Politics vs Policy: how superficial gamesmanship steals our future

This should be shaping up as the real issue in the upcoming Federal election – for both the PM and the Leader of the opposition. What do either of them really offer for the future of Australia? Sadly, how would we know, when the media encourages both of them to “win the week’s news headlines” instead of pushing for bigger goals and the comprehensive plans to make them happen?

Ross Gittins has a strongly critical op-ed on Rudd’s shortcomings which pinpoints a failure of principle in balancing politics with policy – Rudd appears overly concerned with the media cycle in the short term instead of creating policy that makes a meaningful difference so that it garners broad public support. How long can this be sustained?

As Gittins points out, the hospitals plan is a clear winner for Rudd because most of the population already want Federal control over hospitals. What Rudd’s plan actually offers doesn’t quite come up to the selling soundbites though – nothing to improve primary care or preventative health care, little to shorten waiting lists, still mixed responsibility and no increase in system flexibility. He’s offering little more than cosmetic change, when what the public wants is reconstructive surgery.

So what does Abbott do in response? Ditches the part of the scheme that the public actually does want (more Federal control) and offers his own package of purely cosmetic reforms. Ho hum to both of them.

Rudd’s studied avoidance of the issue of emissions controls over the last few months (largely achieved by focussing on his hospitals plan) is a much larger problem.

Many of the people who contributed to the defeat of the scheme last year – who got into bed with the climate change ostriches – did so in the belief that its rejection would force Rudd to come back with a better offer. He’d be forced by the pressure of public opinion. How wrong-headed they were. Now we have Rudd seriously contemplating doing nothing about ”the great moral challenge of our time”.

A principled national leader would be more interested in the current and future good of the nation rather than just ensuring that he remains as leader. A principled leader of the opposition would be more interested in challenging such a superficial leader on the grounds that his policies lack consideration for the current and future good of the nation, rather than competing on a different raft of superficialities in order to take his own turn as national leader.

Weighing the various superficial policies on offer: muddled and ineffective as Rudd’s health and CPRS schemes are, at least they offer the shell of a policy that could be implemented in both cases. Abbott’s policies so far don’t even offer that much, due only in part to the lack of policy talent on the Opposition front bench. Because both sides have bought into the media circus noise machine of reporting the governance and legislative debates of our nation as some sort of sporting contest.

Of the two possible PMs on offer for the next term of Federal government, my preferred PM is still definitely Rudd, but that’s despite his politicking, not because of it. I want more than just the less bad of the two options. I want the LibNats (and other parties) to be effective in parliamentary opposition. I want Rudd and his Cabinet challenged to provide comprehensive and effective policy positions in all portfolios.

I don’t want an opposition that just plays politics, because then all we get is a government that just plays politics, because that’s all they need to do to stay in power.



Categories: environment, health, media, parties and factions

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20 replies

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with this post Tigtog. I caught a little bit of Qanda the other night where Roxon was pretty vociferous that this is not the case, that it is a cynical view which does not match either her convictions or her experience of politics. But as an outside observer I see very little evidence of big picture politics, it all seems to be very narrow with short term goals and small aspirations and nothing is more reflective of this than the CPRS.

    There seems to be a profound lack of courage on the part of the government to do what is necessary, including making a concerted effort to depoliticize climate change and explain the basis of the scientific arguments to the public at large, and although it is not as bad as in the US, an increasing tendency to pander to the most vicious and venal construction of society. When was the last time a politician appealed to the better part of human nature and said that as a society we can and should do better? (Correct me if I am wrong but the only recent example of this that I can think of is when Georgiou, Moylan etc stood up to their own leader on the detention of children). I suppose what I am saying is that I believe that the populace is much more open to persuasion, much more capable of accepting change and much more generous if the politicians would only take the time to appeal to those qualities. The truly vicious and venal are a tiny minority in society.

    • @su

      When was the last time a politician appealed to the better part of human nature and said that as a society we can and should do better? (Correct me if I am wrong but the only recent example of this that I can think of is when Georgiou, Moylan etc stood up to their own leader on the detention of children).

      It’s even worse when they do say that we can and should do better purely as an exercise in hollow rhetoric, which was basically the govt’s position in selling their useless CPRS scheme.
      The occasional pollie who crosses the floor etc on a matter of conscience is a start, but it’s nearly always reactive rather than proactive on policy.

  2. Great article tigtog. I hate how our pollies are beginning to exhibit some of the worse habits of those in the US.

    Also, a female, POC and/or not-hetero PM would be really nice some time in the next decade, oh country of the fair go.

  3. To be fair, TT, the problem with the spin/substance dichotomy is that in the last five to ten years the press gallery has rid itself of people talented enough to tell the difference, and the media organisations have actively discouraged any effort of theirs to do so. In Rudd’s Government’s case, most of the TV networks and all of the major newspapers have positioned themselves as partisan actors within the political process anyway, and jettisonned analysis entirely.
    Could there be serious policy wonking going on at the Commonwealth level? I doubt it, but if there were, there’d be no way I’d ever know about it. Gittins is against both Rudd’s silence on climate change and his constant efforts to garner positive media—considering the tendency of the media to report any kind of denialism as “news”, how can Rudd satisfy that kind of demand?

    Rudd appears overly concerned with the media cycle in the short term instead of creating policy that makes a meaningful difference so that it garners broad public support.

    I agree with the first clause but lay the lion’s share of the blame on the other party to the cycle. And with the press gallery we have, Rudd has no chance of broad public support for any policy initiative whatsoever. He could introduce the Universal Kittens And Whiskey Provision Act 2010 and he’d still be condemned.

  4. When was the last time a politician appealed to the better part of human nature and said that as a society we can and should do better? (Correct me if I am wrong but the only recent example of this that I can think of is when Georgiou, Moylan etc stood up to their own leader on the detention of children).

    Also, to be fair, this is relative. To a supporter of mandatory detention the actions of Georgiou and Moylan would look like superficial grandstanding of the highest order. Especially since they both voted for the Border Protection Bill and the migration zone excision legislation in the first place.

  5. If someone votes along party lines but later changes their mind on the basis of evident harm, isn’t that a good thing? I admit my knowledge is based entirely on what I read in the news, so perhaps my example is naive, but I still think that politicians seem more concerned with not triggering perceived prejudices than they are with persuading people to think differently.

  6. Sure, su. If you support the position the person is voting for now and oppose the one they voted for then, it’s principle, but as I said, it’s relative.

    I still think that politicians seem more concerned with not triggering perceived prejudices than they are with persuading people to think differently.

    Well in one way it is a terrible indictment of political leadership in Australia that moral suasion is done so rarely. On the other hand, isn’t it also a positive that Australians are so reluctant to have their minds changed by politicians?

  7. How can we know they are truly reluctant if the gentle art of persuasion is practiced so rarely? I get what you are saying about one person’s principled stand being another’s personal grandstanding but my point was less about people taking a principled stand than about people being prepared to advance arguments that appeal to people’s sense of justice, generosity, and empathy.
    These are the kind of arguments that generally get derided as emotive or motherhood etc and I was thinking that politicians are often happy to advance truly emotive arguments in the context of a War or a perceived threat – arguments that appeal to and emphasise the virtues of courage, fortitude, patriotism and so on, but shy away from advancing arguments in peacetime that would call upon people to exercise less militaristic virtues. This is just my impression.

  8. “The better part of human nature?” Su, perhaps the reason that politicians don’t bother to appeal to that part is that it’s almost non-existent. Humans are nasty, petty and just plain awful in crowds. As a whole, getting people to do very nasty deeds is easier then asking them to do good.

  9. These are the kind of arguments that generally get derided as emotive or motherhood etc

    I couldn’t agree more. Or worse; unrealistic because an argument is based on compassion: the mutated “realist” school which views universal human equality as fundamentally counterposed to national interest. I’m thinking particularly of all the fights we’ve had in the last fifteen years about the Australian refugee intake.

    I was thinking that politicians are often happy to advance truly emotive arguments in the context of a War or a perceived threat

    You know, I think this is a really interesting idea. And thinking about a few of the wars of the twentieth century, the arguments for genuinely universalist hopeful change tend to come at the tail end of any given conflict: the League of Nations (flawed as it was) after 1918, the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1944/45, the SALT disarmament talks once the Cold War had settled down to be truly cold, and so on. All of them emotive, idealist efforts, all put forward in the context of international conflict.

    Humans are nasty, petty and just plain awful in crowds.

    No, I don’t buy that any more than the notion that people are naturally empathetic and altruistic. Some people are, some people aren’t, most are both.
    My own view is that the ability of elected governments to change the way people live their lives under capitalism is vastly, vastly overstated.

  10. I agree – most are both and which part is uppermost at any one time is partly a function of the quality of interactions – expect someone to be nasty and brutal and they will frequently oblige you. Governments may not be able to effect much change in how people live their lives but just by assuming that people have a better side to which to appeal we (not just the pollies) can call forth those very qualities and part of the purpose of making an argument is to affirm to people that their allegiance is desired, that they are valuable. Opinions we find distasteful are so often treated as indelible stains that mark that person as innately bad, and for groups that may have been treated as more or less worthless almost from birth, this only contributes to their alienation. The attempt to persuade humanizes people who are often treated as if they are not.
    That is a good point about the idealistic rhetoric at the end of conflicts. There is something queasily reminiscent of addiction about the cycle. We all vow to never do it again, then gradually drift and forget until we are back at the beginning. Which is why it is a great shame that our recognition of war veterans concentrates on their bravery and selflessness and ignores what is frequently their deep belief in the utter pointlessness and waste of that sacrifice. They do not forget but we are very selective about which part of their experience we allow into the national consciousness.

  11. These are the kind of arguments that generally get derided as emotive or motherhood etc and I was thinking that politicians are often happy to advance truly emotive arguments in the context of a War or a perceived threat…
    Wordywordyword. I’ve noticed that “emotional” is so often used as a perjorative when the right or “hard” left is attacking a left or environmentalist position but they do not seem to notice that the Right / “hard men” are often getting very emotional when they are deriding others. Example: the “environmentalists are killing our towns and throwing honest sons of toil out to starve in teh streets” or “Tasmanian/Gippsland special”.

  12. My favourite is “every child has the right to a mother and a father”. As if the State had a responsibility to provide replacements or additions where one of the two was lacking, from a store of spare Mums and Dads in a warehouse somewhere.

  13. Helen – yes, the way they appeal to survival instincts, and the dichotomous thinking, the “one can’t survive while the other lives ” style of argument is really politics at its most irresponsible and frightening in its ability to bring out the worst in people.

  14. Like I said, in crowds. Individuals can be empathetic, smart, and altruistic. Put them in a crowd, and the crowd becomes nasty, small-minded and easily manipulated.
    Politicians will acknowledge this and use it to their advantage. Those who appeal to the worst instincts always succeed, those who appeal to the better instincts will invariably fail. See the US for a case study.

  15. Well in one way it is a terrible indictment of political leadership in Australia that moral suasion is done so rarely. On the other hand, isn’t it also a positive that Australians are so reluctant to have their minds changed by politicians?

    I dunno Liam – I DO miss the days when you could admire them. From afar, you know. Not that I was there, but I miss people like Doc Evatt. Of course I was not there and you would know more, but when I remember how he managed to turn the referendum outlawing communism all asplodey, and influenced the people to say, like, no – through sheer moral force, mind, – when I consider his finest hour, I just miss people like that. Not being there, it makes me miss it all the more and makes me think, we’ve missed all the finest hours of our political history. Well, that’s an exaggeration but, have wine, will hyperbolate, I mean, we didn’t even get BA Santamaria dagnabbit. I’m not sure I could have lived through BA Santamaria now I think of it, but it was a sheer stoush of beliefs if ever there was one. No. Now we are reserved for lycra and smarmy prefect mandarin perfect PMs. No, that’s the problem. No lights, no hills. I miss it. Thank God for the wine.

  16. Another example is when Fraser (for all his faults and they were many!!!) didn’t demonise the Vietnamese “boat people” the way the previous government did the Afghanis/Iraqis/Sri Lankan “boat people”, instead providing a bit of, you know, leadership sorta thing.

  17. Fraser is an interesting one. Following Whitlam he seemed stuffy and conservative. Preceding Howard he’s almost a hippy.
    “As if the State had a responsibility to provide replacements or additions where one of the two was lacking, from a store of spare Mums and Dads in a warehouse somewhere.”
    Well when you put it like that…but from the point of view of the state it sure is. Surely you can’t deny the role of the state in determining social relations particularly around the ideology of “family” and what a proper “family” should look like.

  18. I think we’re on the same page, Casey, about the Light on the Hill. It’s just that the most morally suasive politician in Australia’s recent history (IMO) has Pauline Hanson, and I’m very glad that in the end the ONP were just not very effective at firing up widespread toxic racism. Australia started the 1990s a country suffocatingly complacent about race and ended the 2000s the same way.

    have wine, will hyperbolate

    That’s one for a brass plaque by the front door, I think, Casey.

  19. I see it as the absolute opposite, Liam. Pauline Hanson wasn’t using “suasion” at all, she was simply whipping up a xenophobic fury which was already there. Going with it and using it. Then Howard dogwhistled and used that momentum and xenophobic fury instead of countering it – showing “leadership”.
    Similarly, politicians won’t show “leadership” wrt unpopular causes today – they’re all afraid to tackle climate change properly because it would involve leading the way to a lifestyle different from the fossil fuel-chomping one we have today. (Or is that different *to*?)

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