The Grumpy Old Man of the last couple of days has had his traditional cup of tea, a Bex (what ever happened to them?) and a good lie down. In his absence I can write rationally about our political system and why, in some ways, it never seems to get any better. I start with the observation that people like me, a historian and political scientist, tend to see the political system as really important, along with democracy, elections, citizenship, and the like. We are the ones who write textbooks, set exams, ask for civics to be in the school curriculum, and complain when our leaders fall short of our expectations.
And the general population says, ‘Yeah, sure, right, of course,’ and moves on to more important things, like paying the bills, shifting jobs, buying houses, or asking the Sallies for help because they’ve run out of money. People like me tend to confuse ‘should’ with ‘is’. But for the great majority, ‘Australia’ is what they experience. We all take for granted what is the case when we are young; we don’t ask why it is there, or why it is so — it just is. The idea the we might each have some kind of responsibility for the whole of our society takes quite a while to arrive.
Bits of it come during school, when we encounter an authority other than our parents, and occasionally clash with it. Then we ask why, and start to form a view about the way things should be. For most a sense of it comes at work or when we marry and start a family. Work brings us up against another form of authority, while marriage and children involve us with the ‘state’, both for good and for ill: there are rules, and we start to ask why those rules, and what needs to be done to change them. Sometimes the world behaves in a peculiar way, and we really do ask why. In the 1970s I taught an introductory politics class at Macquarie University, and its annual size hovered around 500. In late 1975 the Governor-General dismissed the Prime Minister, and in 1976 the class size rose to over 1200. Our students wanted to know how that had happened, and for a time they were intensely interested in Australian politics.
Most of the time, politics and government form a kind of backdrop to our lives. People move in and out of interest in it. It makes a distant hum, like the noise on the freeway. We know about it all from a distance. You might get the view, from reading about opinion polls, that Australians sit around talking about the relative merits of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, but it’s not like that at all. People form their views, and change them, through a myriad little incidents, images and encounters. The pollsters sample people at various stages in that process. I did it a few times myself, in preparation for a book. For most people, politics and government are out there, but they are not immediately important most of the time.
At election times, however, we know that we have to do something, and most of us have a view about what we will do, and we go off and do it. If there is a change in government, we wait to see what will happen. It is interesting to see who is in and who is out, just as is Kate’s baby, or Lance Armstrong’s confession. But before very long the government is familiar enough, and we get used to it.
I think that’s the way it is, and I’ve been studying it since the late 1950s. I don’t think that much has changed, other than the slow decline in the membership of political parties. There have usually been minor groups and parties in the system, and today’s minor group is the Greens. There has usually been a lot of sledging and name-calling; some are funnier than others. Politics usually attracts power-seekers.The parties usually do whatever it takes to stay in office, if they’re there, or get there, if they’re not. There is usually a scandal of some kind, and we have a couple today. I don’t think there is anything special about today’s politics.
I think most people don’t realise just how fortunate they are to live in a land with such a state of affairs. Politically, we hardly ever live in interesting times, and that is a blessing. Our history is boring, and that too is a blessing. From at least Donald Horne onwards, people like me have railed against the assumption that somehow the lucky country will survive everything. We need good policies, firm leaders, a collective sense that some things are more important than others, we cry. ‘Yeah, sure,’ the general population says, and goes on living its life.
And, as I have written before, more than once, Australia has in fact done a pretty good job of fashioning a lively, creative and prosperous society, especially over the last sixty years. Does that mean that our ‘system’ actually works, or that we really are just lucky?
(And for the curious: Bex powders were a standard compound analgesic in Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, but were regulated out of the market in the 1970s because over-use led to kidney disease.)