‘The political system is failing to deliver’

In my last post I mentioned that Paul Kelly, at the end of his Triumph and Demise, had offered a sobering appreciation of Australia’s political system, and it includes the phrase used to head this essay. ‘The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress,’ he goes on to say, ‘has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This decoupling constitutes the Australian crisis.’

I would not have put it quite like that, but I share Kelly’s concern, and indeed I have written about it a few times on this site. He comes to the view that the problem with the three Labor Governments we had recently had was not simply the self-seeking, bad judgement and lack of loyalty of the senior people in the Party, but something more serious. ‘Australian politics is dominated by a poll-driven culture,’ he says. There is certainly a lot of truth to that.

‘It empowers negative campaigns, privileges sectional and special interests over the national interest … and confronts a conflict between long-run policy and the short-term tyranny of the polling and media cycle.’ I was  inside government for a time in the Labor period, and this rings true to me. The present crisis, Kelly says, ‘will not easily be reversed.’ I think he’s right there, too.

His chapter 33 (‘The Australian Crisis’) is indeed sombre. I approach the issue in a somewhat different way. I wrote a book in the 1970s (Stability and Change in Australian Politics) that argued that our parties were the indispensable mechanisms of our political culture. They did for us the hard work  of sorting out what was politically and electorally important, while we inherited our partisanship from our parents, or, if a migrant, sorted out which of the parties made best sense, and followed that. The system worked well, and that is why it continued.

I am beginning to think that both partisanship and its inheritance from our parents are weakening. A political system that possesses a Government and a recognised Opposition (alternative government) is binary: Yes/No, Us/Them, In/Out. It is no surprise that in broad terms election outcomes don’t look very different now from twenty, forty, sixty years ago. Yes, there are minor parties and Independents, but the Big Two (counting the Nationals as part of the Coalition) still dominate. Yes, there are the Greens; thirty years ago we had the Democrats; fifty years ago we had the DLP.

But there have been some big slow changes. A much larger proportion of the electorate has been educated than was the case a half-century ago; our society is a lot wealthier than it used to be, and the wealth has been well distributed; our society is growing, at about 300,000 people a year; technological change is much more rapid than it used to be; careers have become more fluid, and shorter in time; the possibilities for quick wealth are greater than they once were.

It is always hard for the parties to sort everything out, and much harder now than fifty or more years ago. In the first half of the 20th century Australia needed some kind of national agreement about what sort of society we were, and what eventuated was what Kelly has called in another book ‘the Australian Settlement’ — white Australia, arbitration, protection, strong unions, and so on. Their use-by date passed in the second half of that century.

Building schools for everyone, first primary schools, then, after the second world war, high schools, and then universities, was a bi-partisan endeavour. Now, school education is seen by very many as a simple consumption item — you get what you pay for. The same sentiment is about in health care, too. Schools and universities are enormously expensive in recurrent terms, so government of all kinds have to feed them, or they are in trouble. Same with hospitals.

As Australians have become better educated and wealthier and well-travelled too, so they have begun to see things for themselves, not through the lens of their party. Only 18 per cent of Australian workers now belong to unions, and most of the unionists are in the public sector. No one wants to belong to parties anyway. So the ALP has gone electorally after the educated middle class and its concerns, which have little to do with the everyday worries of the little Aussie battler. Paul Kelly points this out very well in his book. The trouble is, the educated middle class has a very long list of things it would like to see done, and there is no sensible priority list available — or even possible.

And twenty years of growing national wealth (no longer growing) have led to a widespread perception that there really is a money tree, and almost any problem that one encounters could be solved if only some medicinal money were applied to it. To a degree politicians have brought this on themselves: it was a delusion of the 1960s and 1970s. Trudeau, Kennedy, Johnson, Wilson in the UK, Whitlam in Australia, Servan-Schreiber in France were  all great wordsmiths who could paint pictures of a world free from illness, want and war. Johnson proposed a war on poverty. You’ll still find people proposing it.

Technological change means that newspapers are dying, even television is struggling, the Internet is ever-present as is ‘social media’, which grew out of it, crowd-funding seems to work (it did for President Obama), and it is easy to set up a lobby group, a foundation, a non-government organisation — and to make them seem bigger, more representative and more populous than they really are. With the old certainties going or gone, the parties respond to the ‘demands’ of lobby groups, or actively seek them out, in the hope of finding new sources of electoral support. Our party system is moving in the American direction. People are passionate about leaders, and their own concerns, but not so much about the parties.

I have said before that from time to time our parties remind me of professional football teams, focussed on winning. Most players could belong to either side. The MPs and Senators are no longer representative in any real sense of the constituencies that elect them. And we the electorate alternately criticise and hope. Kelly puts this well: ‘The leader they praised yesterday is the leader they condemn today.’

And in the meantime, what is happening to the nation? Kelly says that the real issues, the need to reform our society (meaning to reshape some of its structures as it grows and changes) are being avoided, and that reform is now just too hard. I’ll pick that theme up in a later essay.



Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Peter Kemmis says:

    The recently late Mario Cuomo, formerly Mayor of New York City, said “we campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose”. I thought this encapsulated so much, the grand promises, the big visions – and the accompanying vacuum in planning.

    • Alan Gould says:

      I think both you and Paul Kelly are spot on about the poll-frenzies at Election time. They are pernicious, bringing on a result more than predicting one, tending to make the contest of policies into a contest of leaders and so a symptom of celebrity cult rather than an airing of the means and substance of the next 3 years of government.
      I do wonder whether Australians today are ‘better educated’. More of them stay at school for longer, I concede. But in the relief-teaching I did around the schools from the ’70’s to the ’90’s, I saw English converted from a study of canonical or notable texts to an exposure to ‘Issues’ where relevance was the guideline and mediocrity was the calibre of the texts sucked into these black holes for students to consider. I saw the study of history, geography and economics agglomerated into SOSE (Studies In Society and Environment) thus dismissing the discreet study of human relationship to time and place and means. And I saw the migration from textual study to its replacement by video, with all the consequences to attention and retention that this implied. At this same time, English at University became thoroughly contaminated by various attributes of the post-mod fashion in what one does with a text, and the result, I observe, is a kind of shallow erudition in place of the well-read, articulate teachers I recall from my own education.
      So, certainly Australians are better travelled than formerly, though whether they are better equipped to make something of their travels I am less sure.

      • PeterE says:

        I like this. Thanks.

      • Don Aitkin says:

        It wasn’t only at election time. The major parties are conducting private polling regularly, and organising focus groups to see what the ‘mind of the people’ really is. Kelly’s view is that the removal of Rudd was in part pushed by the sudden fall in his popularity — which was all he had going for him.

      • David says:

        Younger people are more inclined to accept AGW than older people. Ipso facto they are better educated and more able to engage in critical analysis than older people.

        • JMO says:

          They may be better educated, not sure about critical analysis though. Education is no match for ideology, eg Pol Pot was educated at La Sorbonne but was also a rampant ideologue and looked what happened in Cambodia.

          Very few young people have any sense of history, which is imperative for any critical analysis of the global warming since the Litttle Ice Age and the start of the Industrial Revolution. They look at climate change in the context of as little as 30-odd years let alone a century!.

          I now of one screaming CAGWer who does not know the difference between William the Conqueror and William of Orange, or the Battle of the Spanish Main and the Battle of Trafalcar. So what hope is there for them to know about the Medieval, Roman, Minoan, and Egyptian warm periods, all of which were warmer than the current Modern warm period.

          • David says:


            Perhaps I needed to put a “:) ” at the end of my comment. But in response to your older-person’s analysis.

            1. “I know of one screaming CAGWer who does not know the….

            Really? Samples of n=1 are not that persuasive!

            2. “So what hope is there for them to know about the Medieval, Roman, Minoan, and Egyptian warm periods, all of which were warmer than the current Modern warm period.”

            The AGW concern is not about century’s temperatures, its about this century’s temperatures, obviously.

            A younger person would get that.

          • Peter Kemmis says:

            David, I think you have nailed it, if you are saying that AGW is about this last century’s temperatures, and that younger generations will “get that”. The whole issue of our understanding warming, the formation and role of aerosols including carbon dioxide, and of climate behaviour, goes way beyond this last century.

            What you have nailed is the limited perspective of which JMO writes, and I am most surprised that you would support that narrow view of the subject.

    • margaret says:

      Oh for the poetry of Obama’s state of the union address – what a terrific speech.

      • Peter Kemmis says:

        Well, Margaret, I thrilled to that speech also, such a dramatic change to his predecessor. But i have been very disappointed as his leadership unfolded.

        I’d sooner a prosaic leader, who could govern down the centre, and get things done.

        • margaret says:

          Gillard was prosaic and got a lot done … considering the obstructions.

          • margaret says:

            Anyhow Peter, irrespective of poetry or prose/heart or head ;
            Republican or Democrat/Liberal or Labor, as Obama said in the state of the union speech – “a better politics is not one where Democrats abandon their agenda or where Republicans embrace mine”… (Obama speaking).

          • MattyB says:

            What obstructions? Majority is the HoR, assistance of the Greens in the Senate. Such obstructions.

  • whyisitso says:

    I enjoyed reading Paul Kelly’s “The End of Certainty” in which he discusses “The Australian Settlement” in the first chapter. I’m not sure whether that term originated with Kelly, but it captured Australia in the first three-quarters of last century brilliantly.

    Its termination was delayed a decade or more by inept governments post-Menzies, and we needed Hawke-Keating to save us from the rapidly accelerating decline which resulted from it.

    One of its worst features was protectionism, but unfortunately that philosophy appears to be making a comeback.

  • margaret says:

    annoys me to see parliamentarians being bipartisan in fashion and
    motoring and sport. Frivolity followed by such venom at question time just doesn’t cut it for me.

    I think there needs to be a Friends of the Global Warming Debate.


    • Don Aitkin says:

      Fair point, but the question time episodes are the only things you ever see or hear. Much of the legislation that is passed goes through on the voices —only a minority of bills receive real opposition and ‘venom’.

      • margaret says:

        Venom may have been over-stating the often cringe-worthy performances at question time – it’s transparency, but it’s also theatre. Social bi-partisanship outside the performance of question time just cements its hypocrisy. Let those who want to, see the legislation that is passed without the theatrics.

  • […] is my third commentary on Australian politics, following my reading of Paul Kelly’s Triumph and Demise over the holiday period. A brief […]

  • […] is my last reflection on what Paul Kelly has called ‘the Australian crisis’, his proposition that our political system is now unable to deal with reform of any kind, because […]

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