This the first of a two-part essay on the current Australian political system.
When I was first interested on politics in the 1950s, it all seemed pretty simple. There was Labor and Anti-Labor, with the Country Party serving as the rural tail of the Liberals. You were Protestant or Catholic. You left school at fifteen, or you went on (in consequence you were blue-collar or white-collar). You were probably a union member if you were a worker. Your sympathies were to the Left or to the Right. Republicans were just about invisible. You probably inherited your family’s political sympathies, as you ingested many other of their habits, opinions and prejudices.
We called ourselves a ‘democracy’, and our leaders called on us to recognise that we had the best political system in the world. I knew no better, and hadn’t yet travelled. It was probably true, I thought. Actually, just about every country called itself a ‘democracy’, but we knew what the word really meant. My grandfathers were miner and a railways blacksmith, my parents were teachers in the NSW public sector, so my family sympathies were towards Labor. But I grew up in a country town set in the heartland of the Country Party, and I recognised the contrast between City and Country whenever we went to Sydney, where a lot of my relatives lived. In Rugby League I was, and still am, a Country supporter, though that match has been completely overshadowed by the State of Origin series.
I became a student of politics, and eventually taught it at university. In my view parties did a most useful job for us, in sorting out the manifold issues that faced our society, processing them so that they made some kind of sense, and implementing policies that flowed from the issues. So the question became ‘Which party would do this best?’ A common claim from the knowledgable was that the best government was a Coalition one putting Labor policies into practice.
That was forty years ago. Things had changed a great deal even in the 1970s. The feminist movement was gaining strength, contraception in control of women allowed them to decide when to have a baby (and with whom, as well). More and more people went to university; television became widespread; many more Australians travelled overseas. The voting age came down to 18; fewer people went to church; Marxism became intellectually respectable; universities moved slowly to the Left.
A lot more has changed since then. Globalism, intensified by new and powerful communication technologies, has made it seem, for many at least, that our country is almost irrelevant in the wider scheme of things. We now have 23.5 million people with an extraordinarily wide range of interests. A decently large newsagency can have as many as 2,000 different magazine titles on sale at the same time. Marriage is now an option for people who want to live together, and if they are from the same sex, well, so what. Manners are a matter of choice, as are dress, food and drink. Drugs? Whatever.
In place of Christianity have come environmentalism and internationalism, creeds which are sometimes passionately adhered to. Well-educated, relatively well-off and self-confident people are now much surer that they are right, about whatever they are now speaking, than their parents would ever have been about most things. And social media allow people to form alliances and protest groups without having to meet one another first. ‘Protest’ is the new thing. If you aren’t protesting about something it is plain that you don’t have a life.
I have only sketched the important changes here, because my real focus is on the political system, which I think is having a hard time of it. It seems to me that single-issue politics has taken the place of party politics. Few people belong to the ALP or the other parties compared with the situation half a century ago. But there must be a thousand or more single-issue groups, and all of them seem to want ‘government’ to do something for them, while governments and opposition parties look to them to provide electoral support in return for services rendered, or promised.
We have had a bountiful twenty years since the World’s Greatest Treasurer warned us of the recession that we had to have, and there seems to be a feeling that budgets don’t matter. There’s always money, and there has to be money for what this or that group wants. Politicians have not been greatly liked in my time, though a good local member will always have wide support both through the numbers of people he or she has helped, and the reputation that flows from that work.
But the animosity towards politicians of both sides that I have seen in the media since Kevin ’07 fell from grace has no counterpart that I can remember. Mr Abbott is now garnering the same kind of media treatment that he helped to generate for his predecessors as PM when he was the Leader of the Opposition. He had a splendid opportunity to set out why his Government would be different, and to show it in action; so far he has fluffed it.
The major parties themselves resemble professional football teams. What exactly do they stand for? When we know what that is we might be able to see to what extent they practise what they preach. My view is that they stand for very little other than the absolute need to be in power.
Managing a national government is not easy anywhere, at any time. But for the last few years we have seen a lot of disorganised government, sometimes almost chaotic. It’s not enough to have adults running things; the adults need to have a clear and consistent view of what they are doing, and why they are doing it. That we don’t have.