THE DANGEROUS PAST
June 2015. Clouds are scudding across a pale, bright winter sky on the road from Sydney to Canberra as the fall of the Roman Republic unfolds before me. The small girl I described at the beginning of my 2012 Quarterly Essay, Great Expectations – having her picture taken in front of the Pantheon in Rome in 2009 – is now sixteen and fretting about a looming Ancient History exam as we travel through a landscape of silvery gums and naked poplar trees.
The collapse of Rome’s second triumvirate – Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus – and the beginnings of the Empire have featured heavily in our lives over the last few weeks, enriched by reading the sources from which all knowledge of these events has come for the past 2000 years. “When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth,” Tacitus (with his wonderful and rhythmic disdain for the full stop) wrote of Octavian’s rise to become Emperor Augustus:
when Pompeius was crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Caesar left to lead it, then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune’s authority for the protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past.
Tell me the story from the beginning, I say to our daughter, Tosca. Saying it out loud often helps clarify how it all fits together. Tosca starts the story with Julius Caesar’s birth in 100 BC, punctuates it with teenage idiom and endures my hilarious attempts to cast contemporary politicians and events as players in the drama. Layers and layers of history pile up: the Senate, the Optimates and Populares, the returning legions who have been promised land, the tax collectors, the Rubicon, the marriages, ambition, human weakness, political cunning and intrigue which shape the events that affect the lives of countless people across Rome’s domains.
All of us know at least something of ancient Rome, whether from a cursory high-school glance, from Shakespeare, from a 1950s Hollywood swords-and-sandals epic or from reading the classics. Likewise, all of us know at least something of our recent political history. The “dangerous past” of which Tacitus spoke – whether it be events two thousand, twenty or even two years ago – gives us the conscious, but often unconscious, context for our understanding of contemporary events.
Our first response to an unfolding political episode is often to go to our wardrobe of memories and see whether we can clothe the new incident in one of the dramas of the past, or see how it fits into the pattern of our recollections. Malcolm Turnbull’s strike against Tony Abbott in September 2015 was overwhelmingly portrayed in the language and clichés of Julia Gillard’s coup against Kevin Rudd in 2010. It was a “late-night coup.” There were “faceless men,” and Australians were going to bed with one prime minister and waking up with another.
Upon winning government in 2013, Tony Abbott and his colleagues referred back to their memories of the political strategy that worked for Prime Minister John Howard. Bill Shorten and his colleagues – all too young to have been close to the workings of the Hawke–Keating government – conjure up a ghostly memory of policy glory as a backdrop, and in this way stake a claim to credibility for their own policies. Journalists confronting the day-to-day dramas of politics draw comparisons with previous events, whether these be leadership coups or policy brawls.
There are hazards in trying to jam current events into the mould of past experience. We are so busy looking for, or assuming, similarities that we often miss the fact that it is the peculiar differences which most define the present episode. But even more dangerous than a confused and jumbled memory of the past is no memory at all.
This essay is about the role of memory in politics and policy-making in Australia. It is about the dangers of having little, if any, memory of what has gone before. It is about the collapse of the institutions that once formed a safe archive of these memories. I argue that a powerful reason our politics has become not only inane and ugly but dangerous is our growing political and policy amnesia. In Great Expectations I argued that one of the reasons for our national anger was that people no longer knew what they wanted from, or could expect of, government. Our politicians still speak in the language and play to a set of expectations formed at a time when our economy was heavily regulated. Politicians once had the power to set interest rates and the exchange rate, and to protect industries from overseas competition. There were mechanisms in place to set wage rates for the whole country. That all changed with the deregulation of the economy that began in the 1980s. But politics did not. Politicians still promise, or else imply, that they can control events when they cannot. This essay takes a different tack in considering a question that leaves so many of us perplexed: why is our politics unable to deal with the pressing issues of the country? Surely it cannot simply be that the current generation of politicians are a bunch of duds?
Tacitus tells us that the Romans preferred the “safety of the present” to what he clearly thinks was a better, republican past. Yearning for such a past became a dangerous sentiment when Augustus had concentrated the powers of the state in his own hands, silenced those who had spoken against his rise to power, and bribed the rest with gifts, and cheap corn, and the “sweets of repose.” It was easier, Tacitus suggests, to forget.
In Australia today, we have a different dilemma. At a time when people are not just angry about politics but befuddled by the way our institutions – and our presumptions about legal rights and freedoms – are under challenge, there is a yearning for the past – a less dangerous past. We yearn for a time when politics appeared to be conducted in the national interest, when government policy was well developed and thoroughly thought through, and when the media were less shrill and gave us an informed context for assessing events.
Much is said about the dumbing-down of politics; the 24-hour news cycle; too much polling and poll-driven politics; the decline of community involvement in political organisations; the rise of the political professional; and the decline of “real-life” experience among our politicians. Without doubt, these all play a role. But elements that I think are regularly overlooked are more fundamental: the role of memory and the changing nature of risk-taking in politics. I argue that there is a growing loss of institutional memory about how things have come about, and, more importantly perhaps, why they did.
Without memory, there is no context or continuity for the making of new decisions. We have little choice but to take these decisions at face value, as the inevitable outcome of current circumstance. The perils of this are manifest. Decisions are taken that are not informed by knowledge of what has worked, or not worked, in the past, or even by a conscious analysis of what might have changed since the issue was last considered.
This thought first struck me a few years ago during the Gillard government’s wild ride through office. In 2012 child care suddenly became the issue of the day. The prime minister called an “emergency child-care summit.” One of the proposals floated as an answer to the problems in child care was to shift government subsidies from parents to providers. For twenty-four hours there was much learned discussion in the media of the pros and cons of this idea, as if it were an entirely new shiny thing. I watched on, puzzled. “Am I the only person,” I asked a senior public servant, “who remembers that this is the way child care used to be funded?” “Probably,” was his sardonic reply.
Some might believe that stripping an issue of the baggage of the past makes analysis more straightforward: the matter at hand can be seen more clearly in the light of present circumstances. I would say, “No.” Instead, it is more likely to become the victim of oversimplified slogans and ideological conclusions. The scope for there to be nuance, or “grey,” in discussion of an issue instead of black and white disappears, and with it the capacity for compromise. Rational debate about the pros and cons of an issue becomes too hard for both advocates and audience. We slip into the habit of conducting our debates in the present tense.
Consider two of the great issues of the past decade: climate change and national security. Climate change moved from being a debate about the implications of scientific findings developed over a couple of decades to a paranoid debate replete with conspiracy theories and anti-science. It moved from a debate about the pros and cons of different market mechanisms to reduce carbon emissions to a debate about whether one such mechanism is a tax or not. Such simplification robs the issue of its context, its own history. Participants are not required to address all of the questions that surround the issue, informed by the history of the contributions to the debate until now.
National security. Well, who can argue with national security? Few in politics dare to raise doubts or scruples these days, for fear of being dubbed traitorous. We have got out of the habit of discussing our foreign and strategic policy as part of mainstream public debate. That has robbed us of the confidence of historical knowledge – or even a decent contemporary knowledge – to assess and argue the present-day case. Terrorism has added a new layer to the national security debate. Unlike the hulk and bulk of traditional defence, it has the advantage of being everywhere and nowhere. Our enemies, and their methods, are morphing all the time. Terrorism is presented as something totally new, different to everything that has gone before, and therefore not able to be assessed in historical frameworks. To this is added a rationale for why we can’t be told what is going on in the work of securing our community. We have to just pay the amount – both in taxpayer dollars and surrendered freedoms – that national security requires us to pay. We just have to believe what we are told.
It’s not just the internal workings of the spy agencies. Executive decisions are taken which fundamentally change our relationships with our major allies and trading partners – the United States, Japan and China – without warning being given to the public at large. Since the end of the Cold War, there has not really been a sophisticated and ongoing national political debate about Australia’s strategic interests in the wider world, and our place in it. As a result, few apart from the specialists are prepared to enter the policy fray with any confidence. When politicians do venture to raise such issues in mainstream debate, we often enter the realm of shrill panic and knee-jerk reactions. I believe this has helped to stoke a growing insularity. And we also see the incremental creep of the national security mindset into other issues that are just “too hard,” such as how we deal with asylum seekers.
Political amnesia also plays out in perplexing ways in the actions of politicians. For example, there is the baffling question of how the Abbott government could apparently repeat, almost move for move, all the political and policy mistakes of the Labor government, even though these mistakes were less than five years old, even though the senior members of the Abbott government were there to watch those mistakes, and learnt to profit from them in Opposition. The joke in both Labor and Coalition ranks, before things became so grim they were no longer funny, was that the Abbott government had stolen Labor’s book about mistakes and was systematically going through it, ticking off every disaster. There is the equally perplexing question of how so many senior members of the current government managed to live through the Howard years – some as cabinet ministers – and yet not absorb any lessons of how government works, or how to go about making things happen.
This world of foggy memories – and mediocre politics – has often helped take us back to the political equivalent of debating science versus religion. It has cleared the way for a vapid politics of three-word slogans and the “cheap corn” of appealing to our basest instincts and self-interest. It has cleared the way for us to find ourselves on a shifting battlefield of fairly ugly ideology rather than “evidence-based” politics and policy.
It is telling that Malcolm Turnbull’s claim to return to the Coalition leadership in 2015 was so heavily based on a recognition that the lessons of good government – and good politics – have been forgotten, and on the need to restore the processes and institutions that help enshrine them. We are about to find out whether his memory is good enough to transport us out of the political wilderness in which we find ourselves.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY