A good kind of uncertainty
This year brought many surprises, and that’s a good thing
“In what way is any single person sure how a certain matter will turn out?”
That quotation, which I found in a review of writer Henry Green’s work, comes from the novel Concluding, and could serve as a more elegant and stern phrasing of the oft-made assertion that anything could happen. In the context of the chaos of #auspol (a friend pointed out to me this week the surprising endurance of that hashtag), that sternness is important. If you are involved in politics, do not assume things will stay as they are. If you are writing about politics, start from the assumption that you will be wrong, very often. If you are observing, and voting, then be thrifty with your trust.
But it was in fact the next line of the review that leapt out at me: in Concluding, wrote Dustin Illingworth, “Green has made of this uncertainty a kind of exaltation”. Yes! Many of us groan at the relentlessness of politics right now, and certainly its smallness and the brutality seem interminable. But the relentlessness comes also from uncertainty, which in turn is driven by the endlessly interesting conflicts between very different people, genuine ideological battles both within and between parties, and the rapid change in technology and media we are witnessing.
Isn’t there something fantastic in this? Something deserving of exaltation?
All this is important to remember, I think, coming off the back of a year that has at times seemed difficult. It is also a long way of saying don’t trust my predictions. And with that caveat attended to, let me waste a paragraph or two of your time.
For what it’s worth, I think the best you can do is prioritise what we do know over what we don’t – and what we do know isn’t very promising for the government. Opinion polls have remained poor for a very long time. Malcolm Turnbull does now have some achievements to claim. He has delivered some significant changes, against opposition both within and outside of his party. However, he is not good at retail politics, and does not seem to have received credit for any of them. He is neither a figure of awe or affection in his party. Even as things improved this week, the Nationals managed to look silly. Scott Morrison either deliberately or foolishly gave the impression he was – albeit very slowly – easing the leadership baton out of his backpack. One ambitious man does not a crisis make, but remember that a few weeks ago the cabinet was leaking like a piñata.
On the other side I, like most of Australia, remain unenthused about Bill Shorten, for reasons I’ve spent some of this week outlining: an over-reliance on tactics and soundbites. But Shorten almost won the last election, and first-term federal governments never lose in this country. He is an excellent political thinker. The last few weeks have been messy, but before that Labor had been cohesive for a very long time. And Labor brought serious policy to the last election, which should give it the confidence to do it again.
But in saying that’s the best guide, I’m going against what I said to begin with: don’t assume that things will stay as they are. Anything could happen.
That hoary tradition dispensed with, let me add to the exalted uncertainty another reason to be glad.
I’ve written a bit this week about the dearth of policy in the national debate right now. There are important discussions we are avoiding. The treatment of refugees should be a source of national shame, but has become the accepted status quo. Terrorism receives a lot of attention, but the way our politicians react to its threat is too easily accepted [$]. The list is long. But we are also now having several discussions that are overdue.
One of the most important is the growing awareness of the popularity of minor parties and independents. It was apparent in last year’s federal election, in the recent Queensland election, and impossible to ignore in this week’s South Australian Newspoll results [$]. This has led to a million theories about what, precisely, is going on. It often feels as though the major parties haven’t quite caught up with this theorising – as though they believe that if they can just find the right focus group–tested message then the voters will come flooding back. That’s institutional entrenchment for you. But in one way or another significant change will come, because competition for votes will force it.
Some of the other emerging discussions are occurring because of this hunt for votes. The most notable is around inequality, including the dominance of big business (and perhaps neoliberalism more broadly). Despite the cynicism of my last paragraph, both major parties have recognised this. The prime minister’s embrace of both schools reform and the NDIS in this year’s budget was one sign. As has been frequent on policy, Labor got in first, with its actions on superannuation and housing affordability (and schools reform and the NDIS). It will be very interesting to see how the coming tax debate plays out in this context.
The third area that must be mentioned is the increasing prominence of gender equality as a subject of discussion. Unfortunately, that is still too often where it stops – at discussion. The Coalition continues to do terribly at preselecting women, and the PM did not do well enough in his reshuffle. On the other hand, at least this was widely noted. Neither major party has embraced quotas for boardrooms, but Labor’s Chris Bowen did say they should be considered. It is also a very good thing that so much attention is now being paid to the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and assault – surely the story of the year (although, as has been pointed out by many, Australia’s defamation laws make speaking out more difficult here than in some countries). These issues, of representation and harassment, cannot be entirely separated: both are about men’s embedded attitudes towards women.
One final subject, though whether it is sufficiently discussed is debatable: the influence of money on politics. Turnbull’s move to limit foreign donations is excellent. But domestic donations continue to pour in from companies who want favours. Politicians continue to take jobs with companies they have done favours for. This was discussed a lot this year, but we have still not seen comprehensive legislation to deal with it. That should be a priority in 2018.
Important elements in politics are changing. The discussions we are all having – whether on television or in our loungerooms and workplaces – have shifted a long way in a few short years, and in ways we would not have guessed at. To take just one: marriage equality this year became a legal reality with an overwhelming national vote in its favour. We can speculate now about the comparable changes of the next five years, but we will probably be wrong. Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – that uncertainty is to be exalted.
This is my last column for The Monthly Today. It has been a privilege writing for you, and I will miss it. The most sincere thanks to all who have read the column, and to all of my excellent editors, the team at the Monthly, and Morry Schwartz.
The Monthly Today will return, with Paddy Manning, on Monday, 29 January.
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