The game of politics
“Politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary.”
– Robert Louis Stevenson
At first glance this remark looks like a throwaway line from the adventure fantasy of Treasure Island or, in a darker mood, from the strange and terrible world of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. But when you think about it, Stevenson was probably right about Victorian times and he is not all that wrong now.
In nineteenth-century Britain, politics was seen as a bit of a diversion from the real business of life: a sort of gap year (or years) taken by those who felt it was their duty to serve the public or at least give the public the benefit of their superior wisdom. There were, of course, the others: the time servers, the party hacks, the go-getters and the grafters, who, it was widely believed, made up the bulk of those with their snouts in the parliamentary trough. But these were not the real politicians – the men (women did not even have the vote) who ran the country, albeit often on a part-time basis. They would never have referred to politics as a profession; it was The Great Game, in which they were the gentlemen, not the players.
With the granting of universal male franchise and the rise of the labour movement this changed to some extent, but even for those on the Left, formal politics remained a secondary consideration; the union movement was the true representative of the workers. Indeed, a seat in parliament was seen as a kind of retirement, a reward for services rendered; hence the derisory chorus: “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got a bludger’s job at last.” It was not until well into the twentieth century that politics was regarded as a serious occupation, let alone a worthwhile career choice; indeed, it could be argued that many in the parliament at Westminster still do not have that view.
In Australia the situation was slightly different. The colonial parliaments were always pretty amateurish affairs, but Federation, with its brand new popularly approved constitution, brought a change in attitude. The early days were fraught, but after 1909, when the conservatives finally merged into a unified party, the parliament of the Commonwealth became the country’s pre-eminent forum. And it took itself seriously, even if the voting public did not always agree. The political divisions were still seen to mirror those of industry: capital versus labour, the bosses against the unions. But increasingly it was in the parliamentary chambers of Melbourne and, later, Canberra that the important battles were waged and the crucial decisions made.
And in the process the men, and finally the women, who made them acquired a certain status. State politicians were still generally despised as second-raters, has-beens and never-would-bes more interested in lining their own pockets than in delivering services to those whom they were supposed to represent. However, by the time of World War II (if not before), politics, at least in the federal sphere, was no longer regarded as sinecure for well-intentioned part-timers. Which led, inevitably, to the question: what, precisely, were the qualifications and training needed to make a success of the job? And the only answer available was the one Stevenson had given half a century before.
On the conservative side at least, there was a general belief that achievement in the private sector gave the best prospect of success in public life: running the country was, after all, just like running a big-business enterprise. The same rules applied: balancing the books, keeping the staff in order and satisfying the customers, while seeing off the competition in the process. It sounded simple enough, but repeated experiments have shown that the translation is seldom, if ever, a happy one. In the last 20 years alone, the Liberal Party has embraced John Hewson and Malcolm Turnbull, both outstanding figures in the commercial world, but political disasters. Hewson lost the unlosable election of 1993 through a ham-fisted attempt to impose a new tax, and Turnbull forfeited the chance to fight an election by alienating half his party as well as more than half of the voting public. A few years earlier, a third tycoon, John Elliott – touted as a putative saviour by party president Tony Staley – managed to self-destruct before even entering parliament. Clearly, politics presents complications undreamt of in private enterprise.
Perhaps as a result of these failures, a different formula for success has emerged: instead of attempting to gain experience in other fields (“the real world”, as it used to be called) would-be politicians should immerse themselves in their chosen career from the very start. Politics should be a cradle-to-grave calling; anything else is mere distraction. According to this theory, training should begin at school, certainly no later than the teenage years. Student groups at universities are a good training ground and working for a party, ideally in a real politician’s office, an even better one. On the Labor side, trade unions offer many opportunities to learn the tricks of the trade – the trade, being, of course, politics, not the one performed by the workers the union was formed to represent.
Formal education is a matter of debate; when Gough Whitlam urged Paul Keating to improve himself by doing a university degree, his brash young protégé replied impertinently: “What for? Then I’d be just like you.” For those who do embrace it, the most popular courses are political science, although graduates who make it into parliament are usually dismayed to discover how very different the reality of politics is from the theory; economics, the dismal pseudo-science that now dominates political discourse to the extent that a grounding in the jargon, at least, is considered essential; and, of course, law, in which students are required to argue an untenable case with passion and conviction. This does not provide the wide-ranging liberal, even classical, education demanded by traditionalists, but hey, the days of Alfred Deakin, Robert Menzies and Gough Whitlam are long gone.
Proponents of the ‘start them young and keep them focused’ method can point to some successes; in their different ways Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard all had their eyes on the prize from a very early age and seldom, if ever, took time off to smell the roses. Of course, they had other interests: Hawke’s were mainly booze and women, for which he was forgiven; Keating’s were antiques and music, for which he was not. Howard’s only discernible recreation was watching sport, which he managed to turn into a political act by patriotically appearing at any event covered by television. This was political professionalism at its finest. Which brings us to the next question: what exactly is meant by political professionalism? Well, these days, it has almost nothing to do with the substance of politics and everything to do with the technique.
Politics, as the word suggests, is basically about policy. The Macquarie Concise Dictionary defines politics as “the science or art of political government”. Politics makes the laws by which we live, it covers the conditions under which we work and play, it has a bearing on what we eat and where we sleep, what we trade and with whom, whether we live at war or in peace, what our money can buy at home and abroad. Most importantly, politics settles disputes between competing interests and sets standards of justice. On every level, politics determines the nature and quality of our society. But this is not what people who pay attention to the contemporary Australian media understand by politics at all. Most voters are more likely to concur with the Macquarie’s fourth meaning of the word: “political methods or manoeuvres”, or worse still, its sixth: “the use of underhand or unscrupulous methods in obtaining power or advancement within an organisation”. Politics in the modern sense is all about winners and losers, about control and spin.
These have always been part of the process: the best policy in the world is of no use without the power to implement it, and gaining that power usually involves some compromise of principle. As Gough Whitlam famously remarked, “Certainly, the impotent are pure,” and in the world of politics the reverse also applies: the pure are always impotent. The choice between absolute moral integrity and the ability to make changes for the better has to be faced and, as Peter Garrett could testify, this can be painful. But that is a reason for retaining the primacy of policy, not for discarding it. The tragedy of democracy – which, as Winston Churchill pointed out, remains the worst form of government except for all the others – is that in their struggle to attain power, so many politicians forget why they wanted it in the first place. Winning the game becomes the only thing that matters; the means become the end. And, in the eyes of the media, the professional politician is the one who knows how to play the game to perfection, not the one with the ideas and vision that are supposed to drive the whole process.
The paradox is that the more the politicians bow to the media idea of professionalism, the further they drift from the real basis of their profession: policy. It is simply a matter of time and resources. Fifty years ago, the then president of France, Charles de Gaulle, lamented the complexity of his task: “how can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Kevin Rudd could reasonably reply: “How can anyone govern a country that has 17 million internet users, all of whom have different obsessions and the means of communicating them in five seconds flat?” Obviously, you ignore most of them and spend what time you have communicating through the mass media. Isn’t that what they are for?
Well, up to a point, Prime Minister. The media have their own problems. Old hands will still tell you that the core task of the media is to purvey the news. But over the years the idea of what makes news has changed quite a bit. These days what a politician says – even what the prime minister says – is seldom news in its own right. A major policy announcement will still usually make the front page, although if one print-media outlet has managed to secure the story in advance, rivals may bury it or even ignore it out of spite. One day on the front page is not much use, though, if you have a complex and controversial idea to convey. Somehow it has to be kept in the headlines for days, weeks, even months if the public is to embrace it. Kevin Rudd failed to do this with his emissions trading scheme, and paid the price: his handling of the issue was branded “unprofessional”.
News management on the scale demanded by the multifarious sources competing for attention is just about a full-time job in itself, and it cannot be left to the spin doctors, pollsters, sociologists, psephologists, necromancers and psychopaths who now infest the offices of our elected representatives. The media insist on a face, and not just any face: they want the prime minister himself. And they want him in the time and place of their choice. With the sophisticated resources of the mainstream this may be possible, but then there are the fringes: the variety shows, the tyrants of talk-back, the shock jocks. And this is before you even start on the internet with its blogs, Facebook and Twitter. Trying to run this gauntlet on a regular basis may be very professional in media terms, but it leaves precious little time for any real work.
And the killer is that most of the media are simply not interested in policy anyway – at least not in the substance of policy. What counts is whether a platform will appeal to the voters and what conflict it can generate, both inside and outside parliament. Unquestionably, the government’s most substantial policy release of the last 12 months was the first instalment of Kevin Rudd’s blueprint to fix the health system. The release was quite deliberately done in stages, partly to stretch out its news potential as far as possible, but also to give the stakeholders time to analyse and digest the complexities of each section. Putting it out in one hit, it was thought, would strain the limits of the public’s attention span.
In 2001 Kim Beazley had tried something similar with the release of his Knowledge Nation, a comprehensive program to reform the country’s education and communication systems. Devised by Barry Jones, it emerged as a weighty tome in which the interrelations between the various institutions involved in the education process were illustrated by a simple connectivity diagram of the kind widely used in primary schools. After one glance, the Opposition described the diagram as “spaghetti and meatballs” and the entire platform was derided by the media as “Noodle Nation”. It sank without trace.
Rudd did not want this to happen to his health reforms. Perversely, this time the Opposition complained that chapter one was not more comprehensive; it was limited, as its title suggested, to the hospital system. No matter that Rudd specifically foreshadowed other statements about increasing the numbers of doctors and nurses, providing more hospital beds, improving GP services and putting personal health records on an electronic database, as well as promising to deal with disabilities and the health issues of particular groups such as Indigenous Australians; the media wanted it all and they wanted it now. And this was considered far more newsworthy than the actual content of the plan. To add to the furore, the state premiers were called in to reinforce the demands. Medical authorities who supported or endorsed the proposals got a paragraph here and there, but it was those who could be persuaded to oppose who made the headlines.
Serious analysis was almost non-existent; the details of the proposed restructure were generally summed up in a dot-point list. And this was the big one, the one the media had been howling for for more than two years, the one that was going to be the great test of the government’s ability to make the hard policy decisions. It is hardly surprising that the government has become preoccupied with media management and spin. Indeed, Rudd felt he had no choice but to play the game himself; he started talking about state bureaucrats bent on setting up scare campaigns when he should have been explaining calmly and concisely just how the scheme would work. Already, though, the media had moved on and were baying for the release of Ken Henry’s tax report. Once again Rudd and his ministers were forced to react to the incessant clamour for instant gratification, rather than proceed methodically with the processes of government.
Under these circumstances it is inevitable that policies are increasingly launched upon the populace with insufficient forethought and preparation. Rudd and his hapless minister Peter Garrett have been excoriated over their handling of the home insulation scheme; certainly it was a rushed job, but given the climate at the time what else could they do? The Global Financial Crisis was seen as threatening the whole economic system, with Australia facing the prospect of mass unemployment on the scale of the Great Depression. The stimulus package was the only hope and the home insulation scheme was an environmentally worthwhile initiative that could be rolled out almost at once. Sure, there were caveats and warnings, but the times were thought to be desperate. So the scheme was rushed, the spivs and shonks and rorters moved in, and of course it was all the government’s fault. It was a ready-made situation for a simplistic tabloid beat-up, and that was what we got. The Opposition leapt on board (as Tony Abbott would testify, that was what Oppositions were for) and once again the government had to turn its attention away from its core business of making policy and spend day after day attempting to simply hold its ground.
Legitimate politics, certainly, but you can’t have it both ways; you can’t keep insisting that the government gets on with job of government while demanding that it spend all its time responding to the daily news cycle – which is now, as they say, 24/7. Journalists who used to be able to concentrate on doing stories in some depth, confident that they faced only one deadline per day, are now required to produce content to fill the media websites as well; they are never off the air, and understandably they want the politicians to be equally available to provide them with new material. It doesn’t have to be a policy scoop – a spot of gossip is almost as good or, for blogging purposes, even better. So, here also, the old ideas of what makes a professional have become irrelevant. There is no real time for thought and analysis; what matters is delivery. There are still some honourable exceptions to this rule. It would be invidious to name them, but let’s just say that they are confined almost exclusively to the broadsheet newspapers and the ABC.
And they are generally full-time journalists, not part-time columnists, almost all of whom see themselves not as commentators, but as players in the game, movers and shakers, one-eyed supporters of one side or another. Like the radio shockers, they should not be taken seriously, but in a climate of non-stop electioneering, they are yet another distraction in every politician’s day. Then there are the real lobbyists, the hardened professionals who hang around Parliament House, as prolific as bogong moths in season, and far more pestilential. They can afford to be utterly single-minded in pressing their case: it’s all about winning favours for their clients, so there are no competing interests to balance. In spite of somewhat desultory attempts to bring the plague under control, they have become steadily more numerous and persistent over the years and many have real clout, or pretend to have; they claim some power to influence the flow of contributions to party funds and even blocs of votes. True or not, they have to be considered as part of the whole immensely complex and time-consuming process of government.
In making his celebrated apology for the errors in the home insulation scheme and by extension everything else, Kevin Rudd alluded to this all but impenetrable tangle. “Look,” he said, “I think it is quite plain that one of the problems we have had as a government, for which I accept responsibility, is we didn’t anticipate how hard it was going to be to deliver things.” In other words, even for this hardened veteran of Queensland’s state bureaucracy, the convolutions of the federal system came as a shock. This from the man who is notoriously one of the hardest working prime ministers in our history, and ruthless in his demands on himself and others. Like Boxer, the willing horse in George Orwell’s classic Animal Farm, he sees the answer to most problems as a commitment to work even harder. It is true that he still finds time for what he probably sees as relaxation; in his free moments he visits churches and the homeless, pens philosophical essays and has even relaxed into a children’s book about the family pets. But it is fair to say that his mind is never very far from the job and that he genuinely believes that what he is doing – or trying to do – is in the best interests of his country, and indeed of the wider world.
The world, of course, is seen by the commentariat as a side issue, yet another diversion from his real work, which is to answer whatever questions they see fit to pose. He tries to do that too, but there are times when he sees other issues – the G20, for instance, or the cause of world nuclear disarmament – as more pressing. In this context it is worth noting that, partly at the behest of the said commentators, he has cancelled a planned trip to a high-level conference on the latter subject. To take yet another trip overseas in an election year, it was felt, could be seen as unprofessional, or even as putting policy above what is now regarded as the real and only purpose of politics: winning elections.
It is worth noting that in his time in Opposition, Rudd was the ultimate policy wonk; aided by two equally committed henchmen, John Faulkner (now condemned to the permanent imbroglio of Defence) and Lindsay Tanner (now poring over the books in Finance), he put forward what was arguably the most detailed program for reform since the heady days of Gough Whitlam in 1972. His Education Revolution alone was a formidable undertaking and one that is still a very long way from being realised. In this sense Rudd in Opposition could truly be described as a professional: methodical, disciplined, intent on his objectives and eager to communicate them to the public. The same, incidentally, cannot be said about Tony Abbott, whose idea of policy-making usually appears to involve no more than a momentary insight into popularism; when he described his unconsidered plan for parental leave as “visionary”, he presumably meant that it had come to him in a vision. In spite of having an advantage Rudd lacked – seven years as a federal minister under a political master in John Howard – Abbott remains a genuine political amateur. Yet a great many commentators, and not only the die-in-a-ditch conservatives, regard his performance as more professional than that of the prime minister.
Or at least they did until his extraordinary announcement, because the vision was fatally flawed. It ignored the most basic commandment of electioneering: Thou shalt not impose a new tax. Indeed, even to suggest raising an existing tax is forbidden; one of the more absurd rituals the Australian media have inflicted on their politicians is to extort a solemn promise before every poll that they will not, in their term of office, increase the total tax burden. Most do so anyway; they are expected to do so. But during the campaign itself they are compelled to lie about their intentions. Those who refuse to comply, such as Mark Latham in 2004, are branded unelectable by the commentators. The terrible example of John Hewson and that unlosable election of 1993 is ever present. When John Howard decided to revisit the never-ever GST five years later, he had to hedge it around with all kinds of undeliverable bribes, and even then he barely scraped home in 1998 with a minority of the popular vote. He went on to shamelessly increase taxes as a proportion of the total economy, but never admitted it: the imposts were always described as levies, tolls, duties or surcharges – never taxes.
When Abbott stated openly that his plan involved a new tax of 1.7% on large companies with big profit margins – those, in fact, most able to pay – he provoked a near universal shitstorm. His loyal lieutenants tried vainly to undo the damage: shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said it was not so much a tax as a levy, and a strictly temporary one at that. His shadow minister for the status of women, Sharman Stone, went even more weaselly, calling it an investment in human capital. But it was all too little too late, and if Abbott had bothered to talk to even a handful of his advisers in advance they would have told him so. The knockout punch came when the idea was endorsed not only by feminists, but by the Greens. This proved conclusively that it was utterly irresponsible, a lunatic proposal that if implemented would destroy the entire Australian economy.
The merits or otherwise of Abbott’s policy were barely mentioned; what mattered was his lack of professionalism in daring to defy a mindless shibboleth. Such are the times we live in.