My wordpress 11th anniversary retrospective: 3 dilemmas of government

I am continuing my blogging retrospective today by reposting a small think-piece from The Happy Pessimist blog. If I have done my digital erasure correctly, you will not find any record of this blog online. I wrote it using the avatar pseudonym of Antonio Possevino, a Jesuit priest, diplomat and missionary of the 16th century. Possevino himself wrote using pseudonyms.

This piece – on three dilemmas of Government – appeared just before Christmas in 2013. It enjoyed a brief flame of publicity when a longstanding cranky opponent of government, Vern Hughes, who claims the run Australia’s “peak body for civil society” took it up as a “brilliant analysis.” Vern did not and could not know the person who had penned this was also one he insulted and abused as a snivelling, cowardly bureaucrat. Perhaps by my sharing this story he will realise his embarassment. Most likely not. In any case, Vern’s outburst of enthusiasm saw this piece cross-posted, and a little flash of views, maybe even 50.

Soon after, I took this blog down for the reasons outlined in the earlier post. I hope it is still of interest.

3 Dilemmas of Government

22 Dec 2013

We have stumbled into dilemmas about government. Six years of incompetence from the Rudd-Gillard Governments disguised a deeper problems about the institutions of government. Abbott’s honeymoon and poll support has sunk inexplicably quickly, suggesting that the sense of malaise and disappointment relates to a deeper issue than who governs. It relates to how we are governed. So, we discover three large dilemmas about government.

One. Governments do not satisfy us, but we long for them to do so.

Abbott’s most effective line against the Rudd-Gillard era was that Australia was a great country let down by a bad government. Labor’s great failure in response to the global financial crisis was to confuse throwing away cash handouts and building projects with ruling in the public interest. Faced with the greatest political challenge to over-zealous market interests and unethical private behaviour, the Government chose to act like a banker in a sharp suit, pretending to knowledge of financial wizardry, splashing other people’s cash, and doing deals to “keep people in work.” When the illusion passed and no political credit came their way, they turned nasty and launched a class war, blamed conspiracies in the media and among men, and descended into ill-disciplined tribalism. Abbott in response urged all the disaffected who wanted better to “join us,” but mistook a longing for a better pursuit of the public good with a choice to put “the adults in charge.” The dilemma now is whether Abbott and his Cabinet will see beyond the superficial political game to perceive the deeper public concern underlying concerns with how things are done, and then strike out on a new path that pursues that public good.

Two. Private interests dismay us, but we cripple the public power that might challenge them.

Behind a succession of public debates since the election of the Abbott Government has lain a concern with private interests distorting how Governments work: the travel expenses saga, the restriction of information on refugees and “on-water operations,” the preference for old careerist men over women in the Cabinet, the out-of-control operations of security agencies, the ludicrous appointment of Tim Wilson to the Human Rights commission (equalled of course by the as ludicrous appointment of the less versatile, “former Labor speechwriter” Tim Soutphammasane by Gillard), and most dramatically of all the debate over corporate welfare through takeovers, Qantas, and Holden. The Government appears at times to be undecided whether to listen to or hold at bay some of its ill-chosen friends such as Maurice Newman or David Murray. Their public statements croon greed and private interests. Yet the Government has also said a firmer no to the rent-seeking of Holden and Qantas, and might even finally send a dose of salts through the excessive corporate welfare of Australia. Yet Labor cannot help itself. To resist these siren calls of private interests will require a renewal of public institutions. At times Abbott shows an interest in that. Yet at other times, he falls for the same old merchant illusion that business knows best. His ambivalence reflects the culture’s wider shyness and ignorance of governing well.

Three. Public debate’s descent into sound bites, name-calling and think tank posturing insults us, but we do not attend to the voices that can change the terms and tone of the discussion.

I know I watch too many panel shows, but surely I am not alone in despairing at the endless recycling of the same witless dumb journalists and party-affiliated think tankers or business/union identities appearing over and over again. The only plus of Tim Wilson’s appointment is that maybe he won’t be on these shows as much. Barry Cassidy’s now pathetically named Insiders perhaps should be renamed it Clapped out 80s lefties journalistic insiders? Surely it cannot be that hard to choose other people. Surely the producers can be a little less lazy than relying on the same old touts and pimps from talent agencies, think tanks and the diminished circle of their mates. Of course, this tedious conversation brings down the public discussion of the listeners. It is an echo chamber of stupidity. QandA began as an “adventure in democracy” but has become tired, weak and predictable. Surely, in our educated community, which is saturated with communications and degrees, we can do better. But perhaps we need to reinvent the role of journalist and media commentator for a different conception of the public interest. After all, the model they all pursue today is less than 25 years old.

We need to take a long view to understand these dilemmas, and see it as part of a story about co-evolution of the institutions and culture of power. Increasingly I think a shock to the political, economic and social system is needed. Perhaps that will come through future financial trouble. Perhaps it will come from open dissent, or perhaps more private dissent. We need perhaps to resurrect the spirit of Charter 77, Vaclav Havel and the samizdat, and apply it to our immediate political and social situation. But we also need a government prepared to change both the institutions and culture of governing. A group of leaders needs to choose to rule differently, to forge new institutions of government, and through talking about politics and government differently reshape our political culture.

Here are three steps that can be done.

  • Challenge the game play of the elites. Nothing will be gained by playing the same old rules, the same old games, and using the same old players. Most of all that means challenging the dominance of econocrats, spin-doctors and business interests.
  • Keep power under restraints. Power will fail if it over-reaches. Too much of the community activist talk demands too much from people and an over-involvement in politics. We just don’t have the time and the patience. But we do want to be mobilised in our working lives to do better for the public interest. So, we need to be restrained, set achievable goals, and focus people’s effort on the pursuit of meaningful improvements in social conditions.
  • Shift focus to wellbeing. Stop nagging the community about productivity, belt-tightening and wealth creation. Stop obsessing with living standards, and help people to live well.

In any local circumstance, there will of course be more particular steps. Governing well is about discerning the public interest in circumstances. But please, please, let us find a way through these three dilemmas.

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