Anthony Charles Lynton Blair (born 6 May 1953) is a British politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007 and the Leader of the Labour Party from 1994 to 2007. From 1983 to 2007, Blair was the Member of Parliament for Sedgefield and was elected Labour Party leader in July 1994, following the sudden death of his predecessor, John Smith. Under Blair’s leadership, the party used the phrase ‘New Labour‘, to distance it from previous Labour policies and the traditional conception of socialism.
Tag Archives: Politics
Some regard the Westminster tradition of a politically neutral public service as a self-serving fiction. Others see it as an ideal to which governments and their civil services should aspire, though may never quite attain.
There are few hard and fast conventions involved in cultivating an independent government administrative system. Yet there are traditions or principles that many see as fundamental to good governance, or even to an effective democracy.
Straying from these leads to accusations that the government is politicising the public service. But what that means isn’t exactly clear. It might suggest the appointment of party-political representatives to public positions; the appointment of known government sympathisers to public positions; or some other way of preventing professional civil servants from providing “frank and fearless” advice to ministers.
Despite the lack of agreement about what politicisation means – and its significance – there’s almost universal criticism of governments that stray from the principles that underpin neutrality.
In practice, the accusation of “politicisation” often accompanies appointments made by an incoming government. These may be to departments; to government agencies, such as the ABC; to integrity agencies, such as the ombudsman; and, more often, the appointment of former politicians to diplomatic postings.
Obedience and integrity
The Australian Public Service operates near to the model of a professional public service where it serves successive governments without fear or favour. Changes of government typically mean that experienced, professional secretaries have remained to pilot their new ministers through.
There have been aberrations, such as the 1996 “night of the long knives” that dispatched six departmental heads. But most governments in past decades have relied on a cadre of professional civil servants to head departments and agencies even after power changes hands.
It is this cadre that enables the public service to remain as neutral as possible, especially when incoming governments are determined to implement their “mandates”. This reflects a fundamental principle that governments need to be “responsive” to their electors.
But problems can arise when appointees pay little attention to “frank and fearless” and see their role largely as doing the minister’s bidding. That’s stretching the notion of responsiveness too far.
The civil service is traditionally required to act in an impartial manner – that is, not to privilege particular interests over others and to behave in a politically neutral way. This is especially significant in relation to government agencies that investigate and adjudicate on complaints about and mistakes made by government.
Integrity agencies, such as the Office of the Information Commissioner or the Human Rights Commission, are required to investigate citizen complaints about government behaviour. They need to be seen to be at arm’s length from government.
Other agencies, such as the Electoral Commission, the Auditor-General or research bodies such as CSIRO or the Productivity Commission, also need to be at arm’s length so they can operate credibly in providing balanced advice.
Much more can be done to promote the independence of these agencies. A fundamental problem is that they rely on funding through the budget process. Some governments, at both Commonwealth and state levels, have used this as a lever to constrain agencies from following their remit when governments are unhappy with their activities. The Human Rights Commission is a recent example.
Making these agencies responsible to parliament, rather than to the government of the day, would mean that funding, and accountability, would be delivered through bipartisan bodies, such as the Public Accounts Committee. This would protect integrity agencies from direct government interference.
Governments are expected to represent a diversity of interests. That becomes less likely with a politicised public service.
Public agencies with responsibilities to consider the impact of policy on broad community groups, for instance, or to manage grants programs, need to have appointments that reflect community diversity. These appointments need to be treated with care to ensure they remain free of accusations of favouritism, cronyism, nepotism or vote-buying.
Cynical observers may be concerned about the politicisation of policy advice, especially that provided by public inquiries. When chaired by appointees with known views on the subject they rightly engender public cynicism about the likely outcomes of these ostensibly independent inquiries.
This was the case when noted climate sceptic Dick Warburton handed down a report on the Renewable Energy Target, and when education conservative Kevin Donnelly reviewed Australia’s national curriculum. These reports usually find their way to the rubbish bin once governments of a different hue assume office.
In contrast, more broad-based and less politicised inquiries – such as the Gonski review of school funding – may well retain their currency for longer.
There are arrangements in place that may dull the excesses of political appointments – such as the Public Accounts Committee, the Senate estimates process, codes of ministerial conduct and independent audits.
But unlike the United Kingdom, Canada and New Zealand, Australia hasn’t appointed an independent commissioner for public appointments. An independent appointments body may help ensure that the government of the day cannot directly influence appointments to agencies and programs that specifically require diversity of interests and arm’s length from government.
The public service has gradually become more politicised in recent years. But this is a bigger problem for agencies broadly described as integrity agencies and for bodies where public perception of neutrality are important to their operations, such as the ABC or the Electoral Commission.
Institutional change, along the lines of what’s already operating in other democratic systems, might produce independent appointments and reduce the public angst each time a “political” appointment is made to such boards or commissions. In these cases, governments might finally accept that arm’s-length governance is preferable to public cynicism and diminution of the standing of important agencies that serve to uphold democratic standards.
This article is part of a series on breaking political conventions. Look out for more articles exploring various political conventions in the coming days.
When in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, I wrote a column suggesting that we all had to demonstrate a new toughness.
At that time, I thought the scale of ISIS’ attacks on Western targets was contained by its avowed doctrine of territorial legitimacy. I assumed any attacks in the West would be carried out by lone wolves or with one or two partners. I was wrong.
Ever since it first declared a caliphate, ISIS’ leadership consistently expressed the intent of fighting a more or less conventional war in a well-defined piece of territory spreading across Iraq and Syria.
Their surprising initial victories reinforced that strategy. And it allowed them to pursue a war against the Yazidis, which the American Holocaust Museum has declared a genocide.
But then the Americans arrived, eager to engage a Jihadist army in direct combat.
And the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters began to make inroads.
So ISIS responded, by shifting its strategy towards new tactics: fighting a more common, irregular, guerrilla war, as the Taliban had often done successfully in Afghanistan and militants had done in Iraq before them.
Then the Russians arrived to support Syrian President Al Assad.
Although their initial targets have not been ISIS strongholds, it has changed the dynamic once again.
ISIS leaders understand that with the US on one side and the characteristically merciless Russians on the other, time is running out.
It is one thing to take on one of them. It is quite another to take on both.
They can replenish their forces with raw new recruits. But they probably can’t do it fast enough to hold off all sides. And the apparent execution by drone of Jihadi John, their poster child, threatens a further dent in their recruitment campaign.
So, the ever flexible ISIS leadership has moved to a new stage in their tactics – war by terror.
The goals are predictable.
- First, killing civilians at home in Europe in highly symbolic settings. Their intent here is to provoke a debate about these countries’ involvement in Syria and Iraq and thus break the political will of the western countries. There is, in other words, a cost to be paid for military intervention.
- Second, to convince potential new recruits that with limited training they can still play a crucial role as a martyr. After all, if you are going to die as a martyr, you don’t want to do so by the side of the road in the middle of the desert. You want to do so on the streets of Paris where everyone will know who you were and what you did.
- Third, to convince the west that you are still a formidable force – everywhere.
The new tactic involves soft civilian targets. They involve country nationals and foreign recruits. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere. It is a classic terrorist response.
First came the Russian plane crash in the Sinai – most probably caused by an ISIS bomb. Then these horrific attacks in Paris – claimed by ISIS and blamed on ISIS – in neighborhoods that I, and many American tourists, frequent when we visit.
I spent the evening of the attacks frantically trying to reach my family and friends. My sister-in-law, Lorene Aldabra, is a professional singer and musician who often visits the Bataclan concert hall, scene of so much carnage. When you have to spend time tracking down loved ones, you really understand what this new war means.
The declarations of support are encouraging and touching. President Obama was as eloquent as ever. London’s mayor Boris Johnson sounded mildly Churchillian. Benjamin Netanyahu from Israel was blunt and forthright. But we can assume these attacks won’t be the last ones.
France is in a state of emergency. The security services in Europe and North America are on a state of alert. My spouse traveled on the Washington, DC-to-New York train Friday night and it was full of sniffer dogs and police. We risk a return to the national fear that gripped us after 9/11.
Parisians got it right when they assembled in large numbers and unfurled a sign saying “not afraid” in the hours after these attacks.
But not afraid of what?
The terrorists for sure. But also let’s not be afraid to distinguish between terrorists and Syrian asylum seekers. Between those who invoke the forces of evil and those imams who decry it. Between our Muslim friends and neighbors and our fanatical enemies.
The lives of Parisians will not be the same after November 13. But, knowing the city and its inhabitants well, I believe that they will not be deprived of oxygen and disappear into the vortex of hate preached by jihadists – or Europe’s extreme nationalists. Civility, albeit wrapped in an iron fist, will be their response.
In some ways the False equivalence fallacy is the direct opposite of a False dilemma.
False equivalence is an informal fallacy that describes a situation where there is an apparent similarity between two things, but in fact they are not equivalent. The two things may share some common characteristics, but they have important differences that are overlooked for the purposes of the argument.
The pattern of the fallacy often looks like this: if A has characteristics c and d, and B has characteristics d and e, then since they both have characteristic d, A and B are equivalent. In practice, often only a passing similarity is required between A and B for this fallacy to be committed.
The following statements are examples of false equivalence:
‘They’re both soft, cuddly pets. There’s no difference between a cat and a dog.’
‘We all bleed red. We’re all no different from each other.’
‘Hitler, Stalin and Mao were evil atheists; therefore all atheists are evil.’
A more complex example is where somebody claims that more Australians are killed by sharks or road accidents than by terrorism, therefore we should not do anything to stop terrorism. This example ignores the fact that terrorist acts are prevented by doing something, such as surveillance and intelligence. We also choose to take the risks of swimming in the ocean and driving in cars, but we cannot avoid the risk of terrorism no matter what we do.
False equivalence is occasionally claimed in politics, where one political party will accuse their opponents of having performed equally wrong actions, usually as a red herring in an attempt to deflect criticism of their own behaviour. Two wrongs don’t make a right.
On the other hand, politicians might accuse journalists of False equivalence in their reporting of political controversies if the stories are perceived to assign equal blame to opposing parties. However, False equivalence should not be confused with False balance – the media phenomenon of presenting two sides of an argument equally in disregard of the merit or evidence on a subject (a form of argument to moderation).
Moral equivalence is a special case of False equivalence where it is falsely claimed, often for ideological motives, that both sides are equally to blame for a war or other international conflict. The historical evidence shows that this is rarely the case.
Another special case of False equivalence is Political correctness, which may be defined as language, ideas, policies, or behavior that seeks to minimise social offence in relation to occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts, to an excessive extent thus inhibiting free speech.
Churchill, Roosevelt (FDR and Eleanor), JFK and Thatcher – depending on your politics, they’re all political heroes.
We place them on a pedestal because their special qualities set them apart. Through far-sighted action, they persevered and succeeded (mostly) in the face of adversity and often ridicule.
It was American writer Joseph Campbell who first alerted us to the perpetual and profound influence of heroes in our daily lives. Campbell’s seminal book The Hero with a Thousand Faces – written more than five decades ago – highlighted how the “hero” story pervades every culture and creed.
While heroes come in various guises, the underlying themes that make their stories so compelling – daring, vision and strength – are largely the same. Heroes transcend the limitations of our world. In doing so, they give us a glimpse of our own potential and inspire us to achieve more.
For Campbell, such is the ubiquity of the “hero” story that it represents the central narrative of humanity. That’s why everyone – and every system – needs their heroes.
What has become of political heroes?
Much has been made of the depth of public disillusionment with our current democratic system. Campbell’s “hero” thesis may provide another guide to understanding this. It may also help us understand how and why we must address it.
After all, who would we say are our political heroes now?
On a global stage, some might point to Barack Obama or perhaps Angela Merkel. But generally the well is almost dry. This is evidenced by opinion polling showing trust in, and respect for, politicians at record lows across most Western democracies.
In Australia, political heroes are non-existent. From time to time we believe we have one in our midst. Think of Kevin Rudd’s stellar rise to leadership. Likewise with Mark Latham, Malcolm Turnbull, Julia Gillard and even Tony Abbott (before things went pear-shaped for the current government).
The pattern has become depressingly predictable. The “next big thing” steps onto the political stage to intense hope and excitement. Finally, we hope, here’s the political hero we’ve been looking for.
Then they are ripped down in quick time. Some personal failing inevitably emerges, or some skeleton falls from the cupboard.
‘Gotcha’ politics tears down leaders
We blame the declining quality of our elected representatives for this chronically sad state of affairs. Their personal strengths and characteristics have seemingly deteriorated to such an extent that politics has become an arena almost exclusively of “anti-heroes”.
When they’re not ripping off taxpayers with shonky entitlements, they’re disconnecting themselves from the real world with arcane ideological and factional fights. When they should be fixing the big problems of our age, they obsess over childish finger-pointing and three-second soundbites.
Certainly, the argument has merit. Politics has increasingly become an echo chamber where many MPs have only ever been professional politicians, or emerged from a narrow band of professions that lead to politics.
Inside this bunker, individual behaviour and values gravitate to mediocrity and group-think – the antithesis of hero qualities.
But consider this. What if JFK, with all his charisma and oratory, entered American politics now? How long before he would be tagged as a philandering creep riding into power on the coattails of his Nazi-appeasing father?
And Churchill? Would the English public and press allow the person responsible for the strategic farce of Gallipoli to become their leader in the second world war? And would Australia fight alongside him?
And what about Churchill’s “black dog”? Any sniff of mental instability in today’s political world effectively spells the end of leadership, or leadership ambitions.
Their times were far different. There were no social media or “liar” hashtags. There were much fewer “gotcha” campaigns aimed at carpet-bombing the reputation of rival politicians. There was no internet to instantly cross-reference and fact-check anything and everything a politician has ever thought, said or done.
But that is exactly the point. Today’s media and social environment no longer allows any politician – no matter how well-meaning, smart or brave he or she is 98% of the time – to be put on a pedestal for any length of time.
In this era of hyper-transparency, no potential political hero gets out of here alive.
No time or space for redemption
But heroes are more than just about reputation and credibility. In the hero’s journey, as Campbell highlighted, redemption is a central part of the story. Heroes overcome their personal flaws by acting decisively and strategically to create a better world.
But this means having the scope and time to think coherently and deeply about this future world. It means heroes having at their disposal the economic and social policy levers that they can deftly shift to deliver on their vision. It means taking control of the future by leading the rest of us bravely into a world where we otherwise would not dare to venture.
All this is basically impossible in today’s political environment. In essence, our system – and the politicians who inhabit it – is on the verge of being “de-futured” and “de-levered”.
Our political system still assumes the world around it moves in a comparatively slow way. So it shackles parliaments to drawn-out decision processes, which are meant to give our elected representatives time and scope to decide on policy action.
In the meantime, our hyper-sped 21st-century world passes it by, forcing politicians to retreat into the only sphere of action they can control, namely the short term.
Our system assumes that our elected representatives, despite their flaws, are still the prime decision-makers on policymaking. In the meantime, our hyper-expert world has turned them into comparative dunces.
It assumes that national parliaments will always be the predominant realm that decides what, in terms of policy, will have a major and ongoing impact on the citizens they represent. Yet our hyper-scaled, globalised world turns parliaments into bit players.
None of the assumptions our system depends upon to function make sense in the context of massive changes wrought by globalisation and the internet over the last two decades.
So, encased in a system that takes away the ability to act in a heroic way, would a Churchill or Roosevelt of today succeed as they did before? Or would they fail miserably? More likely the latter.
A new model may let heroes emerge
What this underscores is the urgent need to reform our current configuration of democratic politics.
There is any number of potential solutions. These include a shift to deliberative democracy, which effectively gives citizens much more direct input into policy-making. This recognises that politicians no longer have all, or even some, of the answers.
Other solutions include using collaborative, internet-based technology to promote quicker policy decisions that still allow for transparency and significant public input. They also include stronger transnational forums to address the problems of a globalised world, which no single country or parliament can tackle.
Under these proposals, political heroes may no longer come from the political class. What may emerge is a different kind of hero – the citizen-politician. They not only promote change like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King, but are also put into the driver’s seat to enact important policy and turn their vision of a brave new world into reality.
Either way, Campbell’s hero thesis should alert us to why reforming our political system is the most important challenge of our time. A system without heroes diminishes all of us. It is also a system that cannot survive.
This article was co-published with DemocracyRenewal.
by Helen Dale, 11 May 2015
Conservatives won a decisive and unexpected victory in last week’s UK General Election, roundly beating expectations set by pollsters to claim a clear majority in the House of Commons. But the Scottish National Party (SNP) also scored major wins, even beyond what was expected. The Tory win and the SNP gains set the stage for a divided nation—and possibly the end of the U.K. as we know it.
Last September, Scots rejected independencenarrowly but decisively, 55 to 45. But in last Thursday’s vote, the SNP, which brought the independence referendum to a vote and has fanned the flames of independence, converted that loss into a staggering win in the UK General Election. The SNP claimed 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats, leaving the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour with just one seat apiece. Previously, Labour held 41 Scottish seats, with the Liberal Democrats on 11.
The rest of this article may be viewed here.
There is a crisis of confidence in the political system generally. The problem is by no means confined to Australia – it is endemic to the United States, many European states, Africa generally, most of Asia and South America.
I would define the crisis in contemporary Australian politics as a combination of interlocking factors:
- sharply reduced political agenda;
- refusal to analyse and explain complex (“wicked”) problems (climate change, jihadism, refugees);
- convergence (largely out of fear) on major issues (taxation, national security); and
- toxicity on trivial issues (personal attacks, “gotcha!” moments).
However, despite the frequently expressed low opinion of politics and politicians, and the toxicity and vacuity of our political discourse, paradoxically voters still overwhelmingly support the two major political groupings.
This is presumably pragmatism at a high degree. Voters say: “After all, I am voting for a government…”
The maximum variation in the combined vote for the major parties over five sets of elections in Australia in the period 2013-15 is only 2.1%. That aggregate vote has shown a slight long-term decline since the 1960s. In the 2015 New South Wales election, the aggregate vote for the two major political groupings amounted to exactly 80.0% – 45.7% to the Coalition, 34.3% to the ALP. This is strikingly consistent with the bar charts set out above.
Informal votes are generally higher than in the past, although the electorate is (at least on paper) far better educated.
Voters are (so far) loyal to the major parties on polling day but many cast their vote with pegs on their noses – and they have no interest in joining parties. Our major parties claim to have a total membership of about 80,000 – about 0.6% of voters. In reality, it is likely to be less than 30,000, not all of whom will know that they hold party tickets.
By contrast, total membership of sporting, especially football, clubs would be somewhere north of 800,000.
A system stumped by wicked problems
The current iteration of the democratic system demonstrates a striking incapacity to address sets of major issues, many described as “wicked problems”. Rittel and Webber defined wicked problems as being messy, circular or aggressive.
They argued that wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements; solutions to them are often difficult to recognise as such because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create other, even more complex, problems.
Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Wicked problems have no “stopping rule”.
The complexity of wicked problems is a challenge to linear thinking, reductionism and much professional education. Foreign policy provides some striking examples.
Every Middle East intervention by the West since the invasion of Gallipoli in April 1915, with the (contested) exception of the creation of Israel in 1948, has been misconceived, failed in execution and has created a new set of unexpected problems.
Current wicked problems include:
- Terrorism and security issues;
- The clash of civilisations updated;
- Telling the truth and winning elections;
- Evidence v. opinion: the attack on scientific method;
- Information or entertainment: speeding up through media;
- Climate change paralysis;
- Dumbing down of political debate;
- The policy abyss;
- Recruitment of political elites;
- Institutional failures – churches, welfare groups, sporting clubs, armed forces, political parties;
- Corruption: vested interest vs community interest, lobbyists;
- Foreign and defence policies, ANZAC revisited, how many universities could a submarine buy?; and
- Tackling budget deficits by emphasising (i) cuts, (ii) asset sales and (iii) borrowing, while ignoring revenue (i.e. tax adjustment);
There are inbuilt tensions between the nature of major challenges and attempts to understand them or address them.
- Wicked problems (climate change, ageing, jihadism) are very long-term issues;
- Our political cycles are short-term (three-year parliaments for the Commonwealth, three or four for the states);
- Media cycles are very short-term (news editors get tired of a story after 24 hours or so);
- Social media turn-round times are shorter still.
A fundamental mistake was made by many writers, myself included, about the impact of the IT revolution. We assumed that access to new technology would open people up to the world that people would seek out the universal and long-term. Instead, technologies such as the iPhone have reinforced the realm of the personal, as exhibited in social media, with its emphasis on the immediate, the next few minutes, concentrating on family and close friends, reinforcing existing views.
Choice vs no choice
If there is a united front between the major parties on issues such as asylum seekers or foreign policy, then voters will have to be reminded that (as Talleyrand remarked) “not to choose is to choose” and that Australia is – like the US – becoming a state in which government and opposition are essentially two wings of the same bird.
For Australian voters, it is like choosing between Coles and Woolworths. At present, Australia is ruled by a Grand Alliance, which refuses to engage in serious examination of, say, climate change, planning for a post-carbon economy, education reform, rethinking foreign policy, or securing an appropriate revenue base for an ageing society with increasingly sophisticated health needs and the shadow of Alzheimer’s.
A central failure in the current political debacle has been the pursuit of populism, fearful of serious analysis of the major ongoing problems that face societies like ours. Both the Coalition and Labor are at fault in this.
I have sometimes fantasised that there could be room for a new party, called Courage, but I don’t see it on the horizon.
The problem for me is: how is an 82-year-old radical to vote if he wants to reform the world and get answers to basic questions, such as: how many submarines does Australia need? And how do we challenge a military culture? And plan for a post-carbon future? And protect the environment?
And preserve the rule of law? And entrench support for research, CSIRO, the ABC and the Bureau of Meteorology? And recognise the growing needs of an ageing population? And have a root-and-branch reform of the tax system? And put creativity and greater opportunity into the school system? And move towards a republic? And tackle reform on issues ranging from sexuality to urban land management (bad here, good in England)? And challenge the obsession that growth is an end in itself?
You tell me.
Tackling complex problems such as refugees and climate change will demand complex solutions. These cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”). “Retail politics”, sometimes called “transactional politics”, where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected.
We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act
accordingly. Revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear.
A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis. This is compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.
The electoral success of vision-free politics
To many voters, identification with a party is a reflection, not necessarily of self-interest, although that is important, but a reflection of their own values – values at a particular time.
The British Conservative Party has an outstanding record of having been consistently and demonstrably wrong on issues over 150 years, but had very forgiving supporters. The party actually benefited from the defeat of its great historic campaigns.
The Conservatives were for the Corn Laws, child labour, appeasement of Hitler and the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, and against Catholic and Jewish emancipation, manhood suffrage, Home Rule for Ireland, votes for women, the National Health Scheme and independence for India.
It is hard to identify a single issue that the Tories got right the first time round. That did not prevent them from winning elections. In the 20th century, under universal suffrage, the Tories held office for longer than Labour and the Liberals combined.
In Australia, the ALP alternative to conservatism is timidly progressive, fearful of causing offence, unable and unwilling to reform itself, totally controlled by factional apparatchiks.
Both major parties talk about “taxpayers” as if they were an entity with no function other than paying tax. In reality, they are people passing through a variety of changing roles, with higher or lower needs depending on what part of life they are in – but they are also spouses, parents, workers, students, patients, welfare dependents, customers, community activists.
After his near-death experience on February 9, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was questioned on ABC’s 7.30 and set out his vision-free priorities: “lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom”, emphasising that his government “believes in values and institutions that have stood the test of time” (unidentified, but presumably the Roman Catholic Church, the British royal family and the Institute of Public Affairs would be high on the list).
“Lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom.” Let’s unpick that.
In the next decades, will Australia’s population be rising, falling or static? If rising, will the percentage of Australians aged more than 60 be rising disproportionately? All demographers say “yes”.
Will this (in the absence of widespread euthanasia) mean a significant increase in the numbers of people requiring sophisticated, long-term medical treatment and/or hospitalisation, at great expense? How will any government, especially a smaller one, deal with a rising problem with increased numbers on a lower revenue base? How can it be done?
Will poverty, inability to afford medical assistance, decrepitude and isolation increase or reduce the prospect of “greater freedom”? For whom?
In a recent book, political scientist Tom Flanagan argues that the years of minority government in Canada between 2004 and 2011 had a corrosive effect on Canadian politics and political culture. He comments:
After so many years of continuous campaigning, federal politicians are like child soldiers in a war-torn African country; all they know how to do is to fire their AK-47s.
This statement, and many other things that Flanagan describes as features of Canadian politics – including increased centralisation of decision-making in the party and the need to be in constant campaign mode – could also be considered to be characteristics of contemporary Australian politics.
There can be little doubt that the years since 2007 have transformed the nature of Australian politics, turning it into a political warzone in which there can be no rest for the combatants. This came after some 24 years of relative political calm during which there were but three prime ministers – Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard.
These years of political stability owed a lot to politics not being all out-and-out warfare, even allowing for Keating’s occasional belligerence. Governments on both sides of politics ruled for what they understood to be the public good, not just to secure victory over the other side.
When the Australian electorate voted in the Labor government led by Kevin Rudd in 2007 they had an expectation that this pattern of politics would continue. They saw Rudd as continuing the tradition of good government that Australia had enjoyed since 1983.
Instead, the Australian people were soon to enter the zone of conflict and instability, which is still the case. One could blame this on the challenges that governments have had to face since the global financial crisis. But then the Hawke government faced enormous challenges in the late 1980s without descending into anything like its successor 20 years later.
There were many factors at work, including Rudd’s leadership style, the way in which he was dispatched and replaced by Julia Gillard, and the consequences of having a hung parliament from 2010. The result was a much more ferocious style of politics. It was ferocious in the conflict both between the parties and within the parties as the struggle for power became increasingly intense.
What happened was that a political “state of nature” replaced what had been the civilised practice of political life in Australia. One of the great virtues of the Westminster system, which Australia, like Canada, has inherited from Britain, are its traditions of political behaviour, of behaving reasonably and decently.
Those traditions have been significantly eroded in recent years. One reason for this has been the need to be in constant campaign mode. Flanagan writes that the Conservative Party in Canada is a “campaign party”, always looking to the next election. The same is true of both main political parties in Australia.
All of this is exacerbated by the 24-hour news cycle and the use of social media. There can be no rest for any government; skirmishes are always being fought as parties prepare to “go over the top” for the next big offensive.
What this means is that the job of governing the country is almost of lesser importance than winning the political battle. Rather, government is just another tool or weapon to be used in that battle.
The real problem, as Flanagan says, is the harmful effect that such behaviour has had on the political culture. What Australians want is what they had under Hawke and Howard: good, strong, stable government. What they are getting is constant political warfare.
The problem is that young newcomers to politics are being inducted into this dysfunctional political culture. They are learning how to become political warriors dedicated to winning the political game. And winning is the top – perhaps only – priority.
The danger is that this culture of constant conflict will becoming self-perpetuating. Politicians will forget why the Australian people have elected them. There needs to be some way of breaking this cycle of conflict and returning Australians to the days of good government that they enjoyed under Hawke, Keating and Howard.