QUARTERLY ESSAY 40 Trivial Pursuit

 

Correspondence

Andrew Leigh

Psychologists have a concept they call the fundamental attribution error: the tendency for humans to overplay the role of individuals, and underplay the role of circumstance. On the field, sports broadcasters love to speak about players who are “on a roll,” when they’re merely observing Lady Luck in action. In business, chief executives who govern during a boom tend to be overpaid, even though their company is just surfing the wave like everyone else. And in politics, observers love to tell stories that focus on the role of players, rather than events. 

A few facts. When the early 1990s global downturn hit, sitting prime ministers in Australia and the United Kingdom were both dumped by their own party room. During the period 1992–95, six of Australia’s eight states and territories ousted their government. But in the early 2000s, state elections almost invariably saw the incumbent returned. Even when John Howard had clearly passed his use-by date, the booming world economy meant that his party room could not find it in itself to wield the axe. In the words of the British prime minister Harold Macmillan, the greatest challenges for a political leader are “Events, dear boy, events.”

For commentators, the temptation to focus on personalities over larger forces is understandable. Tolstoy may have mounted a convincing case for historicism, and against the “great man” view of history. But when you’re trying to sell a story for the daily news rather than a 1225-page novel, why not boil things down to a human scale?

The trouble with an individual-based approach is that you can miss the wood for the trees. It is true that Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull and Kevin Rudd are deeply fascinating individuals. But the big stories are less about personalities than grander structural narratives. 

When it comes to the media, George Megalogenis neatly captures the zeitgeist. He writes of the phenomenon that “turns journalist into player,” as “commentators … find themselves reheating the one insight across half a dozen forums.” The cost, he points out, is “the hours that instant punditry takes away from the day job – time that used to be spent nagging sources, listening to debates and reading documents.” 

Note that when Megalogenis dissects how the media has changed, he doesn’t focus on individuals. Rightly, he doesn’t attempt to argue that journalism has changed because of the way that particular journalists choose to do their job. Media transformation is about structures and technologies, not the personal styles of Paul Kelly and Laurie Oakes. 

Yet when it comes to interpreting modern politics, Megalogenis casts aside his big-picture view and turns to a focus on the players. To his credit, he acknowledges the role played by powerful anti-reform forces in the campaign against Mining Tax Mark I. But in the end, Megalogenis cannot resist laying the blame at the feet of an individual. The same goes for his discussion of climate change. 

I’ll admit that writing about the tectonic forces that shape modern politics is harder than spinning a yarn about the witty barbs exchanged during Question Time. But without that kind of context, there’s a risk that reportage devolves into a kind of reality TV show. 

Take economic reform, where Megalogenis acknowledges that Labor already has form. Under Curtin, we put in place uniform personal income taxation and laid the foundations for a post-war full employment policy. Under Whitlam, Labor implemented universal health insurance and began lowering Australia’s tariff walls. The Hawke government floated the dollar and negotiated the Prices and Incomes Accord. And Keating’s government introduced the superannuation guarantee and enterprise bargaining. 

Yet Megalogenis fails to recognise that the Rudd and Gillard governments have been engaged in an economic reform agenda that is at least as ambitious. Investing in roads, rail and ports and building the National Broadband Network. Reforming the education sector with more information, greater choice and a set of incentives that will help students learn. And switching to activity-based funding for hospitals to bring about structural reforms. 

What distinguishes the Gillard government from the Hawke and Keating governments that came before us is not reform ambition, but the difficulty of conducting a sustained national conversation through a media that seems to be perpetually suffering from attention-deficit disorder, and amidst the din of an opposition that seems to have adopted the US Republican playbook without changing a page. (Listening to Tony Abbott’s raucous bawling on the last day of parliament in 2010, I half-expected him to caw across the chamber, “How’s that hopey-changey thing working out for you?”) Like all governments, ours has made mistakes, but the big story is about the economic circumstances and the media environment, not the reforming zeal of particular individuals.

If Megalogenis wants to help economic reform succeed in Australia, I have two suggestions as to how he might achieve it. First, he should call his colleagues out on their inconsistencies. When News Ltd tabloids recently embarked upon a campaign against foreign investment (under headlines such as “Chinese buying up our farms,” “It’s time to stop selling off the farm,” and “It’s time to save our farms from foreign investors”), did anyone stop to question the hypocrisy of foreign-owned newspapers campaigning against foreign ownership?

Second, he should drop the polls and report only betting-market odds. We now have a large body of economic research (including some of my own work on Australia, co-authored with Justin Wolfers), that clearly proves betting markets are more accurate than polls at predicting outcomes. But more importantly, betting markets are also more stable. With polls having response rates so low that they don’t dare publish them, asking a pollster who is going to win the next election is as useful as asking a manic-depressive how he feels today. By contrast, betting odds are as dull as a suburban solicitor. Consequently, a newspaper that reported only betting odds would find “who’s going to win” stories relegated to the inside pages – freeing up precious front pages for issues of substance. 

That said, while I think that Megalogenis has overplayed the role of personalities in Australian politics, I share his optimistic view about our nation’s current circumstances. As he points out, “Australians elect Labor governments to change things.” The Gillard government fits proudly in that long Labor legacy.

 

Andrew Leigh is the federal member for Fraser in the ACT. Before entering politics, he was a professor of economics at the Australian National University. His latest book is Disconnected.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 40, Trivial Pursuit. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 41, The Happy Life .


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