1Q: Does the country really change when the government changes?

Updated to change name of post (this interblog round robin will all use the same post title to aid searches)

Tim Dunlop is introducing a new feature where a round-robin of ozbloggers will respond to a question on a current topic. I’m chuffed he asked me to be one of the group. We’ll all take turns in asking questions, and this week the question is Tim’s:

My first question is picking up on something said by both John Howard and Paul Keating, namely, that when the government changes, so does the country. Both made the comment at a time when it looked to them like they might be about to lose power and so there was, of course, a sense of warning in their observation. So that’s my question: Does the country really change when the government changes?

My answer:

The opposite could be said to be equally true, that when the country changes so does the government, and in fact it is most likely that a mutual reciprocity exists between the opinions and attitudes of the electorate, of politicians and thus the policies and legislation of the governments that politicians form. The opinions and attitudes of the electorate also influence how civil servants implement governmental decisions, as well as how the media covers issues and how the government responds to media coverage, so the action-reaction is a continuing reciprocity and tension that exists throughout a government’s term, not just at election times.

Obviously, the “art” of government is meant to be in forming and implementing policies that influence society, that do change the country in ways the government thinks the country ought to go. Much of the allure of government is surely exactly this opportunity to engage in some tinkering with social engineering: the implementation of ideologies. The nuts and bolts of social administration are not nearly so appealing, and often seem to be viewed as interfering with the “real work” of governing, which is changing things in ways that are meant to be an improvement according to the ideology of the day.

Meanwhile the electorate is always mostly interested in, firstly, confidence that economic management will maintain and hopefully improve income, conditions and general lifestyle, alongside the second but almost equal consideration for most voters: the efficient delivery and maintenance of physical and social infrastructure items i.e. exactly those nuts and bolts that make governments’ eyes glaze over while governing (although the pollies give the appropriately reverent lip service during elections). The electorate’s identification with more specific aspects of partisan ideologies is nebulous for the most part, consisting of a broad sympathy with the politicians who usually articulate most of the same Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) items that they themselves feel apprehensive about.

Forgive me for what is perhaps a far too obvious extension of the metaphor, but there’s obviously a limit to how far the reciprocal tension between electorate and government can oscillate, how far one can drag the other into changing in the same direction, without the attachment snapping because of a fundamental imbalance in priorities.

So what do these tensions and balances between the nation and the Government mean when there’s an election in the air? Well, in periods of major attitude adjustment, whether led by the nation or by the government, the general FUD level rises and the Government is always going to end up being punished by the electorate. It may be perceived by some as damned if you do and damned if you don’t, but that’s the way it goes.

If the Government has been leading change that the electorate hasn’t wanted, that is felt to be too far too fast, and maybe in the wrong direction entirely to boot, then the electorate will dump the Government in hopes that a new leadership will put the brakes on and turn back on the correct way. If the national attitude has been rapidly changing and the Government isn’t following suit, if the electorate feels that the Government is dragging its heels, then the electorate will dump the Government in the hopes that a new leadership will gun the engine and finally turn that corner.

The Howard Government has managed to create high levels of electoral FUD in both arenas that the electorate tends to punish – too much change and not enough change, with both stances driven by ideology to boot. Too much change in the IR area, and not enough change on social justice issues that more and more people believe are not getting a fair go e.g. asylum seekers, same-sex unions and indigenous reconciliation. The tension between the government’s rate of change and the nation’s rate of change is obviously close to the snapping point of the bond that has ensured Howard’s last electoral victories. But has it actually broken yet?

Governmental change and national sentiment change may both affect the other, but in the end it is the nation that has the power to boot the Government and not the other way around. Governments want to think that they change the nation, but they can never in the long run change the nation more than it wants to change. Going by recent weeks, the Howard Government no longer appears to be in pace with the nation. If the nation wants to change, then they will change the Government to do it for them.

See responses from:

Joshua Gans (Core Economics)
Ken Parish (Club Troppo)
Harry Clarke (Harry Clarke)
Andrew Bartlett (The Bartlett Diaries)
Robert Merkel (The View From Benambra)
Kim (Larvatus Prodeo)
And, of course, Tim Dunlop (Blogocracy)

Updated to Add: Several of the above posts have been updated in response to the others’ thoughts, so if you clicked to view earlier you might get more blog if you take another look now.

Categories: culture wars, Politics, Sociology

Tags: , ,

5 replies


  1. CoreEcon » Blog Archive » If “It’s Time,” does that mean there’s change?
  2. Club Troppo » Tim's Teaser
  3. Q: Does the country really change when the government changes? » The Bartlett Diaries
  4. Larvatus Prodeo
  5. The interblog ventures, continued at Hoyden About Town
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