We are in a vast grandstand looking down on a match between traditional rivals. There are rusted on supporters for both teams who could never barrack for anyone else, and who urge their teams on and loudly abuse the other, no matter how well the opponents play; they can do no good. The umpires – the independents – get their share of abuse from the rusted on when they give decisions against their team. Then there are those who support neither team but have come along to see a good contest. They can swing to support one side or the other. Each spectator has his own ideas about what is fair play and what is foul and what ought to be done to win the game. These ideas are based on experience, entrenched attitudes and the moral imperatives they have grown to embrace.
Latter day football games are complex. There is much team planning, specialized coaching, selection of the fittest and the most talented, and carefully selected strategies to counter the strengths and exploit the weaknesses of the opponents. The team going down is subject to much advice and abuse, with blame being heaped upon selectors, coaches, all who have prepared the team, the captain, the leadership group, and on individual players. The grandstand is full of experts who would have done better had they been on the coaching staff or in the team itself. They are quick to condemn, quick to dismiss, quick to insist that the team/coach/staff have lost their football compass.
Football is a simple sport compared with politics, yet most of the ‘experts’ in the grandstand do not understand even its most modest complexities. Why did they do this or not do that when it was so obvious that was the ‘right’ thing to do? Why hasn’t the team had more goal-kicking practice? Why hasn’t the team had more wet weather experience? Why did they play three ruckmen or too few tall forwards? Whey did they play X because everyone can see he’s slowing up? Why did they play someone with a niggling injury – only a fool would risk that? And so on it goes. There is seldom any doubt expressed about the validity of their assertions, they feel no need to back them with facts; they just know they are right.
Since we are all familiar with grandstand experts, and because politics is portrayed as a sport, it is but a small conceptual step to perceive how spectators in the political grandstand believe they are experts who are entitled to voice opinions and make value judgements about the players. And the players believe they too are entitled to make judgements about their opponents, their own team and about those in between. They all have their own views formed out of their experience, background, a sense of what is right and wrong, and sadly in many instances out of expediency.
This piece builds on the last: Is your moral compass better than mine
, and attempts to tease out why there is so much diversity of opinion, which leads to much of the rancour and conflict in politics. This piece addresses what I believe are two of the central elements of political endeavour that contribute to that conflict – complexity and morality
. The complexity of politics
Perhaps the most important element of politics is complexity. Virtually almost everything that politicians have to manage is complex, multifacetted and nuanced. There are many layers of complexity, many factors that interact with each other in a cybernetic tangle that is almost impossible to unravel. Push here, and there is a reaction over there. Ignore this aspect and it will jump up to bite. Forget to consult here and all hell will break loose. Offend a section of the population and the polls will dip. Overlook an aspect no matter how minor and some expert will take you to task in a condescending manner. Fail to notify someone who considers himself important, and the snub becomes angrily public. Fail to consult widely enough before finalizing a plan and be labeled dictatorial; consult widely before finalizing it and be labeled as going off half-cocked. Keep it under wraps until the details are finalized, as many experts recommend, and be accused of making ‘secret deals’. No matter what steps are taken or not taken, opponents in the parliament and in the media can turn any one of them into a negative.
In medicine the problem of complexity looms every day. Very little is straightforward. Even comparatively innocuous complaints have an overlay that derives from the patient’s personality, genetics, past history and experience of illness, family and work environment, mental state, relationship with carers, geography, employment, and so on it goes. No two illnesses are the same because they are manifest in unique individuals. Perhaps the greatest challenge for doctors, especially generalists, is managing this complexity. It is so much easier to focus on just one or two aspects, as those in specialist practice are often able to do. Attempting to embrace the whole picture and the myriad of interacting factors is complex, demanding, time consuming and fraught. It is so in politics.
Those who are elected to govern have to take into account the inherent complexity of what they are attempting to achieve if they are to reach a solution that is effective and has wide appeal. In contrast, those who are in opposition can, and usually do ignore the complexities and go for the simple, even if meaningless three-word slogans, no matter how disingenuous they might be. We have seen this played out endlessly by Tony Abbott and his Coalition. So it ought not come as a surprise to anyone that it is infinitely easier to ‘cut through’ with simple negative slogans oft repeated, than it is to explain to a largely disinterested electorate afflicted with a diminishing attention span, the complexities of, for example, placing a price on carbon.
Yet the critics expect the Government to ‘cut through’ in a few words that capture the enormous complexities of its reforms, and seem not to understand how the Government can’t match Tony Abbott's simple mantras. This seems to escape many experienced journalists who see Abbott as better at communicating and more in touch with middle Australia, and therefore ‘winning’ what they like to portray as some sort of game, without acknowledging that he is playing an entirely different game – one of destroying the Government, while the Government is playing the game of building Australia’s future via a complex set of legislative reforms. The Government is trying to build an edifice; the Opposition is swinging a wrecking ball trying to knock down every brick, every wall the Government is so painstakingly building. That’s not a fair contest; but then is there anything fair in politics. But we ought to be able to expect our political commentators to see what’s going on and explain that to the electorate. The fact that most don’t can be put down to incompetence or malfeasance, or both.
To illustrate the complexity of politics, let’s take the asylum seeker issue
as a case in point. Consider these factors that condition politicians’ and people’s thinking: - Refugee advocates, the Greens (on whom the Government relies for its survival) and many in the electorate believe in an open-armed approach and community-based processing of claims for refugee status instead of detention until processing is complete, and reject any form of offshore processing, which they consider cruel and inhumane. - Many voters, particularly in Queensland, Western Australia and Western Sydney, do not want asylum seekers here at all, and polling suggests that were the Government to adopt an open, no detention, community-based processing approach, it would loose more seats in these places and lose Government. - There is support in the region for a regional solution of what is a regional refugee problem, not just one for Australia. Malaysia, New Guinea and Thailand have expressed interest. - A regional arrangement is being negotiated now with Malaysia, which seems ready to participate, but appear to be playing hardball, subject as it is to its own political imperatives. - As keeping negotiations with Malaysia secret was not an option, the announcement of the commencement of them was necessary before the final details could be available, leading to accusations of going off half-baked. - Eight hundred arrivals after the announcement date will be sent to Malaysia for processing, something strongly opposed by a majority in parliament and many in the electorate. - Unaccompanied minors, and asylum seekers who already have family granted refugee status, are to be included in those sent to Malaysia (although some individual exceptions seem possible), something about which there is even wider disagreement. - There is now a High Court challenge to removing two arrivals that have family in Australia, and there could be a legal challenge to the entire Malaysia arrangement. - The return of arrivals is designed to stop or markedly reduce the people smuggler trade, which most Australians seem to want stopped, even those sympathetic to asylum seekers. Most want to stop people getting on small, poorly serviced boats, thereby risking their lives. - Another aspect of the Malaysia arrangement (that gets little emphasis) is to take 4000 people already categorized as refugees by the UNHCR in Malaysia and re-settle them in Australia, thereby transforming their lives from detention to freedom. - The Opposition has run a campaign of disparagement of every move the Government has made to manage the issue of asylum seekers arriving by small boats, and sees only one remedy – transfer to Nauru and TPVs. - The MSM has been complicit in supporting the Opposition’s campaign of misinformation and deception.
This YouTube clip to advertise the program: Go back to where you come from
that is programmed for feature on SBS 1 on Tuesday 21 June at 8.30 pm and the following two nights, gives a short glimpse into the diverse attitudes of those who participated.
No doubt readers could list other aspects, as Feral Skeleton did so pointedly in her last post on the previous piece, but the above list is long enough to demonstrate the extraordinary complexity of just this one issue, complexity with which Government has to grapple and reach a resolution that solves the people smuggler problem, gives genuine refugees the refuge they seek, and satisfies all sectors of the population, something that is likely not possible, and places itself in a position where it is likely to achieve what all governments want – re-election.
Governments must take all the factors into account. Special pleading minorities have no need to do that – they simply pursue their narrow agenda without bothering to take into account the views of others. How could, for example, the Greens persuade those who are totally opposed to taking asylum seekers to adopt an open-armed approach? And if these opponents were in the majority and threatened to vote the Greens out, would they adapt their approach? Likewise, how would those who insist no asylum seekers are wanted here placate the Greens? My point is simply that those in power have to grapple with all the factors, and the way they interact with each other, while those on the sidelines of power insist on promoting their own idiosyncratic views, and expect others to follow.
The secret of success is compromise
, regarded by many as the art of politics. The Greens, not having been in Government, have still to learn this. As Patricia WA pointed out in a comment on a previous post, some Greens, despite their talent, lack this art. Without naming them, one exhibits “a 'holier than thou' attitude which permeates her whole demeanour, colours her language and lessens the impact of her message”
...another “has a similar intransigence of attitude but with a colder and more judgemental style”
, while still another seems unable to “get across the same message without preachiness or moral condemnation”
While some look down their noses at compromise as the refuge of the morally bankrupt, without a degree of it, stalemate results and nothing happens. We saw this when the Greens refused to compromise on the initial CPRS. They still argue it was for them a bridge too far, but the result was nothing at all, and the present struggle to introduce a price on carbon one of the outcomes. It takes strong leadership to compromise. One definition Wikipedia
gives for effective leadership “…is the ability to successfully integrate and maximize available resources within the internal and external environment for the attainment of organizational or societal goals."
Note: “successfully integrate and maximize available resources”
and “within the internal and external environment”
, in this instance the political, social and economic environment, and “for the attainment of organizational or societal goals."
Doesn’t that fit the political scene accurately?
Commentators insist that what is needed is ‘leadership’ or more stridently ‘strong and courageous leadership’, assuming as they do that we all have the same understanding of the meaning of the word. ‘Leadership’ is a linguistic label a bit like ‘moral compass’, fine sounding but variously understood. To me an essential element of leadership is the capacity to engender collaboration, which so often requires compromise. Of course there’s more to it than that – having a vision of a finer future, creating a narrative for that vision and a plan to acomplish it, and working tirelessly, determinedly and courageously to achieve it. But compromise is nearly always an essential ingredient of the latter. In summary, politics is beset with great complexity, which those in government have to unravel so they can address the numerous interacting factors.
Opponents are able simply to focus on the one factor or two they choose to make their case, which is thereby distorted. As there is no one perfect solution to any issue, those in power have to compromise. Those who are in opposition generally choose not to. Compromise and engendering collaboration requires courageous and determined leadership.
The ‘experts’ in the media grandstand pontificate on matters political as if problems were simple, solutions easy to define, and the way forward obvious. We saw a classic example of this on Insiders
this week, where Piers Akerman, Fran Kelly and Malcolm Farr pontificated on the past and current state of Federal Labor politics despite Barrie Cassidy’s best efforts to challenge their unsupported assertions. They were, like the football crowd in the grandstand, all knowing, all prescient, omnipotent in their opinions, and certain of their position. If you need convincing of that take a look Insiders
: and particularly at One year in for Gillard
and Government struggling in parliament
and Gillard ‘running away’ from problems
is simply a vignette that reflects almost the entire media scene, with just a few notable exceptions. This is what is dished up day after day as expert opinion for a gullible public to swallow. It’s shameful, but with the Murdoch media at least, seemingly unstoppable.
Margaret Simons of Crikey
is right: "What the media should do, is stop being 'Insiders'."
Next let’s consider the moral issues that beset politics
. Morality in politics
This is the issue of what is right and wrong, the moral imperative. This was canvassed in the last piece: Is your moral compass better than mine?
Morality can be ‘descriptive’
– “describing morality in this way is not making a claim about what is objectively right or wrong, but only referring to what is considered right or wrong by an individual or some group of people”.
Or morality can be said to be ‘normative’
– describing “what is right and wrong, regardless of what specific individuals think.” (Wikipedia)
It seems as if we expect our politicians to operate in a ‘normative’ way where morality is absolute (according to our standards, whatever they are), and chastise them when they act in a ‘descriptive’ way where right and wrong is conditioned or moderated by an external group of people, namely the stakeholders or the electorate. It seems the latter often applies and politicians get caned for going that way.
On the last piece janice said: “When people use phrases such as 'lost his/her/their moral compass' they should be challenged as to their definition of such a phrase and to give examples of where the accused has ‘lost’ it… The word ‘morals’ has a wide-ranging meaning that changes according to the context in which it is used. Its synonyms are many, including: dutiful, ethical, excellent, faithful, good, honest, just and pious. Add ‘compass’ to the word, we then have a broad meaning of the direction in which society (or government, religious groups, people generally) should be, or are, moving.”
Because politicians come from different ideological, religious and philosophical positions, their moral compasses point in different directions. The True North of one may be in a place different from that of others. Talk Turkey asserts that it is the Pole, (the True North), rather than the compass that has been lost. It’s the direction of the Pole that is in dispute. So to accuse a politician of having ‘lost his or her moral compass’ is to imply that he or she knows where True North is but has abandoned moving towards it, or that the politician’s True North is not True at all because it is in a place different from that of the accuser’s. Talk Turkey suggests we could do worse than adopt the universal maxim: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Individuals assume that their moral compass is calibrated toward Truth, towards what is right and proper, and that those who disagree with them have lost their way, their moral compass. NormanK says: “Any attempt to say that Australia and Australians have a universally agreed set of morals is as silly as trying to say that Australia has a culture that can be defined. Any attempt to define what Australia's mainstream moral compass is comprised of, would be firstly subjective and ultimately inaccurate because it is so mercurial.”
D Mick Weir says: “Can a country have a moral compass? I would hope so, and it would be enshrined in its constitution. I haven't dusted off my copy but I suggest that Australia's Constitution is a bit lacking in moral guidance.”
2353 says: “Isn't ‘losing your moral compass’ really shorthand for ‘I think you have taken the wrong action on this particular occasion - not for any practical reason but rather the action offends MY morals’?”
The uncertainty about what is and is not moral is a major source of disagreement and misunderstanding among politicians, and between them and the public. National leaders, who must take decisions for the good of the nation rather than for sectional interests, understand this moral dilemma only too well.
Let’s use the climate change issue
to illustrate just some of the numerous ‘moralities’ that the players embrace. - There are those who believe that global warming is a myth and that weather patterns are no different to what they have always been. These deniers, some high profile, travel the world advocating their position. Some even believe that those who insist the planet is warming and that radical action must be taken to reduce carbon pollution are part of an international conspiracy to de-industrialize the world, and thereby bring ruin and distress to the world’s people. To these people the advocates of action on global warming are immoral. - There are those who believe that the reality of global warming has been so well established by thousands of climate scientists that to not take action is immoral; to leave a seriously damaged planet for future generations is even more immoral.
Whose morality is right? Whose compass is pointing to True North? Each group points to itself. - The Government, backed by economists and scientists, insists that a price on carbon followed by a market-based trading scheme is quite the best way to go and is pursuing this. It believes to not do so would be immoral. - The Opposition disagrees and predicts that a ‘carbon tax’ will bring ruin to many industries, throw countless thousands out of work and create ghost towns. It believes to do this would be immoral.
Whose morality is right? Whose compass is pointing to True North? Each group points to itself. - Although almost no scientists or economists support it, the Coalition believes its Direct Action Plan will achieve the emission targets, and that any more radical action is unnecessary and damaging. It does not tell the people that the plan requires the use of taxpayers’ money to persuade the polluters to reduce pollution. - The Government believes that the DAP is grossly inadequate, will not be effective, and will cost much more than the Government plan.
So whose moral compass is pointing to True North? Each believes the other’s compass does not. - The Government believes that while it is morally wrong to overcompensate the polluters it is equally so to allow industries to perish with inadequate compensation. - The Greens are opposed to compensation on principle, but concede some is necessary. - The Opposition considers any carbon tax is immoral and ruinous. - The miners and manufacturers insist on liberal compensation, predicting doom if they are not assuaged.
Whose moral compass is accurate?
I could further illustrate the great diversity of moral opinion in our community by referring to the angry weekend rallies of animal rights supporters insisting that the live cattle export trade must cease completely and permanently on the grounds of animal cruelty, while cattlemen and their supporters protest that such action would cause unemployment, especially among indigenous people, financial loss, bankruptcy and bring ruin to the cattle industry in the north.
Whose morality is ‘right’?
This piece is already long enough, but I hope sufficient to convince you that making decisions on vexed issues is highly problematic, beset as it is with extreme complexity, the need for compromise, courageous and determined leadership and most of all a sense of direction towards True North and a sound compass to guide to that destination.
Those who sit in the grandstand and purport to be experts who know what ought to be done, whether in the Fourth Estate, the Fifth Estate, in political parties, or among the throng of voters out there, should pause, contemplate the complexity and the morality of each issue, and think before pontificating. Like spectators at the football, it might be, just might be that they are not the experts they think they are.
What do you think?