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The good old days: how nostalgia clouds our view of political crises

Are today’s politicians more cynical and power-hungry than their predecessors? AAP/Sam Mooy

The good old days: how nostalgia clouds our view of political crises

Are today’s politicians more cynical and power-hungry than their predecessors? AAP/Sam Mooy

After five prime ministers in five years, many fear that Australia’s political system is irrevocably broken. The Conversation, in partnership with Griffith Review, is publishing a series of essays exploring the problems surrounding, and solutions to, Australia’s current political malaise.


It’s not cricket. In the old days, sometime in the distant past, cricketers played by the spirit of the game – no sledging, no cheating, no questioning of the umpire’s decision. Now it’s all different: dominated by financial demands, professional in its cynicism. The spirit of the game is endangered.

All that wishful thinking is nostalgic nonsense. Even if the participants then were divided into gentlemen (amateurs) and players (professional), the sport was never a gentleman’s game. It was fierce, often ruthless, highly contested, politically riven, with players looking for every advantage and potential pay-off. It is just that we like to think, looking at what we see now, that it could once have been somehow different and better.

So, too, with politics. Generation by generation, we look back with nostalgia to a time when common sense ruled, when issues were determined by the agreed national interests, when politicians were positive, when abuse was less personal. All those aspects that we now regret were, we believe, absent in more reasonable and harmonious times.

But when were those times? Identifying them becomes the problem. If we believe today that it once was better, then when? During the constitutional crisis of 1975? The Labor split of 1955? The campaign to ban the Communist Party in 1951? The conscription campaign of 1916 and 1917?

The NSW parliament of the 1890s was described as the “bear garden” of Macquarie Street because members ambushed each other outside the chamber with horsewhips. In every instance, we can see the same characteristics that we identify as regrettable today – a negative, kneejerk, personalised, vitriolic, take-no-prisoners approach. That’s politics. And not just Australian politics, even if they are played here without the veneer of false politeness that covers the stink in other systems.

Gough Whitlam had a sharp tongue when describing his political enemies. AAP/Mick Tsikas

An American professor of political science, visiting Australia in 1975, was horrified by the vigour of the language: Prime Minister Gough Whitlam called Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen a “bible-bashing bastard”.

In the US at the same time, the political scene was wracked by the revelations and chicanery of Watergate, although the bad language was restricted to President Richard Nixon’s private tapes. But is there any real difference?

Nostalgia can be politically or rhetorically useful only if it is not specific; and then it is not defensible. So if we want to describe our current discontents – to charge that the modern incumbents have let us down, that democracy is in terminal gridlock – we need to be far more precise in our definition of the diagnosis.

Let me ask three questions:

  • Are politicians more cynical and power-hungry than their predecessors?

  • Are the institutions inadequate?

  • Have society and technology irreversibly changed the ways politics are pursued?

Have the prime ministers changed?

Over the last 30 years, I have sought to explore how our top political executives exercised their power, whether they were prime ministers, ministers or departmental secretaries. Perhaps inevitably, when current circumstances are compared to – and placed in the context of – past leaders, it is the continuities rather than the differences that strike me as the most significant.

First, then, have the prime ministers changed? The fundamentals of the job barely have. All prime ministers need to act as:

  • head of the cabinet, to provide policy leadership to a cabinet by setting the tone and providing a narrative;

  • party leader, to maintain the cohesion of the cabinet and the party beyond;

  • federal leader, to ensure the systems of government work;

  • narrator-in-chief, to explain to the people what the government is doing and why; and

  • national leader, to represent the country abroad.

In all these responsibilities, there are real challenges for national leaders.

All prime ministers want their own way – how else would they have got there? From Alfred Deakin on, they want it to be their government. That is really not surprising. Ambition is the core of politics. Its story can be traced through all societies, and at times the cost of failure has been deadly – Rome, the Tudors – now it is primarily the loss of position.

But any leadership position is fought for long and hard, through buckets of blood, to use Neville Wran’s colourful expression when explaining why he would not seek his party’s federal leadership.

Robert Menzies left the prime ministership of his own accord. AAP

Once elected, few give it up readily. Prime ministers almost never have. In the last 100 years only Sir Robert Menzies, after 17 years in the job, left at a time of his own choosing. For most, resignation is contrary to all they strove for. They would not be there long if they showed a lack of desire.

Not one has been prepared to sit back and merely preside; that is not the nature of the job. Prime ministers each define the job for themselves and, in turn, it will shape them as circumstances change. Their style will vary. Some want to direct and lead from the front, consulting only when they feel they must. Others will spend time ensuring that support is locked in behind them.

The tactics they use range from non-consultation on the issues they care about (Whitlam), to conciliating alternative views before identifying their choices (Bob Hawke and John Howard), to consultation by exhaustion until agreement is achieved (Malcolm Fraser), to making unilateral decisions under the rubric of “captain’s choices” (Tony Abbott).

The purpose is always the same: prime ministers want to ensure that, when they can, they put their imprint on the government. Some are better at the internal politics than others, whether or not we agree with the outcomes. Jim Chalmers, Wayne Swan’s chief-of-staff, argued that in Australia, prime ministers are “big dogs on a short leash”. If they are good, they will succeed; if not, they go. There are no certainties.

If tactics vary from person to person and time to time, what cannot be identified is a common trend showing that each prime minister is more ambitious or controlling than their predecessor. Billy Hughes gave way to Stanley Bruce – different styles, but each wanting to be assured they knew all that was going on. Joseph Lyons to Menzies was a shift from a softer to a more strident leader, particularly in Menzies’ first term.

Menzies gave way to Harold Holt, the one effortlessly in control, the other struggling. Hawke and Paul Keating saw the tasks very differently. Howard maintained a cohesive cabinet by ensuring constant internal commitment; Abbott generated discord.

Prime ministers are always on notice. They need, at a minimum, to advance policy objectives, ensure party support and maintain electoral standing. Fail in any of these and their positions will be in doubt.

Hawke and Howard initially did all three well. Then Hawke ran out of ideas and the party revolted. Howard overreached on policy; the party stayed with him but the electorate deserted him.

Kevin Rudd was never sure of the party. Julia Gillard never connected with the electorate. Abbott lost both party and electorate. They all had agendas and their own way of pursuing them. Some succeed; others did not.

Bitter rivalries

False nostalgia does not only apply to Australia. It’s everywhere. There are complaints in most parliamentary democracies that prime ministers have become too powerful.

In Britain, observers look back to the days when cabinet government “really” existed. Nowadays, they point to the 1970s. In the 1960s, by contrast, Richard Crossman and John Macintosh declared that cabinet government was dead, but looked back to some unspecified earlier period.

As academics Andrew Blick and George Jones illustrate, the problem with this analysis is that the same critiques were launched against prime ministers decade by decade back to the very first one, Robert Walpole, of whom it was said:

He did everything alone … while the ciphers of the cabinet signed everything he dictated.

and:

… this minister, having obtained sole influence over all our counsels, has not only assumed the sole direction of all our public affairs, but has got every officer of state removed that would not follow his direction.

That was 1741. Does it sound familiar?

We are also told that relations within governments are made dysfunctional by internal rivalries. Sometimes they are, although these days such disputes are not potentially fatal.

In 1809, the British foreign secretary (George Canning) and war minister (Viscount Castlereagh) fought a duel when the latter accused his rival (accurately) of conspiring against him. They both missed and both resigned!

In 1804, Alexander Hamilton, the former treasury secretary and one of the architects of the new republic, was killed in a duel with vice president Aaron Burr. That is taking politics seriously. And they were meant to be on the same side.

Bitter rivalries between prime minsters and their potential successors are nothing new, in Australia or overseas: James Scullin and Ted Theodore, Lyons and Menzies, John Gorton and Billy McMahon, Fraser and Andrew Peacock, Hawke and Keating, Howard and Peter Costello, Rudd and Gillard, Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull – they all co-existed. In Britain, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in Canada Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin, were just as vicious in their rivalry.

Sometimes, the tension was creative, managing to succeed in government; other times, not. There are no assurances of what will happen.

Bitter rivalries between prime minsters and their potential successors are nothing new. AAP/Alan Porritt

Dealing with the Senate

Nor have the institutions changed much. One innovation, the ability to vote above the line in Senate ballots and thus follow party preferences, was introduced in 1984 as a means of reducing the number of informal votes; electors had to number every square without a mistake, up to 60 or 70 or more, before the vote became formal.

Many made a mistake that wouldn’t have affected the outcomes, but it still disenfranchised them. So parliament laudably made it easier to reflect the will of voters.

In the true example of the sour law of unintended consequences, the change led to a multiplicity of small parties exchanging preferences. This has made it harder for governments, but governments also need to explain why voters no longer vote for major parties.

When a quarter of the electorate votes for the Greens and microparties, it seems reasonable in a proportional representation system that they win a quarter of the seats. On the other hand, which microparty wins seems to be a lottery; most voters will have no idea where their votes will be going. But someone gets there.

These are important questions about democratic values embodied in electoral arrangements. Choices do exist for change: should the current system be retained? Should the larger minor parties (Greens, or Xenophon in South Australia) be advantaged by introducing a minimum level of votes (say, 3%), before any preferences are distributed? Should there be only an option to vote for just three or four parties?

The major parties don’t like the uncertainty of a Senate they cannot control. Evidence from elections suggests the people don’t agree.

The current furore over Senate obstruction makes it sound unusual. It’s not. Past prime ministers have often had problems with the Senate. In the Scullin government and after the Depression hit, the opposition-dominated Senate blocked every proposal of the government for change until the government collapsed.

The Whitlam government had 36 pieces of legislation blocked by the Senate in 1975. These were the same bits of legislation that Fraser used to call a double dissolution. In those times, there was no chance to negotiate: the opposition just said no.

Abbott had to negotiate with a medley of crossbenchers. There always was a chance that he could construct a majority piece by piece, but it seems he lacked the skill, the flexibility or perhaps, the inclination. Nevertheless, after two years there were only one or two double dissolution triggers, with bills defeated twice. Compare that to the 35 triggers created by Senate opposition in a mere 15 months in 1975.

Negotiating is hard, but not as impossible as in 1931 and 1975. Whether Turnbull does better will be interesting.

The major parties do not like the uncertainty of a Senate they cannot control. AAP/Lukas Coch

The media’s role

What, then, of the broader circumstances? What have certainly changed are the means at prime ministers’ disposal to do the job and the society in which they do it.

Technology shapes politics and provides new means for their disposal. Hughes was in Britain for 18 months. Cables informing him of cabinet decisions had to be coded, telegraphed and then decoded. His replies went through the same process. When, as he often did, he announced government policy without telling his colleagues, they learnt about it from the newspapers.

Lyons organised a difficult phone link-up to the cabinet room, a forced conversation with technology at full stretch. Fraser used a satellite phone with little security. And they weren’t able to be in constant touch: prime ministers in the air or on ocean liners used to be incommunicado for hours or weeks on end. Now, they can comfortably talk to colleagues 24 hours a day, wherever they are.

Turnbull, an aficionado of new technology, may develop their possibilities to the full. But it is just different; modern communications will always change politics as telephones, television and faxes did in their own time.

Technology has its downside, though. Political leadership requires faster reactions; a 24-hour media demands 24-hour responses. The voracious demand for comment creates a system that can feed the beast. The measured pace of the Fraser era – what do AM, PM and the late news have to report? – is now impossible. The media both demands immediate responses and accuses prime ministers of being too media-sensitive.

Social media, too, has become all intrusive through pictures and tweets, looking for an instant story, a scandal, or simply something embarrassing like eating a bacon sandwich. Ministers can never be off guard in what they say and in what they do. Everyone is now a press photographer, with the ability to immediately post on the internet. We can complain that our politicians “spin”; we crucify them if they don’t get the story straight.

This is because the electorate too has more choice, more potential access to information, greater means to communicate and to organise. Demonstrations can be advertised on social media, such as the anti-border protection rally in Melbourne; in the past it was harder (but not impossible) to rally the numbers in so short a time. However, at the same time, misinformation can become embedded.

The certainties of old party politics have become unsettled. Contested policies crosscut former groupings, as coalitions form and re-form issue by issue. If parties were once the means to aggregate diverse voices, that role of mediation is no longer required. Every group can give voice. Indignation can be constructed in hours; issues can become a source of division and demand immediate responses.

Global issues affect us too. What other countries do more immediately shapes what we try to do. We may be a power in our region, but, on the international stage, we remain a useful middle power and not to be ignored, perhaps.

Malcolm Turnbull is an aficionado of new technology. AAP/Lukas Coch

Governments can’t win

Change is not recent. Society and technology always change political practices. We would not want to be governed with the attitudes and methods of a century ago. But technology is politically neutral: it both empowers leaders and threatens them.

Yet amid all the woes we need to be careful not to underestimate the capacity of governments when the need is there. Sometimes there’s consensus between party leaders – on the Vietnamese boat people or microeconomic reform – when oppositions do not confect outrage.

Sometimes governments succeed. Australia got through the global financial crisis less damaged than other countries. The inner core of the government worked hard to identify the fundamental issues and introduce solutions. Australia stayed out of recession.

But the global financial crisis provides a cautionary lesson, too. Once the immediate crisis was over, politics as usual kicked in. The opposition agreed that government intervention was needed, but argued they would have spent less and done it more effectively. That would have been the response regardless of what was done.

It is like an exchange my young son had with a friend on the golf course at the completion of a hole:

What did you get?

One less than you. What did you get?

In one respect, the carping response appears absurd: no-one really knows the answer. From another angle, it’s what we expect. Governments cannot win, and whatever they do will be criticised. Everything they do, others would have done differently.

That’s the system of adversarial politics that has lasted in Australia for more than a century, seldom ameliorated even for a few months.

Doomed to misunderstanding

Has there really been a sudden change? The Abbott defeat led to an exchange of views in The Australian. Niki Savva argued the system was simply working to eject poor leaders and was not broken.

Four days later, Paul Kelly continued to mount his case that there were fundamental differences from the past and the system was not working. He argued that just to say Australian politics was always like this was “misleading and trite”.

I disagree. Unless we understand history, we cannot know what is systemic and what is temporal.

History tells us we have been here before and that we have recovered before. There were five prime ministers from 1966 to 1975 (one died and one was a caretaker), but in the ten years leading to the cataclysmic Whitlam dismissal, there was a constant air of crisis and inadequacy.

From 1975 to 2007, there were just four prime ministers; the system was manageable and often effective. Howard proved to be the second-longest-serving prime minister in federal history.

There had been crises and instability before – 1915–17, 1929–31, 1939–42 – when it was possible to ask whether the political system could cope. In each case, crisis was followed by stability.

Is the instability since 2007, with five prime ministers in eight years, so very different from those earlier circumstances that it cannot recover? We do not know, but past experience suggests we should not attribute to the present a uniqueness, an irreconcilability that has never existed before.

Can we argue confidently that a system which, a mere eight years ago, allowed Howard to dominate politics is now irrevocably broken? That is to take a very dismal view.

John Howard dominated the Australian political system for more than a decade. AAP/Mick Tsikas

What for the future?

We need to distinguish between the core of the political system and new phenomena such as social media and the 24-hour news cycle. Of course, they create problems. In their turns, radio, television and the internet all altered political dynamics. But can these new technologies be absorbed if leaders have the ability to identify the best ways ahead?

We have had some appallingly mediocre leaders in the past and survived them. We can but hope we will survive such challenges again. Because that is democracy: contested, cranky, incoherent. Sometimes it works well, but even in crisis the need to balance short-term political demands with long-term consequences is hard.

Sometimes it seems to fail us. But be cautious of the proposed solutions: when outsiders ask that the parties get together to solve a problem, it is almost always to angle for the particular course of action that they support. Anything else, they will argue, is a case of government failure.

But too often they are not prepared to run for office themselves. It is a reminder of Weller’s Law (not mine, unfortunately):

Everything is possible for the person who doesn’t have to do it.

That’s cheap wisdom.

Democracy is adversarial. Oppositions oppose. Stop the boats. Axe the tax. Deciding what not to do is the easy part; building coalitions of support for alternative strategies that lead to winners and losers is hard.

It is, by no means, the first time that there have been complaints that politicians do not get it, and if only someone else was in charge (often, by implication, the speaker) it would be better because they would not be “political”. Anti-political political thought has a long history in Australia, with observers arguing that politicians are out of touch.

Clive Palmer is just the latest manifestation of anti-politics. AAP/Lukas Coch

All we need is that they be replaced by people who have the national interest at heart. But then, the national interest as espoused turns out to be sectional. Clive Palmer is just the latest manifestation of anti-politics.

What happens? When they (whoever they are) must tackle intransigent problems, in the face of objections that are sometimes valid and often not, they too must decide. What is better: mining or agriculture? Cost of living or climate change? These must be political decisions made by elected politicians. There’s no right answer on which everyone agrees.

Governing was not meant to be easy. It never has been either. Wars, great depressions, oil crises, the collapse of communism, Bali bombing and the global financial crisis: no-one finds governing easy in the midst of such uncertainty.

Ben Chifley and Fraser agonised as much as Rudd and Abbott over the best strategies and compromises. Expectations that problems are readily solved without anyone having to lose anything remain common, but are as misguided now as they always were.

I do not underestimate the problems that our governments now face. They are pressing, complex and often diabolically hard. Doom and crisis may be the currency of opposition and commentators but we are in no worse a position now, and the political system is not more dysfunctional, than we have been on several occasions in the past. We muddled through.

Appealing with nostalgia to some imagined past may make for more pointed commentary or provide comforting images of those good old days, but it’s unlikely those active at the time were as convinced that everything then was as easy and uncontested as we imply in retrospect. In fact, we know they weren’t. So let us also keep a sense of perspective.

Democracy is messy. But really, what is the preferred alternative?


You can read other articles from the Griffith Review’s latest edition here.