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'The political system is failing to deliver'

By Don Aitkin - posted Tuesday, 20 January 2015

have previously mentioned that Paul Kelly, at the end of his Triumph and Demise, had offered a sobering appreciation of Australia's political system, and it includes the phrase used to head this essay. 'The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress,' he goes on to say, 'has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This decoupling constitutes the Australian crisis.'

I would not have put it quite like that, but I share Kelly's concern, and indeed I have written about it a few times on this site. He comes to the view that the problem with the three Labor Governments we had recently had was not simply the self-seeking, bad judgement and lack of loyalty of the senior people in the Party, but something more serious. 'Australian politics is dominated by a poll-driven culture,' he says. There is certainly a lot of truth to that.

'It empowers negative campaigns, privileges sectional and special interests over the national interest … and confronts a conflict between long-run policy and the short-term tyranny of the polling and media cycle.' I was inside government for a time in the Labor period, and this rings true to me. The present crisis, Kelly says, 'will not easily be reversed.' I think he's right there, too.


His chapter 33 ('The Australian Crisis') is indeed sombre. I approach the issue in a somewhat different way. I wrote a book in the 1970s (Stability and Change in Australian Politics) that argued that our parties were the indispensable mechanisms of our political culture. They did for us the hard work of sorting out what was politically and electorally important, while we inherited our partisanship from our parents, or, if a migrant, sorted out which of the parties made best sense, and followed that. The system worked well, and that is why it continued.

I am beginning to think that both partisanship and its inheritance from our parents are weakening. A political system that possesses a Government and a recognised Opposition (alternative government) is binary: Yes/No, Us/Them, In/Out. It is no surprise that in broad terms election outcomes don't look very different now from twenty, forty, sixty years ago. Yes, there are minor parties and Independents, but the Big Two (counting the Nationals as part of the Coalition) still dominate. Yes, there are the Greens; thirty years ago we had the Democrats; fifty years ago we had the DLP.

But there have been some big slow changes. A much larger proportion of the electorate has been educated than was the case a half-century ago; our society is a lot wealthier than it used to be, and the wealth has been well distributed; our society is growing, at about 300,000 people a year; technological change is much more rapid than it used to be; careers have become more fluid, and shorter in time; the possibilities for quick wealth are greater than they once were.

It is always hard for the parties to sort everything out, and much harder now than fifty or more years ago. In the first half of the 20th century Australia needed some kind of national agreement about what sort of society we were, and what eventuated was what Kelly has called in another book 'the Australian Settlement' - white Australia, arbitration, protection, strong unions, and so on. Their use-by date passed in the second half of that century.

Building schools for everyone, first primary schools, then, after the second world war, high schools, and then universities, was a bi-partisan endeavour. Now, school education is seen by very many as a simple consumption item - you get what you pay for. The same sentiment is about in health care, too. Schools and universities are enormously expensive in recurrent terms, so government of all kinds have to feed them, or they are in trouble. Same with hospitals.

As Australians have become better educated and wealthier and well-travelled too, so they have begun to see things for themselves, not through the lens of their party. Only 18 per cent of Australian workers now belong to unions, and most of the unionists are in the public sector. No one wants to belong to parties anyway. So the ALP has gone electorally after the educated middle class and its concerns, which have little to do with the everyday worries of the little Aussie battler. Paul Kelly points this out very well in his book. The trouble is, the educated middle class has a very long list of things it would like to see done, and there is no sensible priority list available - or even possible.


And twenty years of growing national wealth (no longer growing) have led to a widespread perception that there really is a money tree, and almost any problem that one encounters could be solved if only some medicinal money were applied to it. To a degree politicians have brought this on themselves: it was a delusion of the 1960s and 1970s. Trudeau, Kennedy, Johnson, Wilson in the UK, Whitlam in Australia, Servan-Schreiber in France were all great wordsmiths who could paint pictures of a world free from illness, want and war. Johnson proposed a war on poverty. You'll still find people proposing it.

Technological change means that newspapers are dying, even television is struggling, the Internet is ever-present as is 'social media', which grew out of it, crowd-funding seems to work (it did for President Obama), and it is easy to set up a lobby group, a foundation, a non-government organisation - and to make them seem bigger, more representative and more populous than they really are. With the old certainties going or gone, the parties respond to the 'demands' of lobby groups, or actively seek them out, in the hope of finding new sources of electoral support. Our party system is moving in the American direction. People are passionate about leaders, and their own concerns, but not so much about the parties.

I have said before that from time to time our parties remind me of professional football teams, focussed on winning. Most players could belong to either side. The MPs and Senators are no longer representative in any real sense of the constituencies that elect them. And we the electorate alternately criticise and hope. Kelly puts this well: 'The leader they praised yesterday is the leader they condemn today.'

And in the meantime, what is happening to the nation? Kelly says that the real issues, the need to reform our society (meaning to reshape some of its structures as it grows and changes) are being avoided, and that reform is now just too hard. I'll pick that theme up in a later essay.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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