View from The Hill

Better leaders could shore up Australia’s eroding political culture

Former prime minister Bob Hawke had leadership strengths that both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard lacked. AAP/Alan Porritt

Highly respected journalist and historian Paul Kelly, whose Triumph and Demise: The Broken Promise of a Labor Generation is published on Tuesday, argues that there is an “Australian Crisis” – a major debilitating erosion of the nation’s political culture.

Kelly writes: “The deepest lesson of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd era is that Australia’s political system is failing to deliver the results needed for the nation, its growth in living standards and its self-esteem.

"The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This de-coupling constitutes the Australian crisis.”

Forces contributing to the situation, Kelly says, include a poll-driven culture, the empowerment of negative campaigns and sectional interests over the national interest, and the nature of today’s media.

In general “volatility and fragmentation are the new driving forces” in the political culture.

Kelly poses two central questions. Is the political system now “so internally destructive that the prospects for successful and reforming government have been seriously diminished?” And is the shift against bold reform because of “defective leadership” or the political system itself? Answering the latter, Kelly says the evidence is that it is a dual problem.

The malaise Kelly identifies is of course not unique to Australia. It is part of a wider phenomenon in Western democracies. It has seen a general erosion of voter trust that has been observed across polities.

But in Australia the spectacular failure of two Labor prime ministers in quick succession and the own goals, cynical behaviour and cultural warfare of their Liberal successor have left the electorate’s outlook on politicians and the system in a very bad place.

Is this our new political world into the indefinite future? Gridlock, minimal bipartisanship, bad faith, little vision, some crazy people with disproportionate power?

One thing to remember is that the political system (though in very different circumstances and manner) has appeared strained (indeed closer to breaking point) before, and come though. Following the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam government, many questioned whether irreparable damage had been done.

After a period of stress, by the 1980s the political culture – including a degree (though sometimes exaggerated) of bipartisanship – was underpinning a period of very productive economic change driven by Labor that now conservative politicians laud.

One reason for the strength of the polity in the 1980s was the quality leadership. Bob Hawke had strengths that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard lacked and so far Tony Abbott shows no sign of displaying. His 1983 election slogan “Reconciliation, Recovery, Reconstruction” was harbinger of what he (and his cabinet, especially Keating) were able to deliver in the next years.

As PM Hawke headed a government successful in identifying problems and tailoring solutions and, together with Keating, having a conversation with the public about economic reform.

Kelly makes the point that it is by no means certain that these two would have succeeded in the present system.

What is likely, however, is that better leaders than the recent and current incumbents would have greater prospects of success.

Rudd did not know how to prioritise and manage the processes and personnel of government. Gillard tumbled into the job ill-prepared and by the worst of routes (and then faced a hung parliament, encouraging the hungry opposition to be especially feral). Abbott is a natural fighter without a bent for uniting those who voted for him and those who didn’t in the common national cause.

As Kelly writes: “A successful prime minister must master the art of politics and the art of governing”.

Michael Ignatieff, former leader of the Canadian Liberal party, was a disastrous opposition leader (he led the Liberals to their worst ever result in 2011 when they went to third party status) but he has produced a fascinating book, Fire and Ashes, out of the experience.

Ignatieff writes of the corrosive effect when partisanship reaches the stage of turning “adversaries into enemies”.

“An adversary has to be defeated, while an enemy must be destroyed. You cannot compromise with enemies. With adversaries compromise is possible.”

He adds: “Nothing lowers a citizen’s estimate of democracy more than the sight of two politicians hurling abuse at each other in an otherwise empty chamber, but this is now a common sight in legislatures around the world”.

Ignatieff argues for a civility which recognises that an opponent’s “good faith is equal to your own”.

“This recognition does not preclude adversarial competition, even a tough punch or two, but it proceeds from a shared understanding that democracy, properly speaking, is the politics of adversaries. Against this, we increasingly have the politics of enemies.

"In this perversion of the game, politics is modelled as war itself. The aim is not to defeat an adversary but to destroy an enemy by denying them standing.”

For the last few years, we have had the politics of enemies in the federal arena.

One manifestation of this is that the Abbott government has royal commissions under way that are pursuing both the former Labor PMs (Rudd over home insulation, despite there having been several inquiries, and Gillard over her behaviour as an industrial lawyer).

This is in contrast to the Fraser period, where the government distanced itself from a court case launched with the backing of some Liberals over the role of Whitlam and others in his government in the loans affair. This restraint was partly but not only due to undertakings Fraser had given Governor-General John Kerr as part of the caretaker arrangement.

The politics of enemies delivered Abbott a decisive win, but it has now increased the difficulties faced by his government.

Those problems are worsened for the government because the reform being sold by Abbott and Treasurer Joe Hockey has a lot of lemon and almost no sugar. The message is: end the age of entitlement or there will be dire consequences. In the 1980s, the nasties came with social wage gains; even Howard’s GST had income tax relief.

Abbott could sweeten the lemon a little, for example by talking up the positives from long term budget restraint– by dwelling more on how it would help pay for the comprehensive national disability scheme, a landmark reform for this country, but that would involve bringing in some bipartisanship.

It is interesting to speculate whether the tenor of federal politics would have been different if history had delivered other prime ministers.

Would a Coalition campaign against Kim Beazley PM been as bitter as the one against Gillard?

Even more pertinent, if Malcolm Turnbull were PM would he be able to win more co-operation on and support for budget reform?

In the final paragraph of his latest major chronicle of modern Australian politics, Kelly writes: “There is no guarantee that politics can emerge from its current trough to meet the challenges of the next decade”.

One might add that, looking at prospective future prime ministers from both sides, there is not much sign of a figure with the talent and public appeal who could, when their turn came, rise above the barriers and toxicities in the political culture to craft and sell a strong reform program.

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