Politics, memory and the good society
I don’t know about you, but 2012 seems a lifetime ago. Certainly more than four years ago.
Maybe, in my world at least, it is because we have had four prime ministers, (effectively) three governments, and two federal elections in that time, not to mention innumerable changes of senior cabinet ministers and public servants.
Maybe, in my world, it is because the world has sped up since 2012 and we – meaning the media- are all required to absorb and write ‘news’ and ‘commentary’ in such fast turnaround times that there is no longer any continuity in stories.
They are all more or less self-contained episodes which don’t necessarily link up with what has already happened.
But in that lifetime ago, in 2012, I wrote the first of two Quarterly Essays which have reflected, and also framed, much of my thinking about the way Australia is governed, and about how we as a polity conduct our affairs.
In my remarks tonight, I’m going to draw on come of the central elements of the two essays to reflect on the first year of the Turnbull government and on where we find ourselves as 2016 ends.
Malcolm Turnbull’s ascension to the prime ministership was greeted with a great wave of optimism that, after the instability of the Rudd-Gillard years, and the alarm about we had elected in the Abbott Government, there may finally be an end to voters’ sense of uncertainty about government, a return to stability in politics and governance and a more grown up discussion about where the country should be headed.
Overwhelmingly, the retrospectives on Turnbull’s first twelve months in office focused on a sense of disappointment with the prime minister. The broad assessment is that he has done little, has dithered too much, and is a captive of the conservatives in his party.
But I’d like to unpack the government slightly differently to have a little less Malcolm and a little more focus on the dynamics abroad in our politics.
First let’s reflect on the arguments of my two essays.
Well, there’s a good title for a book you might think. And indeed I stole it from Charles Dickens for my 2012 essay.
My version of Great Expectations, though, had a somewhat wordy subtitle: government, entitlement and an angry nation.
Its central thesis was that much of our modern anger – certainly about politics – comes from our confused expectations about the role of government. These expectations, I argue, have been growing over the years, even as the role of government has been diminishing.
Our current “shouty” politics follow two momentous shifts in our relationship with government in the past couple of decades.
The first of these shifts was the process of deregulating the economy in the 1980s and the 1990s.
The second came with the election of John Howard in 1996.
Paul Kelly defined the way we see the 1980s and 1990s in The End of Certainty, arguing the great era of deregulation dismantled the pillars of the Australian settlement implicitly or explicitly agreed at the time of federation: White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence.
But the pillar of the settlement we don’t hear quite so much about is faith in government authority, or state paternalism.
The idea of state paternalism has been embedded since our convict forefathers expected Governor Phillip to fix the small problem of starvation rather than do anything about it themselves.
More than the other pillars, it is an implicit idea, buried in policy and politics – not explicitly stated in the way that the commitment to a working wage or to the ANZUS alliance have been.
Perhaps for this reason, state paternalism has not been dismantled, or even identified and exposed to analysis, in the way the other parts of the settlement were.
The capacity of governments to intervene on our behalf, to protect us, was reduced by the dismantling of regulation in the ’80s and ’90s, yet we have largely ploughed on, expecting governments to act as they did in a world where they had many levers of economic control, which have now disappeared.
Do we Australians understand that government no longer has the control of things it once did? That governments no longer control wages, or house prices, or the prices of other goods, or the flow of capital in and out of the country or the exchange rate?
State paternalism is what politicians do. It is a hard habit to break.
So the second shift in our expectations came with the Howard Government.
John Howard confused things- just as we were settling in to a regime of less government, less paternalism – by actually suggesting to voters that governments could make things better…which was pretty ironic given he was supposed to be the bastion of small government.
Financed by the biggest resources boom in our history, Howard helped paste over the diminished historical levers that governments had been able to pull in the past by handing over huge largesse to individual taxpayers in the form of tax cuts and middle class welfare in a way which made the apparent role of government in our lives seem all the more munificent.
Such good times were never going to last and, whatever their particular flaws, all the subsequent politicians and prime ministers have found themselves without either the ongoing, big levers of control or the money.
Have they realized that’s what has been going on? I argued in 2012 that not even politicians had thought through the consequences of deregulation on they way they practice their profession.
Our post-deregulation politics has been dominated by politicians either not realizing, or reluctant to admit, that one implication of opening up the economy – of smashing those pillars that Paul Kelly spoke of – is that they don’t have quite as much capacity to influence events as they once did.
Consider how much space is devoted to discussing the impact of the 24 hour news cycle and politics grip on the political debate, yet how little observation there is on the fact that, for example, in the housing affordability debate, governments used to control how much money banks could lend individual customers for housing, and what interest rate could be charged, but now they don’t.
There has also been a shift in the institutions that run many of our services from public to private. But our view of politics has also failed to keep up with the implications of this shift from public to private.
So that was the nub of the argument in 2012. And I would ask you to hold those thoughts as we switch to 2015 and the second Quarterly Essay.
This was called Political Amnesia : How we forgot to govern.
I quoted Tacitus at the beginning of the essay – which of course made it sound very fancy and learned but was actually just a coincidence of timing: I was writing the essay at the same time my daughter was reading for an ancient history assignment.
But I quoted Tacitus because he has a killer line about the people of Rome coming to terms with the rise of Augustus Caesar and the transition of Rome from a Republic to an Empire.
Tacitus speaks of how, as Caesar gradually accumulated power, and bought off the Senate, and the Army, and the Populace with Cheap Corn and ‘the sweets of repose’, people gradually decided it was better, and certainly safer, not to remember the ‘Dangerous Past’.
And of course there is a great irony here. Tacitus talks of how the people of Rome chose to forget the Republic, yet its history is part of the conscious or unconscious understanding and context for all that has happened since.
Our first response to an unfolding political event is often to go to our wardrobe of memories and see whether we can clothe the new incident in one of the dramas of the past, or see how it fits into the pattern of our recollections.
My essay explored how and why we now seem to forget the context in which policy discussions – and political events occur- as well as the dangers of hazy memories, and the implications of that amnesia.
It is about the collapse of the institutions that once formed a safe archive of these memories- particularly the parliament, the public service and the media -,and provided the framework in which issues of the days were considered.
Now, having written these two essays, and considered their subject matter at some length, it is hard not to see unfolding political events within the framework I established.
And Malcolm Turnbull and his government are providing rich pickings.
There is an almost too obvious point about Malcolm Turnbull and expectations.
That is, that he came into office last year carrying the immense expectations of the nation upon him. Every one including the notorious pet shop galah, can tell you how disappointed those expectations have been. Everyone can tell you what the Turnbull Government hasn’t done on tax reform, budget repair, climate change or same sex marriage
But that would indeed be too obvious a point to make, keeping in mind that the idea behind my first essay was not about political expectations per se but about the disconnect between the diminishing capacity of government to control events yet the continuing, or even increasing, expectation of voters that they can.
How do we marry this need to take into account expectations of particular political leaders and this question of our expectations of the role of government more broadly?
What can we say about the Turnbull government is this context?
Much of the whole post Keating and Howard period, I believe, has been driven by a couple of things that I believe have happened to CHANGE? our expectations. And I think this is also where we get in to the territory of my second essay on the collapse of memory in politics
Both the Hawke-Keating and Howard governments had very strong internal rationales for existence, and clearly defined ambitions for the country, which seemed to have their roots in our recent history.
Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull I think have all not had such coherence.
I’m talking about more than an agenda here. I’m talking about, dare one say, a narrative that has some continuity back into the past.
Hawke, Keating and Howard were all prime ministers whose time in public life was long and steeped in events of the previous decades. What had gone before was something they had lived and shaped and, now, were often seeking to overturn.
But our last four prime ministers have struggled to find an authentic way of telling their story and framing what it is that government is seeking to do for voters or the country.
Maybe that is partly because they have been presiding over times when things have been rapidly changing, but not overwhelmingly at the behest of the government of the day.
The Hawke and Keating governments oversaw dramatic change in the economy . Yes, those changes removed many of the levers that their successors would have available to them to influence the Australian economy and, through it, Australian society. But even removing those levers involved a capacity to influence and change things.
The Howard Government was still on that continuum and was blessed with economic luck and a range of social issues where it was able to give the impression of being in control or seeking to control our destiny.
I’m thinking border security and national security in particular here.
The Rudd and Gillard governments began with ambitious agendas for institutional change which would have reasserted the role of the state in areas like education and health.
But they found themselves pressing up against the constraints of areas of state power. And they found themselves pressing up against the global financial crisis.
The Abbott Government, by contrast, was a government of the negative. It was a rejection of this renewed assertion of what government could do for you.
The Abbott Government was built on a grand circle of negative expectations –of not being Labor, of not being Julia Gillard, of not being minority government – which sort of collapsed in on itself when the electorate found there wasn’t anything else there either, other than a mish mash of delusion that things could simply shift back to the good old days of the Howard era, and of an alarming swing to the right which was beyond where most voters were happy to be.
This brought us to disappointing Malcolm Turnbull.
Just why is he so disappointing and what were those massive expectations about what he would achieve actually built upon?
An old friend observed recently that he really didn’t understand why everyone was so shocked that Malcolm Turnbull wasn’t very good at politics because, after all, he’d been terrible at it when he had last been Liberal leader.
And he does have a bit of a point.
Yet Turnbull’s return to the top job was a fascinating study in expectations right from the beginning. Why was his previous history as leader so discounted? Why did voters think they knew what he stood for so well?
I have written before of how people would ask me within weeks of Abbott coming to power: ‘when is Malcolm coming back?’
This wasn’t just average voters who had never liked Abbott in the first place. It was often senior business figures trying to make a pragmatic judgment about the political environment in which they would invest.
And it was a question asked before the political incompetence of Abbott who, after all, as opposition leader had been politically lethal, had been exposed.
It was not a question based on ‘inside knowledge’ of the workings of the Liberal Party
For Turnbull’s party room colleagues were adamantly against it. They didn’t like his management style and they didn’t like his policies.
Tony Abbott’s decline was a spectacle that was almost beyond belief, in the sense of it being such a series of utterly unforced errors.
But during those two and a bit years when Abbott reinged, Turnbull had changed his management style – and to his credit that has stuck as prime minister – and he dropped some of his previous policies.
That was the deal he made with his colleagues and that deal was on the public record
The deal was about climate change and same sex marriage and the budget. Yet even when it emerged within days, even hours of the change of PM, voters continued to ‘believe’ that he would somehow do something very different
For many voters the appeal of Turnbull was that he would return politics to the centre, and these issues had become the yardsticks by which the swing of the pendulum was measured.
But the return of Turnbull was not just supposed to be about bringing the ideological pendulum back to the middle.
It was also supposed to be about re-establishing a sense that the government was being run competently and getting things done.
And Turnbull has disappointed many people because nothing much seems to have happened
Both his failure to appear to swing the pendulum, and his failure to appear to make things happen, have created a dangerous new expectation which I call the expectation of disappointment.
That is, the way that almost everything Turnbull does now is framed as a confirmation (or not) that he has been weak, or not done anything, or is at the mercy of his conservative colleagues.
The idea that he – and let’s bring in people who get rather forgotten in these days of presidential politics, the cabinet and the rest of the government – may have simply made the sort of pragmatic political or policy decisions that governments have been making since time immemorial rarely features.
Examples of this in the last week or two would be the backpackers tax and the response to the blackout which followed storms in South Australia
The backpackers tax was seen almost purely as a cave in to the Nationals.
Well, it is true that the Nationals got what they wanted.
But it is also true that the changed regime the government announced was a better suite of policies to achieve the goal at hand than what had originally been suggested. And, given that the policies seemed to have been written on the back of submissions from the affected stakeholders, you could just as easily argue that they were a cave in to stakeholders as to the Nationals.
The political storm around the government’s response to the real storm in South Australia last week was much more violent, and a much more violent assertion that Malcolm Turnbull was a captive of his party’s conservatives.
Barnaby Joyce emerged early to say the blackout was all the fault of renewable energy – and thus set up the expectations that the government was going to exploit the storm to mount an attack on renewables.
The prime minister’s subsequent comments – and the way they were reported – seemed to endorse that view.
People will tell you that, yes, he blamed the storm for the blackouts but then said “but” and attacked renewables.
And this is where I think we have to start being very careful with how we interpret events, and how we understand Malcolm Turnbull. And I think this brings us back to the whole issue of the expectations we had of him in the first place.
As my friend observed, Malcolm Turnbull isn’t very good at politics.
And, yes, we all knew his position on climate change, and on the Republic. But I think people have dressed him up as a politician of the centre who is driven by a coherent ideological base much more than he is in reality.
Remember that one of the other criticisms of Turnbull is that he doesn’t actually have an agenda.
I think the reality of the prime minister, which we don’t really see very much in the way he is portrayed, is that he is not particularly ideological. After recent years, you could think this was not an all bad thing.
But it also leaves him vulnerable to both sides of politics painting him in their ideological colours. And he does not have the political skills to be able to resist these characterisations and make a forceful assertion for what he is trying achieve.
Turnbull, in my observation, is, and sees himself, primarily as a problem solver. He likes to go in to the Arrium steel plant, for example, and understand how it works and how its business model is structured. He doesn’t go in there with some overarching view of the future of manufacturing, or how fixing the Arrium plant might work in the local electorates as front of mind.
In the case of the South Australian storm, his lack of political acumen meant that when he was asked a question about whether the blackouts in South Australia were a result of its heavy reliance on renewable energy he said 1. No, it was a storm event and then 2. Reflected on the nature of renewable energy. And then, 3. (and this is where he ran in to trouble) he talked about states with unrealistic and ideological renewable energy goals.
Now, the presumption that this was an attack on renewable energy might have been reasonable. But I don’t think it is what was going on here at all.
Unfortunately, the political environment has become so feral now that, when you try to explain this, you are attacked for being a Turnbull apologist.
But in fact there is a really complex series of ideas here. And they are absolutely crystal clear examples of how Turnbull works and, getting back to the underlying theme here tonight, examples of both how are expectations work on perceptions, and of how his government in actuality, as opposed to perception, operates.
When the prime minister was talking about renewables and energy security, he wasn’t doing so to launch an attack on renewables to appease the right of his party.
The dangerous issue for South Australia in the wake of the storm, as he saw it, was energy security. That is, businesses and households having confidence that they could rely on the energy supply.
This is no small thing in a state trying to rebuild itself as a manufacturing hub. The debate about energy security was already raging in South Australia because of a couple of earlier episodes when prices had spiked when the wind stopped blowing on particularly cloudy days.
And there is also a broader energy security debate that has been going on within the confines of COAG energy ministers conferences and the energy sector for some time.
It goes to the incompleted task of establishing a national energy market. It doesn’t sound sexy, and it is full of incomprehensible acronyms. But it goes, amongst other things, to making a big reliance on renewable energy a viable and effective part of the national economy.
Put in over simple terms, there is not enough physical capacity to be able to switch around the various power sources in the electricity grid that runs down the east cost and across to South Australia.
That means that if there is not an orderly transition to renewable energy, it’s intermittent nature makes it unreliable.
There is work afoot to sort this out but it is immensely complicated.
These are the bits of context which were informing what Malcolm Turnbull said in response to the storm. I don’t assert this because of any spin from his office, just from looking at what he actually said, informed by the fact I know this debate is going on rather than the immediate presumption he is trying to appease the Nats.
The reality is that, all ideology aside, Turnbull knows that Australia has to keep increasing its investment in renewable energy if it is to meet the Coalition’s own (reduced) renewable energy target. The question is how to get there in a way which ensures energy security while we deal with the question, through technology and better networking, of the intermittent nature of renewables
Why does all this matter? It goes to the fact that policy and pronouncements are rarely reported, or perceived, in the context of the prevailing policy debate of the day these days. That’s because there is not the memory, or knowledge, of these policy areas to start with.
When you get a politician who does not have a particularly strong ideological base (and is thus a bit of a mystery to voters), and who is not particularly good at understanding where voters come to an issue, as opposed to where you (the prime minister) come from it, you are going to run into trouble.
So what do we make of Malcolm Turnbull and his government twelve months on?
He said he would run a cabinet government. And he is running a cabinet government.
He said he would provide economic leadership and confidence. That has not been as successful an operation in the sense that he has not been able to provide some transformative moment which seems to set a new bold tone.
There has been no miracle of the Juniper Bush for the Life of Brian fans
But his government brought down a basically sensible budget in May that was generally accepted. His budgetary problems remain cleaning up the messes of 2014 and 2015.
And, despite all the noise, business and consumer confidence lifted when he took over and are, overall, at better levels than they were.
There are legacy issues from the previous Coalition government – just as there were similarly difficult legacy issues for Julia Gillard from the Rudd Government.
Neither side of politics is very good at simply walking away from what they espoused under a former leader without actually losing government.
Same sex marriage is a classic case in point. It is naïve in the extreme to think that Turnbull had any prospect of moving away from the plebiscite model he inherited from Tony Abbott.
The politics of the issue has become exceptionally complex. Labor’s own position on it has been morphing all the time and while many in the opposition are against the plebiscite for strongly felt reasons, it is also true it has become a political tool it has been happy to exploit to undermine Turnbull’s credentials in voter territory that it would otherwise share with him.
The tone of our national conversation has changed much more than is widely recognized too in the last twelve months. There is much less shirtfronting and national security than we once had. Our government does not spend its time trying to scare us about threats from home and abroad.
(And of course in the wake of the last election, there are plenty of others who are prepared to go that extra mile to do so)
So summing up the Turnbull prime ministership…
Look, it is not great or inspirational, but it is not disastrous or awful or embarrassing.
The government is essentially functioning, despite the clear tensions within it, despite the new assertiveness of the Nationals.
The prime minister isn’t very good at politics. He sees himself as a problem solver. I wrote recently of how he sees his office as ‘The Office of Wicked Problems’ that have to be solved. And he is going about trying to solve them in a methodical rational way.
Whether Malcolm Turnbull was in the office, or someone else, the growing lack of knowledge of some of the complex policy issues we face – or at least a growing tendency to not use these as a base for reporting and understanding day to day political developments makes it that much harder to keep these issues under control and on track
It sounds a bit glib, but it is also true, that Turnbull’s fortunes now rest with a few policy breakthroughs, luck, and how he learns on the job.
The former Coalition cabinet minister Ian Macfarlane observed to a Financial Review roundtable in July that the government needed to have a sense of momentum by Christmas, but was confronted particularly by the huge bollard of same sex marriage.
If the vote on the plebiscite is defeated, the one good outcome (from a political perspective rather than from the perspective of people who want equal marriage rights) might be that it clears the air of the issue until the next election
If Malcolm Turnbull is able to find a solution that gets people off Manus Island and Nauru that would also help him, as well as those unfortunate souls.
Such things might change that expectation I spoke of earlier, the expectation of disappointment.
Overall, though, I feel that what he have learned in the past few years, and as reflected in those massive expectations of Turnbull twelve months ago, is that people actually want a sense that someone is in control, or is at least able to control events.
It’s the same sort of phenomenon I think that has driven politics elsewhere in the western world.
Unfortunately, I don’t think in this particular time and place that anyone really can pull all the levers that make life more certain. And it is perhaps time we dropped our expectations that they could.