John Howard made a “courageous” decision in 1998 and he nearly lost the prime ministership. Julia Gillard’s “courageous” decision was made in 2011 and she could easily lose the prime ministership over it.
The description “courageous” comes from Yes Minister and it means a worthy decision in the national interest which will result in major, if not fatal, political damage.
The Howard and Gillard decisions were both over a tax. Both came after the leaders had earlier ruled them out. Both were good policy decisions. Both accorded with the conclusions of various broad-ranging inquiries and Public Service advice. Both were in the national interest.
Howard lost the popular vote in 1998 after getting one of the largest majorities in Australia’s history the election before. All his political capital was burned by the GST and he had to start again. But the GST was one of the best, if not the best, decision his Government made.
Similarly, all the political capital earned by Kevin Rudd’s win for Labor in 2007 has been burned up by the carbon tax (or emissions trading scheme).
By the way, make no mistake, a carbon tax is good policy, even if the tax is a small one. It will be better for us to have a workable mechanism in place to force people to reduce emissions before the world does it for us. And the world will regulate us — in the same way that international agreements regulate Australian (and other countries’) conduct in so many ways.
So why is it so hard to make sensible decisions in Australia? Here are a few reasons.
First, let’s turn to the one most profoundly affecting the carbon tax and before it the mining tax: lobbyists, particularly industry associations.
Their major task is to represent their industry’s interests to government.
They cost a bit to run. They usually have a chief executive and a staff usually proportionate to the wealth of the industry. The businesses in the industry are levied to keep the association afloat.
If the businesses are not satisfied with the association they will leave or agitate for a change in personnel.
It means that the head of every industry association has one aim in life: to prove to the constituent businesses that they are doing a good job – are value for money, irrespective of the national interest.
It is a cost-benefit exercise. Spend a few million on an industry association; save many more millions by preventing government policy that would cost the industry.
The industry association will happily engage in media manipulation, scare campaigns, outright lies, free lunches, “fact-finding” trips, invitations to sport or cultural events or whatever it takes to persuade decision-makers to make decisions in the industry’s interests rather than the broad public interest.
The employees of the association can justify their existence on the basis of knocking off a policy that would cost the industry more than the running costs of the association.
The strength of industry associations — their money, contacts and capacity to influence public debate against the public interest — is pernicious.
The public mind is for sale. More accurately it is for purchase. Spend enough money on the media and their hearts, (small) minds and votes will follow. If it didn’t work, they wouldn’t do it.
Next, the media’s coverage of the debate. Exaggeration is not pointed out and challenged, let alone ridiculed. Indeed, exaggeration is encouraged because it is newsworthy. The conflict and novelty of exaggeration make it worth reporting because news organisations know that conflict and novelty interest audiences.
Politicians and other participants in the public debate have no compunction about putting exaggeration or even outright untruth as truth.
Worse, journalistic “ethics” these days have been manipulated to require “balance” or equal time for both sides, even if the merits of the argument on each side are unequal. When the public hears equal time it results in an erroneous perception of equal merit and legitimacy.
It is a deadly combination – when people are willing to say anything or do anything in the pursuit of office and media gives it equal coverage the illegitimate gets legitimized.
This media dominance has led to politicians discarding impartial, sensible public service advice and advice from impartial inquirers. They must despair.
However, there are signs of hope here. I sense that the Public Service, particularly Treasury, is heartily sick of measured expert advice being cast aside on the strength of some fatuous focus group. The antidote for them is to join the fray through the backdoor. I suspect that their new-found openness with freedom of information requests is a strategy to get their views into the media domain where it cannot be ignored by their political masters.
Recently, the very best impartial advice delivered to ministers’ offices has been ignored. If it is FOIed into the public domain, however, it will harder to do that.
Next is the apathy and antipathy of voters. The saying that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance does not apply only to military preparedness. It applies also to being conquered or duped domestically. The extensive political turn-off by voters enables the glib, shallow slogan-mongers to get their way.
Public education is not keeping up with complexity. It may not be able to. It may be that these days the issues arising in the world are getting beyond a greater proportion of the population to understand.
So at the very time when morally sound leadership is required not to take advantage of that gap, other malign forces gather to exploit it.
Another factor militating against sane debate is the growing greed and sense of entitlement among voters. This is perhaps best exemplified by the demand posed with every major reform that no-one should be worse off. This has been put as a silly media question: “Can you guarantee no-one will be worse off?”
Well, reform is not like that. Of its nature some (hopefully undeserving) people will be worse off in order that other (hopefully deserving) people will be better off. And that overall all the nation will be better off.
Then we have the Gough factor. Former reformist Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam found quite early that, in his words, those in favour of change are only luke warm; those against it are vociferously against it.
Further, we have the Federation. The states have media clout and can stymie federal reform (health, education). And the Commonwealth has fiscal and legal clout to block state reforms (euthanasia, same-sex marriages).
Lastly, we have the syndrome of voters blindly supporting the position of the leader of whichever party they support. A proposal out of the political arena might get 70 per cent or more support. Once it goes into the political arena and the opposition opposes it for the sake of opposition, then support falls back to less than 50 – all of one side of politics plus some who don’t know, don’t care and can’t be bothered to find out.
Depressing, isn’t it. I don’t pretend to have answers, just a partial explanation for many people’s amorphous sense of despair about Australian politics.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 23 April 2011.