Better political leadership or something else altogether?

At a recent function the blog attended one of the speakers said change was made difficult in Australia because of lack of political leadership – the absence of ‘conviction, courage and communication.’ The function was conducted under Chatham House rules so we can’t say who said what but the speakers were focussing on things Australia needed to do in the future.

Unlike the Maurice Newman (the Abbott principal business adviser) policy prescriptions borrowed from the US Right, the speakers at the function had an intelligent, insightful and engaging discussion about issues across education, competition legislation, health policy and other things. It was the sort of discussion most of the listeners would have loved to have heard from our current crop of political leaders and the media.

Nevertheless, the blog has big doubts. Is the barrier to change really just a crisis of political leadership? There have been a few times in Australian history in which the standards of political debate have been elevating and the Australian media has been uplifting. But things like the Federation debates, the Deakin era and the Hawke-Keating years are the exceptions not the norm. Comfortable complacency and lack of intellectual rigour are the main characteristics of our political history interspersed with periods of ill-conceived panic about threats of doubtful validity. Indeed, one could argue that Australian history is just a long series of panics about the French, Russians, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Asian dominos, immigrants and refugees coming to conquer us or subvert our way of life. Moreover, political leaders around the world who try to lead their nations along new paths or present uncomfortable realities are often not there after the next election; and, much of the ‘reform’ in the western world over the past few decades has been achieved, as John Gray pointed out in False Dawn, by dodging democratic decision-making.

However, there does seem to be something distinctive about the current situation. Partly it is result of the Americanisation of politics. Partly it is a result of focussing on opinion research which reveals the primeval rather than the intellectual. While progressives may have been shocked by a Liberal candidate saying refugees were responsible for traffic congestion in Sydney the reality is that the view is shared by a number of voters in key seats. Recent Essential Media research also showed that a majority of Australians believed that our debt and deficit situations were out of control and among the worst in the world – but not to worry because cutting foreign aid and arts spending would get rid of both. Equally Australian knowledge of its own history (even the military bits which seem to have become the dominant narrative in our national story) is pretty poor. The blog recently, a bit belatedly, read the 2010 Craig Stockings edited collection of essays Zombie Myths of Australian Military History which shows that most of what most Australians believe about the frontier wars, the threat of Japanese invasion, Breaker Morant, the Australian ‘breaching’ of the Hindenburg line, the loss of the HMAS Sydney, Gallipoli and the August offensive and even East Timor is just plain wrong. Partly it is also a result of the death throes of the print media and its hysterical tone (made worse by News Corp and its feral campaigns) as it tries to retain circulation.

The blog therefore suspects that what produces this current dire situation are the  vicious circles created by: the number of things Australians believe which are just plain wrong; the irrational decision making and belief systems that behavioural economics research has exposed; the refusal of many groups to consider much beyond their narrowest interests; the platform the media gives to anyone aggrieved by change; media disinformation; and the natural tendency of those seeking power to exploit this and give the public what the focus group research says they want.

Perhaps we need some of the policy wonks, and the think tanks like the Grattan Institute and the Australian Institute, to create a virtuous circle by combining their excellent policy work with a thorough-going study of the psychological, belief and behavioural barriers to the implementation of the policies they are advocating. That might well tell us more about why both the public and politicians fail the leadership test and how they might pass it than alliterative exhortations about courage, conviction and communication.