Four matters we don’t like to talk about

Since we are now in election mode I thought it might be time to discuss some matters that we don’t much like to talk about, at election time or any other. To a degree, they are matters that we leave to government, and hope that they are doing the right thing, whatever it is. If something goes wrong, the media broadcast the error at once, government goes into damage control, Ministers say ‘I’m going to ensure that this kind of thing never happens again’, an inquiry is set up – and we pass on to the next scare.

Why is it so? Well, we don’t live in a perfect world, and every society has a Too Hard Basket, into which problems go that simply cannot be solved now, or soon, or at all. In repressive and autocratic societies revolutionary movements develop that aim to overturn the regime, and thereby deal positively with all problems. In democratic societies, or at least societies that aspire to democracy, these problems are supposed to be dealt with by what we call ‘the democratic process’, or ‘representative and responsible government’. But that process is slow and awkward, and a lot goes into the Too Hard Basket. Allow me to put in a plug for a book, now in its tenth edition, that has a go at all this : Australian Political Institutions, by Singleton, Aitkin, Jinks and Warhurst.

Governments like ours do their best, but time passes quickly, and problems hang around. Here are four of them, and my guess is that you won’t hear much about any of them over the next few months.

Single parents’ benefit

I’ve written about this one recently, and probably something will be said during the campaign. But if it is mentioned, the issue will not be gone into in any depth, because it raises so many difficult problems about that most private of all issues – how, when, and why to make a baby, and what is to happen, and who is responsible, and why, when the support of the new potential adult is fundamentally weakened (or was never there in the first place).

Care of the Insane

When I was young the insane were called ‘lunatics’, and they lived in lunatic asylums. There were jokes about ‘loonies’ and in New South Wales the generic name for the asylums was ‘Callan Park’, the name of one of them in Sydney. After the Second World War the feeling grew that the incarceration of the insane was inconsistent with The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Across the Western world, and in our country in the 1970s, the asylums were shut down, and the inmates ‘released into the community’, a process that happened quickly, and with some uncertain results. It is not at all clear to me that we know what to do with members of our society whose mental health is not up to coping with the demands of modern Australia – and there seem to be more of them every day.


About one in a hundred Australians are in jail, and the incarceration rate is about fifteen times higher for indigenous than for the rest. Most prisoners are youngish males. Our prisons are full. This is not because serious crime is increasing. It isn’t, any more than shootings in NSW are increasing. When it seems so it is because there has been an incident  of some kind, and it has become a media moment. Our prisons don’t seem to be very good at ‘correction’, which is the widely used euphemism for what happens there. They do seem to be quite good as places for further education in crime, and it is plain that drug use is widespread there. Should we just be happy that the incarceration rate is as low as it is?


The biggest item in the federal budget, defence is pictured as full of money that is being wasted on toys for boys. I am no expert on any of this, but I can say that most Australians believe that we have a good defence force that is able to pull its weight, and do what has to be done.  I doubt that this is at all true, if only because both the Rudd and Gillard Governments have pulled money out of the defence vote. It costs a lot of money to maintain a modern army, navy and air force, and it is not easy for the services to attract the kind of recruits, educated and skilled, that they need. What the services have done for the last seventy years is to play a part in little wars fought elsewhere. Their real purpose is to defend the nation. Yes, there are no immediate threats. But you are always being prepared for what might come. I don’t think we are, at all. And I don’t think the answer is another Defence White Paper.

Election campaigns allow us to worry about immediate issues, and make some kind of decision about them. But they don’t tackle the long-term illnesses that every society has, mostly because we the people don’t want to recognise that they are there.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Mediacoverage says:

    I would like to add one item to your list of four that we don’t talk about: it’s not of the same order of importance as the issues you identify but it’s symptomatic of contemporary media coverage of politics.

    Earlier in this Parliament Tony Abbot was stung by accusations of misogyny and now, with the help of Coalition PR and media strategy, his wife, or yesterday in Sydney, his two daughters, appear on the television screen while he expresses himself in political terms. The implication is not subtle: Julia Gillard is not family friendly, is not conventional, does not have children and with such values the ALP should not be returned as the Government.

    With most modern teenagers, it is a huge ask for them to be closely associated with their parents in public. So either Tony Abbot has extremely impressive, graceful daughters or perhaps, behind the scenes, he has inveigled them to appear in such a public way. His wife, Margy, may indeed be a very genuine and successful individual but she looks as comfortable as someone going into surgery on television.

    This media strategy, which has Obama parallels, is a very negative development in Australian political life where you explicitly use your family in campaign mode.

    I am not arguing that partners and children are enormously affected by one who serves in public life. It’s customary for partners and children to be acknowledged on the platform after an election victory but to marshall one’s family in campaign mode is at best unwelcome, at worst a cynical form of control and manipulation. It is another thing worth talking about.

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