Here we are again – looking for the elusive overarching narrative, or as Paul Keating describes it in his latest book After Words
: ‘an overarching and compelling story’. What is it about this concept that for so many defies description? Is it simply blindness among commentators who seem unable or unwilling to see what is obvious to others? Is it colour blindness that insists the Government must have an overarching narrative, but seldom asks what it is for the alternative government, which we are regularly told is just a heartbeat away from election? Is it media short sightedness with its focus on the here and now, the immediate dramatic story, the entertaining twist, the contemporary conflict, which blurs the distant scene and dims its vision of a changing and different future?
Is the overarching narrative a rainbow? There in its vivid colour after a spring shower, one foot so close to the water’s edge that one could almost touch it, with its exquisitely symmetric arch stretching across the water to the distant shore. It is at first vibrantly visible, yet in an instant it is gone, no longer visible, a transient image. It seems to me that while so many ask the ‘narrative’ question, few look for an answer. Commentators continue to ask: “What does Labor (or he/she) stand for”, which is code for “What is the narrative?” Yet for those who look, it is there, and has been ever since Labor took office.
It is not an evanescent rainbow. It is real and permanent. Kevin Rudd spelt it out and Julia Gillard has done so over and again. Some may not like the narrative, or find it confusing or incomplete, but it is
there. Richo, who has sold his Labor soul for ten pieces of silver, once more asked ‘the question’ on Monday’s Q&A
, but he is so blind to the answer that his question has become a mantra rather than a serious quest. Paul Kelly too enjoys the ‘where’s the narrative’ entreaty, and returns to it again and again.
When someone as erudite and articulate as Paul Keating asks the question though, we need to sit up and take notice. I have not yet acquired a copy of his book, but look forward to reading it from cover to cover. Keating is man of broad vision. He sees the whole picture, the distant view. His quest for ‘an overarching and compelling story’ seems to be a search for creativity. The 22-23 October issue of The Weekend Australian
published the introduction to his book. Here is some of it – enough to give a taste of his ideas. “Friedrich Schiller, the German philosopher, said: "If man is ever to solve the problems of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through beauty that man makes his way to freedom." “Romantic and idealistic as that view may seem to some, the thought is revelatory of the fact that the greater part of human aspiration has been informed by individual intuition and privately generated passions, more than it has through logic or scientific revelation. The moral basis of our public life, our social organisation, has come from within us - by aspiration and by light, not by some process of logical deduction. “Immanuel Kant referred to our inner impulses as "the higher self", an unconscious search for truth, going deeply into ourselves to establish who we are and what we should be. “Beauty is about the quest for perfection or an ideal, and that quest has to begin with aesthetic imagination - something informed by conscience, carved by duty. Kant called it "the inner command", the ethical construct one creates to guide one from within. “But we need tools to mine good intentions: inspirations, ones which await the creative spark, the source of all enlargement. Creativity is central to our progress and to all human endeavour.”
Keating then reveals his source of inspiration: “Music provides the clue: unlike other forms of art, music is not representational. Unlike the outcome of the sciences, it was never discoverable or awaiting discovery. A Mahler symphony did not exist before Mahler created it.”
But Keating does not eschew reason: “This is not to turn our back on reason. Or to argue that modernism, with all its secular progress through education, industrialisation, communications, transport and the centralised state, has not spectacularly endowed the world as no other movement before it. But a void exists between the drum-roll of mechanisation with its cumulative power of science and the haphazard, explosive power of creativity and passion. Science is forever trying to undress nature while the artistic impulse is to be wrapped in it. “While these approaches are different - perhaps often diametrically opposite - they inform related strands of thinking in ways that promote energy and vision. This is what I have found when these forces are contemplated in tandem. When passion and reason vie with each other, the emerging inspiration is invariably deeper and of an altogether higher form. One is able to knit between them, bringing into existence an overarching unity - a coherence - which fidelity to the individual strands cannot provide. “In the world I have lived in, the world of politics, political economy and internationalism, the literature exists in abundance. But what is far from abundant are the frameworks for the intuitive resolution of complex problems that require multi-dimensional solutions. “But from where do we glean this extra dimensionality? “For me, it has always been from two sources: policy ambition in its own right and from imagination - the dreaming. Policy ambition arising from Kant's higher self, and imagination promoted by those reliable wellsprings - music, poetry, art and architecture - blending the whole into a creative flux.”
With Keating’s words resonating through our consciousness, let’s look back a little before searching again for that elusive narrative. A recurrent theme on The Political Sword
has been the search for ‘the narrative’ that delineates the Government, that describes its intent, and that sets down the criteria by which it wishes to be judged. The first article on this subject was posted on September 14, 2008, the day after The Political Sword began: In search of the political Holy Grail – the Rudd Government narrative
. See, even way back then ‘the narrative’ was obsessing commentators, even if the general public didn’t give a tinker’s curse. That piece attempted to define ‘narrative’. I enjoyed re-reading it. It reminded me that nothing has changed during these last three years – ‘narrative’ is still the journalist’s hobbyhorse. Here is one quote from that piece: “The vogue word in journalism for groupthink is ‘narrative’. A bunch of reporters and editors read one another's dispatches, talk at events and on planes, and come to a rough consensus about where things stand and what's important…”
That becomes ‘the narrative’ or the lack of it.
The piece quotes an article by Nick Dyrenfurth, a political historian at Monash University, in The Weekend Australian
back in 2008 on September 6-7: Telling it like we’d prefer it
. Dyrenfurth gives as good an account of the concept of political narrative as I have read. He says: “The narrative is a political buzzword. In the past month, former Prime Minister Paul Keating and commentator Paul Kelly have each taken Kevin Rudd’s Government to task for its lack of ‘an overarching narrative’, a coherent story of its policy direction that explains its imperatives. During the 2007 election, John Howard was routinely accused of possessing no narrative or agenda for his government’s fifth term. The politically youthful Rudd by contrast, was machine-like in conveying his dual campaign narrative of working families under threat from rising costs of living and Work Choices and a more optimistic vision by which he came to symbolize the nation’s future.”
Has anything changed since then? We seem to be on a merry-go-round. An attempt was made in that piece to describe the Rudd Government narrative – it warrants re-reading.
Subsequently, at regular intervals there have been TPS
pieces on ‘the narrative’ or its alter ego, ‘what does he/she stand for’. In August 2010 there was The enigma of leadership
; then in November What does Julia Gillard stand for?
; and in June 2011 What Julia Gillard DOES stand for
. Again, In August there was What is political leadership? Do you know?
that addressed the issue of vision, an important attribute for a leader, and of course the old chestnut – ‘narrative’. Then as recently as this September there was: Is Julia Gillard entitled to a fair go?
that again addressed vision and narrative.
Why this recurrent theme? Is there really no narrative at all, or no coherent ’overarching’ narrative? Or are journalists simply dismally failing to see, or refusing to see, the actual narrative that drives the Gillard Government? Perhaps it is too complex for them to understand and analyse; maybe its elements are so scattered across a multiplicity of announcements and speeches that journalists find them too arduous to dissect and synthesize into a coherent whole. So why don’t they go to the ALP website and read Making a Difference
. It’s all there. There is a well-constructed attachment
anyone can download that spells out in detail the Government’s vision, its plans, its actions and its achievements. Even a high school student could understand it. Why can’t or won’t journalists? Do
glance through it and ask yourself why journalists don’t or won’t.
In my opinion, many, maybe most MSM journalists, prefer their own ‘narrative’ or should I say their much-repeated mantras: ‘What is the Government’s narrative’? or ‘The Government needs an overarching narrative’ or ‘What does the Government stand for?’ That is easier than informing the public about what the narrative actually is. They have ample explanatory resources at their disposal. It leads me to conclude that these journalists, many of whom work for News Limited, are either lazy, incompetent or malevolent – determined not to describe this Government’s vision, and all it has planned, or has in train, or has already completed. That would paint it as a reforming government, already with many accomplishments. The picture they prefer to portray is a bumbling, error-prone, incompetent, directionless outfit, devoid of vision, with no narrative, and unfit to govern.
So expect to hear more of ‘What is the Government’s overarching narrative?’ But don’t ever expect journalists to spell out what narrative they are seeking, or one that might be acceptable to them. After all, that’s not their job, and we know they are incapable of doing it anyway.
Let’s continue by returning to Paul Keating’s words. At least they make sense and point to another dimension to the ’overarching narrative’. As we have only a snippet of his book, this appraisal must of necessity be somewhat superficial, but even a glimpse of what he’s driving at gives worthwhile insight. When I have my hands on his book, a more detailed account of his ideas will be prepared for you.
Harking back to the halcyon days of the Hawke/Keating reforms, there was a sense of transition. This quote from Wikipedia
portrays those transitions: “Keating was one of the driving forces behind the various microeconomic reforms of the Hawke government. The Hawke/Keating governments of 1983–1996 pursued economic policies and restructuring such as floating the Australian dollar in 1983, reducing tariffs on imports, taxation reforms, moving from centralised wage-fixing to enterprise bargaining, privatisation of publicly-owned companies such as Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank, and deregulation of the banking system. Keating was instrumental in the introduction of the Prices and Incomes Accord, an agreement between the ACTU and the government to negotiate wages.”
Keating wants to see more of the vision of transition in the Labor Government’s ‘compelling overarching story’. Here is what he said to Paul Kelly: "I'm happy that Labor took us through this dreadful financial crisis so competently. But they are not in the business of teaching. And governments, to succeed with change, must be in the business of educating the community. "Our Labor governments have failed to conceptualise the changes. We need a framework. "What is the framework? It is 'Australia in Transition' strategically and economically. That's the story we have to present. "I think the Australian people are very conscientious. During the 1980s and 1990s we proved they will respond conscientiously to necessary reforms. They mightn't like them but they'll accept them. But reforms have to be presented in a digestible format. "I know that in the age of the Internet, opinion and perpetual static it is difficult to get the message over. I accept that. But the big messages have their own momentum. If we get the story of transition right then other things will find their place. "Our problem is what I call shooting-star policies. We have a policy on carbon pricing, on minerals, on boatpeople, but they are not connected up to the big picture about Australia's direction and its transition."… "Labor must recognise what it has created," he says, invoking the Hawke-Keating era. "It has a created a new society and it has to be the party of the new society. "It can't be the party of part of the old society. Labor must be the party of those people who gained from the pro-market growth economy that we created. Labor must be open to the influences of this middle class, to people on higher incomes. And I don't think it is."
What Keating says makes sense, but has he overlooked some of the transitory statements that Labor has already made?
Has Julia Gillard not repeatedly talked about the transition of this nation from a fossil fuel dependent economy to a green energy one that uses solar, wind, wave and geothermal resources? Have you not heard her speak of the transition from dependence on coal to the use of natural gas, now being explored in massive projects in WA? Have you heard her talk about the transition from traditional manufacturing dependent on coal-based cheap energy to the manufacturing of energy-saving green products to feed the renewables industry? She has regularly warned industry that it must transition to meet contemporary conditions and future needs and that Government will assist in the transition from the patchwork economy to a more sustainable one of high productivity where all have jobs. The ALP website says: “Our economy in 2011 is in transition and we want to make sure the opportunities of the mining boom are shared by all Australians.”
How many have not heard her talk of the urgent need for transition from a society indifferent to increasing carbon pollution, its consequence global warming and its dire affects on our planet, to one where emissions are capped and penalised, and thereby driven down by a price on carbon and an ETS?
Have you heard her speaking about the transition of our trading pattern from one traditionally with Europe and the US to one more focused on our region and particularly with China and India? I have.
Has anyone missed the transition that PM Gillard has in mind for a regional solution for managing irregular arrivals to replace the existing arrangement where each nation does its own thing in isolation?
Have you heard her talk of the transition from a health system bedeviled by buck passing to a more collaborative arrangement with the Federal Government assuming more fiscal responsibility, the transition from centralized control of hospitals to control by local bodies, and the transition from a hospital centered system to one built upon primary care, prevention and better mental health services? I have.
Have we not heard her talk about the need for transition in the school system from the relatively closed system dominated by teacher unions to one of greater transparency where parents can gain information about the schools their children attend through the MySchool website, and about their children’s performance in the National Curriculum via NAPLAN, and about the additional funding for disadvantaged schools and teacher training?
Who has missed her promise to transform telecommunication infrastructure, which needs to transition from the slow speeds currently endured to efficiency-transforming high speed broadband?
Who has not heard about the Government’s plan for transition in the regions from the threat of slow decay to a prosperous future via the NBN, better water management, $10 billion of additional resources, and more regional infrastructure and health services?
Who has not heard her talk of the transition in the mining industry from one where inadequate rent is charged for minerals to one where a proper rent via the MRRT can extend superannuation, lower company tax and simplify taxation?
Who has missed the reforms proposed to transform the tax and transfer system?
How could anyone have been unaware of the transition from the restrictive IR arrangements of the Howard Government to the more liberal worker-friendly Fair Work Australia?
One could go on and on but instead I invite you again to read the whole of the attachment to Making a Difference
. It beats me how anyone with any degree of fairness could label the Gillard Government as ‘do nothing’ when it is doing so much, and how Paul Keating can complain about the lack of an overarching narrative that bespeaks the transition that is taking place in so many parts of our national endeavour. The actual word ‘transition’ does not appear much in Making a Difference
, but the whole document portrays transition, transition, transition.
I hope that in his book Keating spells out just how he believes the Gillard Government should ‘teach’ the electorate how it is preparing this nation for, and managing the transition in which it is immersed right now. I want to read more about how creativity and the arts, how beauty can be brought to bear on the process of transition, how ‘policy ambition arising from Kant's higher self, and imagination promoted by those reliable wellsprings - music, poetry, art and architecture – can blend the whole into a creative flux.’
The Gillard Government does have a clearly articulated ‘overarching and compelling story’. Many of us can see its narrative, but according to Keating many can’t, and of course many won’t because they don’t want to.
So it’s up to us to tell the world. ‘The Finnigans’ do this regularly on Poll Bludger
. Take a look. I defy the skeptics to say this Government is doing nothing.
What can we do on The Political Sword
? Why don’t we keep a similar running tab on this Government’s progress and accomplishments, and publicize loudly every good move it makes? In this way we may quieten the recurrent call for the elusive ‘overarching narrative’, which to so many seems like a rainbow – here one moment, gone the next.
What do you think?