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Politics: it is everything you do and more

Politics is more than just the daily tussle of the news cycle and soundbites. AAP/Lukas Coch

The term political junkie gets bandied about a great deal, but this addict has no problem in admitting his habit.

It’s been a pure joy to be able to read, think and write about politics and government since moving to the University of Sydney in 2006.

I’ve been able to reconnect with my favourite authors such as John Stuart Mill and, in the process, come into contact with new ways of describing and analysing the never-ending pursuit of power and influence.

At the same time having public servants and political advisers as students - from both here and overseas - has helped me keep my feet on the ground.

It has also provided fertile intellectual ground in which to develop the ideas in my new book, Politics, Society, Self: Occasional Writings.

Political tension

In many ways my primary interest has been the nature of the relationship between politics and principle – and the tensions therein.

It’s an issue that is important whether we are reflecting on the means to or ends of power. I’ve known how hard it is to achieve change and how easy it is to compromise, but we know also that politics needs a purpose or “light on the hill” as Ben Chifley called it.

Managing this tension requires judgement and involves character and emotion as well as beliefs and intellect. As Peter Drucker observed in his essay “Managing Oneself”; it’s about ethics - “What kind of a person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning?” - and values

As Drucker writes: “Organisations, like people, have values. To be effective in an organisation, a person’s values must be compatible with the organisation’s values.”

Agnosticism, politics and fundamentalism

It begins, however, with the outlook we take into the world of politics and government. Here, I’m indebted to the work of English Buddhist Stephen Batchelor, whose defence of T.H.Huxley’s agnosticism in Buddhism without Beliefs I found most appealing.

It is, he says, a “method” rather than a “creed”. To make his point Batchelor quotes Huxley: “Follow your reason as far as it will take you” and “Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.”

It’s not a call to ditch ideas and worship science, but rather a call to realism and a challenge to keep our minds open and active.

Our scientific inquiries have enabled us to learn more about existence, life and history, including the role that morality and compassion play in human affairs. However, human knowledge informs and helps but it doesn’t and can’t complete the picture in the way radical theists or atheists would wish.

The crucial role of politics

That there are many ideologists and religionists who believe the picture can be completed – in theory and in fact – poses a particular challenge for politics. In fact such fundamentalism is the enemy of politics – as Bernard Crick argued so convincingly in his 1962 classic In Defence of Politics.

Difference in society is inevitable, and politics is a way of managing it with minimum force and violence. It means accepting opposing points of view, being willing to negotiate and compromise and looking for creative ways to solve intractable problems.

Understanding this fundamentalist tendency – and its sources in the contemporary world – is important and reminds us of the importance of Enlightenment concepts like “human rights”, “the separation of Church and State” and “checks and balances”.

Values - everybody has them

However, Crick didn’t see politics as requiring complete neutrality in the face of difference. That’s impossible and self-defeating in a value-laden world. Thinking and acting politically doesn’t preclude commitment.

Freedom has its limits but it does reflect the reality of difference. Democracy is important as it provides an effective means of sorting out the question of power. Social justice is never easy to find but it is needed to hold society together in the face of power and market-driven inequalities.

Bringing values into the political equation in this way takes us to the great questions of democratic politics: What is the best way to elect our politicians and organise government? How do we avoid a tyranny of the majority? How do we bring together the potentially contradictory elements of liberty and equality? What is the relationship between nationalism and internationalism?

Social Democracy

There are many answers to these questions but I remain steadfast in my view that social democracy has the best – even if incomplete – answers. It urges the nation state to understand the limit of its power in a world of economic and environmental interdependence and in the nation itself, with its many and different regions and localities. That takes it to the ideas of globalism and federalism.

It urges governments at all levels to recognise not only the creative role of markets, but also the stabilising and unifying role of its own laws, regulations and initiatives. Social democracy is all about managed markets, and importantly, fairness in the distribution of the burdens and benefits associated with a market economy. It’s biased towards equality but understands the realities of economics.

Fairness is not just an end-in-itself, but also a means to facilitate wider goals – a more productive economy and a more sustainable environment. This is not just because of the positive productivity outcomes from tackling social inequality, ill-health and educational disadvantage, it is also a matter of politics in a divided society and what is needed to achieve consensus for change. That’s why a good deal of my thinking has been on the subjects of democratic reform, co-operative federalism, multiculturalism, and public sector effectiveness.

Indeed it is only through creative partnerships between politicians and their bureaucracies, within and between governments at all levels and between government and the community that big issues can be addressed.

Pragmatism and progress

There is I believe a distinction to be made between pragmatic politicians with an eye to the future, and pragmatic politicians with an eye to the next headline. It is possible for the idea of reform to stay alive and produce results – even in our current system with all its emphasis on publicity, events and personalities. It is, in fact, the challenge of leadership in a world of economic change and uncertainty, climate change and democratic upheaval. In such a world, “the future” can only be ignored for so long – the danger being that the populist genie cannot be put back into the bottle when that realisation comes.

It’s so much easier, however, to practice avoidance. This is not just the case for individuals but also for communities. Sometimes communities seek avoidance because it’s the easiest option for the here and now and the alternative is too demanding to practise.

More often than not, however, there are interests involved and the politics of complexity finds itself in a losing battle for numbers. Prophets and cynics there are many but good politicians are not so easy to find.

The well-being agenda

Nor can we afford to ignore the person in all our thinking and practice. This takes me to the last – and most difficult part of the story – the challenge of integrating “the person” into our thinking about and practice of public policy. We’ve taken on board the concept of well-being and a good deal of flesh has been added to its bones, through research and innovation, but we still have some way to go before it stands on its own feet as a guide for government and the community.

It’s certainly made advances from an earlier approach built around an overly subjective definition of “happiness”. However, concepts like “holistic government”, “sustainability” and “democratic renewal” – as creative and productive as they are- still battle for acceptance in the economically driven but seriously weakened industrial democracies of the west.

Making ideas a reality

Like all good ideas they are going to need numbers, organisation, passion and good leaders backing them up if they are to be realised.

Or to put it simply, they need a political vehicle to carry them.

It always comes back to politics in the end.

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