The major parties need ideas for today, not nostalgia for yesterday
‘The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,’ wrote Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, ‘[who] anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes.’ But one scarcely needs to be a committed Marxist to recognise the enduring relevance of the bearded scribbler’s take on the 1851 coup d’etat carried out by Napoleon’s nephew.
It is tempting to think of Tony Abbott’s much-pilloried decision to knight the Duke of Edinburgh in these terms in respect of an earlier Liberal Prime Minister. Simply exchange the ageing Prince Philip for a youthful Queen Elizabeth, and Abbott’s cringe-worthy ode to monarchism for Robert Menzies’s misty-eyed tribute – ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die’ – some six decades earlier.
But just as misdiagnosing the ‘knightmare’ fiasco of recent days as the cause rather than a symptom of the Abbott government’s political troubles, so too it is wrong to believe that Abbott simply wants to recreate the Anglophone monoculture of the Menzian age. Abbott’s ideological moorings are, in many respects, a world away from that of Menzies and indeed the teachings of the man critics think of as his mentor, Bob Santamaria.
Abbott’s political lodestar is John Howard. It is the Howard prime ministership which he so anxiously invokes. And it is this crippling form of political nostalgia, as much as unpopular policies, poor judgement and shoddy salesmanship of its leader, which is bedevilling the Abbott government as it approaches the hallway point of its term in office.
Just as some within Labor’s ranks and sections of the commentariat suffer from an unhealthy nostalgia for the Hawke-Keating years, a section of the Liberal Party has come to believe that they exist to merely hit restart on the Howard era. They appear to think that the Abbott’s government is acting out some script from that Howard’s first term (1996-98): first, confect a fiscal crisis for which the Opposition is, allegedly, solely to blame; second, announce policy nasties and broken promises early in the government’s life; third, distract your opponents with a series of culture wars aimed at those pesky ‘elites’; last, proceed triumphantly to the ballot box with the Howardista-mantra that ‘you may not like us but we get the job done’. If only politics were so easy.
Australia circa 1996 is a very different place to that of 2015. The pre-eminence of China, the implosion of manufacturing and the rise and fall of the mining boom have changed the game beyond recognition. We are more bound up in the vagaries of the international economy, one not yet recovered from the global financial crisis. Then there’s the 24-hour-news cycle and social media revolution. Two decades ago it was unthinkable that climate change might play a part in destroying three prime ministerships.
There are thousands of voters who were either not born when Howard was elected nearly nineteen years ago, or born elsewhere. Fond invocations of Howardism are to them meaningless. The mockery which followed Abbott’s indulgent revival of ‘knights and dames’ indicates that the old culture wars Howard waged with impunity against the dreaded elites now have the potential to backfire.
Politics is not a script seeking actors to perform prewritten lines. Indeed, bipartisan ‘reform’ nostalgia is the underlying reason why politics feels so broken at the moment. This is not to argue that elements of previous government’s modus operandi are not worth emulating –Hawke’s consensus style and Howard’s pragmatic touch undoubtedly contain many lessons for the current generation. But the politics of 2015 inevitably requires leaders to respond to the actual problems of today, rather than act out ideological fantasies. Oppositions, too, cannot afford to shirk the policy hard-yards.
What is needed is a focus on improving the quality of our institutions – from the halls of parliament to our boardrooms and workplaces. Both major parties need to tackle the tendency towards centralising decision-making power in Canberra and, specifically, the Office of the Prime Minister. We arguably need less government policy, better implemented.
In economic terms, we require an end to the obsession with a narrow focus of productivity-based reform. An order based on short-term profits and price competition should be abandoned in favour of sustainable, profitable industries centred on quality, innovation and environmental obligations, in turn providing for secure and well-paid employment.
The inspiration for the reforms Australia requires in coming years won’t be found in the experiences of the 1980s or 1990s. Rather our political class would be better advised to look at the experience of Marx’s birth-country. In Germany, Marx was not only proved wrong in his prediction of communist revolution, but its modern rulers have created a dynamic, resilient social market economy the envy of the world. But don’t hold your breath waiting for Tony Abbott to issue the battle cry of Modell Deutschland.
Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.