What use is politics? It’s a question many Australians began to ask in the lead-up to the 2010 election as the Rudd and then the Gillard government ditched what seemed like a policy a day in a bid to lighten their electoral baggage. The home insulation scheme; increased childcare places; the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme; the besieged mining tax; a humane approach to asylum seekers: all went out the door or were heavily scaled back. It was as if the government stood for nought except getting re-elected. What was the point, many wondered, of all the grassroots work, of all the sweat that it took to get rid of the Howard government, when its replacement was so unwilling to stand up for the people and the issues that put it there?
Predictably Labor cried foul, citing lack of support for its schemes from an obstructive opposition and, in the case of the carbon pollution reduction scheme, the Greens. But it didn’t help the government’s credibility that this showpiece scheme, their response to what Rudd had called the ‘political and moral challenge of our times’, was weak in the first place. With their proposed handouts to the energy industry, the government stood accused of pandering to vested interests. The scheme was so similar to that offered by the previous government that it seemed that no matter who you voted for, the same sectional groups would retain their hold on power.
Some say we get the governments we deserve, and to an extent this is true. When we stop paying attention to politics, we make it easier for politicians to stop paying attention to us. If we vote for the political equivalent of the crazy warehouse guy (‘All the services you want at half the price!! Why pay more?’), we shouldn’t be surprised when we get policies built to fall apart as soon as the press conference is over.
Yet it is also true that governments get the citizens they deserve. If you treat elections as a marketing campaign instead of a genuine contest of ideas, then you should expect people to shop around for the best deal they can get for themselves. Both sides of politics were happy to abandon their values and fight on their opponent’s territory this year – with Labor attacking the Coalition’s parental leave policy as ‘a big new tax’ and the Coalition arguing that Labor’s refugee policy is cruel to boat people because it fails to treat them badly enough to discourage them from coming.
In this context it’s understandable that the timing of the election debate was shifted to avoid clashing with the finale of Masterchef. It was much easier to get a clear picture of Callum and Adam’s different philosophies on cuisine than of Gillard and Abbott’s different philosophies on Australia’s future. In a choice between two stage-managed contests, why would you choose to watch a battle in which the shrapnel from small bullets ricochets off even smaller targets?
There are significant differences in what the major parties have done in the past, and in what they would like to do now, but the scope for difference on what they actually plan to achieve is so limited. Gillard is drawn reluctantly, Abbott gleefully, towards the politics of fear and exclusion. The Coalition would prefer not to act at all on climate change, while Labor vacillates, wanting to do what’s needed – but only if it comes at no political cost.
Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Fear dominates elections when there isn’t a positive vision compelling enough to crowd it out, and neither major party told a positive story this election year.
A stasis has settled over government and opposition in Australia. The final election result – a hung parliament and an agonising wait for an outcome – was emblematic of a political system that is being dragged down by its own entrenched cultures. One in which voters registered their disgust by voting informal in record numbers. We need to change the game. Governments in Australia have traditionally fought hard for their showpiece policies. After World War II Menzies fought to repair relations with Japan to underwrite Australia’s export future. Whitlam fought for tariff cuts and Medicare. Fraser fought for acceptance for Vietnamese boat people. Hawke fought for the Accord and for floating the dollar. Howard fought for gun control and the GST. All of them staked their political futures on big gambles; things they believed in so strongly that they would rather not be in power than not achieve it. In Rudd, and now Gillard, we have no such vision, no such beliefs.
Is Prime Minister Gillard’s focus on consensus-building an attempt at Hawke-style leadership that will work to bring as broad a group of Australians as possible on board for reforms of unprecedented ambition? Or just an excuse not to lead at all?
Gillard is right to recognise that leadership is not just about giving orders – but it’s not about giving people exactly what they want either. You can never give voters enough of what they don’t really need to make them happy. Real leadership involves helping people face up to hard decisions that they’d probably rather avoid, and inspiring them to see the opportunities that open up when we’re willing to make shared sacrifices to solve shared problems.
But the present stasis isn’t simply the product of the people at the top of the political food chain. The current Labor government is a symptom of a broader political system that no longer seems to know or care what issues are important, even crucial, let alone how to begin to address them. It’s not only the major parties but the entire political system that is bogged down in its own cultures.
How are we to move the game on when so much mainstream political commentary is stuck in the one, dated idiom? The blog The Piping Shrike had an excellent post on the media response to the Labor government’s ditching of the emissions trading scheme. The mainstream media, it was pointed out, endlessly cited Lowy Institute polling that showed that public support for action on climate change, even if it involves significant cost, had fallen from 68 per cent in 2006 to 48 per cent of the population in 2010. But the media only cited the data that suited it. In fact the same polling also showed that 87 per cent supported action at some cost, down a mere six points from 93 per cent in 2006. Sixty per cent believe climate change has become a more urgent issue over the past year. Is it perhaps, The Piping Shrike speculated, that the media is caught up in the logic of old politics which necessitates a straightforward political and popularity contest and an electorate driven by the hip-pocket, and is unable to canvas a more complex narrative? 1
It often seems as if our major parties don’t trust voters to look beyond narrow self-interest – even when opinion polls and research groups tell them otherwise. When Australians are asked whether they would prefer tax cuts or more spending on health and education, the answer is clear: invest in services.2 And yet both major parties promised tax cuts at the 2007 election, Rudd’s leadership fell partly because of one attempted tax hike, and in 2010 Labor enthusiastically attacked Abbott for the economic irresponsibility of the tax he wanted to pay for the kind of generous parental leave scheme they’d love to offer themselves.
Rather than focus on what politicians can do to improve people’s lives, the media focuses on personalities. Politics is usually reported as if it were a horse race. Journalism lives for the leadership contest and little else. It might ‘sell papers’, but it doesn’t fix broken planets, brittle economies or entrenched disadvantage. The political demands of a 24 hour news cycle, where issues rarely get more than three days sustained coverage, combines with opinion polls which rarely delve into voters’ deeper or longer-term aspirations. The result is that the political world is locked between two mirrors – whichever direction it looks in, it sees infinite images of itself reflected back with less and less clarity. One of the most telling things about the 2010 election and the emergence of independents and Greens as a political force, was the way in which some commentators fell into a near-panic as the result of the cosy two-party system being disrupted.
Others play out a tired, dated war with ‘the left’. In an echo of the 1990s ‘culture wars’, to them even global warming is some kind of left-wing conspiracy. The direct political power of such commentators is often overestimated. But they have changed perceptions about the political middle ground such that the fears and grudges of an ageing demographic have come to be understood as the mainstream. For so long as politicians pander to such fears there can be no innovation.
Another obstacle to change is the Australian electoral system. The ALP can afford to be contemptuous of progressive ideas because it knows that when disaffected Labor voters support minor parties, the votes flow back to them in preferences.
These sorts of invitations to ‘politics-as-usual’ are everywhere in Australian politics. Yet these are unusual times; times of environmental limits and approaching tipping points, of global economic instability; of looming energy and water shortages; of sclerotic, overloaded cities. Times that call for leaders able to rise above the mire of politics-as-usual, and to make innovative, bold decisions.
These exceptional times are especially dangerous for Australia. Almost 50 years ago in The Lucky Country, Donald Horne wrote that Australia was a second-rate country living on its luck. Primary industry had sustained for too long what was basically a weak economy and a weak leadership class. A decade into the most recent mining boom, the same is true today. We must consider whether we can continue to coast along, or make the changes needed to not only call ourselves ‘a lucky country’, but a country run by people who know how to make the luck last.
Instead, our leaders prefer to play dice with destiny. The Labor government talks about future generations more often than John Howard did, but the gap between rhetoric and reality reveals a lot of long bets. Judging by the policies of the current federal government, it is betting that the mining boom will last forever; that we’ll discover a cure for Dutch Disease 3 that doesn’t involve slowing the boom down; that cheap oil won’t run out, or that an equally cheap alternative will be found before it does; that global inaction on climate change will continue; and that Australia will escape the consequences of that inaction if it does.
Business as usual won’t cut it anymore. In areas like urban infrastructure, electricity generation, or paid parental leave, Australia is pursuing policies designed for a world that no longer exists: a world of cheap oil, or endless credit, or single-income families, or a climate that will remain stable forever. In some areas of Australian public policy, like our love affair with suburban freeways, or our workplaces’ attitudes to child-bearing, we have barely changed in generations.
Revolutions start when enough people get disgusted with the same thing. And enough people in Australia are now frustrated enough to want to start something new. The disgust that welled up in the Howard years has for many people returned, but with greater urgency given that on crucial issues such as global warming time is much shorter now. Rudd once complained of the ten years wasted by the Howard government’s inaction on global warming. He and Gillard have since added another five. 2013 is too long to wait for an emissions trading scheme.
But it’s not enough to point fingers and complain and say ‘no’ to what we don’t like. Revolutions in thinking don’t start that way. We also need to map a viable path to the future we want.
To begin to map out a new political agenda for Australia requires at least two things. First, we need a conceptual framework in which to think through what is new about the world we live in and what that means. Second, we need to identify and strategise our way around obstacles to change.
One such obstacle is the vested interests that have stalled progress in so many important areas. Machiavelli recognised the problem 500 years ago, when he wrote:
There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new.4
In Australia vested interests include corporations as well as the industry associations and lobby firms whose job it is to defend those who want to avoid paying the full costs of their activities. Tasmania tells an important story here. Before the 2010 Tasmanian election there was almost as much concern about the distortion of the political process by powerful interests as there was about the hotly contested Gunns pulp mill itself. Essential Research found that almost half of Tasmanian voters thought that it didn’t matter which party they voted for, ‘because the major parties are both too weak to take on the interests of big business’. This perception probably played a major role in the decision of many Tasmanians who would not otherwise identify as ‘green’ to put the Greens in a position to decide who would hold government.
Often, vested interests have champions in the media: influential newspaper columnists who see their role as speaking up for ‘realistic’ policy – where realistic is defined as what entrenched interests will accept.
To tackle vested interests and deal with some of the problems covered within this book, we need to redefine realism – an action that is both necessary and physically achievable should be seen as a realistic action. Political reality must be reconnected with social and environmental reality. Australians who want real change can’t afford to just cross our fingers for the outcomes of the next review, the rediscovery of recommendations from the last review, an emergency spine transplant after the election, or the positive influence of a more progressive senate.
But there is little point in working to redefine realism if we don’t know why we are doing it or where we are heading. If we are to do more than merely rely on luck, we need a viable, hopeful narrative about the future. To build such a narrative requires that we be idealists first and pragmatists second – there is no point being pragmatic unless you know what you are being pragmatic about. As many of the old standards of modern life lose their viability — the established print media, abundant fossil fuels, unconstrained economic growth, the availability of an endless environmental sink for pollution by the ‘externalities’ of industrial production — so we need to rethink our conceptual maps and write the story of our new political and economic future.
The single issue with the most potential for transforming the politics we have into the politics we need is also the issue that comes up most often throughout this book: global warming. It’s difficult to be anything other than deeply alarmed about the incapacity of modern politics to deal with climate change – but by highlighting the deep problems in our tools for tackling complex global problems, this issue is also planting the seeds of change. After a decade of inaction by its predecessor, when the Rudd government finally began to canvass the problem it found Australia almost irrevocably committed to an economy based on fossil fuels. Our cities were designed around car travel, while our homes relied on coal to turn on the lights or the shower. Our governments were just as hopelessly addicted – to the jobs and tax revenues provided by mining and energy companies, and afraid of their lobbying power. If Australia had been allotted a sustainable CO2 emissions quota for the 21st century, we would have used up almost a third of it by the end of 2005. Yet as Fiona Armstrong writes,5 addressing global warming will have major economic and social benefits. To achieve change she recommends simple, practical measures that use currently available technology and that will take little more than political will.
Unlike the goldfish in government, most citizens can see beyond the election cycle to dream of what life will be like for our friends, our families, and ourselves in 50 years time. When we think of the state of our planet and our continent, some of those dreams take on a nightmarish quality. We pulp our mightiest trees for paper and drain our precious aquifers to grow water-guzzling crops for export. In the bush our rivers turn into gutters, our fields turn white with salt and our soil blows away on the wind. In the cities we lose hours each day to slow, maddening commutes through gritty smog, and shop at supermarkets where the tomatoes bounce and the carrots taste like cardboard.
People are starting to cry ‘enough’. We want a future that is bright, healthy and green. We want meaningful action to combat climate change and sustainably manage our water, forests and marine habitats. We want Australian farming to reflect the unique nature of our fragile continent. We want our kids and grandkids to grow up in a country richer in ‘nature’s gifts’ than the one we inherited from our parents – with better soil, bigger forests, healthier rivers and a safer climate. We want Australia to play a strong role in building international momentum for evidence-based action on climate change. We want the way we live from month to month to be sustainable from decade to decade. And we won’t accept anything less than clear, consistent, principled leadership to help us achieve that future.
We now need to build the politics that makes such change possible.
An abiding theme for any hopeful narrative about the future will be the growing interconnectedness of everything. As our car-dependent lifestyles make us fatter and sicker, so urban planning and health policy converge. Given our reliance on centralised supplies of energy and water, so infrastructure policy is also national security policy. In an information- and knowledge-based economy, education policy drives long-term economic development. Whether Indigenous policy succeeds or fails depends on the effectiveness of policies that span several departments and levels of government.
Globalisation is at the same time driving a new dynamic of policy connectedness. In an age of global financial shocks, environmental disaster, and mass movements of peoples, more than ever the decisions made in one place affect all others.
Solving this century’s problems will require the ability to think in systems. Governments are currently struggling to deal with the increasing complexity of the systems they are trying to manage. This is partly due to a political culture that confuses leadership with top-down approaches to problem-solving – a confusion shared by people in senior positions of all stripes and ideologies. Management in much of the public sector is still surprisingly hierarchical and centralised, and complex problems are still examined like Swiss clocks – broken down to the sum of their parts, which are then each individually understood and managed.
Our solutions, then, need to be holistic. The stories we need to tell about the future need to be inclusive; our ideas for policy need to reach across disciplinary, portfolio, and national boundaries.
In this book you will find many such ideas. Jennifer Doggett shows how to reorient the health system around the people who use it, making health funding fairer and more effective in the process, while Marcus Westbury and Ben Eltham look at how to make cultural policy reflect the needs of today’s culture-makers. Chris Bonnor looks at viable ways out of a situation in which the lottery of birth determines who succeeds and who struggles in Australian schools. Kate Gauthier explains how Labor set itself up for failure on the refugee debate, and describes what it would take to turn that debate around. In a campaign in which both sides of politics are pinching their pennies, Ben Spies-Butcher and Adam Stebbing show the big savings to be found by ditching or reforming some of our least transparent, most unfair, and least effective forms of spending. Ian Dunlop and Ian McAuley show how vulnerable the ‘quarry economy’ is, especially with peak oil and climate change around the corner, while Fiona Armstrong shows how we can shift ‘from fear to hope’ by making the most of Australia’s green economic opportunities.
But where will the political will come from to support these and the many other important ideas in this book?
After the 2007 federal election GetUp! consulted its members on their vision for the new Labor government. The consultations began with a series of Get Togethers in people’s houses – thousands took part in over 300 meetings where they discussed everything from climate change to civic education. People at these meetings sent their ideas and ambitions in to GetUp! central, which compiled the results and sent them out to members to prioritise. Their responses – over 30,000 of them – became The People’s Agenda for Parliament, a ten-point wish list for the Labor Government. 6 Since then GetUp! and other organisations that seek to harness people power have moved to the forefront of politics. If politics comes down to a battle over who can spend more money or manage the media more effectively, we all lose. But people with less money and media in their pockets can still win policy victories when they have the numbers on their side.
As the ‘old’ media becomes ever more predictable in its thinking, more entrenched in horse race political reporting and more than ever part of the process, intent on playing out faux culture wars between an all-powerful phantom left and ‘ordinary people’ on real threats such as global warming and imaginary threats from asylum seekers, so new thinking is coming in not only from the fringes, but from the mainstream — the streets, the suburbs, from schools, from universities, from kitchen tables — that the new conservatism has tried to pretend is its own.
That there is broad support for new ways of thinking is shown by recent polling.
Against the old ‘greens vs jobs’ divide that continues to guide so much political rhetoric, in the lead up to the 2007 election the mining division of the CFMEU consulted its members on climate policy and received unanimous support for signing the Kyoto Protocol. At the time the National Secretary Tony Maher said ‘Our members are sick of being demonised and seen only as part of the problem.’7
As Phil Lynch points out in ‘Human Rights at the Cross-roads’, an independent poll commissioned by the National Human Rights Consultation showed that 75 per cent of people believe we need stronger measures to protect the human rights of people with mental illness, the elderly, Aboriginal Australians and people with disability. 8 In ‘Strengthening our Democracy’ Marian Sawer, Kathy MacDermott and Norm Kelly note that according to the 2007 Australian Election Study 69 per cent of voters believe that big businesses – the kind of organisations that make the most substantial donations to political parties – have too much power. 9 In fact, as recent analysis of Australian Election Study data by Murray Goot and Ian Watson shows, much recent mythology about why Australians vote as they do simply doesn’t stack up. 10
Instead of letting ourselves be played off against each other by politicians seeking electoral advantage with divide-and-rule tactics, we might rediscover the things we believe in common and relearn how to trust each other. In learning how to trust each other, to challenge old ways of doing things, and to cooperate more effectively we learn to make full use of our power as citizens. As the rest of this book shows, there’s no shortage of opportunities to wield that power once we get the hang of it.
When politics is broken we have the tools to change almost everything about our own lives, but nothing about the world around us. We are empowered as consumers yet disenfranchised as citizens. It’s time to take citizenship back.
This book is deliberately optimistic, despite the clear obstacles to progress. It’s what Worldchanging.com editor Alex Steffen has described as ‘a fighting optimism’:
We can freely acknowledge the tremendous struggle ahead of us, and yet choose to remain decidedly optimistic, and to work from a fundamental belief in the possibilities of the future. When we do that, we liberate ourselves from some of the burden of despair and powerlessness we’ve all been saddled with at the dawn of the 21st Century. 11
New thinking and leadership always starts small. In this book you will find one strand in a wider global stirring of progressive sentiment. There are small ideas and big ideas, all of which seek to add to new narratives about the future that many people now feel are necessary given the failures of the recent past. All share a commitment to the same core principles: that in order to move forward as a nation we need to share this country’s luck more fairly and learn how to make it last.
- The Piping Shrike (2010) ‘Scorched earth policy’. Available online: http://www.pipingshrike.com/2010/04/scorched-earth-policy.html ↩
- Australian Election Studies (AES) ’1987–2004′. Available online: http://assda.anu.edu.au/analysis.html ↩
- See http://morethanluck.cpd.org.au/making-it-last/living-off-our-resources/ ↩
- Machiavelli, N. (1988) The Prince, Quentin Skinner (Ed), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. ↩
- See http://morethanluck.cpd.org.au/making-it-last/shifting-from-fear-to-hope/ ↩
- Recently the Centre for Policy Development’s own small readers’ poll was flooded with responses – many of which are echoed in the chapters in this book. ↩
- Maher, T. (2007) Crib Rooms and Climate Change: Empowering Mine Workers, CFMEU Mining and Energy Division. Available online: http://www.cfmeu.com.au/storage/documents/NSWMC_enviro2007.pdf ↩
- See http://morethanluck.cpd.org.au/sharing-the-luck/human-rights-at-the-cross-roads/ ↩
- See http://morethanluck.cpd.org.au/more-than-luck/strengthening-democracy/ ↩
- Goot, M. & Watson, I. (2010) ‘Howard’s victories: which voters switched, which issues mattered, and why’, Inside Story. Available online: http://inside.org.au/howards-victories-which-voters-switched-which-issues-mattered-and-why/ ↩
- Steffen, A. (2008) ‘The Politics of Optimism’. Available online: http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/007919.html ↩