Earlier this week I got a message from WordPress that I had passed my 11th anniversary as a blogger on the platform. I began with an anonymous blog, The Happy Pessimist, which I began amidst a bout of doubts about my public service career, which led me to embrace the political essay in its new form of a blog post, as my best way to exercise leadership.
That blog continued for four years, and it traced the political crises of Australia from 2009 to 2013, and the downfall of Rudd, Gillard, and Rudd again. I eventually abandoned it in fear. I was afraid that the opponents of free speech and enforcers of “employee codes of conduct” would make retribution against me for speaking my mind. And for a brief time, I thought I might be able to network myself to a position of high status. So I abandoned The Happy Pessimist, and closed it down, removed its digital traces, but saved the texts, which together formed a small book of political history and philosophy.
I soon discovered the powerful grandees I sought to court were, to use the line from Herbert’s Envoy of Mr Cogito, liars, cowards and executioners. I fell from being a herald of change, expecting graces and favours from the court, to being a despised outcast. So began my annus horribilis, 2015. But in that year, I reclaimed my writing, and ultimately was reborn in fire. First I began the New Samizdat blog – political writings for a real democracy. I only maintained this blog for a short time – February to May 2015 – until I collapsed in a suicidal depression, in response to my ostracism in the Department of Hell and Human Suffering.
Then later in 2015 – initially in July, still in the depths of acedia, then more actively from October – I began this blog, which I calculate now has just celebrated its fourth birthday. This blog was different because I wrote in my own name – not anonymously, not under the cloak of a pseudonym or avatar, such as my old favourite Antonio Possevino. I wrote across the full spectrum of my interests, in all my chosen forms, and did not seek to conceal who I was and the great rivers of culture and tradition that flowed through me. It was here that I became comfortable with my voice, and believed at last I was contributing to the infinite conversation.
In total now I have written 251 posts on this blog, which has been visited over 2000 times and viewed over 3000 times. I have nearly 100 followers, which of course is a small, even pitiful number in the world of social media; but I appreciate the likes, the comments and the engagement from this small readership. Who knows if this blog will grow in its reach or impact – the fact is I do not do it for outward recognition, since I am excluded from the halls of power, whether in culture or government, like a wandering Parsifal. I aim to serve the real aims of life, the pursuit of meaning, the expression of ideas, the love of the best and endangered things in our culture.
To celebrate this anniversary, and the courage of living in truth that writing this new form of samizdat has brought me, I am reposting, today and over the next week, some posts from my earlier anonymous and pseudonymous blogs, New Samizdat and The Happy Pessimist.
Today I am posting an early meditation from 2015 on the virtues of governing well, prompted by yet another leadership challenge in Australian politics – the beginning of the end of Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership.
Image Credit: Business Insider Abbott leadership spill
Good Government starts today (originally posted February 22, 2015 on the New Samizdat blog)
In February 2015 the Australian Prime Minister stared down a threat to his leadership. A vote in his party room for a leadership spill – with no declared rival candidate – was defeated 60 to 40, but this majority was padded by the obligation of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet to remain loyal in their vote, if not in their thoughts. In truth, up to 60 per cent of the backbench voted against the leader, and most opinion on the next morning proclaimed the stigmata that the Prime Minister wore: Tony Abbott was now a dead man walking. His leadership was lost to his undeclared rival, not if, but when. One wit declared that a political leader had lost a ballot to an empty chair.
This collapse in authority dismayed political observers and the courts that surround the state in the media, public service and lobby groups. It was only a few years since journalists, political leaders and top bureaucrats preened themselves on Australia’s economic miracle and governing genius that fashioned an age of reform that allegedly pulled the country from near bankruptcy to be the envy of the world. This age of reform saw the rise of a new elite, drawn from the world of business, media and political marketers – practical, market-driven, set free from the disciplines and moorings of traditional institutions, ruthlessly concentrated on productivity, and proudly contemptuous of citizens’ ordinary messy worlds of caring, culture and coping. They preferred the elegant clean lines of economic reform, much like the architects of fascism. For a while they appeared to make history as the “Australian moment” saved the country from the global financial crisis and set itself towards redeeming the planet from its greatest moral challenge of climate change.
Then, as things do, it all fell apart. China and America spurned poor, pathetic Kevin Rudd’s zeal at Copenhagen, and left him a broken man, unable to face his own shadows and stripped of the moral courage to lead. The fiasco of climate change policy undid him. His public displayed towards his economic policies the ordinary ingratitude of politics, and the Great Helmsmen of the GFC grew to resent this callow, ignorant public. They suspected he was spooked by shadows, or grandiosely solving the financial problems of other countries by throwing imprudent wads of cash at them, and the shonky businesses who installed deadly pink batts, built schools halls needlessly, and pestered them with telemarketing calls about solar panels. The mameluks of the Labor party lost their way, and unleashed four years of madness and court assassinations on the country’s government.
The tragedy of Tony Abbott’s collapse in authority stemmed from the wrong he discerned, with such rhetorical skill, in the Rudd/Gillard years: a great country had been let down by a bad government. But this collapse was doubly tragic since it had occurred with such speed and with full knowledge of the failures of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years. How cruel were the fates to torment this leader with the same suffering of the opponents he had crushed. And how remarkable too was this collapse of authority. In 2013 Abbott had won 90 of 150 seats in the main house of the Australian Parliament. His opponents were utterly discredited and institutionally weakened. He had inherited a state with some weaknesses, but essentially strong conditions, and his first steps were to repeat a mantra of good government: calm, methodical, not talking too much, seriously-minded, conscious of the deeper and darker forces of history that shape the fates of nations and states. Here was an Australian Prime Minister with the gifts as a writer and the depth of connections to ordinary experience and high culture to interpret the nation to itself.
But it all fell apart so quickly, so ineptly, so ridiculously. He assembled a Cabinet that spurned half the country – women – and mocked basic sentiments that the governors of the country should include the diverse character of the people. He vested power and authority in his chief of staff that offended basic moral principles of rightful authority, and confused the prerogatives of political marketers with the principles of democratic government. He let loose the vandalism of a Commission of Audit, led by a mediocre business clerk with no ideas to contribute to government or public life, except his C-suite scorn for those who suffer illness, frailty and hardship. He breached, time and again, fundamental cultural values of fairness in the budget – co-payment undermining universal health care, tax and transfer changes skewed to the rich, unconscionable restrictions on paying social security benefits to the young unemployed, higher education fees that saddle students with debt to indulge the ambitions of vice-chancellors. He made that worse by pursuing inequity and the sullen resentments of the right-wing think tanks with a Quixotic folly, despite the plain facts that they would never be implemented through the Senate and that governments that pursue foolish ideas that cannot be done only destroy their authority. Lastly and most ridiculously, he succumbed to the occasional madness of isolation in the court, perhaps stirred by reading Churchill and worrying about the mortality of all monarchs, and conferred a knighthood on a foreign prince to mark a national day.
So, this sudden collapse in authority, this crumbling of the champion of the powerful’s resentment towards the poor and the weak, this humiliation before an empty chair shocked and dismayed those who believed they knew how to govern. Greg Sheridan best expressed the shock. Sheridan is Tony Abbott’s friend, his rightful praiser of this thoroughly decent, genial, cultured and compassionate man, his companion in journalism, conservative politics, analysis of an often dark and troubling world. On the night of the defeat by the empty chair, he said that he had thought that the loss of the art of rule was a feature of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd years. But now Sheridan candidly observed more features than Abbott’s personal failures in this political crisis. Business had lost all authority. Unions are corrupted. So the two main recruitment sources of political leaders now only produced people talented only in the wrong things. Social media had turned political talk into an over-excited digital repetition of the murderous French revolutionary crowd. Parties had lost all deep connection with people and ideas beyond the narrowly ruthless and shallowly skilled political professionals who run offices and mind leaders. Ideas are not debated. Arguments are not constructed. The universities have descended into the same pit of marketing pulp. Economists are not told that analysing data on everything is not the path to valuing anything. Journalists have left behind reporting facts for self-promotion through opinions in endless pointless panel shows. And the public service had long ago betrayed their purpose to become responsive slaves of addictive ideas, pushed by gangs of advisers, and been sapped by viral political patronage. So, Sheridan lamented “we have lost the culture of governing well.”
This thought perhaps was shared with the Prime Minister for, in his press conference following his party-room revolt, Tony Abbott declared that “good government starts today.” It was a rhetorical reboot, and it was soon mocked by opponents and journalists alike. What after all was he doing for all the other days in office? But sarcasm does not discern the more tragic truth in this new year’s leadership resolution. None of the clown’s parade of politicians and opinion writing journalists could explain, if tested, what good government is, and how to defend it against its many enemies, both within and outside the state. Sheridan may have exaggerated: cultures change and rarely die. The culture of governing well is not yet lost, though it is crumbling and at risk. Its custodians mistreated, forgotten and maligned. Its true texts neglected. Its defenders isolated, hungry and yet passionate. It is time for those defenders to come down from the mountains and rebuild the traditions and ideas of good government. If good government does not start today, at the least the first shot is now fired in the long battle of ideas to defend government against its enemies.