Category Archives: Values

Winning the psychological game

“The purpose of wedge politics is to define and limit the political space within which Labor must operate” – Andrew Norton

Paul Keating has often said that in federal politics a general rule of thumb is the ALP have a structural primary vote of 38% and the Coalition have a structural primary vote of 43%. The “structural vote” is the amount of the electorate that can be relied upon to support either of the political parties at an election.

If the ALP consistently goes above a 38% primary vote and the Coalition goes below a 43% primary vote in the national polling, you can say the ALP are winning the “middle ground”. If the Coalition’s primary vote consistently goes above 43% and the ALP’s primary vote goes below 38%, you can say that the ALP are losing their “base” vote.

Right now, the federal ALP’s primary vote is consistently below 38% (well below 38%) which we can take to mean that they are losing their base vote.

With that in mind, what I’m going to address in this post is the subject of winning.

Winning federally to the ALP is anything over a 40% primary vote. You could make the excuse that the ALP could win federally with a primary vote of 38% or 39% backed up with preferences from the Greens and other minor parties but any victory from that position is always a very narrow one. The ALP have only won two federal elections on a primary vote below 40%: 1990 and 2010 and both were won by the skin of their teeth.

A 40% primary vote for the federal ALP goes a long way to securing victory.

That’s the simple part. The hard part for the ALP (for some anyway) is what winning entails.

If your structural vote is 38% and you need a primary vote of over 40% to secure victory, you need to face a few realities.

Firstly, it’s very difficult for the ALP to win with a defensive, passive, risk avoidance strategy. In the current situation of the hung parliament, that is especially true.

Politics is meant to be a contest of ideas. What the ALP have done over the past three years or so has been to abandon the ideas contest in favour of talking about processes. For example, the carbon price has never been explained or spelled out in terms of addressing dangerous climate change: the greatest moral challenge of our time, transitioning the economy into the modern world or making the future safe and secure for our children and their children. Far from it!

All we’ve had is the mechanics and the process of the policy: the price will be $23 per tonne, it will be imposed on the 500 biggest polluting businesses, households will be compensated in order to deal with the rise in electricity prices etc etc etc. This is not the language of victory!

There isn’t even any talk about how an issue like climate change invalidates half of the Liberal Party’s ideology of “let her rip” free market fundamentalism and what that should mean to people in relation to what they value in their lives. It’s just been boring lines that mean nothing to nobody.

Put simply, the ALP have failed to engage the Coalition ideologically, let alone define the Coalition’s positions on issues or limit the political space in which the Coalition operate within.

Take compulsory superannuation. The idea that the ALP have created a $1.5 Trillion financial services industry in Australia is something that would emotionally trigger many people inclined to support the Liberal Party. “Wealth creation” and “saving money” are ideas that attract many people to support the Liberal Party yet it was the ALP who created and built the industry in Australia from the ground up and it was the Liberal Party who opposed it every step of the way.

What’s more, an issue like compulsory superannuation goes straight to the psychological jugular in relation to why the Coalition exist politically. Do the Coalition oppose the idea of every person in Australia being responsible for their own retirement or do they support the idea of having an extremely large cohort of elderly people depending on the government pension after they retire from the workforce? Do the Coalition oppose the idea of every person in Australia being a financial capitalist? On this policy, the conventional framing on the economy has the potential to be completely reversed but the opportunity always seems to be missed by the ALP as they’re simply not in that head-space.

Consider the mechanics of the Coalition’s Paid Parental Leave scheme. Tony Abbott has known since the time he became leader of the Liberal Party that one of the big personal issues running against him has always been that women don’t approve of him and he tried to neutralise it by offering a ridiculously generous parental leave scheme.

When pressed on the issue in April last year on the John Laws radio program, he conceded the word game by calling it a tax, yet the ALP didn’t capitalise on the key point: the ideology, not the policy. This is a policy Abbott talks about that offends people in the business community and yet the ALP can’t score points on it because they are too timid or simply uninterested in targeting that sort of constituency. “They aren’t “Labour rusted ons” so why bother” tends to be the misguided rationale. In this particular case it’s not the word “tax” in and of itself that was the issue but the emotional values and the associations behind the use of the word (not the word, but “the use of the word”).

It’s the same deal with the Coalition’s Direct Action policy. Professor Ross Garnaut gifted the ALP a line in February 2010 in relation to it being akin to “Soviet Union style resource allocation” yet the ALP only figured it out last month: 3 years after the fact! … 3 years too late!

The ALP don’t seem to grasp the potential for dividing the Coalition at an ideological level. It’s just processes all the way down to them.

There is no understanding of the values or the emotional triggers underlying the policies and how to influence them so that they make a significant difference in the ALP’s favour.

The Coalition by contrast appear to “get it” (at the present moment). They aren’t afraid to go after the ALP’s working class constituency because they understand the misery it’s causing the ALP psychologically and how that translates into the rest of the national conversation. They know that if they get the ALP trying to salvage their structural vote (38%), that translates into people on the far left splintering off to the Greens and the Coalition being able to claim more of the middle ground (anything above 43%) for themselves.

What the ALP need to do instead of thinking in terms of merely “winning the next election,” is focus on destroying the Coalition’s ideology forever. That sort of mindset has a few implications. For a start it means thinking on a huge scale and being big picture focused. It also means being secure about issues like industrial relations. What the ALP failed to do after 2007 was destroy the Coalition on the issue once and for all. Instead what they’ve done is attempt to create a contest where one didn’t need to exist in order to appeal to a rapidly declining constituency.

Another implication is that the ALP would need to create a foundation and a narrative that transcends and includes the Coalition’s ideology, in effect making them a redundant political force. This is true right now, but the ALP never spell it out both because they don’t seem to know how, or worse, they deliberately would prefer not to do it for internal organisational reasons.

Instead of going on about things like “Labor values” and such and such is a “Labor policy” they need to talk in terms of the country and spelling out the big picture in a persuasive way so that the community can digest it.

I could go on a very long tangent but I’ll try to land the plane.

Winning the psychological game from the progressive “side” of politics requires having your act together psychologically. That means organisation, energy, belief and thinking on a very big scale. The real reason why people vote for the ALP is to get the big things done and to make the economic and societal transitions necessary for the country to preserve and prosper from the future.

Australian’s have very high expectations in relation to how their governments perform and when those expectations aren’t met, it is often greeted with mass disapproval. The way to overcome it is with repeated psychological victories and playing in order to win rather than accepting noble defeat.

You can’t exceed the people’s expectations or win by adopting the Charlie Sheen approach to victory: mindlessly posting updates on twitter with hashtags that reflect various psychotic states of delusion …

While the thinking and the actions of the federal ALP remain small, internal and process driven and generally treating politics like a football game or a crude television show such as The West Wing (just the thought of that show makes me want to vomit), you can expect their primary vote to remain well below 38%.


Exclusion leading to concerned indifference

“I’m not the leader of a party called the progressive party, I’m not the leader of a party called the moderate party, I’m not the leader of a party even called the social democratic party. I’m the leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately, because that is where we come from, that is what we believe in, that is who we are.” – Prime Minister Julia Gillard at the Australian Workers Union National Conference, February 18th, 2013

When I heard the Prime Minister utter these words last night on Lateline, I felt a twinge of anger and despair in my stomach, not because of the words but because of their intended political purpose.

As someone who identifies with words such as “social democrat”, “progressive” and “moderate” and considers the Australian Labor Party to be the natural home for someone who believes in all of those approaches to issues, I felt quite alienated. I believe that emotion is the opposite of the very foundation of what the Australian Labor Party is meant to be about!

Many times Prime Minister Gillard has spoken about “Labor values” without specifically defining what they are in terms of what people value or values systems people have established throughout their lives.

I consider inclusion to be a core value of the Australian Labor Party and the words uttered by the Prime Minister last night were exclusionary and go a long way to explaining many of the political problems the party is currently experiencing.

Leaving aside words such as “social democrat” and “progressive”, the fact the Prime Minister would disassociate herself from the word “moderate” is a major mistake!

Many people who are supporters of a so called “centre-right” agenda identify themselves as “moderate.” These are people who need to vote for the ALP in order for the party to win the next federal election and they have many trigger points that will turn them away from the Liberal Party such as asylum seeker policy, an emotionally reassuring, pragmatic and optimistic approach to the economy, addressing dangerous climate change and the extreme social and economic positions of their current leader to name a few.

When many of these “moderates” see Tony Abbott, they feel a deep sense of concern. When they hear Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan dissociate themselves from the word “moderate” and “the middle ground” in order to re-appeal to the old anvil of the blue collar manufacturing base and the old economy of the industrial age, many feel passively indifferent about him.

They don’t lose the feelings of concern, they simply disassociate themselves emotionally from what is happening in the national conversation.

Whenever the ALP attack Abbott or any of the other Liberal state Premier for being extreme all it does is intensify this emotional state of concerned indifference.

There is a lot of talk right now that suggests the ALP should adopt the successful campaigning methods from the Democrats in the USA in order to win the next federal election. The exclusionary rhetoric on display last night is inconsistent with what the Democrats were doing during that campaign and why it was successful.

I have never once seen Barack Obama disassociate himself from a socially democratic, progressive, moderate position.

I have never once seen Bill Clinton disassociate himself from a socially democratic, progressive, moderate position.

I have never once seen Bob Hawke disassociate himself from a socially democratic, progressive, moderate position.

I have never once seen Paul Keating disassociate himself from a socially democratic, progressive, moderate position.

I have never once seen Kevin Rudd disassociate himself from a socially democratic, progressive, moderate position.

In short, no one who wins elections at a national level either in Australia or the United States says what Prime Minister Gillard said last night!

Many people in the ALP wonder why the party has struggled since 1996 to consistently get over 40% of the primary vote at a federal level. I believe excluding people in the community in order to play to the ever diminishing base vote goes a very long way to understanding why this is and has been the case for such a long time.

The Prime Minister and her people should think very long and hard about the effects of this exclusionary rhetoric before engaging in it again. It will not win the next federal election for the ALP and it’s extremely damaging when the party needs to be opening itself up to the community and the people living in it so they can win as many votes as possible rather than closing itself off and engaging in an ultimately self defeating race to the bottom with the Coalition parties.

“Too many people in the Labor Party don’t like the society we created” – Paul Keating in conversation with Kerry O’Brien in 2011

Mr Keating has a very unique way of summarising situations and people in a single sentence. I think this one as applied to what was said last night is dead on the money!

Policy exemplifies values, connection, authenticity, trust and identity

A key component of this years political debate will be who can communicate their vision for the nation to the public in a way that can persuade swing voters to vote for them in September.

You’re going to hear a lot of predictable talk about policies but what’s really going on is far more complex.

Ronald Reagan’s pollster Dick Wirthlin figured out that voters don’t vote for policies, they vote for who they measure as superior in the five areas I’m about to summarise and how the policies they advocate for exemplify them.


Wirthlin defines values as the measures by which individuals determine their worth or importance of matters of concern in their lives.

The big mistake many politicians make, especially on the ALP “side” of politics is to confuse policies with values. The best example of this is whenever you hear Julia Gillard talk about “Labor values” you will always hear the word “education.”

Education isn’t a value. It’s a process and a policy area. The real question the ALP should be asking is why value education? Is it because we value opportunity? Is it because we value excellence? Is it because we value equality and social justice? Is it because we value creating a sustainable world? Is it because we value greater degrees of freedom? The deeper question on values never seems to be addressed by the Prime Minister.

The Coalition by contrast make it very clear where they stand on values. Every piece of communication they produce is targeted towards the values of individual success and freedom as well as respect of national history and what they define as an “Australian” identity.

There are also stages of values which I’ve gone over at reasonable length in previous posts that can be found here and here.


When I first visited Canberra, at a gut level I felt a reasonable degree of disconnection with the rest of the country. I’ve heard this is a common experience. There is a cold, artificial, bureaucratic feeling about the place.

Connection is an area many seem to have difficulty with on both “sides” of politics.

I think it’s fair to say that both Gillard and Abbott don’t connect too well with the electorate. Sure Gillard did connect with many women and men when she lashed out at Abbott’s repeated misogyny last year during Question Time, but that was merely one reactive speech that had been a very long time coming. Besides that one time, Gillard has been unable to connect with many people due to the inescapable negative prism she’s created for herself and most of her political decisions are viewed by people accordingly. It magnifies a lot when she says things like “we are us”, “a line has been crossed” and “I’ve made a ‘Captain’s Pick.'”

Abbott, although incredibly unpopular, initially connected with the public’s base level desires in relation to resolving the perceived uncertainty of the hung parliament, promising to get rid of the carbon tax, the mining tax, “stopping the boats, ending the waste” and bringing back the “golden years” of the Howard government.

As time has gone by many people see his platform for what it is: a fraud and they no longer feel that connection as people have more complex and difficult concerns to deal with and Abbott has shown that he doesn’t understand the public by constantly disregarding how they live their lives.

If normal people did what he has done over the last three years, they’d be fired from their job immediately!

Abbott’s new way of connecting is making everything he says about how bad the Labor Party is and how they need to be booted out of office as soon as possible. It has nothing to do with the policies, it is a very partisan message and it’s directed straight at Gillard, Labor and anything they touch. It connects with people because he has control of the way the national debate is framed and Labor appear too stupid to counteract what he’s doing.


It’s fair to say both Gillard and Abbott are seen to be inauthentic on many issues.

In the case of Gillard the obvious examples revolve around marriage equality and asylum seeker policy. On marriage equality, the authenticity issue arises due to her history as a progressive activist, her de-facto relationship and her atheism. How could someone who lives their life that way and hold those positions on “the big questions” possibly justify being against marriage equality? Sure, she can attempt to justify the position, but getting people to believe it is another matter entirely.

In relation to asylum seeker policy, Gillard advocates for “protecting lives at sea” yet the actual policy of locking refugees away in another country violates basic social justice and progressive principles of humanitarianism. It ends up looking like a desperate attempt to win votes in Western Sydney and pockets of Queensland. Whenever this is denied, it looks inauthentic.

In the case of Abbott, he’s spent his entire political career convincing everyone that he’s a crusader for the conservative cause. He has rejoiced in the nickname “Captain Catholic,” emotionally baiting “left wingers” and feminists as well as the negativity and cut and thrust of machine politics. Now he’s attempting to convince the public that he’s a crusader for taking action on dangerous climate change, women’s rights and social justice. Give us a break!


Trust is a fundamental component of political success. It’s often referred to as “political capital.” How much a government can do in office while maintaining their popularity in the electorate is heavily reliant on how much political capital they have stored in the bank. The more trust is broken by the government, the more unpopular they tend to become.

The trust issue with Gillard has frequently appeared during this term of parliament. Whether it has been the deal with the Greens and Independents on the “Carbon Tax” (saying it’s a carbon “price” is a big authenticity issue because every time it’s said, people think it’s spin), whether it’s been breaking the mandatory precommitment legislation deal with Andrew Wilkie, whether it’s been asylum seeker policy or whether it’s simply been internal ALP politics, it all comes back to trust, political capital and how that relates to certainty.

“How can we trust you given what you’ve done before?” is what it all comes down to and whenever there’s been an attempt at an answer it always gets framed in a negative light because that’s the predisposition towards Gillard’s decisions as Prime Minister.

The trust issue has been used with devastating effect by Tony Abbott (or should I say, Mark Textor) during this term of parliament. Everything they’ve said communicates “you can’t trust Labor and this Prime Minister” in one way or another. Most of this message now is in code as they’ve gone off the direct message and gone into a mode where they want to be seen as positive and constructive when in reality what they’re communicating is exactly the same as what’s been said over the previous three years of this term of parliament.

This will of course come back to bite Abbott big time if he ever becomes Prime Minister because there are very real and complex issues in relation to how he plans to repeal the carbon tax after it has been in operation for over a year and all the complexity that comes with that in relation to what’s happening around the world, how he plans to repeal the mining tax given how Australian’s view the issue and many other areas where he’s drawn a line in the sand without thinking about the long term implications of those promises.

In short, if you make a promise, make sure you keep it or look out!


Identity is interesting in relation to the two major parties. On the one hand, Labor is defining itself through it’s industrial relations agenda whereas the Coalition are defining themselves based upon anything that isn’t Labor unless Labor falls for their framing.

On the question of identity, I believe the most successful political parties are able to find points of agreement with their opponents as well as identifying those areas beneath the surface where the base are disillusioned with the political party they support and exploiting them as much as possible.

During this term of parliament, Abbott has made it his goal to split the ALP from their working class, blue collar, manufacturing base by linking the ALP to the Greens and playing hardball on the issue of border protection and asylum seeker policy.

The ALP by contrast seems to be making minimal impact in splitting the Coalition from the business community. This is probably due to the ALP’s rhetoric in relation to “Clive, Gina and Twiggy” as well as deliberately conflating various economic and industrial relations issues with a return to the time before Bob Hawke and Paul Keating revolutionised the Australian economy.

In my opinion, instead of declaring war on these wealthy people and accusing them of being evil and in control of the Coalition, the ALP should demonstrate how they made these people into what they are and without the policies of the Hawke and Keating governments, the cooperation of the union movement and the policies that saved Australia from recession during the Global Financial Crisis in 2008 and 2009, these people wouldn’t be anywhere near as wealthy as they are today!

As Paul Keating once said in a conversation with Malcolm Turnbull in 2008 “I made you rich!”

To make it brutally frank: the ALP are nowhere near as open to this disenfranchised group of generally Coalition supporters as they should be.

The five areas I’ve touched on above are what comes before we can get to a real policy discussion on any issue because they deal with people, knowing where one stands and being real.

To sum it up in a phrase: policy exemplifies values, connection, authenticity, trust and identity.

It’s all well and good to say you want to copy the sophisticated tactics of Barack Obama’s victorious 2012 US Presidential campaign, but if your policies are out of sync in relation to each other or they’re not communicated in a manner that is consistent with what you believe, it won’t work!

The party that is consistent in relation to this concept and injects optimism and inclusion into everything they communicate is the party that usually wins elections.

Real Solutions, subtle provocations

Fox Symes and Associates … I beg your pardon, the Liberal Party of Australia held a mini campaign launch yesterday to kick off the election year. Their theme is based around the slogan “Real Solutions.”

It seems pretty boring and harmless at first. That is until you realise that “Real Solutions” has absolutely nothing to do with policy and what’s worse is the Liberal Party knows it. Reading the document makes that point very clear.

What this is all about is their new vector which is designed to distribute the message “Labor is damaged!” at every possible opportunity.

The difference now is they are no longer saying “Labor is damaged!” directly which is the way they’ve said it for the last two years. It’s now done in the guise of “constructive policy”, big smiles, peace, love and happiness. It’s quite “left wing” when you really think about it.

In effect, they’re trying to frame Labor as negative. They have little care about how they’re seen because they’re the opposition. Their goal is to make everything about Labor.

Yesterday was about being as provocative as possible to the ALP. They want to be attacked because it’s their way of controlling the frame of the national conversation. Make comments, announce policy with zero detail that has tiny emotional trigger points, get attacked by the ALP and other progressives, then exploit the vulnerabilities their attacks expose.

Consider the video below:

From what I’ve seen, there are two elements contained within this clip that have triggered an emotional response from people on one level or another, be it engaged or disengaged. The first is Abbott holding up his book of motherhood statements to the camera while speaking on the telephone. The second is Joe Hockey’s demeanor and body language.

Contrary to what appears to be the popular opinion, it seems to me that these two elements contained within the clip have been deliberately planned.

Holding up the book communicates on an auditory, visual and kinesthetic level. You can hear what he’s saying and see what he’s holding. This subtlety works on people at an unconscious level whether they’re aware of it or not.

Many seem to think Joe Hockey looks bored by what Abbott is saying. I’d be very cautious of jumping to that conclusion because this kind of video is usually done by professional people. My guess is that the reason he looks bored is because it gets talked about and the more it gets talked about, the more coverage it will get. The political relationship between Abbott and Hockey is irrelevant to the content contained in this clip. This all about winning 50% +1 of the votes in every piece of communication they produce, getting their message to people by any means necessary and making it very clear that they’re in control of the frame of the national debate.

If they wanted Hockey to look mesmerised by Abbott’s words and they thought he looked bored and disinterested, they would have simply reshot the video until they got that kind of reaction. If he was uncooperative or simply too stupid to follow their instructions, they’d have left him out of the clip and got someone more sycophantic like Christopher Pyne, Peter Dutton or Julie Bishop.

The two things the ALP seem to misunderstand in relation to responding to this kind of communication is how they’re viewed by the community and the subtle emotional components the Liberal Party use which are designed to trigger them.

It baffles me how often I’ve seen the ALP respond to this type of communication, thinking they’re making Abbott the issue when in reality what they’re doing says more about them as a government than what it says about the Liberal Party or their leader.

Whenever you see phrasing like “once again, Abbott rewrites history” something doesn’t feel right. It’s the ALP who should be rewriting history. They’re the government. The Liberal Party are merely the opposition.

On top of all this is the fact most of the response is all based around the content of what they say. Facts are important but what’s missing are the emotions and the context! The idea that Abbott might be breaking the social contract with the Australian people and that they feel a lot of contempt towards him tends to get missed in the detail. Worse, if there is an understanding, the response is all guns blazing which goes back to the previous point of how the community views the ALP.

I expect yesterday will only be the beginning of this type of shallow, immature, university style politics to be played throughout the year. It’s yet another part of what has disengaged the public from their politics which has allowed the Liberal Party to gain control of how policy issues are framed and defined in Australia.

What is it to value?

“We’re not commenting on sports here, we’re commenting on people’s lives, so therefore we don’t go clapping for the highest paid person at Goldman Sachs, we don’t go clapping for the highest paid person at UBS or someone else … there’s got to be, I think, a cultural change … years ago, when people talked about society they talked about people who had moment and gravity and who added to society. Now, any sort of pumped up rock star, model, journo, high earning person is a celebrity and in the financial business this has been a big problem and I think we have to do something to shred this sort of celebrity thing … we’ve got to be looking for value from these people and not commenting on them because they’re at the top of the bonus pool this year and they’ve made so much money, I mean it’s obscene and squalid” – Paul Keating, Sydney Writers Festival, 2009

The passage above has a lot of points that speak to what value is to people.

Given this is an election year, you’re going to hear a lot of values talk from both “sides” of politics.

What will get lost in the noise is the larger context of why values are important and the deeper question that no one asks which is “what is it to value anyway?”

You’ll often hear the ALP talk about “Labor values” in order to reaffirm some sort of identity they think they’ve lost and you’ll often hear the conservatives talk about “family values” and “Australian values” which generally goes along the lines of God, country, apple pie, respecting the flag and all of that other stuff which ties into their belief systems around reciprocity and social license.

The question “what is it to value?” leads in to what both parties are really meant to be all about. For example, would a family value an industrial relations policy that took away things like holidays, sick leave, workers compensation and paid overtime?

What would a disabled person or a carer of a disabled person value in the National Disability Insurance Scheme?

What would parents of a child about to start primary school value in an education policy?

What is the value of the superannuation system to average working people?

Would someone who subscribes to a “socially progressive” worldview value opposing a large real estate development even if it meant that such a development would supply jobs and living accommodations while lifting people on low incomes out of their situations?

Would a “conservative” who subscribes to the idea of society evolving through organic change value the role of unions and the union movement?

Would someone who subscribes to the ideology of “neoliberalism” value a policy towards asylum seekers that was aimed at keeping them out of the country?

Of course these questions are based on textbook definitions of different political philosophies which don’t really exist when you deal with policy challenges in the real world and most people have no idea what these kinds of philosophies are, let alone have any knowledge that they exist, but in terms of the values debate underlying the contest of ideas which is meant to be our national conversation, these kind of questions are pretty important.

Instead of a real values debate based on what’s valuable to someone in society, what you’ll probably get is simplistic slogans from both parties such as “fairness” and “freedom” when both parties (and minor parties for that matter) violate these values systems frequently and without a second thought.

I think one of the problems with the national conversation is that many politicians and insiders understand values only as a one dimensional marketing tool rather than speaking to and implementing policies based on what people in the community really value and it’s part of what’s disconnected the public from our national debate.

The key point is that value isn’t a noun, it’s a verb. You value. You don’t subscribe to a “value.” If you understand this, you’re ahead of the game.

In over our heads – complex demands and another angle to the unhinging

Around the middle of last year, Possum Comitatus aka Scott Steel in The Kings Tribune revisited his post on “The Great Unhinging” by going into some of the things he’d picked up in qualitative and quantitative research and economic statistics which allowed him to predict how politics would be played during the current term of parliament.

The three threads underlying the unhinging which have been present in the Australian electorate since 2006 are:

1. A significant expectations gap between standards of living and consumption patterns a household expected to purchase and what their income actually provided for them to purchase in practice leading to feelings of resentment and entitlement in the community

2. A growing aversion to complexity

3. A sharp rise in perceived uncertainty

It’s a superb piece of writing. It’s one of three on Australian politics I recommend reading in order to get a bit of a grip on where things are at currently in the national conversation. The shoutiness might have died down a lot in relation to issues such as the carbon tax and the mining tax, but the actual dynamic is still firmly in place regardless of who’s in government, who’s in opposition, what’s in the media and so on.

What I want to do with this post is attempt to explain why that might be the case and make the unhinging a little more three-dimensional.

In previous posts, I’ve gone over a couple of models that show how moral worldviews develop, how they relate to values systems and how they’re communicated in the national conversation. In this post, I’m going to go a step or two deeper and focus on cognitive development at mostly a personal level and how it relates to the unhinging dynamic and Australian politics.

The most profound book I’ve ever read is “In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life” by Harvard developmental psychologist Robert Kegan which shows how the cognitive requirements and developmental stages/levels/orders of mind required for someone to function as a mature adult in the current age often exceed where most people are at developmentally. He shows how this occurs at and in adolescence, work, family, relationships, the education system, psychotherapy and many more areas of everyday life.

It’s an extremely dry book that uses a level of complex language and contextual framing that would leave most people scratching their head in a state of extreme confusion, but it’s extremely rewarding when you begin to understand what his ideas mean and how they relate to the world in which we live.

Before I go any further, I’ll show a summary of Robert Kegan’s model of adult development which he outlined in his first book “The Evolving Self” as it provides context for the rest of the post. At each order of mind there is both a subjective structure and an objective structure. The subjective structure is what you as an individual concretely identify with and the objective structure is what you see as something that is not you or is third person or is simply outside of your subjective identity/experience. In short: we are subject, we have object.


What I love about the picture above is how it gives a visual representation that shows the complexity of the meaning structure and the apertures/windows/filters these orders of mind use in order to function. In other words, it shows the complexity of the order of mind and how it subjectively sees the world.

Einstein’s famous quote “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them” takes on an entirely new meaning when you’re able to comprehend a developmental model such as the one above.

When you’re at the third order of mind, you don’t just see the world through your relationships, you subjectively “are” your relationships. Your whole way of operating in the world is based on what you identify with. You can’t see beyond it. If you’re at the third order and I show you the model above, you’ll use third order language and the way you subjectively interpret it will be through the cognitive apparatus and mental hardware of the third order of mind.

To get to the fourth order of mind requires a developmental process that takes a whole range of components such as experience, education, contemplation, reflexive reflection and a mode of thinking that simply can’t be achieved overnight or over a week long seminar. This process of adult development occurs over a lifetime.

On top of all of that, when an order of mind becomes an object to you, you don’t lose it, it’s merely incorporated into the next order of mind. In other words, the more cognitively developed you become, the more complex the apparatus your using to subjectively interpret the world around you. The bad news is the more you develop, the more things can go wrong because you’re incorporating the previous orders of mind into the order of mind you’re currently at and all the pathologies that come with it.

You don’t solve the problems you’re currently experiencing, you simply develop new and more complex problems to solve which develops your order of mind.

I could go on for a very long time on this topic, but I’ll land the plane and attempt to tie it back to the unhinging dynamic.

As the complexity in society increases, the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusion on people’s everyday lives also increases. In other words, the job you used to do is getting more complicated and demanding every day. In order to maintain a decent standard of living, you have to be constantly increasing and upgrading your level of ability, professionalism as well as your network and sources of information. The relationships you’re in, be they family, romantic or friendship, have more demands placed on them than ever before. What you’re required to know in order to remain current is increasing at an exponential rate.

What I think is happening is the cognitive demands and extrinsic intrusions on the public to operate in a society like Australia have risen, yet the most of the public’s cognitive apparatus and mental hardware remain at an order of mind that is insufficient to deal with the demands of modern life.

This has major implications for politics.

For a start a big issue like dangerous climate change only becomes an issue when you become more aware of the complexity of what is happening in the world. For example, if you’re at the second order of mind, the issue simply doesn’t appear on your radar because you’re subjectively identifying with your needs, impulses and desires. Another big issue that Kegan covers extensively is education. The demands of the workforce on a student coming out of high school often exceed the mental apparatus they’ve developed through the process, content and context of what they’ve been taught. This is a major problem and one the current government is attempting to solve.

If you’re at the third order of consciousness (most of society is at this stage), there is so much demand on your time that it’s pretty much impossible to understand major issues in depth.

Most of the demands society places on people in this day and age are at the fourth order of mind. In other words society demands self authorship and autonomy. So if you’re at the third order, there’s a tendency to feel like things are going too fast, the level of demand is too great and if pathology occurs, you might simply shut down and regress.

A classic example of the demanded level complexity exceeding the capacity of a structure on a larger scale is in Europe right now. Europe has a very sophisticated democratic and political structure in the form of the European Union but the demands it has placed on their economic and sociocultural structures have simply been too great and it’s turned into a major mess. A lot of this is simply an attempt to solve world centric problems at an ethnocentric level of development. It’s very easy to understand why that doesn’t work when you understand that these problems are on different levels and scales of complexity let alone the order of thinking of the leaders who are attempting to solve these kinds of issues.

In Australia, when you hear political leaders on all sides try to empathise with people by showing that they understand how normal people live and the pressures placed on them everyday, all it does is to make people feel like objects. A subjective, interpersonal relationship is one where you actually live in someone’s order of mind and relate to them. For example, when you see The Greens involving themselves in stunts to show they could live on the unemployment benefit for a week, all it does is to make people at that order of mind feel as if there’s no way out.

The demands on political leadership have increased as the order of complexity in society has increased as well. For example, a political leader these days pretty much has to be all things to all people because the level of expectations have increased so dramatically. People at the third order of mind want to feel protected and comforted by their political leaders. Whenever something goes wrong, the judgement is immediate because the level of uncertainty surrounding one’s identity and psychological insecurity is so ridiculously high due to this dynamic.

Going back to the three main points that exemplify the unhinging dynamic: the high expectations gap in relation to our standard of living and what we can afford, our aversion to complexity and the rise in our perceived uncertainty in my view seem to be coming from the complex demands and extrinsic intrusions of society on people to become adaptive and interdependent authors of their own lives (Order 4) rather than getting subjectively absorbed in interpersonal relationships (Order 3) and their needs, wants and desires (Order 2). On top of that, the order of world problems in this day and age far exceeds our mental capacity to comprehend them which leads to people shutting down from what’s happening and refocusing on what they can control in order to maintain some sort of stable structure.

The reason Paul Keating wanted Australia to become a republic was because he understood what an order of mind and an individuals psychological makeup meant to people on an emotional level. The Republic was not simply proposed in order to culturally and economically integrate Australia into the Asian Pacific region by itself. It was to get the country to psychologically grow up and deal with the complex challenges of this age. It’s a great shame that political leaders on both sides have walked away from it. My view is the maturity of public debate will only return when important, big picture, national issues like this are put back on the table.

We live in a complex world. It might be comforting to imagine that everything could be returned to a time when things were simpler and easier but that tends to be a nostalgic perception of the past rather than the way things really were.

It’s not easy to deal with complexity, but in the end, it’s necessary in order to operate as a mature person in this society. Politicians who understand how to make that clear in a way that inspires people, slows down the time dynamic and make sure no one is left behind as well as getting the country to qualitatively transform psychologically and emotionally will be the politician’s who succeed in the future.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” – Pogo

Adherence to dogmatic ideology is so 1982

1983 was a watershed moment in Australian society.

Before 1983, politics was a simple game: the Liberal Party represented big businesses, the Labor Party represented trade unions and their members, the Country/National Party represented farmers and rural constituencies and the Democrats represented angry teachers.

The conventional wisdom was Liberal/National Coalition governments would be in power for long periods of time and occasionally the electorate would get sick of them and you’d get a Labor government which would quickly screw things up and the Coalition would immediately be back in power.

After 1983, things changed.

The ALP government lead by Bob Hawke went about deregulating the Australian economy and opening the country’s doors to the rest of the world. Paul Keating and the leader of the ACTU at the time Bill Kelty established the prices and incomes accord to contain inflation and wages growth which had spiraled out of control under the Fraser government. Enterprise bargaining was implemented to transition the industrial relations system from centralised wage fixing to the realities of the modern age in a balanced, fair, flexible and productive way. Most importantly compulsory superannuation was introduced to deal with the long term demographic stresses that would impact the social security system as well as making sure every working person living in the country would be able to afford a decent standard of living and quality of life in retirement.

Many of the so called “left” saw these reforms as “neoliberalism” even though the ALP never pursued these reforms for ideological purposes. The difference between the Hawke and Keating governments, Tony Blair’s “Third Way” in Great Britain and Bill Clinton’s “Vital Center” in the United States is the fact that the ALP government actually believed in looking at what the data said and making pragmatic decisions in the nation’s interest. It wasn’t done in order to concoct some marketing slogan to capture the middle ground at the expense of the working class constituent. They actually believed in what they were doing.

If they were an ideological government, they would have remained stuck in the old Australian model which broke down in the early 1980’s. Nor did they swallow an economic textbook that adhered the dogmatic ideology of neoliberalism whereby the concept of the market becomes the overriding political philosophy. The idea behind that government was one of pragmatic transition.

That’s also why you don’t hear pseudo-intellectuals and “left of centre” academics in Australia come up with big fancy names for what that government did besides the one dimensional “neoliberal” name calling.

I’ve previously written about levels of development as they apply to values systems and emotional communication using Lawrence Kohlberg’s three stage model of moral development. I use this simple model as a way of identifying and understanding where people are at and where they’re coming from:

Stage 1: Pre-Conventional

  • A primal need for safety from the big bad world
  • Power for ego’s sake and to hell with everybody else

Stage 2: Conventional

  • Discipline through obedience to an authority figure
  • Order via a hierarchical structure (follow the leader)
  • Mutual Responsibility via the social contract
  • Success and achievement through rational scientific method

Stage 3: Post Conventional

  • Fairness, equality and social justice
  • Respect and tolerance for all values systems

Individuals and groups progress through these stages in order to solve the problems of the previous stage. In other words, you don’t go directly from a Pre-Conventional stage to a Post Conventional stage. The Conventional stage emerges as a solution to the problems of the Pre-Conventional stage and the Post Conventional stage emerges as a solution to the problems of the Conventional stage.

You have to experience life at each stage and go through a process of objectification to begin to solve some of that stage’s problems in order to progress to the next stage where the solutions to the previous stage’s problems create an even more complex set of problems (which also perversely includes the problems of all of the previous stages you’ve gone through).

Put simply: development is a complex and evolving process.

This is reasonably easy to understand. Here’s a slightly more complicated model as it applies to cultures.

Stage 1: Foraging

A foraging culture tends to operate on the most basic hunter/gather instincts. You do what you can to survive by any means necessary.

Stage 2: Horticulture

Some bright person figured out that it’s easier to survive by using tools, planting seeds and growing crops.

Stage 3: Agrarian

An even brighter person figured out how to hook a plough to the back of an Ox which created an even more complex societal structure. You’ll see this type of society whenever you watch anything on television on Ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome etc.

Stage 4: Industrial

This stage emerged with the discovery of science, invention, liberation etc. You got various forms of technology such as steam engines and the concept of mass production. You also get the rise of the various liberation movements such as civil rights, feminism and so on because they’re no longer oppressed and excluded by the Agrarian societal type.

Stage 5: Informational

With the invention of computers, the microchip, unlimited distribution space and sophisticated technology, the need for the production line and the manufacturing plant diminishes in value and we see the rise in value of education, health as well as products and services that promote self actualisation and a means of expressing oneself. You also get the rise of pluralistic democracy and popularity in highly annoying philosophies like postmodernism.

What many don’t appear to get is between 1970 to the present day, the world shifted a stage in its economic development.

The Hawke and Keating government’s shifted Australia from the industrial age to the informational age. Instead of working at a manufacturing plant and doing manual work with our hands, advances in technology, culture and the introduction of international competition to the marketplace which lead to cheaper prices for everyday goods and services and a higher standard of living and quality of life for most people made knowledge and information valuable in our economy. We became knowledge workers.

This is the reality of the modern age. The production of value has shifted from our hands to our heads.

If there is one thing that annoys me more than anything else, it’s when I see people on the left who want to alleviate suffering and help people lift themselves out of poverty take aim at Labor governments and progressives for advocating for market economic policies based on either data or pragmatism over ideology which are designed to achieve that outcome.

What’s often the case is the same people will advocate for policies that effectively regress the economy back to the declining industrial, manufacturing age while ignoring the fact that many of the things we take for granted and that have enabled these people to make the criticisms have come as a result of the process of competition in the market economy and the democratisation of the means of production in the first place!

Worse still is when the current Labor government, who are also pursuing policies to pragmatically transition the nation, attempt to play to “the base” by communicating a policy narrative based around returning the economy to the period of the old industrial age. This usually is seen in the form of over protecting declining manufacturing industries, deliberate attempts to confuse the Fair Work Act with a return to centralised wage-fixing and engaging in the race to the bottom with the Coalition on asylum seeker policy.

Sure, there are issues regarding inequality and people at the top getting compensated in an obscene manner. But the process of how the economy works as a system is a far bigger issue than a few greedy super rich people and their “neoliberal” worshipers.

The reason I gave a brief overview of Kohlberg’s developmental model is because I want to emphasise something that often gets lost in the noise: you can’t get to the Post Conventional levels of economic development without going through the market economy. The market economy is a solution to the problem of the rigid, inflexible system where you had no social mobility that preceded it.

Similarly, you can’t get to the stage of having a market economy without first having a bureaucratic, rigid, inflexible system with no social mobility to begin with and so on. It’s the exact same process. One stage emerges to solve the problems of the previous stage and they’re built on top of one another to form a complex, interdependent system. Each stage must transcend and include the previous stage. They can’t repress and deny them as that would be like amputating a limb for no reason other than the thrill of doing it.

What progressives who are triggered by fairness and social justice should be doing instead of raging at the evils of the free market, the “neoliberals” and the greedy super rich people is looking for ways to improve the process from the Conventional stage of economic development to where they’re mostly at which is at the Post Conventional stage of economic development. Otherwise the rage turns into a perverse advocacy of poverty and a trap for the many people who are struggling day to day to make ends meet. In effect, they’re hurting the very same people they want to help.

Life, society and the economy are extremely complex systems and getting caught in the adherence to a dogmatic ideology on either side of the political divide is a fool’s game that leads to you getting mugged by reality and ending up confused and miserable.

I’ll end this post with one of my favourite quotes:

“The subject of one stage becomes the object of the subject at the next stage” – Robert Kegan