November 2, 2021

Federal politics

How Australian public life has been diminished

By Judith Brett
Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and former prime minister Tony Abbott, November 7, 2019. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Image

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and former prime minister Tony Abbott, November 7, 2019. Image © Bianca De Marchi / AAP Image

Culture wars, climate wars and the bureaucratisation of writing have eroded the public sphere

It’s been a dismal decade, or more. When did it start, this sense that Australia has lost direction? In 1996, when Pauline Hanson brought her mean-spirited grievances into the national parliament? In 2001, when John Howard refused to let the captain of the Tampa land 433 desperate refugees rescued from drowning? In 2008 and 2009, when Kevin Rudd was so intent on wedging Malcolm Turnbull that he destroyed the possibility of a bipartisan energy policy? Or was it the next year, when the ALP’s bovver boys convinced Julia Gillard to challenge Rudd for the leadership; or 2013, when Tony Abbot was elected on a series of lies about his plans for the budget, and became Australia’s worst prime minister ever?

There are so many low points and not many highs. But there are a few, and we should acknowledge them: the bipartisan introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the hugely successful management of the first year of the coronavirus pandemic by the combined efforts of the state and federal governments. As well, since Scott Morrison became prime minister, politics has become more civil than in the preceding years. This is not much, though, to balance the ledger.

All the time the planet has been heating, the natural environment continuing to degrade. China has been reshaping the international order, and our trading strengths in fossil fuels and international tourism and education have been evaporating. Only iron ore has reliable staying power, backed up by a basket of farm exports. There are plenty of ideas about how to diversify our export income using our natural advantages in renewable-energy sources, and some action in the private sector, but nothing yet that looks like national leadership from our politicians. They barely seem aware of how vulnerable our economy has become.

Leadership theory distinguishes between transactional and transformational leaders. Transactional leadership is an adaptation by management theory of Max Weber’s rational-legal authority, where authority derives from adherence to established rules rather than from either tradition or from personal power, which Weber called charisma. The transactional leader offers competence with a focus on proper process within established structures, and elicits followers’ compliance through systems of rewards and sanctions. Donald Trump has sometimes been called a transactional leader because of his focus on “the deal” and his propensity to punish dissenters, but his disregard for process makes him a poor fit. The big drawback of transactional leaders is their difficulty dealing with change.

Transformative leaders, by contrast, are all about change, reshaping people’s values and perceptions and the way things get done, using their skills in communication to build trust and shared goals. When people criticise leaders for lacking vision and failing to provide “real leadership”, it is transformative leadership they long for. Transformational leaders inspire; transactional leaders reassure. Generally a lot more people crave reassurance than inspiration, particularly when we are talking about prime ministers and electorates, so anxiety trumps hope.

Most of Australia’s successful prime ministers have been transactional leaders, offering competence and an incremental, pragmatic approach to change. It fits well with the Liberal Party’s core mission of keeping Labor and its dangerous new ideas from the treasury benches. Robert Menzies and John Howard are the standouts, though Howard had more policy ambitions than Menzies did. He succeeded in introducing a consumption tax but failed in his attempts to radically reform the industrial-relations system. Menzies was not so much interested in policy reform as in shoring up existing structures and institutions against Labor’s socialist threats. In this he was remarkably successful. His failures too were characteristic of transactional leadership, as he clung to race-based policies in immigration and Indigenous affairs. After he retired the Coalition governments of Harold Holt and John Gorton were freer to embark on reform.

The only Liberal leader who might be regarded as transformational was Alfred Deakin, though more so as a leader of the federation movement than as prime minister. During the 1890s Deakin’s silver-tongued oratory imbued the cause of federation with spiritual meaning as he urged people to transcend their parochial colonial identities in the birth of new nation. Once federation was achieved, however, as the Commonwealth’s first attorney-general and three times its prime minister, Deakin’s focus shifted to building the institutional structures for the new nation.

Our current prime minister, Scott Morrison, is clearly transactional, with a focus on practical outcomes and a reliance on process to manage political problems. He doesn’t like being taken by surprise, or rushed into a response to unexpected events. “We’re looking into it,” he’ll say. “The government is taking advice.” Or he’ll establish an inquiry. In response to Brittany Higgins’ public allegation that she was raped in Parliament House by a fellow Liberal Party staffer, he established five. This can seem like playing for time till the heat dies down, rather than a genuine attempt to find real-world solutions. The crunch comes when the reports come in, if people are still paying attention. Then the government needs to take some responsibility for fixing and not just recognising problems.

Our last transformational prime minister was Paul Keating. As treasurer he opened up Australia’s highly protected economy. As prime minister from 1993 to 1996 he tried to shift the culture: to convince Australians to become a republic, to embrace our location on the edge of Asia and to be generous in our acknowledgement of Indigenous rights. But he failed. The culture wars had already broken out over the recognition of frontier violence against Aboriginal people and the continuing injustice of their treatment by governments. John Howard took them up to Keating and won the 1996 election with the slogan “For all of us”.

Around 2000, as pressure mounted for Australia to reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, the culture wars were joined by the climate wars. Together these have diminished Australian public life, too often reducing it to sterile adversarialism which prioritises anger and indignation over sympathy and compassion, and leaves little room for doubt and the compromise on which successful democracies are built.

Complex policy problems have many stakeholders; stable solutions require give and take, with major players prepared to live with what, to them, are less-than-perfect outcomes and to share the credit. Although adversarialism is baked into our parliament, there are plenty of opportunities for compromise: coalition and minority governments, upper houses not controlled by the government of the day, free and conscience votes, cooperation on parliamentary committees, the handling of preferences at election time. The capacity to compromise is evidence of strength, of respect for other interests and values and a common interest in enduring solutions, just as often as it is evidence of weakness and indecision.

One of the more depressing sights of the past few years was Prime Minister Morrison sitting with his back to Anthony Albanese during Question Time in June 2020. He did it again to Tanya Plibersek in October that year. We know Morrison doesn’t like answering questions, especially when they come from women, but it showed an ignorant disrespect for our parliamentary traditions. The term His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, which dates from the early 19th century, was a major advance in the development of parliamentary government: one could oppose the government of the day without being accused of treason. Robert Menzies would never have done it.

Although Morrison is temperamentally adversarial, he is not a culture warrior like Howard, Abbott and the News Corp cheer squad. Focused on winning elections, he is not very interested in ideas. Instinctively he responds to problems in terms of their electoral logic rather than their national importance; but decades of culture and climate wars have turned the party of Menzies from a champion of high culture and universities – traditionally the wellspring of ideas – into one at best sceptical of their value, if not hostile to them.

Contemporary Liberals still mine Menzies’s 1942 speech to “The Forgotten People” for images and arguments. It is where Joe Hockey’s speechwriter found “leaners and lifters”. But Menzies’ Forgotten People were not just economically independent; they were also custodians of “the intellectual life … which finds room for literature, for the arts, for science, for medicine and the law”. Menzies instigated the great expansion of Australia’s universities during the 1960s and 1970s. Ironically for today’s Liberal Party, the higher one’s education the less likely one is to vote Liberal, so the arts and the nation’s cultural institutions are chronically underfunded compared with sport; and when COVID-19 hit, the universities were refused support. One has to draw the line somewhere said the treasurer, Josh Frydenberg. But why there? It looks like an electoral calculation, for surely it cannot be in the national interest to weaken Australian universities’ capacities to teach and do research.

I have been lucky in my university and intellectual life. I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s when an Arts honours degree (I did politics and philosophy) was far more intensive and demanding than today’s degree. Today, Arts students are offered far less than we were, and they have to pay much more for it. The current state of humanities and social-science teaching in Australia fills me with despair, as do the difficulties facing academics who want to write for the public.

I did my PhD at the University of Melbourne in the second half of the 1970s with Alan “Foo” Davies, a professor of politics with a deep and long-standing interest in the light psychoanalytic ideas could cast on politics. He had gathered similarly interested academics and postgraduates around himself, including Graham Little, who used interview-based case studies to explore the relationship between individual experience and broader social themes.

From time to time Foo would invite various Melbourne psychoanalysts to his room at the university for a seminar with interested academics and postgraduates. These were regularised into the Melbourne Psychosocial Group, which ran for a little over 10 years from the late 1970s. It grew as like-minded people joined, including around 1980 an influx of Lacanians from Buenos Aires. As well, each year Doug Kirsner and Max Charlesworth from Deakin University would organise a weekend Freud conference, which is still going.

Such groups, which are the yeast of cultural and intellectual life, once found a congenial home in Australian universities, as did small magazines like Meanjin, where I honed my writing skills as its third editor (from 1982 to 1986). Meanjin was not an academic journal contributing to the development of a discipline, but a little magazine committed to shaping and informing public debate and contributing to Australia’s literary culture. It was one among other little magazines such as Overland, Quadrant, Arena, Thesis 11 and Australian Book Review, and literary journals like Scripsi, Southerly, Westerly and Australian Literary Studies. As well, from 1980 to 1989 the Age Monthly Review published long pieces of cultural and literary analysis, as did The Australian’s Review of Books from 1996 to 2000. Although some publications, like Meanjin, were housed in universities, and most were edited by employed academics, the sources of their energy were outside the academy, in both progressive and conservative politics, in the social movements, and in commitment to Australian writing and culture. All participated in what the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas called the Public Sphere, the place where citizens in liberal democracies converse about the problems of the day, their meanings and their solutions.

The 1980s were an intellectually exciting decade, as wave after wave of theoretical innovation swept across the humanities and social sciences: cultural Marxism, psychoanalysis, structuralism and deconstruction. It was heady stuff, arcane and full of technical language which was jargon to outsiders, but with powerful new insights about the way language and culture embodied and maintained constellations of power, distorting and suppressing some stories and experiences, valorising others.

The term “public intellectual” then had some currency. For a time in the 1990s and early 2000s newspapers would publish lists of them, and many were academics like myself who were as committed to engaging in public debate as to participating in their academic disciplines, often more so. It was easier to imagine a public then than it is now, when opinion and debate has been fragmented by social media, although there are still places to publish engaged analytic writing, as I have found when writing Quarterly Essays and for The Monthly.

It was much easier, too, for academics to write for the public. University research audits now impose costs on academics who write for the public. Books are often scored the same as are five articles in a refereed journal, though many books take much, much longer to research and write. I would not have been able to write my biography of Alfred Deakin had I still been employed at a university. It had to wait till I retired.

In “The Bureaucratisation of Writing”, which I wrote in the early 1990s, I claimed that there were two preconditions for good writing: a fully imagined reader and something interesting to say. Neither of these is easy to achieve but for most of today’s academics they are all but impossible, as casualisation and repeated structures erode collegiality and as research audits push them towards purely academic writing. I was lucky. As a postgraduate pursuing my interest in psychoanalysis with a group of like-minded friends and colleagues, I built the skills and knowledge that later gave me things to say about public life; and as an employed academic I learned to write for the public.

The essays collected in Doing Politics were written under particular economic and social conditions which have changed markedly since I started writing in the early 1980s. The bureaucratisation of writing by universities has gone far further than I then imagined. Neoliberalism and its bedfellow, the new public management, assume a particular form of human subjectivity, the rational, opportunity-maximising, self-interested individual of market liberalism who is primarily motivated by competition in their working and public life. Universities have followed suit, placing great faith in competitive self-interest to motivate their staff.

Once, when I was discussing the problem of where to publish with a prominent academic, he replied, “I don’t care if no one reads my work – I publish for the points to get the next grant.” He was a very competitive man who may still be able to think and write well in this frame of mind, but most such instrumental work is cautious and uninteresting, producing no new ideas. Theorists of creativity have described the way the boundaries of the self blur during creative endeavour. As one thinks hard, the outer world falls away, but it is hard to lose oneself in thought when one is employed casually, or wondering if one’s subject area will survive a hostile dean.

If universities are no longer conducive to engaged and creative intellectual work, people will find other contexts, as many always have. People with things to say will find places to say them and people who want to listen.


This is an edited extract from Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life by Judith Brett, published by Text Publishing.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is Doing Politics: Writing on Public Life.

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