There are three pieces of writing which I think summarise the Australian national conversation in 2012 far better than anything else that’s been said or written. As the title of this post suggests, one’s a book, one’s a Quarterly Essay and one’s an analysis by a number crunching marsupial.
This book recounts the big sociocultural, political and economic changes that occurred in Australia since the 1970’s and includes interviews with former Prime Ministers Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard and Kevin Rudd.
It’s useful to learn the history, but the reason I think this book has managed to partially sum up the politics of the current period is because Megalogenis asks two very important questions: “How did Australia get it right?” and “Are we in danger of becoming a great country?”
In my view, the Australian community seems to be asking the first question albeit without consciously thinking about it. The second question is more of a challenge to the psychology of our political leaders.
Given how well the Australian economy has performed compared to the rest of the world, are we prepared to take responsibility, get our psychological act together and lead? This question has yet to be answered and while it remains unanswered, we can expect more of the trivial pursuit that dominates the national debate today.
The most talked about Quarterly Essay of the year has been David Marr’s mediocre profile on Tony Abbott. It’s a shame because Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay is so much better and far more relevant to the national conversation.
“Great Expectations,” previously titled “The Big Whinge” (which I think would have been a far better title), explains why the Australian political debate has gotten much more angry since the election of the hung parliament in 2010. The anger in Australia can be traced all the way back to the arrival of the first fleet and the notion of entitlement and the expectation of the government to protect the people has permeated through Australian society ever since.
This notion of entitlement was pretty much destroyed when the Hawke and Keating governments deregulated the economy and opened the nation up to competition and the rest of the world in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Since 2000 however, mostly due to the massive amounts of money flowing from the mining boom and favourable economic conditions, governments of both political persuasions have attempted to revive the notion of entitlement by attempting to make the public believe they can protect them from the open market when in reality they have control over very little.
The national conversation now needs to define realistic expectations of what the government can and cannot do however we’re not having that conversation because it would be extremely painful to both political parties even though it has to happen sooner or later.
Throughout the year, Tingle in her Friday column in the Financial Review (one of the only columns I read these days) has commented on how both the government and opposition are attempting to deal with this reality most notably by proposing aspirational policies (education reform based on the Gonski Review recommendations being the most notable) instead of the real deal.
The main point I took away from this essay was how focus groups are repeatedly finding that the public are always looking for the horizon when it comes to politics but we find again and again that when we reach some sort of end point, the horizon keeps moving further into the distance. This suggests that regardless of who wins the next federal election, the public is going to be looking for the government to take care of their problems and meet their expectations … and more likely than not, they’ll fail which will lead to more anger in the electorate … and on it goes.
In the aftermath of the 2010 election, economist, statistician and polling expert Possum Comitatus wrote a post on his blog titled “Let the Great Unhinging begin” which made the prediction that instead of embracing the “new paradigm” and a “kinder and gentler polity” which had been constantly talked about in the negotiations with the Independent MP’s who held the balance of power, the conservative parties would go ballistic and attempt to warp the national debate due to the perceived fragility of the hung parliament. This prediction turned out to be spot on.
Possum revisited The Great Unhinging for The Kings Tribune in the middle of the year by briefly detailing how he was able to predict it through economic statistics, qualitative information, focus groups and so on. He showed how an expectations gap between standards of living and household consumption patterns combined with an aversion to complexity, the need for simple explanations and a sharp rise in perceived uncertainty which emerged around 2006 created the conditions for the federal Opposition to go nuts at everything in the name of exploiting political advantage wherever possible.
The Unhinging has been the environment in which the national debate has been conducted since the last election. This piece also counters the popular and seductive notion that Tony Abbott and the media are the cause of the government’s problems by showing they are merely symptoms of the unhinged environment.
I think these three excellent pieces of writing on the question of Australian greatness, entitlement, expectations of government, anger and perceived uncertainty in the electorate sum up the state of politics in Australia over the long term better than anything else written at the present moment and I think they are must reads if you want to understand the dynamics of what’s happening as we head into an election year.