Personal story, the real world today

On human frailty in governing

Once ten years ago I gave answers to one of those personal profile questionnaires that aimed to help people know more about their colleagues at work. It asked questions like “how would you describe your childhood?” “what film changed your life?” “what are your favourite books?” and so on. I put some effort into it since I knew I was not liked by most of my colleagues, and they had only the most superficial understanding of who I was.

One of the questions to which I gave the briefest reply was “How would you describe your ideal workplace?” My answer: one that respects human frailty. This is a modest ideal – a response that replaces the idea of a progressive ideal, with a simple restraint of compassionate virtue and tragic pessimism.

My workplace today – the castellan under-halls of the minor provincial government of Victoria – does not respect human frailty. It trumpets its firsts in the march of progressive illusions; it preaches leadership and reform and the engineering of outcomes, if we only abandon our human weakness; it proclaims the possibility of the impossible, the necessity of the vainglorious policy goal, the virtue of the grandiose announcement that can never be realised. Yet all the while, it – this catacomb of organisations, misshapen by client-patron relationships and ill-conceived transformations, that now pronounces itself, like a parody of an impotent authoritarian, “One VPS” – treats people without respect. It venerates the changemakers, and destroys the objects of their change. It amplifies the cruel sneer that progressives snicker whenever faced with the frail affections of ordinary people for the weak actual, rather than the all-powerful possible.

To be conservative, then is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

Michael Oakeshott

Perhaps I should take that as a cue to leave it behind? It is one of many ways that this institution has deformed through cultural and political decay. Ronald Reagan – who moved from the 1950s and 1960s Democratic party of the “great generation” of post-war America to a Republican party that espoused, for all its faults, a coherent outlook on governing, and would earn in the 1970s and 1980s the votes of “Reagan democrats” – once said that he did not leave the Democrats, but the Democrats left him. So I have been saying, over the last couple of weeks to friends and mentors, to describe the abandonment of ordinary virtues, and of me, in the Victorian public service and government. There has been general assent to the idea.

This insight, this step towards living in truth, has profound consequences for the choices I make about my working life over coming months. The Department of Hell and Human Suffering wants to spit me out; and this Jonah wants to survive the ordeal within the belly of the leviathan. But whatever the path I take, this realisation of the constraints of human frailty might be of broader significance to the culture of governing.

Take the recent Australian election for example. One party told itself and the world that it was full of policy vision, an agenda of change, grand transformation across all fields of life – energy, climate, education, health, retirement, child care, identity, gender, electric cars, symbols of common life, the constitution, the republic and so it went on. It told the electorate it did not have to count the cost of any of this – stating the cost of climate change policies was for petty, “little men” who cannot understand big ideas and grand missions. The party’s leaders clothed themselves in the uncertain grandeur of the past – their grand fallen leaders. They even soared like Icarus and emulated Gough Whitlam’s “It’s time” policy launch to create the theatre of the great leader riding a wave of reform. They rolled out Paul Keating who tried to convince us all that this gaggle of party hacks were visionaries. Gareth Evans was going around telling his ageing partisans of Reform that this was the most talented shadow cabinet since Hawke’s first Cabinet. They all chanted Keating’s old nostrum that when you change the government, you change the country (the madness of the leader who mistakes the delusions of the Cabinet room for the real world). The parasitic media and progressive intellectuals whirled in their mystic dreams of how they could change the country. And how badly they wanted to change Australia. Petty, old, racist, self-interested, sexist, nationalistic, dispossessing, tradition-bound, stupid, anti-intellectual, anti-reform, climate-denying, unambitious, frightened Australia had it coming for it. Labor and the unions were going to Change the Rules, and entrench the progressive nomenklatura in power.

But the country said no. Voters said to the Labor Party: it is not the country that must change, it is your bad ideas to change the country that must change. Preacher, heal thyself. If you despise us that much, why do you want to lead us? If you hate the lives we lead, why should you be responsible for them? If our modest successes are not grand enough for you, what makes you think that you are able to do better when everything you do depends solely on us. If we must change, how will you show that you can change for the better, especially when we have not forgotten the progressive farce of the Rudd-Gillard years. The re-elected Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, had sensed the mood, and represented the emotion of the decisive moment perfectly in his speech acknowledging his victory. How good is Australia, he said, not how badly does Australia need to change. This outcome is a victory for the quiet Australians, he said, not for the loud and privileged reformers of other people’s lives. This result was all about you, the voters, he said, and not the realisation of the ambitions of big ideas, ambitious politicians and true believers.

Like any election, in truth, it was a close result, a game of inches. Yet the characterisation of the voice that was heard on that night seems inescapable. Ordinary people do not want sketchy daydreams of grandiose progress that deny the realistic acceptance of human imperfection and frailty. They do not want manifestly flawed and unsavoury political elites governing their lives like some managerial reform project. If governing elites are to repair the breach of authority with ordinary people, they must accept, and indeed love, human frailty. Change must evolve, and not be engineered by a new set of parasitic masters of the universe.

This great lesson from the 2019 Australian election (which may indeed also be the lesson of the victories of Trump and Brexit) has not yet been learned by the rejected progressives of Australia. They remain sour-faced, spurned and resentful champions of their failures. Everyone is to blame except themselves. Self-interested voters. The least watched news outlets. The little men of Australia who failed to embrace their brave, bold and botched policy vision. They still believe they lead from the radical centre, a centre that is out of this world, and draws its mesmerising power for intellectuals from its contempt for the dilemmas, virtues and affections of ordinary people living imperfect and frail lives.

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