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No more seduction by spin

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 25 August 2006


The radical impact of new information technologies and the rise of the global crises (global warming, peak oil and the like) are forcing a new kind of politics into being. The new politics is directly focused on managing events that are moving at greater speed, are more complex and are more threatening. The key to political success will be flexibility - a capacity to quickly understand issues and respond accordingly.

Right now there is an interesting struggle going on in Western Australia that epitomises the emerging political dilemma. Premier Alan Carpenter wants to reserve a proportion of the state’s vast natural gas resources off the northwest coast for the future use of WA. The gas companies want to avoid any such obligations because they say it will cut into optimal profitability. The Federal Government has weighed in on their side. Carpenter thinks that long-term energy security for his constituency is more important.

This matter embodies a whole range of crucial issues. What is the role of government in a modern state? Are there limits to a firm's right to make a profit? Should governments or firms for that matter be looking decades ahead? If governments are not responsible for basic issues like energy security, who is? Do resources ultimately belong to the population of the state that contains them or to the nation or the wider world? Do resources belong to the firms that dig them up and sell them? If firms just go bust when they fail, who is ultimately responsible for essential services and resource supplies?

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These questions will be of growing importance as the realities of climate change and resource depletion hit home. Twenty-first century society will increasingly be defined not by economic development alone but by the need to confront the material limitations of economic growth. As well as simple survival, matters of justice will arise as power and resources are shifted to match the new conditions and a new politics will emerge to decide how to deal with these matters.

The structures and processes that make up Australian politics are becoming obsolete. By the end of the last century the capacity of industrial technology, made increasingly efficient by steady advances in information technology and adequate levels of international trade, financial and population flows, pretty much guaranteed a basic rate of economic growth. As the content of politics was refined down to technical matters of economic development, politics was essentially gutted of content and taken over by professional public relations managers.

One result was that politics became ever more vacuous, dishonest, and thus attractive to those obsessed with personal power. Their lack of understanding of the great issues of the time, let alone future challenges, was palpable if they strayed outside their carefully crafted set piece responses. Eventually, no one expected any better of them, and in cosy collaboration with a negligent mass media, politics became utterly debased.

Issues-driven political parties did develop - notably One Nation (whose real concern was globalisation), the Greens (who are focused on environmental issues) and conservative Christian parties (who essentially want to re-establish patriarchal authority) - but  until now they have been of minimal importance and have acted mostly as a safety valve.

For the time being, Australian politics will remain dominated by the two major parties - the Liberal Party and Labor - with the Greens inheriting the dying Democrats niche and likely, in time, to form a third force. However, the old left-right divide, almost vestigial anyway because Labor has embraced neo-liberal ideology, will be increasingly irrelevant as the major parties struggle to deal with the new challenges.

The Greens are still in formation as they approach real power, with both definite positives and genuine negatives in their emerging political culture. In some ways they represent the future of politics, and in other ways they demonstrate the problems for a small activist organisation in making the transition to an effective political party. What they definitely have right is a blurring of the lines between insiders and outsiders and an emphasis on maintaining strong connections with people with specialist knowledge. What they clearly don’t have is a capacity to act quickly and decisively in response to changing conditions.

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Rapid change is the issue, and the two major parties face a problem here. Labor will need to rebuild old contacts, and forge a set of new ones as the environment and resources take centre stage as political issues. The Liberal Party has strong links with business, but they will also need to greatly broaden their contacts to remain credible. Specifically, they will need to move into areas they have completely neglected in the past in order to manage the social upheaval generated by material problems.

The result will be an increasing reliance on a growing layer of issue specialists who readily move between the parties as more complex issues evolve. These specialists, with their sustained links with non-political researchers, activists and locals, will change the character of the political parties and politics generally. Their primary reference will be the issues, not political manoeuvring and they will promote open flows of information.

These information flows will increasingly involve the Internet. Through blogs, discussion groups and email, they will receive information, monitor informed debate, and spread information that will expose the policy-making process to much greater scrutiny.

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Article edited by Natalie Rose.
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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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