I’ve been feeling uncharacteristically optimistic about the future of the country. Like most Australians, it seems, I’m infatuated with Malcolm Turnbull. My unaccustomed euphoria has been brought on by the fact that we now have an unembarrassing leader who can speak in complete sentences, is clearly smart, and is seemingly open to new ideas. Be still my beating heart.
Within the space of a few days our new prime minister expressed enthusiasm about the merits of investment in fast trains, and in the value of establishing a sovereign wealth fund. All this on top of suggesting that universities are the key to our innovative future and prosperity. Too right, Malcolm! These are truly excellent, refreshing and optimism-inducing ideas.
Sadly, my budding bromance with our leader is already facing its first major test. When confronted with a real opportunity to do something important and far-sighted which could make a tangible difference to our collective future, the prime minister has – like so many of his predecessors before him – caved in to powerful vested interests.
While I had no great hopes that Turnbull might experience a similar epiphany about defence and scrap the submarines and/or the F35s, I did harbour some – clearly naïve – hopes that he might actually take on the coal industry. True, trying to do something about climate change has already cost him his job once before, but he presumably knows in his heart and – more importantly – his head that coal is helping to destroy the planet. How can he look his army of admirers in the eye and say our actions in Australia don’t matter?
For all Kevin Rudd’s many faults, at least he got that – before he too caved in to the carbon lobby. It really does matter what we do in this country, prime minister, as I’m sure you don’t need me to remind you. If a country like Australia with all its manifold advantages can’t rise above its short-term self-interest, why would we expect China or India to do so? Where is international leadership supposed to come from if not from those who are most fortunate and who have the luxury of making rational political choices?
So what does it tell us when a clever, thoughtful, well-informed politician gets the chance to lead and flunks it? Why is it that even someone with real political skills and a capacity to win converts across the normal political divides can’t actually deliver when it comes to doing something really difficult?
Importantly, it’s not simply the powerful vested interests and their capacity to shape the political discourse of the nation that’s decisive, although that clearly doesn’t help. It’s also the vested interests within his own party.
This is not a cheap shot at the Liberal Party or the Nationals. Precisely the same point is made with monotonous regularity by the Murdoch press about the trade union movement’s influence over the Labor Party.
There is consequently a much more fundamental and disturbing point to be made about the basic operating principles of our democracy. It is seemingly impossible for the best and brightest people to act in accordance with their consciences and do what they presumably know is right.
This raises another question. What’s the point of actually getting into power if the principal goal is simply to keep oneself or one’s party in office? These are not novel questions, but they do take on a renewed salience at times. This is especially true of those times when real change seems fleetingly possible.
Surely someone who is patently across the issues and not locked in uncritical thrall to union heavies or an inflexible and anachronistic ideology could make a difference?
What does it mean if well-qualified leaders are incapable of acting in our long-term collective interest? Are we likely to get a smarter, better-informed leader in the near future if the prime ministerial revolving door keeps spinning? Possibly not. Yet even the best of leaders are hostage to the two-party system that still provides the only vehicle from which to reach the pinnacle of power in this country.
In an ideal world we might be able to vote for people on their individual merits rather than their party affiliations. Freed from the necessity of toeing the party line, they might have real debates about the objective merits of alternative policies, rather than the sterile, mind-numbing talking points provided by party spin doctors. Dream on.
After the shortest of political love affairs, I find myself relapsing into more familiar scepticism about our collective ability to address important problems, no matter who’s running the place. Do try and keep the (non-coal-fired) flame burning a bit longer, prime minister.