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2234 words

National Affairs

Politics abhors a vacuum

13 August 2010

Mark Davis and Miriam Lyons outline the main themes of the new book, More Than Luck: Ideas Australia Needs Now

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Prime Minister Julia Gillard returns to her seat after speaking to media on a flight to Adelaide from Perth earlier this week. AAP Image/Andrew Meares

Prime Minister Julia Gillard returns to her seat after speaking to media on a flight to Adelaide from Perth earlier this week. AAP Image/Andrew Meares



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, its response to what Rudd had called the “political and moral challenge of our times,” was weak in the first place. With its proposed handouts to the energy industry, the government stood accused of pandering to vested interests. The scheme was so similar to what the previous government had offered that it seemed that no matter whom 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 have been 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.

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 wants 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 has been telling a positive story this election year.

A stasis has settled over government and opposition in Australia. We need to change the game. Governments in Australia have traditionally fought hard for their showpiece policies. After the second world war Prime Minister 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 them. In Rudd, and now Gillard, we have no such beliefs.

Is Prime Minister Gillard’s focus on consensus-building a prelude to a Hawke-style leadership that will work to bring as broad a group of Australians as possible on board for reforms of unprecedented ambition? Or is it 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. A system 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 pointed out, endlessly cited Lowy Institute polling showing 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 them. In fact, the same polling also showed that 87 per cent supported action at some cost, down a mere 6 points from 93 per cent in 2006. Sixty per cent believed climate change has become a more urgent issue over the past year. Is it perhaps, The Piping Shrike speculated, that the media are 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 are unable to canvass a more complex narrative?

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. And yet both major parties promised tax cuts at the last election, Rudd’s leadership fell partly because of one attempted tax hike, and Labor enthusiastically attacks Abbott for the economic irresponsibility of the tax he wants to pay for the kind of generous parental leave scheme it would itself love to offer.

Rather than focus on what politicians can do to improve people’s lives, the media focus 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 twenty-four-hour news cycle, where issues rarely get more than three days’ sustained coverage, combine 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, it sees infinite images of itself reflected back with less and less clarity.

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 Labor in preferences. Only when a minor party such as the Greens begins to attract enough votes to become an electoral force in their own right will Labor take notice.

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 make innovative, bold decisions.

These exceptional times are especially dangerous for Australia. Almost fifty 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 whether we should make the changes needed to regard ourselves not only “a lucky country,” but also a country run by people who know how to make the luck last.

Instead, our leaders prefer to dice with destiny. The current 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” 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.


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 More Than Luck: 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 are designed around car travel, while our homes rely on coal to turn on the lights or the shower. Our governments are just as hopelessly addicted – to the jobs and tax revenues provided by mining and energy companies – and are afraid of those industries’ 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, 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 fifty 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. Our solutions need to be holistic. The stories we need to tell about the future must be inclusive; our ideas for policy need to reach across disciplinary, portfolio, and national boundaries. •

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Seeing off the sizzle: Labor leader Bill Shorten (left) with shadow environment minister Mark Butler and shadow financial services minister Jim Chalmers during a visit to the University of Queensland Solar Research Facility at Gatton this week. Dave Hunt/AAP Image

Seeing off the sizzle: Labor leader Bill Shorten (left) with shadow environment minister Mark Butler and shadow financial services minister Jim Chalmers during a visit to the University of Queensland Solar Research Facility at Gatton this week. Dave Hunt/AAP Image