A challenged democracy: wicked problems and political failures

On many major issues, Labor’s Bill Shorten and the Liberals’ Tony Abbott are essentially two wings of the same bird. AAP/Mick Tsikas

There is a crisis of confidence in the political system generally. The problem is by no means confined to Australia – it is endemic to the United States, many European states, Africa generally, most of Asia and South America.

I would define the crisis in contemporary Australian politics as a combination of interlocking factors:

  • sharply reduced political agenda;

  • refusal to analyse and explain complex (“wicked”) problems (climate change, jihadism, refugees);

  • convergence (largely out of fear) on major issues (taxation, national security); and

  • toxicity on trivial issues (personal attacks, “gotcha!” moments).

However, despite the frequently expressed low opinion of politics and politicians, and the toxicity and vacuity of our political discourse, paradoxically voters still overwhelmingly support the two major political groupings.

This is presumably pragmatism at a high degree. Voters say: “After all, I am voting for a government…”


The maximum variation in the combined vote for the major parties over five sets of elections in Australia in the period 2013-15 is only 2.1%. That aggregate vote has shown a slight long-term decline since the 1960s. In the 2015 New South Wales election, the aggregate vote for the two major political groupings amounted to exactly 80.0% – 45.7% to the Coalition, 34.3% to the ALP. This is strikingly consistent with the bar charts set out above.


Informal votes are generally higher than in the past, although the electorate is (at least on paper) far better educated.


Voters are (so far) loyal to the major parties on polling day but many cast their vote with pegs on their noses – and they have no interest in joining parties. Our major parties claim to have a total membership of about 80,000 – about 0.6% of voters. In reality, it is likely to be less than 30,000, not all of whom will know that they hold party tickets.

By contrast, total membership of sporting, especially football, clubs would be somewhere north of 800,000.

A system stumped by wicked problems

The current iteration of the democratic system demonstrates a striking incapacity to address sets of major issues, many described as “wicked problems”. Rittel and Webber defined wicked problems as being messy, circular or aggressive.

They argued that wicked problems have incomplete, contradictory and changing requirements; solutions to them are often difficult to recognise as such because of complex interdependencies. While attempting to solve a wicked problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create other, even more complex, problems.

Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Wicked problems have no “stopping rule”.

The complexity of wicked problems is a challenge to linear thinking, reductionism and much professional education. Foreign policy provides some striking examples.

Every Middle East intervention by the West since the invasion of Gallipoli in April 1915, with the (contested) exception of the creation of Israel in 1948, has been misconceived, failed in execution and has created a new set of unexpected problems.

Current wicked problems include:

  • Terrorism and security issues;

  • The clash of civilisations updated;

  • Telling the truth and winning elections;

  • Evidence v. opinion: the attack on scientific method;

  • Information or entertainment: speeding up through media;

  • Climate change paralysis;

  • Dumbing down of political debate;

  • The policy abyss;

  • Recruitment of political elites;

  • Institutional failures – churches, welfare groups, sporting clubs, armed forces, political parties;

  • Corruption: vested interest vs community interest, lobbyists;

  • Foreign and defence policies, ANZAC revisited, how many universities could a submarine buy?; and

  • Tackling budget deficits by emphasising (i) cuts, (ii) asset sales and (iii) borrowing, while ignoring revenue (i.e. tax adjustment);

There are inbuilt tensions between the nature of major challenges and attempts to understand them or address them.

  • Wicked problems (climate change, ageing, jihadism) are very long-term issues;

  • Our political cycles are short-term (three-year parliaments for the Commonwealth, three or four for the states);

  • Media cycles are very short-term (news editors get tired of a story after 24 hours or so);

  • Social media turn-round times are shorter still.

A fundamental mistake was made by many writers, myself included, about the impact of the IT revolution. We assumed that access to new technology would open people up to the world º that people would seek out the universal and long-term. Instead, technologies such as the iPhone have reinforced the realm of the personal, as exhibited in social media, with its emphasis on the immediate, the next few minutes, concentrating on family and close friends, reinforcing existing views.

Choice vs no choice

If there is a united front between the major parties on issues such as asylum seekers or foreign policy, then voters will have to be reminded that (as Talleyrand remarked) “not to choose is to choose” and that Australia is – like the US – becoming a state in which government and opposition are essentially two wings of the same bird.

For Australian voters, it is like choosing between Coles and Woolworths. At present, Australia is ruled by a Grand Alliance, which refuses to engage in serious examination of, say, climate change, planning for a post-carbon economy, education reform, rethinking foreign policy, or securing an appropriate revenue base for an ageing society with increasingly sophisticated health needs and the shadow of Alzheimer’s.

A central failure in the current political debacle has been the pursuit of populism, fearful of serious analysis of the major ongoing problems that face societies like ours. Both the Coalition and Labor are at fault in this.

I have sometimes fantasised that there could be room for a new party, called Courage, but I don’t see it on the horizon.


The problem for me is: how is an 82-year-old radical to vote if he wants to reform the world and get answers to basic questions, such as: how many submarines does Australia need? And how do we challenge a military culture? And plan for a post-carbon future? And protect the environment?

And preserve the rule of law? And entrench support for research, CSIRO, the ABC and the Bureau of Meteorology? And recognise the growing needs of an ageing population? And have a root-and-branch reform of the tax system? And put creativity and greater opportunity into the school system? And move towards a republic? And tackle reform on issues ranging from sexuality to urban land management (bad here, good in England)? And challenge the obsession that growth is an end in itself?

You tell me.

Tackling complex problems such as refugees and climate change will demand complex solutions. These cannot be reduced to parroting a few simple slogans (“turn back the boats”, “stop this toxic tax”). “Retail politics”, sometimes called “transactional politics”, where policies are adopted not because they are right but because they can be sold, is a dangerous development and should be rejected.

We must maintain confidence that major problems can be addressed – and act accordingly. Revive the process of dialogue: explain, explain, explain, rejecting mere sloganeering and populism. We need evidence-based policies but often evidence lacks the psychological carrying power generated by appeals to prejudice or fear.

A voracious media looks for diversity and emotional engagement, weakening capacity for reflection and serious analysis. This is compounded by the rise of social media where users, typically, seek reinforcement of their views rather than being challenged by diversity.

The electoral success of vision-free politics

To many voters, identification with a party is a reflection, not necessarily of self-interest, although that is important, but a reflection of their own values – values at a particular time.

The British Conservative Party has an outstanding record of having been consistently and demonstrably wrong on issues over 150 years, but had very forgiving supporters. The party actually benefited from the defeat of its great historic campaigns.

The Conservatives were for the Corn Laws, child labour, appeasement of Hitler and the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, and against Catholic and Jewish emancipation, manhood suffrage, Home Rule for Ireland, votes for women, the National Health Scheme and independence for India.

It is hard to identify a single issue that the Tories got right the first time round. That did not prevent them from winning elections. In the 20th century, under universal suffrage, the Tories held office for longer than Labour and the Liberals combined.

In Australia, the ALP alternative to conservatism is timidly progressive, fearful of causing offence, unable and unwilling to reform itself, totally controlled by factional apparatchiks.

Both major parties talk about “taxpayers” as if they were an entity with no function other than paying tax. In reality, they are people passing through a variety of changing roles, with higher or lower needs depending on what part of life they are in – but they are also spouses, parents, workers, students, patients, welfare dependents, customers, community activists.

After his near-death experience on February 9, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was questioned on ABC’s 7.30 and set out his vision-free priorities: “lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom”, emphasising that his government “believes in values and institutions that have stood the test of time” (unidentified, but presumably the Roman Catholic Church, the British royal family and the Institute of Public Affairs would be high on the list).

“Lower taxes, smaller government, greater freedom.” Let’s unpick that.

In the next decades, will Australia’s population be rising, falling or static? If rising, will the percentage of Australians aged more than 60 be rising disproportionately? All demographers say “yes”.

Will this (in the absence of widespread euthanasia) mean a significant increase in the numbers of people requiring sophisticated, long-term medical treatment and/or hospitalisation, at great expense? How will any government, especially a smaller one, deal with a rising problem with increased numbers on a lower revenue base? How can it be done?

Will poverty, inability to afford medical assistance, decrepitude and isolation increase or reduce the prospect of “greater freedom”? For whom?

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