It was a bit of a shock for me finally to see the TV news and hear the words ‘Prime Minister Morrison’. Yes, I knew it had happened, but some days had passed, and here I was back in the land of the living. What else had happened? Much is still unclear. ‘Envoy’ positions for Mr Abbott and My Joyce may keep them quiet and out of harm’s way. They may also heal some of the hurt. I don’t know, and I doubt that anyone else does either. Are we going to have an early election? My sources say No, that the new PM needs as much time as possible to present some kind of united front to the electorate. There isn’t much time available to do that, but I would agree that he is more likely to go later than earlier.
In the meantime, Mr Shorten has finally becomethe most preferred Prime Minister, but not at anything like an exalted level. On the face of it, there will be a Labor Government whenever the election is held. It is hard to know what the electorate thinks about all of this, and since I have been out of circulation myself I haven’t been able to find out what my friends think. They’re not representative of the electorate, anyway. The whole episode has been rather like a bad movie. You come out of the cinema wondering how all that happened, and what might happen now. And although yet another Prime Minister has been weighed in the balance and found wanting, his deposition does not seem to have solved anything. There is a great deal of discontent abroad, and what follows is my attempt to deal with the roots of some of it.
The lack of a settled order
Australians are not, in my judgment formed over fifty years of study and survey research, fascinated with politics. In general they do have some strong views, nonetheless. One is that the politicians are there to do a job, and they need to be seen to be doing it. What is that job? Keeping a predictable, settled order in which people can get on with their lives: things ought to be running well, there should be jobs for people who want them, the public services should be efficient and free from the smell of obvious corruption, and political leaders should say the same things on Friday as they said earlier on Monday.
If that is all happening, to repeat, then Australians can get on with managing their own lives, jobs and families. Oh, and we Australians take voting seriously. We approve of compulsory voting — in part, I think, because we recognise that it would so easy to let the whole thing slide, and just give up on the politicians. That has not been our way. I wrote about all that in Stability and Change in Australian Politics forty years ago, and even the last few years, which have been pretty drear in terms of the standard of our politics, have not shaken this basic driver of our system and its culture.
There is, I think, a widespread apprehension about not only what is happening, but what might happen. We have passed the era of jobs for life, tenure and protection. Jobs can disappear with frightening speed. Technological change is rampant in many areas, and many middle management, administrative and clerical positions that used to exist have simply disappeared. The housing market involves those who take out loans with what to me are astonishingly high levels of debt. The buyers cannot afford to be without work, indeed most often without two income streams. Yes, the economy is strong, though we cannot expect Chinese or Indian levels of GDP increase. But I detect real anxiety out there. And the finger is being pointed at the political system and those who operate in it, and indeed operate it.
The lack of clear direction
The best solution for Australians over the long haul, politically speaking, seems to have been a Liberal or Coalition Government implementing ideas and policies that largely have come from the ALP, or the Left, more broadly. That was much the case during the long reigns of Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard. We are neither a capitalist society nor a socialist one. We try to spread the wealth through better social welfare. Our big parties are collections or coalitions of people who share some important views of the world though they may disagree on others. And because electoral politics is a zero-sum game, they are united in believing that the most important task is to keep the other side out of office as long as possible.
I do not think that Australia is ungovernable, but l do think that it is much harder for any government now to give clear direction than it was during the period of the Cold era, for example, or in the 1980s, when I think we have had, in the early Hawke Governments, a team that knew what they wanted to do and were able to persuade the country that it was the right thing to do (and, by and large, it was). We are now wealthy, apprehensive, and many of us are fixated on what I think are small-scale issues. We do not have a great divider, or cleavage, in our society.
The call for rights of various kinds, the notion that there are crises wherever we look (obesity, domestic violence, gender equality, Aboriginal issues, autism, drugs, bullying, you name it), and the almost automatic political/electoral response that we (X Party) have a solution, and that if you vote for us we will provide it and everything will be wonderful again — all of this is pervasive. It means also that it is quite unclear what any of the governments of the last decade actually wanted to do that was in the interests of everybody. More, none of those governments was ever able to communicate its sense of what was possible and sensible with any clarity, if there had been any clarity to start with. Electoral auctions in Australia are not new, but it seems that we have nothing much else any more.
A certain lack of decency on the part of the politicians
Over the last half-century I have known a good many politicians, mostly those in Canberra, Sydney and the Federal Parliament. The great majority were decent, well-meaning and serious about their work. Most have been back-benchers, concerned about the needs of their constituents. They have learned quickly how the political and governmental system works, and they have used their knowledge to effect. Those who become senior and thus ministers or shadow ministers have had to learn a lot of new skills, and how to cut deals. None of it is easy, and I have seen all that at close hand both at the Federal level and in the ACT.
In the past decade I have felt at the Federal level the ordinary standards of decency have slipped, and that too many politicians, both at the senior and junior levels, appear to see what is possible and available to them as a sort of entitlement that can be screwed to what is well past breaking point. Spurious official trips, over-egging expenses, and needless hires of helicopters and cars, because you could do it, seem almost to have become the norm. There are safeguards, nonetheless, and the mass media delight in pointing out the miscreants.
There are just too many of them. I do not know what the solution is. There needs to be a real culture change. But who is to lead it? The point is that all this is plainly visible to the electorate. If you add it to the lack of confidence about what may happen and the lack of clear direction from our political leaders you get some idea of the frustration and irritation that I feel is abroad. I do not think I have seen anything like it in my time, and I do not know where it will lead. But it is there, I am sure of it.