Thursday, February 19, 2015

Train reading: the lessons of Don Aitkin's Stability and change in Australian politics for current events

In 1977, Don Aitkin published a book called Stability and change in Australian politics (Australian University Press, 1977, reprinted 1978). I was updated later, but my copy is the earlier version. Don referred to the book in a post on 15 January, ‘The political system is failing to deliver’. A little later I made a passing reference to the post, mainly to challenge the idea that real change was no longer possible. In my view it is. What has changed is the way people go about it.

This morning I plucked Don's book off the shelf for my train reading. While I read the book at the time it was published, I thought that it would be interesting to look back and especially at the then survey results and subsequent analysis.  I am only part way through the book, but I thought that I would make two brief observations now.

The first is that among the less party connected swinging voters, there seemed to be a view that you could switch your vote without too much risk because both of the main sides operated within a common framework despite the sometimes political rhetoric. Call it not too many surprises.

I think that's still broadly true, as Mr Abbott is discovering now. We didn't vote for that. We respond as a consequence. . However, I think that there is a broader factor as well, what I have called the dreaded policy instability.

In our personal budgets and planning, we all depend on a degree of stability. Back in the sixties, likely changes were relatively limited. Now in a world of constant changes at the margin with continuous re-packaging, there is no certainty. You can't introduce bigger changes when the electorate is constantly worried about smaller changes that affect them personally and make life difficult. You can't attack the electorate for that, it's a perfectly rational response.

The second thing that struck me was the sophistication about the role of elections, a sophistication now (perhaps) lacking. One big school saw elections as a two-way feedback loop. The parties took their policies to the electorate to test and refine. As the campaign proceeded, they modified and indeed introduced new approaches based on what they learned. Looking at it in this way, it was a continuous change process at party and candidate level.

Is that true today? I don't think so. The only thing that changes is the campaign packaging, while the capacity of local candidates to actually develop new ideas tailored to electoral circumstance is severely constrained. Of course, there were always practical limitations. But, speaking as a past pre-selection candidate and party organiser, the thought that I must stay on a centrally imposed message regardless of circumstances would have seemed very alien. My job was to win the seat, to help us represent the voters in that seat. That's it. That's all.

 I am not saying anything profound here. I just want to connect these two observations in a slightly different way.

In discussion, commenters often comment on the end of the old Deakinite social contract. That's true, although you have to add the policy instability that I referred too. In discussion, commenters complain about poll driven policy.That's true too.

But when you look at the changing rhetoric surrounding elections with its emphasis on mandates and shopping list promises, something a little different emerges.Since people can no longer rely on Governments not to change things, to even provide stability in daily life in the little things, election campaigns have become something akin to contractual negotiations between tightly organised political forces on one side, the electorate on the other.

The fact is that this can't work, nor is it necessary.

Recognising that I am presently not close enough to New Zealand to make detailed judgments, I am attracted by the Key's model. Mr Key promises stability. This does not mean no change. Rather, it seems to have these elements to it.
  • greater short term stability in the detail of policy and programs that affect daily lives
  • foreshadowing of larger longer term changes, but on the basis that we will discuss these with you the electorate, we will introduce those that we consider to be right, but we will give you notice so that you have plenty of time to adjust your personal affairs.
  • Then, if we are wrong, you can turf us out at the next election.
Mr Hockey's last budget affected the detail of every Australian's daily life. It left us all struggling to understand, to adjust, to work out what to do. It was just too much to absorb. The back benchers who rebelled were not the party professionals nor the ideologues, but the more traditional electorate focused members dealing with the on-ground effects in their electorates.

Can Mr Abbott or Mr Shorten for that matter now adopt the Key's approach? It would be nice if they tried.


I thought that Mr Abbott's response on the US decision to quash Mr Hick's conviction was quite revealing. I quote from the story:
"I'm not in the business of apologising for the actions that Australian governments take to protect our country. Not now, not ever." 
Asked if Australia had done enough to help Mr Hicks, Mr Abbott said: "We did what was needed."
"We did what was needed but, look, let's not forget whatever the legalities, and this was essentially a matter for an American court dealing with American law. He was up to no good on his own admission," he said.
To my mind, that response in the first two paras is without moral content. It is a statement that effectively mandates the most extreme actions so long as they are intended to protect the country. Could Mr Abbott have made his intended point in a different way? I believe that he could. He could have said something like this:.
The Australian Government does not intend to apologise to Mr Hicks. Mr Hicks was dealt with under the US legal system, a system that has now quashed his conviction. Our primary concern was the protection of Australia and Australians in the face of a terrorist threat. It is time for us to put this matter behind us. 
No apology, If it were factually true, he might add something like this. "Even though Mr Hicks had clearly become involved with al-Qaeda and was seen as a potential threat to Australia, the Australian Government did supply consular support and encouraged the US Government to find a solution that would help Mr Hicks return to his family." That could go before the last sentence in the above. 

Explanation, no apology. Now we have Mr Abbott stating a categorical position that frankly terrifies the living daylights out of me.   



2 tanners said...

Re the Keys approach.

You know that Mr Abbott won't. If someone can convince Mr Shorten that this is how a government can adapt his 'small target' opposition tactic into a government policy role, he might.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi 2T.

I agree that Mr Abbott can't. Mr Shorten? Perhaps. The difficulty is that Mr Keys wasn't a policy free zone. I suspect, maybe wrongly, that Mr Shorten is.

Once Mt Shorten does start articulating issues, then he becomes a target. I do think, however, that this could be managed in quite clever way.