We can’t rely on experts and mandarins to reform our politics

June 15, 2014

By Tom Bentley

In our divided political culture, there is one thing that most people seem to agree strongly about. The quality of our political debate, and by extension our politicians, is a cause for frustration, disappointment and cynicism.

Journalists lament the selfish, short-term gimmicks of political and parliamentary debate. Political parties accuse each other of being captured by vested interests. Meanwhile, the public switches off in droves, leaving both major parties struggling to reach the levels of support that are equated with stable majorities and popular legitimacy. Independent candidates and smaller parties add to the growing unpredictability and confusion of daily politics. The main casualties seem to be difficult, long term decisions taken in the public interest.

How to encourage Australian policymakers to take more responsibility on the public’s behalf is therefore a growing preoccupation for some. For example, Ross Garnaut’s recent book, Dog Days, advocates greater reliance on the “independent centre” of academics, journalists and bureaucratic economists clustered around Canberra and other key Australian institutions.

These people, Garnaut argues, are a source of wisdom, rationality and expertise, and can help to counter the short term biases of populism and rent-seeking that have plagued Australia over the last decade. In the book, he appeals to the self interest of the newly elected Abbott government, suggesting that there is long term political advantage to be gained from pursuing difficult decisions in the public interest.

He accompanies this pitch with an elegant diagnosis of the problem, writing that “capitalism doesn’t work if all of us seek to maximise our private interest in every interaction with society”. This basic point is right, in keeping with Garnaut’s contributions to the framing of Australia’s response to climate change and our relationships with Asia.

The full implications of Garnaut’s proposal demands a wider rethinking of the ways in which the public interest is defined and articulated, a broader range of policy choices, and a much stronger focus on the renewal of Australian institutions in every sector.

As Jim Chalmers has recently chronicled, one big cause of the recent political malaise is the aggressive, uncompromising approach taken by many, especially corporations, to asserting their self-interest. As governments try to respond to disruptive changes – like the global financial crisis, climate change and the impact of the internet – this approach reduces politics to a public arena for conspiracy and extortion.

The media are clearly tangled up in this problem, as different media organisations simultaneously advocate for vested interests, influence public interpretation of politics and compete desperately for people’s attention. The tendency of political reporting to punish uncertainty and exploit ambiguity makes things worse, reducing the discussion of ideas to a form of tactical warfare. Considered policy options are repeatedly dragged through the mud of opinion polling and fiscal costing

Australia’s political media has been built around career structures which privilege a few increasingly grumpy voices at the top. It is not an accident that every time the communications channels covering Canberra have broadened, fresher journalistic voices have emerged.

Overall, our political culture is being defined by a small group of protagonists who push themselves into the arena, prompting many more to step back instinctively from public life because of the apparently negative consequences of taking part. In this environment, Garnaut is arguing a case for public virtue, and advocating that we place its protection in the hands of elite guardians with the knowledge, confidence and independent status to know what is good for the rest of us.

It should come as no surprise to him that, after three decades of continuously promoting competition as the central idea in economic life, the bonds of shared morality and restraint are fraying. Amid these conflicting pressures, the reliance of our policy elites on traditional assumptions about good government and economics risks narrowing the options when the long term public interest demands that they be broadened.

For example, a Canberra economist of late 1980s vintage, whose intellect and integrity I deeply respect, recently told an audience that the “worst thing that could happen” would be for Australia to flip back and forth between different policy reforms as governments come and go. This is not the worst that could happen. The Hawke government succeeded by re-instating some of Whitlam’s key reforms and building on them. The worst is that Australia could get on the wrong path and stay there.

So Garnaut’s “independent centre” is essential to the public conversation, but it is currently too fragile and too insular to carry that conversation on its own. Instead, the discussion should be widening to take in what we can learn from around the world and how it could be adapted and combined with Australian strengths.

We should learn from Switzerland’s management of its currency to encourage a healthy manufacturing sector. From the way Germany’s universities strengthen its economy. From innovation policy in Israel or Brazil, school reform in Hong Kong and Shanghai. We could even learn from the way that Chile has used its mining income to reduce poverty, or from Seoul’s revitalisation of urban infrastructure.

We should rediscover the fact that public discussion is the most important influence on better government. We could start with the example set by David Gonski, a man who has reached the pinnacle of Australian business but chooses to advocate publicly that schools should be funded according to social need, and dares to criticise both the Liberal and Labor parties for not doing enough to prioritise that need.

Or Glyn Davis, head of Australia’s highest status university, who rather than focus narrowly on the interests of his own institution, publicly called for an increase in general taxation to fund education properly. Likewise, Ross Garnaut, since Dog Days was published, has pointed out that keeping the carbon price would contribute as much to the budget bottom line as the “savings” currently being proposed by the government.

These are individual acts of leadership. They stand in stark contrast to the many more Australians who have bargained for their own interests while peddling the rhetoric of public interest.

It is not just senior men running big institutions who need to speak up. New voices are needed everywhere. In the long run, Australia’s future depends on a wider sharing of both power and responsibility. That will not happen if we continue to demand that party leader after party leader face the prospect of winning elections without also confronting some hard truths about ourselves as a community. It’s easier to punish a woman who confronts your prejudices than a man with powerful friends who claims to know what he is doing. It’s easier, but it makes us poorer.

An honest politics requires an honest media and an honest civil society, where people accept the inevitability of compromise and failure, share responsibility for solving problems and listen to each other for long enough to form reasoned conclusions. Relying on the mandarins to run the place on our behalf will never be enough.

These practices are not abstract virtues controlled by distant rulers – they are everyday aspects of our own culture, reinforced by the way we do our jobs, talk to our families, and choose to spend our time. This is where the sense of fairness is cultivated.

The roots of our political culture are still in everyday conversations in bar rooms, classrooms, surgeries, at board tables and dinner tables. Changing them is not the exclusive preserve of our professional political class.

Yes, we should expect politicians to do better; to lead is to change the culture. But an engaged population will also need to respond differently. That means confronting real injustices, and giving the benefit of the doubt to politicians who stumble while trying to do the right thing.

The Abbott government is a slow motion, multi-vehicle pile-up. It is not going to deliver on the aspirations of a decent majority for a better life. Doing better will mean extending renewal beyond parliament and the parties into journalism and academia, companies and unions, bureaucracy and community organisations.

If we, as members of a community, are not prepared to use our minds and our voices, we will get the politicians we deserve. Don’t let it happen