Is Australia becoming ungovernable?

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Saturday, 27 November 2010 22:08 by Ad astra
As we approach the end of a tumultuous year in federal and state politics and face no let-up in 2011, and consequent upon the arrival of the ‘hung parliament’ in Canberra, the question that demands an answer is how can this country be governed given the attitudes that now exist among voters, politicians, the media, power brokers and those who seek to influence political outcomes?

Any observer of contemporary politics, no matter how dedicated to the need for nation building and reform, would be forced to ask whether entering politics as a parliamentarian is the way to achieve this, whether the political process is still capable of bringing about the needed changes, whether the conflicting forces in the electorate and in our political parties make meaningful change possible at all. Although this may sound nihilistic, if the dilemma continues for politicians where they have to choose between legislating the changes needed or surviving politically, reform and nation building will slow or come to a stop.

This situation has not arisen because we now have a minority federal Government – indeed this is the outcome of a steadily growing disillusionment with the political process, which in turn has its genesis in the conflicts that exist in the electorate that push politicians this way and that, where it is impossible to satisfy all the demands, all the pressure groups, all the voters, no matter which way political parties turn. Have governments an impossible task?

This piece attempts to tease out the factors that seem to be responsible for this state of affairs. It draws substantially on George Megalogenis’s Quarterly Essay: Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the end of the Reform Era, which was summarized on The Australian website on 20 September in an article titled Greening of the Nation, and amplified in the Wheeler Centre discussion of the Essay moderated by Lindsay Tanner that can be viewed on a video at the end of Greg Jericho’s 25 September piece on Grog’s Gamut: On the QT and now the end is near. This thirty-minute video is well worth the time needed to view it. Megalogenis is a reliable and respected journalist who uses poll statistics to make sound political points. What he has to say deserves careful reflection.

Here are some of the factors that, in my view, contribute to the growing difficulties facing governments that are attempting a reform agenda. They may not be unique or even of recent origin, but their omnipresence ought to be of concern to us, as indeed they seem to be to Megalogenis who has used his Essay to address some of them.

Lies, deception, slogans and mantras
What the electorate thinks about a government and any piece of legislation it attempts is now of crucial importance. If the majority disapproves of a proposed reform it puts pressure on the government to abandon it or water it down. Because the electorate can make proper judgements only when it is in possession of the relevant facts, all of them, the promulgation of accurate and complete information is essential.

Yet lies, deception, slogans and mantras, perpetrated every day, obstruct the process of informing the voters. A piece on this appeared recently on The Political Sword. How can a government govern properly if the feedback it receives from the community, usually in the form of polls and focus groups, is distorted by dangerous untruths?

We have seen this starkly illustrated in recent times. After the toppling of Malcolm Turnbull by Tony Abbott, the Federal Opposition not only abandoned its promised support for the Rudd Government’s ETS, it decided to trenchantly oppose it. Not satisfied with arguing its case with facts and logical reasoning, it began a campaign of distortions of the truth with its GBNT slogan and Barnaby Joyce’s fairy-tale: ‘every time you go to the fridge, every time you do the ironing you’ll be paying Rudd’s great big new tax’. Despite the generous reimbursement built into the ETS to compensate householders for the inevitable rise in electricity costs with the ETS, this was never mentioned by the Opposition, only the cost rises were highlighted – the GBNT . As the Government seemed incapable of countering this, the myth was quickly established, and adverse focus group and internal polling feedback so terrified Labor powerbrokers that, fearful of a severe electoral backlash, they insisted the ETS be postponed until the end of 2012, a move that many believe started the slide in Kevin Rudd’s popularity from the stratospheric heights he had enjoyed for so long, his later removal as an electoral liability, and the eventual near loss of Government by Labor.

The power of lies, deception, slogans and mantras was searingly illustrated by this episode. Truth was irrelevant – perception was all that mattered. How can a government bring about a reform of the magnitude of the ETS when the truth was overwhelmed by mendacity? How can a government govern in the fact of such deceit?

Focus groups and polls
There is now an abundance of organizations that provide political organizations with feedback from focus groups and polls. Some provide data for the public; others provide it privately. Political parties seem to rely more and more on this feedback to fashion their policies and their strategies. The Rudd Government, and particularly its apparatchiks, seemed wedded to their outpourings and used them to modify policy or even change direction. We saw this with the ETS and with the asylum seeker issue. Focus groups and internal polling in the Western suburbs of Sydney revealed what a hot-button issue asylum seekers was in those areas where there is already a superfluity of Muslims and where infrastructure had failed to keep up with the burgeoning population, leading to congested travel and inadequate services. It was this feedback that persuaded Julia Gillard that she had to take a different line on the boat people issue, to look tougher and to reduce as a political issue the arrival of more and more boats.

George Megalogenis comments that numbers resonate with politicians and their advisers, and that if polling is done on an issue and the people approve, the Government is reassured, but if second time around the result is less favourable, the media is soon saying: ‘the Government is in trouble’ on the issue.

Given that focus groups and polls have so much influence on political thought and action, two questions need an answer. First, how valid and reliable are they? How carefully and scientifically are the questions framed? How thoroughly are the outputs analysed and the statistics interpreted? We know that pollsters can fashion questions that evoke the answer they want. There have been some glaring examples of this in public polls. Invalid or unreliable polls are not only useless; they are dangerously misleading. I use those words with their scientific meaning: validity means that the poll actually measures what it purports to measure, and reliability means that it measures those aspects consistently, so that the poll, if repeated with the same group at a short interval, would produce the same result.

The second, and more important question though is the extent to which political parties ought to rely on them in creating or modifying policy. Everyone would agree that listening to what the public thinks and wants is essential in politics, but how slavishly should politicians follow what the people say, especially when what they say varies from place to place and from time to time? How much should politicians be blown about in the breeze, or to use an expression applied to Tony Abbott, be weathervanes? Is there not a time for politicians and parties to say – we have done all the research that is necessary to determine our policy and we intend to stick by our decision?

In developing public policy, a sound review backed by valid research that establishes the need for the policy and the ways it could be implemented, accompanied by consultation with all the stakeholders, ought to provide the background for framing the legislation. After testing it among key stakeholders for flaws, it should be ready for debate in the House. If that thorough process is followed, any government ought to be able to stick to its guns and press on with the legislation whatever the focus groups and polls dredge up. This process was followed with the Rudd Government’s ETS, starting with the Garnaut review and progressing through Green and White papers to the actual legislation, only to be changed after rejection by the Opposition and when polling suggested a fall in public enthusiasm for it after the GBNT slogan began to bite and after business opponents began insisting on concessions, until it was finally postponed. It is now conventional wisdom that that change of tack, that abandonment of what was seen as a core belief and a matter of principle, was very damaging to the Government.

The point that flows from this is that on such important matters of principle governments ought not to retreat in the face of public opposition. The public may complain, as they did about the introduction of the GST and rail about it in the polls, but once in place it soon became accepted as the norm, and John Howard was seen as ‘standing for something’. Governments need to have and to show the courage of their convictions despite public opinion; eventually they will be admired for it. To do the opposite evokes scorn.

Australia will be come ungovernable if governments bend this way and that every time public opinion is whipped up in opposition.

The selfish electorate gene
There seems little doubt that self-interest governs the opinions expressed by most of the electorate. Even accepting that there are still some altruistic enough to be more concerned with the public good than their own self-interest, the vast majority take the ‘what’s in it for me’ approach; or exhibit the NIMBY attitude; or take the view that ‘I’m all for it so long as it won’t cost me’, as was the case with the ETS; or ask ‘who’s offering the most for me, my family, my community, my town, my state?’ The latter may be not unreasonable unless it runs contrary to the national interest. The MRRT is an example. If one can judge from voting patterns, it was only the min ing states that were vehemently opposed, and their opposition almost cost Labor government. Other states could see the advantage to the whole community if fairer taxes were levied from the mining sector – more revenue for infrastructure, as well as lower company tax and better superannuation. The mining states were persuaded that the threat of mine closures and consequent job losses, a story shouted in TV and newspaper ads, was more compelling to them than the national good.

The self-interest of individuals or groups can never be a satisfactory basis for political decision-making. Good governance demands that all the pros and cons of any policy be weighed and that decisions are made for the greater good, rather than in favour of the most powerful, the most well heeled, the most loquacious, the most heart-tugging advocates.

How can governments govern for all when pressured by overwhelming self-interest? How can governments establish priorities for funding when everyone wants everything for themselves and the devil take the rest?

Lobbyists and pressure groups
These exhibit the selfish electorate gene more flagrantly than do individuals. They represent a defined constituency and advocate on its behalf. They are not concerned with any other constituency or for that matter with the national good. They do not ask, ‘if I get all I want for my constituency, who will suffer, what other programs or initiatives will receive inadequate funding?’ For lobbyists representing commercial interests, it is understandable that they are unconcerned with the needs of others; they come from a ‘dog eat dog’ world. But with other groups within the same sector one might expect some concern about how their demands might impact on others. For example when the mental health lobby makes its compelling case for more funds, particularly for the young, no matter how laudable, does it reflect on how full funding of its request might affect funding for disability care, or for emergency care, or for hospital beds? If so, we hear none of it.

There is a more sinister aspect to pressure groups – the way they threaten politicians with electoral damage if their demands are not met. Two recent examples will suffice. The sector of the union movement pressing for equal pay for women, a laudable objective, threatened Julia Gillard with an electoral backlash from unions if she did not support equal pay. Despite her indicating that this was her goal but the current budgetary situation did not permit a rapid move to equal pay, the threat continued. The Christian lobby threatened Gillard with electoral pain from Christian groups if she personally supported same sex marriage; angry as they were that such a debate was on the agenda at all. Moreover, when a government is suspected of being weak, lobby groups feel they can use stand-over tactics to get their way.

The media
As if it is not enough for the Government to have to counter the disingenuousness of the Opposition and the falsehoods they spread with abandon, a large section of the media are complicit in spreading the deception, particularly News Limited outlets and especially The Australian, whose editor has declared that paper to be a conservative one, and has authorized or allowed countless condemnatory articles aimed at the Rudd/Gillard Governments.

If the media was evenhanded and challenged the veracity of the statements the Opposition makes in the same way it challenges the Government’s, what filtered to the public would at least be balanced and fair, and thereby give the electorate the chance to make up its mind on facts rather than fiction. But that is not the way the media operates. Even our ABC fails the test of balance. If you don’t accept this, read the transcripts of Lyndal Curtis’ interviews last week on AM with Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard: Abbott attacks 'do nothing' Government and Gillard trumpets broadband deal. Even the headlines paint the picture. Make up your own mind.

Megalogenis highlights the influence that talkback radio has had, not just on the listeners, but on the rest of the media, which he said felt it ‘had to shout like Alan Jones’. The influence of talkback is immense, and the politicians know it. Tony Abbott knows he can get a good run from the likes of Alan Jones with lots of Dorothy Dixers. He knows too that he can get surrogate support from Jones as he did over the charges laid by a female prosecutor against some Australian servicemen in Afghanistan. Jones used extravagant language to condemn her; Abbott felt he needed to say nothing because Jones was doing his condemnatory work for him.

How can the Government govern this country if disinformation is spread day after day by talkback radio as well as by much of the rest of the media? How can any government get the support it needs to govern effectively if the media is tearing it down incessantly as, for example The Australian did over the HIP, the BER, the Stimulus Program, and is now doing over the NBN? Has the media made Australia almost ungovernable? Megalogenis agrees that the media is making it harder for the Government to do its work. He insists it is not the journalists’ fault – they are swept along by the plethora of media and the 24-hour cycle that needs incessant feeding, and which he says ‘can create a lot of distraction, a lot of noise, and hound a politician out of a position previously taken, making it difficult for the Government to govern with authority’.

So can contemporary governments govern this country? It seems to be becoming harder and harder given the irresistible forces that bear down upon politicians and political parties. The distortions of the truth that are perpetuated by politicians and echoed by the media, the pressure groups that try to muscle the Government to move their way and threaten them if they don’t, the over reliance of political parties on focus groups and polls and their readiness to bend to their influence, the conflict that seems to exist between being courageous enough to take on and carry out tough reform, and saving political skin, and the selfish electorate gene that puts self-interest above the common good, have all contributed to a loss of potency of politicians to effect reform. Like George Megalogenis I fear we may be facing the end of the reform era unless the forces that have made this country less and less governable can be overcome and reversed. That is a big ask.

What do you think?