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QUARTERLY ESSAY 46 Great Expectations

 

Correspondence

Mark McKenna

Laura Tingle’s essay is a sorely needed contribution to our political debate. At a time when the electorate’s cynicism towards all things political shows no sign of abating, we are in dire need of political analysis that takes a wider, historical perspective. Like the best polemics, Tingle’s essay is provocative and raises more questions than it answers. She draws out the big paradox: at the same time as rampant privatisation has seen government withdraw from the public sphere, a historically entrenched culture of state paternalism has continued to fuel unrealistic expectations of entitlement in the electorate. From the mid-1990s, the Howard government and the Rudd–Gillard governments have both failed to challenge these perceptions. If anything, they have strengthened them. A generation of Australians has grown accustomed to thinking that the role of government in so-called difficult times is to dispense cash hand-outs and compensation payments. And Tingle is right: Australians must reconceive what we expect of government. Just how and when this readjustment might take place she doesn’t say. Rewriting our constitution and having the courage to reform state–federal relations would surely be a good starting point.

While I agree with much of Tingle’s analysis, there were a few throwaway lines and over-egged arguments that deserve a response. First to the history: “we spent much of our first century,” claims Tingle, “with our politics focused on begging for favours or freedoms from a foreign parliament.” In fact, colonial Australians did not “beg” for their freedoms; they demanded them. And far from being an obstacle to our independence, the British were often astonished that we did not take the step much earlier. Moreover, in the nineteenth century the vast majority of Australians did not perceive the British parliament as a “foreign” power. Tingle has read her contemporary view of Britain back onto the past. 

And despair though we might at the current state of Australian politics, at several moments in her essay Tingle seems unduly pessimistic. “Beyond military service,” she argues, “there is no deeply entrenched value ascribed to doing something for our country, or government.” Is the situation really so bleak? Thousands of Australians daily participate in volunteer work of all kinds. Governments and community organisations do acknowledge their contributions, although perhaps not nearly as often as they should. Many other citizens contribute to public and policy debate because they are committed to securing benefits for the common good. Of course, what constitutes “doing something for your country” is very much in the eye of the beholder. Tingle then declares that “Government is rarely portrayed in any of our conversations as a force for good.” Again, this is overstated. Take the most glaring examples to the contrary: John Howard’s gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre, Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations, the recent push for a National Disability Insurance Scheme and the impending referendum on constitutional recognition of indigenous Australians. Despite the degree of negativity in much of our political debate, government is still seen as the potential agent of social justice and national renewal. This “faith” in government lies at the core of our democracy. Things are rarely quite as bad as they seem when seen from the Canberra press gallery.

At the core of Tingle’s essay is her assertion that “in the failure to break down the habits of state paternalism we have the seeds of much of our modern national anger.” Two problems arise here. First, the term “national anger” seems to me an exaggerated and over-simplified description of the mood of our electorate. Anger alone will not suffice. Words like complacent, self-satisfied, misinformed, unreflective, disillusioned and cynical might all serve as more accurate descriptors at certain points in time. Yes, some of us are angry. But this anger is often fuelled by the worst elements of the media: shock-jocks, sensationalist “current affairs” television, and op-ed columnists banging their partisan drums of war and discontent. This raises the second problem with Tingle’s argument. In seeking to explain the malaise in the electorate she slates everything home to the history of state paternalism. What she fails to examine is the more contemporary explanation of her national anger. Tingle complains that the new social media amplify the anger in our public discourse. Is it only the social media? What of the media’s role more generally? This is what’s missing from Tingle’s account. She is understandably reticent to place her own profession under the same harsh light of examination that she applies to politicians. 

One of the most profound reasons for the electorate’s disillusion with politics lies in the mistrust of political information. Political parties in liberal democracies throughout the world are involved in a constant information war. The participants – politicians, journalists and media advisers – are deeply cynical about and suspicious of one another. Every morning the prime minister’s advisers rise before dawn to scan the papers and plan their media strategy for the day ahead. Using spin and constant repetition of often mindless and predictable grabs, they attempt to control their party’s political direction and ensure that their leaders stay “on message.” As politicians try to control the media agenda, so journalists try to puncture this control. Politicians complain that journalists refuse to focus on issues of substance and policy. Journalists complain that politicians rarely speak the truth, refuse to answer questions and avoid addressing issues in public which convulse their party rooms in private – leadership speculation being the prime example. For the audience, this constant cat-and-mouse game can become extremely tedious, feeding disillusion. Our political discourse becomes scripted, repetitive and predictable. Journalists often fail to reflect on the consequences of their own cynicism, just as politicians fail to appreciate the virtues of leaving their media-massaged statements on the cutting-room floor and speaking spontaneously, honestly and naturally.

Together with a marked deterioration in the civility of political debate (a trend identified in many other democracies) we have also witnessed a rapid decline in the cultural authority of politicians. In democratising our civic discourse, the media have eroded the respect and deference that was once shown to politicians while at the same time making them more accessible and accountable. For a graphic demonstration of what has happened to the cultural authority of politicians we need look no further than ABC TV’s Q&A.

Here, amidst the cacophony of live audience applause, video questions and intrusive tweets, politicians are seen sitting next to comedians, actors, novelists, journalists, former political advisers, musicians and the ubiquitous “social commentator.” On this playing field, every opinion appears equal. A politician’s statement regarding government policies seems no more authoritative than any other panel member’s. Politicians jockey for space with a motley crew of entertainers and activists, all of who have their own barrows to push. Journalists, now celebrities in their own right, offer their “interpretations” of the political zeitgeist with impassioned pleas to camera. At times, it is difficult to tell the journalist from the politician, the comedian from the commentator. They all have “an opinion.” In this great democratic wash, any authority and respect politicians once carried by virtue of their position has long since evaporated. We expect politicians to both govern and entertain us. And our assessment of their electability is all too often based on a hasty, shallow judgment of their ability to perform for the camera. 

While Tingle did mention the destructive effects of the 24/7 media culture on our political debate, she could have perhaps spent more time revealing just how destructive the constant pressure for new angles, stories and analysis can be. In this new media climate, particularly in the political context of a struggling minority government, journalists increasingly tend to compete in an effort to draw bold, dramatic, black-and-white conclusions that will actually shape the course of politics itself. As the media watch every breath and analyse every utterance politicians make (a process that leeches politics of all spontaneity and exhausts the audience through the deluge of commentary it produces), political realities are created and smashed in a nanosecond. Clinging to the latest poll results, journalists who at the beginning of the week called for leadership speculation to stop can be found demanding the prime minister’s resignation by the week’s end. Journalists who pour scorn on politicians for their inconsistency and poor judgment might do well to look back over their past columns and see just how changeable their own political proclamations have been. All of the political class bear some responsibility for the quality of our political debate. 

Whatever the reasons might be for the national anger Tingle has diagnosed, they are manifold and often hard to pin down. In addition to her own conclusions and those I’ve mentioned above, we could also add the increasingly pernicious influence of a poll-driven political culture, the tired predictability of the adversarial parliamentary system and the failure of the electorate itself to face up to its own shortcomings. Rather than wallow in the culture of complaint, blaming governments for every ill in our lives, we might take more responsibility for our actions, particularly our financial decisions, and the culture of massive individual debt that our obsession with home ownership and property speculation has created. And while the electorate rightly craves stable, honest and visionary political leadership, our politicians deserve to be accorded more respect and understanding than we seem willing to give them. 

 

Mark McKenna is an associate professor of history at the University of Sydney. His latest book is An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark (2011).

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 46, Great Expectations. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 47, Political Animal.


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