Governments is to govern. One of the problems in NSW in the dying years of that  Labor Government is that that Government progressively lost the ability to actually govern. Administration continued, but there was no coherence or clarity in the Government's general approach to Government.

The Australian Government is not at this point yet, despite all the comments to the contrary. Forget statistics about the volume of legislation passed, and just look at policy discussions that continue beneath the headlines. I may disagree with policy approaches, but I don't think in all fairness that you can say the Government has ceased to govern.

One of the things that I find confusing in this area is the discussion about mandates. I suppose that the modern approach to what I have called supermarket politics - the expectation that each side will put up and be judged on specific shopping baskets - encourages this. However, it strikes me as rather silly at two levels.

In the Australian political system, we vote for MPs, with a Government then formed by those who can control a majority in the lower houses. Yes, our vote may be influenced by party considerations, although many of us will actually vote against party if we like a candidate. However, the idea that we collectively give a mandate to any party is a constitutional fiction.

Just as importantly, the emphasis placed on mandate conflicts with the real role of government to govern. It implies that governments should only do those things that we as the electorate have specifically endorsed. This is quite silly.  To take an extreme example to illustrate my point, the British Government did not have a "mandate" to declare war on Germany. Would anyone suggest that that decision should have been delayed until after an election?

Our system provides for a structured way of getting rid of governments that we don't want. In the meantime, most of us actually expect governments to govern.

Decline in civility

I have been around the Australian political scene for a long time. I have had plenty of exposure to blind loyalty, bigotry and prejudice on all sides. I have also been exposed to and indeed played a role in what we might call cause politics.

Like many of us now, I am concerned about the decline in the civility of political discourse. I find it unpleasant and indeed confusing, because as a person I struggle to understand just how it happened.

Just at present, comparisons are being made between the Whitlam period and the present Government. I remember the Whitlam period very clearly. I was both a Treasury official at the time and a participant in Country Party politics. I do know how deeply passions ran.

To my mind, there are several major differences between the Whitlam period and the present.

The first is the rise of the chattering heads. I mixed a lot with journalists at the time, some of whom were involved in writing detailed exposés of Whitlam Government incompetence. However, there was then no real equivalent of the modern chattering heads who appear to believe that their role as journalists gives them the right to express on a daily basis views about what the Government should or should not do to manage the political and policy process.

The minutiae of the political process has replaced broader thought.

The second linked difference lies in the importance of policy. While I was actually pleased for personal reasons that the Whitlam Government won in 1972, nobody who knew me could think of me as a supporter of that Government. Yet I would never deny that Mr Whitlam and his team had a genuine interest in policy, in improving Australia.

I might get angry at some of their proposals, I was concerned about the sheer administrative and policy chaos that marked the early Whitlam period, but I never denied that there were very real and fundamental policy moves underway.

Today, politics has become a policy free zone. It's not just that people confuse mechanical measures with policy. Rather, it's the very nature of the debate itself.

The importance of policy

As I write, fundamental decisions are being made that will determine the future of Australian society and the economy.

What's relevant here is not the high profile issues such as the carbon or mining tax, important though these may be, but the interactions of hundreds if not thousands of smaller individual decisions that between them will determine the future of this country.

I write a lot at the micro-level, the detail of policy. I do so because I am concerned about the way that things work out in practice in affecting the things that I am personally interested in. The things that I am interested in get lost in the short term static, yet they are arguably more important than the "big picture" items.  

Take the carbon tax. Assume that it passes. If you look at the lags involved, a future Australian Government will have plenty of time to modify or, if necessary, abolish. Now compare this with the type of changes that I talked about in Saturday Morning Musings - dynamic change in Australia's education industry.

By the time that the carbon tax wends its way through the system and is reviewed and modified in the light of experience and international developments, our entire higher education system will be locked into new directions. Which, do you think, is more important?

Obviously, I would argue the second and from a purely practical perspective.

One is a major and important macro issue linked to a major global challenge. The second is a more domestic issue. The first may be important, but what we do is only a small part of a broader picture. The second affects Australia in the short to medium term in a way that is far more direct.

Time to finish. What do you think?


Legal Eagle pointed me to this piece that came to her via Neil Whitfield. I thought that I would record it here for later use. 


Legal Eagle said...

This actually reminds me of a post Neil linked to the other day on Facebook about the decline of political commentary because of the "insider" mentality:

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, LE. I have brought the link up in the main post.

Anonymous said...

That Rosen article is quite good, and I like his use of Tanner's book - however please note how very selective it is.

But I am always confused by how easy it is to start nodding, every time I see an x/y graphic representation of 'subject x' - in this case politics as we observe it.

There should always be a three dimensional analysis, I believe. A different axis for different subjects of studies - I accept - but in this field, I can't help wondering about the lack of an 'immediacy axis'.

Jim, you've written often about the shortsightedness of so-called 'policy' decisions; I suppose the latest is the live cattle export trade.

I don't think it is really fair to 'hang, draw, and particularly quarter' our wonderful journalist class without a simple recognition that Rosen has the luxury of time, while they have the tyranny of maximum, immediate deadline.

Secondly, and more importantly, I think it is farcical for instance to be judging some government initiatives against the daily playback of instant journalism - just add angst...

ps bet I get sin-binned for this!

Anonymous said...

Actually the more I think about my simplistic nodding acceptance of this two dimensional layout, the more annoyed I am with myself.

How about an axis of "relevance"; and also one for "control"?

Rosen assumes all decisions can by couched in identical terms, but who actually cares about the Thompson affair? and who is so silly as to believe governments either control or initiate all events of importance in our daily lives?

My layman's conclusion is that he is just as "insiderish" as any of those he derides. Thinking politics to be the centre of the universe, rather than an occasionally odorous, but necessary adjunct to civilisation.


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi kvd. I recorded the piece, but had only just scanned it. Now I need to read it properly taking your comments into account! More tomorrow.