history, the real world today

Do we repair our republics with big ideas or ordinary virtues?

My old boss and sometime mentor, Terry Moran, has given an oration in which he sets out a diagnosis and remedy for the troubles of government and democracy today. Terry is the former head of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet in Australia, and, less impressively, the Victorian Premier’s Department where I worked with him – indeed wrote his speeches – nearly twenty years ago. His speech is titled “The Next Long Wave of Reform – where will the ideas come from?” and has been published in slightly edited form on the blog, Pearls and Irritations, hosted by another former head of the Prime Minister’s Department, John Menadue. You can read Terry’s diagnosis and recommendations in two parts, here and here.

It is said somewhere that great leaders are people of common opinions and uncommon abilities. This description fits Terry well. There are few more capable practitioners of the art of governing. He has decisively shaped Australian governments over his career beginning in the 1970s. He has brought a quality of strategic judgement that has lifted the focus of Cabinets beyond trashy politics to the greater purposes of good government. He has led people with finesse, skill and compassion – both in organisations and in a vast network of influential relationships. In essence, government is a people business, and Terry has been the best in the business. Yet the big ideas that he has yearned to focus on are rarely more than commonplace aspirations of the business/executive elite or the sentimental attachments of centrist-progressive politics. Divorced from his situation as a leader, his ideas themselves will not remedy the troubled state of disordered republics.

Terry has shown great courage in speaking of his dismay at the state of those republics. He says plainly we have pursued a wrong course in undermining the integrity of the public service over thirty years:

We must return to a public service able to provide frank advice to Ministers while securing continuity in our system of Government. This must involve respect for the culture and values of the public service, a significant investment in its capability and, acknowledgement that the untested and supposed superiority of the private sector is actually an illusion cultivated by rent seekers monetising service delivery opportunities, constraining advice in the public interest or pretending that efficiency and nothing else matters. Security for the most senior public servants such that they may safely offer tough, independent professional advice in the face of stakeholder blandishments, whims and aggravation at the Ministerial level, must be reintroduced.”

He states plainly that we are on a descending path of distrust in our political institutions.

In my view, a big problem is the absence of agreement on the big ideas to drive the next long wave of policy reform designed around an Australia which citizens aspire to live in.

Certainly, institutions and delivery need reform but this is best done in the light of agreement on where we are to go — what the light on the hill is, and where that light is….

To be clear: we’ve reached the end of a nearly 50-year policy cycle, dominated by ideas derived from macro and micro economics.

This diagnosis is structured around the idea of a triple helix of democracy, with the three strands being institutions, big ideas and delivery. This is a kind of plain speaking, practical manager’s form of political philosophy. The meaning of institutions is clear enough. By big ideas, he means responses to “the long term challenges [that] give birth to major policies and the effective program initiatives which define what governments do in the community and the economy.” It is the business strategy of governments, how it defines its relationship with the external environment that Terry has always concentrated on. By delivery – an unusual choice compared to broader concepts of politics in many traditions – he means “the efficacy, honesty and accountability of public administration and the institutions of which it is comprised and the quality of their services.” In essence, this means execution of tasks or performance. My gloss on Terry’s triple helix then is that he has articulated a managerialist philosophy of democracy – organisation/structure (institutions), performance (delivery) and strategy (big ideas), with strategy being preeminent, and driving the results achieved by the helix.

So, in Terry’s vision, the chief executives need to define a vision, informed by what customers want, that can reshape the business on its next wave of growth. So he proposes that blighted memory of managerial gobbledygook – the strategic mission – as the response to our deep cultural and political malaise:
“My view is Australians want government to seek tailored, smart, creative solutions that draw on the experience of civil society, business and the public. They want missions. “

These missions – at least for me – are deeply uninspiring, unpersuasive and disconnected with what matters most to me. Decarbonising the economy. Training the workforce “to succeed in the new digital era” (whatever that means). Rebalancing our diplomatic relationships with China and the USA. Integration of diverse communities. Adoption of the Uluru Statement from the Heart. National competitiveness goals (to help our big exporters). And that old furphy of 20th century Catholic social thought – subsidiarity – because we are all “seeking to find comfort and support in local connection .”

To be fair, Moran does not propose these missions as the final word, and expects a process of community dialogue about them. But it is in seeking to harness the carriage of democracy to these missions where he goes wrong; or perhaps it might be better to say that these commonplace ideas have generated the dilemma we are in, and cannot be the solution for repairing our distressed republics. Michael Oakeshott would say that he has fallen into the trap of enterprise thinking, treating the state as an enterprise – a business with a mission and a single unifiable purpose – rather than an association characterised by consensual rules and institutional procedures to arbitrate between big and small ideas ever in conflict. It is a mirage induced by too many years at the top, the general’s fallacy, and not enough time spent with Good Soldier Schweik in the blood-running trenches of our broken republics.

There may well be a triple helix of the virtuous republic, but it is not the three legged manager’s stool put forward by Moran. Institutions would be there, and proper care would be given to them. Moran passes too lightly over concerns with institutional repair, dismissing such ideas as “embroidery at the edge of the real debate we need to have.” Perhaps he has confused fashionable ideas of citizen’s juries and the like with real attention to institutions, as in Oakeshott’s alternative view of the state as an association.

But the other two strands proposed by Moran – big ideas and delivery – would not be there.

In place of big ideas I would propose ordinary virtues, as a way of expressing the culture of a virtuous republic, carried by citizens and soldiers in the trenches, not only the grand visionary executives – found in central agencies of government, big corporations and the self-important foundations of wealthy philanthropists.

These ordinary virtues are the subject of a longer essay. My thinking is there are twelve of these virtues:

  • compassion,
  • loyalty,
  • restraint,
  • duty,
  • dignity,
  • humility,
  • courtesy (talking to strangers),
  • courage,
  • the life of the mind,
  • scrupulous pessimism,
  • judgement and
  • truth-telling.

Cultivating these virtues – not proposing big ideas – is the most important thing each of us can do, and that each of us can demand of our leaders. And in doing so we are respecting a very long tradition of civic virtue or the Confucian ideas (developed in response to a similar breakdown in authority) of virtue and the exemplary person – de, junzi and ren.

The third strand of the triple helix in my thinking would not be delivery, but would be authority. Authority, not trust or competence, is always the central question of a virtuous republic. Do our rulers – great and small – exercise their power in a rightful way that leads us to bestow authority on them?

More on that another day….

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