Dreams, we know, can be fleeting, disappearing with the dawn. Small moments of insight are equally evanescent, best to jot them down when they happen
There have been two small epiphanies for me in this political year. The first happened when, for a whole afternoon, the heavily contested universe I inhabit didn’t turn the full force of its scorn on Tony Abbott. Peace broke out on the day Abbott announced that 12,000 displaced Syrians would come to our shores to find refuge from unimaginable horror. For several hours the nation absorbed the unexpected news that something rational had emerged from Canberra. The flow of information was orderly, measured and proportionate, as was the reaction. It had been so long since I’d felt peace and stillness in my world, the harmony of the moment resonated. I’d been on the deepest of dives, pressure pounding in my ears, then, suddenly: surface, light, sky, release.
But the peace wasn’t going to last. Even in that pause, momentum coiled. Tumult, once unleashed, is pervasive. The combat culture Tony Abbott had promulgated was about to take him out.
My second moment came on the evening Malcolm Turnbull took back the Liberal Party leadership. I was at home when news of the challenge broke, and felt the stress of a parent absorbing a work-related hiccup at short notice. There was a frantic hour of domestic sorting, but from the moment my backside hit my parliament office chair I felt perfectly calm. Given the bedlam, and the self-evident fact we were about to endure several punishing days of waterfall reporting, that calm was a strange sensation to feel.
There was none of that surge of adrenalin that makes you feel ill, only that little pulse of anticipation that every journalist feels when they step up to contribute to a major news event. I pounded the keyboard with ten-minute updates, and wondered what on earth was going on with me.
Was it the nature of this particular contest, which ran with no ragged edges, no outbursts of emotion—a Christopher Nolan coup: stylised violence with no blood spatter, like a dance, almost restful to watch? No. Not that. It felt bigger than that. Eventually I twigged that this world—the rolling Canberra crisis—was no longer an exotic development. There had been many nights like this since 2010, delivering them to our readers had become routine.
When Kevin Rudd was taken out in the dead winter of 2010, the whole building erupted. It was chaos. Half the Labor Caucus didn’t know what was happening. In between pounding the keyboard I ran from office to office when people stopped answering their phones. It was new, and visceral. It was raw and bizarre: a first-term prime minister cut down before facing re-election.
But five years later we’d lived through the change from Rudd to Gillard then back to Rudd, the inevitable change of government, then Tony Abbott’s stumbles and missteps, and a different cycle of self-destruction: one of arrogance rather than nihilism and despair. Then came the precipitous crash triggered by handing a knighthood to the Queen’s oxygen thief of a husband, which generated the February vote on a leadership spill. Abbott pleaded for his political life and was given six months grace. In late September, time was up.
To arrive here felt inevitable—about as dislocating as a scheduled stop on a commuter train. Another new Australian prime minister, then home before midnight. This time we even managed a bite of pizza in the office. We who inhabit the world of national politics have adjusted to high-velocity chaos. It’s our new normal. Some reporters in my corridor have known only this, and possibly can’t imagine the alternative: a reporting life where years pass and a government just governs.
I’m not saying I’m desensitised, that I’m blasé, that I don’t care. It’s just that my heart no longer thumps, even if my head constantly aches. And what does that mean, when little by little we all adjust to this new normal? Does it mean that this is all there is, that things can’t change?
Malcolm Turnbull’s prime ministership bloomed early in the Canberra spring. We were all still in a protective huddle, backs to the wind. The winter had been punishing and the ground was yet to thaw.
At an early Turnbull public event, over at the Australian War Memorial, Thucydides loomed out of the smoking ruin of Tony Abbott’s discarded death cult and his budget emergency, a little Turnbull speech bubble that felt weightier than just some rhetorical frippery. The Athenian general waged war and then wrote about it, producing a history with sufficient resonance to span the rise and fall of civilisations. Turnbull’s invocation felt like a statement of intent: here was a character happy to own such a reference without apologising to the editor of the Daily Telegraph for being up himself.
As David Marr noted with typical precision in Guardian Australia, Abbott was already fading, fading very fast from our memories. Abbott would press back of course, surfing and showering and bro-mancing with Hadley-the-Heartbroken in the reinforcing warmth of the 2GB studio, then with soul brother Mitchell at 3AW, both places of testosterone and monochrome, more front bar than womb.
Abbott was clutching at our fleeing heels and the media will welcome him. As my first bureau chief said to me 20 years ago, ‘That story needs conflict, and no lower than the third paragraph.’ But the real people were already in another place. The polls had bounced. In the spring at least, it was done.
Turnbull has the self-belief to think he could be a modern Thucydides. The mind of Malcolm is hard-wired to dream big, to fancy himself both of the fray and above it. Our new leader wants politics to be an adventure worthy of his talents. We must all rise beyond ‘rule in/rule out’ games, lift our eyes from the still-steaming entrails of leadership challenges—deals, numbers, undisclosed promises, treacheries—and look to the future.
Turnbull is banking on us wanting to do that, assuming, that, like him, we lacked the collective stamina to live a moment longer in the strange, quarrelsome, reductive, vacant universe of Abbottland. The early signs suggest he’s onto a winner with that impulse, but Abbott’s assertive lingering does not bode well. Turnbull is also trapped inside a cage constructed from all the undertakings and commitments he doesn’t want us talking about.
He knows full well the Liberal Party has veered too far right, and is out of step with the default national consciousness. He also knows he leads a party whose tribes considered two options: dying with Abbott and living with Turnbull. Not everyone chose to live. Not everyone will choose to let him live either.
Turnbull knows he has to carry the government back towards the political centre, but how, when, how fast—and what, exactly, will reason cost? How, too, to avoid becoming overweening in the reset, to avoid defaulting too heavily to ‘the rightness of all things seen by Malcolm’—a recurrent tic that has brought him undone more than once. Thucydides saw hubris in the downfall of Athens. Turnbull was born ready to lead, but people have to consent to being led.
Given the scale of the task, it’s impossible to say how long the initial national catharsis will last. Beginnings in politics matter. It’s largely forgotten now, but when Abbott first took office he thought he could call time on the madness. He thought that by withdrawing from the fray he could end the frenzy of the rolling news cycle and the very state of permanent panic he had engendered in politics in order to destroy his opponents. His first instinct wasn’t fight, it was actually flight.
There was a moment when Abbott could have gone either way: become a leader with the imagination and self-belief to be more than the script handed to him by his victory machine, to lean into events and new experiences and let them temper him; or default to the leader he ultimately became, a mouthpiece for boosters and backers, the peddler of grim formulations, conforming to the scripts and prognostications of the modern-day witches of Macbeth: Jones, Hadley, Bolt (double, double, toil and trouble).
Perhaps if his flight experiment had worked, Abbott would have approached his time in power differently. Politics is full of sliding-door moments: roads not taken, opportunities that once lost can never be recouped. Turnbull isn’t hesitating at the door of his prime ministership. He is unfurling wings in the hope the headwinds will lift him beyond the confines of all the grand bargains he doesn’t want to talk about; hoping too they don’t become a dead weight at the moment of flight.
A ceasefire is in order before we adjust permanently to the strangeness of the world we inhabit and mindlessly replicate the essential conditions because we’ve turned failure into a production line. It truly would be a disaster to discover that we had commodified dysfunction within the media–political eco system and conspired somehow, unwittingly, to turn politics into the worst reality television program anyone had ever seen.
Turnbull’s call for a new politics is both entirely self-interested and completely necessary. The idea that toxicity can be consigned to the past is compelling enough to put us all on the cliff, unfurling wings, waiting for that westerly. Even if he fails, it is time for the rest of us to think big, and perhaps succeed.
Political scientist Gerry Stoker tells us democracy is designed to disappoint, and he’s absolutely right. Politics is a deeply flawed business. We want our politics simple, clean and conflict free, when inherently it is none of those things. Democratic politics isn’t a panacea, it is simply a mechanism to synthesise societal conflict without resort to violence. Democracy is about ‘the tough process of squeezing collective decisions out of multiple and competing interests and opinions’, Stoker writes in Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work. ‘Politics is designed to disappoint—that’s the way that the process of compromise and reconciliation works. Its outcomes are often messy, ambiguous and never final.’
Stoker also notes one of the great paradoxes of our age: ‘Democracy is more dominant as a form of governance than ever before, but within both established and newer democracies there appears to be a considerable disenchantment with politics.’
In all Western democracies, this is the age of disruption and of disenchantment. In our consumerist and on-demand societies, we think we can trade up to a better model of politics. Disenchantment is powerful enough to have swept Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party, despite the surfeit of punditry suggesting a leftist of such unfashionable persistence is entirely unelectable as British prime minister. Corbyn, in parliament since the 1980s, is the insider’s outsider. The consistency of his dissent is, apparently, a beacon for supporters tired of endless compromise and repositioning and tough love for the greater good.
Disenchantment is also the drumbeat of the presidential race in the United States. Americans are flirting with political ‘outsiders’—the most voluble being billionaire Donald Trump, who is busily creating a universe where things don’t have to make sense as long as they generate a headline. Elaine Kamarck, writing for the Brookings Institution, considers the current phenomenon of non-politicians:
There is a lot of speculation as to why non-politicians are so popular this time around. Most of it centres on voters’ distrust and disappointment in traditional politicians and on polarisation among the two political parties. The political system is not working very well at all. You have to go all the way back to 2009 in the Real Clear Politics averages of polls to find a point where the same number of Americans thought the country was going in the right direction as thought the country was going in the wrong direction—a time when America was still in the honeymoon phase with their new president, a political newcomer himself. Since then many more Americans have thought the country was on the wrong track.
Kamarck counsels against defaulting to the easy conclusion:
The logic that seems to be pushing forward the Trumps … of the world is the belief that politics and politicians are the problem. But what if the problem with our politics is just the opposite? Not enough politicians who are good at politics?
She contends that politics once worked to sift out its own show ponies. The backroom process of securing major-party nomination for the presidency—a system that prevailed until the 1980s—might have lacked showbiz, but it worked to test core skills:
Would-be presidents had to wheel and deal their way to the nomination of their party. Those who won had generally shown some ability to put together coalitions and to win the respect of their peers. As the process changed and primaries replaced those awful smoke-filled rooms, a critical element of the nomination process got lost.
This is an interesting thought to inject into the Australian political scene. Julia Gillard’s failure to secure a working majority in either chamber at the 2010 election could have delivered paralysis: a do-nothing parliament. In fact it delivered the opposite. During that period the Australian Parliament passed more than 400 bills, some of them major reforms, including a carbon pricing scheme, the mining tax, plain packaging laws for cigarettes, parental leave and a Murray–Darling Basin plan.
Gillard as prime minister struggled to project competence in public. She lacked the default arrogant entitlement of the ‘great men of history’. Her private self got lost in the expanse of bitterly contested public space. She also failed to soothe or reassure, her mere presence being an affront to harmony for critics who crouched contentedly in the comfort of her flaws and missteps, the better to justify their more bizarre misogynistic impulses.
But while the writhing and the discontent thundered outside, and the reverse treachery seethed inside, Gillard proceeded, grittily in the circumstances, with governing and legacy-building. Gillard was a flawed prime minister in many respects, an enigmatic character who failed to inspire confidence, but she proved a master of the head down, bum up, getting it done approach. Ezra Klein recently reflected in Vox on this public–private phenomenon:
The inside game—courting donors, winning endorsements, influencing the primary calendar, securing key committee assignments, luring top staffers, working with interest groups—makes up the bulk of politics. Mastery of the inside game is hard to assess and so is frequently undervalued, but it’s also determinative—it’s why wooden campaigners like Mitt Romney and Al Gore win primaries, and why no current leader of either party’s congressional wing can deliver an exciting speech. The media often scratches its head over how such weak politicians prove so successful at politics, but the answer is they’re not weak politicians—they’re excellent politicians, but the part of politics they excel at is largely hidden.
When Abbott succeeded in replacing the riven Labor government, he quickly demonstrated he possessed none of Gillard’s supple backroom arts. He achieved the demolition of some of Labor’s policies—carbon pricing, the mining tax—but his wheels spun on his own agenda. He arrived in government asserting entitlement and mandate, including, bizarrely, for things he had neglected to tell the public about prior to winning the 2013 election. Abbott hectored the non-government parties in the parliament, eschewing courtship. As a consequence, the government’s agenda failed to progress. Delivering neither a coherent agenda nor certainty in the polls, Abbott was torn down by his own side.
While the United States flirts with outsiders as the antidote to its malaise, Australian politics is imposing a short shelf life on leaders. We’ve developed a vicious coup culture. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott were deposed during their first terms. Julia Gillard was denied the chance to campaign for a second. It looks corrosive and highly unstable, and perhaps it is. Perhaps in two decades we’ll say with certainty that Australian politics veered into zero-sum chaos in mid 2010 and never recovered. It is entirely possible. But I’m not prepared to call that yet.
Every event of the past five years is connected to every other event. There’s nothing random about the sequence. Treachery is nothing new in politics, nor is turbulence a new condition. There were five prime ministers between 1967 and 1972. Gough Whitlam could probably tell Abbott and Turnbull what winner-takes-all hyper partisanship and a hostile press look like, having experienced both in his tumultuous period in office.
A feeling of semi-permanent chaos and crisis has visited us before, and politics being a cyclical business, the national parliament has stabilised to deliver the voters more productive times. Malcolm Fraser stabilised after Whitlam by talking big but sitting tight, and Bob Hawke stabilised after the vacancy of the Fraser years by jolting Australia into modernity.
There’s one constant in politics: success breeds success. The question is, what will Turnbull do? Can he find his own circuit breaker, and more importantly, will we let him?
This is big dreaming territory. Australia is again having a debate about reform. This would be a promising development, an automatic stabiliser on a febrile political culture, if the debate didn’t so often ignore fundamentals. The first and most important fundamental is politics has to first strengthen its own foundations before it can engage in the worthy business of fixing the country. Politician, heal thyself.
The second is we really have to stop banging on about the death of reform, as if this phrase means something. It sounds portentous, but it’s actually fatuous. The ‘death of reform’ discussion is a proxy for the slow death of mansplaining. It’s a respectable-looking concept that allows querulous outrage to substitute for analysis.
Read the Australian newspaper and what you’ll get most days is a cohort of white middle-aged men raising a collective fist at a universe with the temerity to tolerate dissent and interruption. Why can’t things be as they were, in the days when power was a closed shop? Why must the system (whatever that is) be broken? To overcome its current challenges, Australian politics has to go back to its roots, and by that I mean back to people.
Standing between people and their parliament is a toxic swamp of self-interested rent seekers intent on making parliamentarians their puppets. The rent seekers move in at the first whiff of any ‘reform’ debate, eager to annihilate any grey area and safeguard their interests—stakeholder advancement first, broader public or national interest a distant second.
We’ve all seen the worst-case scenario: weak politicians folding at the first hint of grapeshot, or worse, folding in order to create a miniscule point of difference with their opponents for some ephemeral advantage. Media outlets parrot the various tired old wish lists and formulations from the usual suspects because it’s too hard to break the cycle and think of something genuinely new; and then they compound the vacancy with race-call stories rather than ferreting down into detail.
No wonder people increasingly want to take back politics and the discussion around politics. Voters appear perplexed at the capacity of politics to prioritise things that seem to work against their best interests, and audiences are ropable about journalists standing inside the system and looking out rather than standing with them, on the outside, looking in.
Australian voters aren’t sitting around their dining tables concluding something is horribly askew because the dynamics of 1985 don’t seem to work in 2015. They are either disconnecting from the process in disgust or they are using the hyper-connected nature of modern life to make their voices heard. Grassroots activism abounds in the new digital town square. Politics has a real opportunity to harness this interest and work to buttress its civic connections. The power of many can offset the influence of the few. That’s the point of democracy after all.
Australians have raised their voices on same-sex marriage, both for reform and for the status quo—revolutionising the terms of that debate in only ten years. Abbott in his dying days wilted on taking in more displaced people from Syria because the community rallied to their cause, and its voice carried into the Coalition party room. Earlier in 2015 the connectedness of social media had allowed a sizable protest to gather in Melbourne in the space of half an hour—an event that led to a ham-fisted Australian Border Force operation being cancelled.
Petitions fly around the internet like darting birds. At big national moments the community gathers around the digital campfire to pitch in on the conversation. People seek out their political representatives online, inserting their views in threads on social media, blogging and posting up a storm. There is energy and, sometimes, even hope, countering the disaffection. This energy suggests the appetite for reform persists, defying its own death notice. But the institutional processes long practised to achieve reform are in desperate need of a refresh.
Thirty years ago the community had sufficient trust in institutions to be able to sit back and watch the captains of industry sit down with the trade union movement and hammer out a broad reform consensus. But that era of reform has delivered losers as well as winners, missteps as well as landmark achievements. And the Zeitgeist has moved on.
Reform is no longer the exclusive activity of various elite power centres in the Australian economy. A well-intentioned reform ‘summit’ sponsored by two major newspapers and reprised by Malcolm Turnbull mainly served to underscore how tired that mechanism is for achieving a program that the community might go on to support—a bunch of people in a secured room, pumping out dot points before the lunch break, thinking relentlessly inside the square in order to manufacture a consensus.
An Australian political figure who wants to break that dispiriting cycle and take us into the territory of new politics has to be looking at mechanisms to bring the public in. I think a prime minister—such as our current incumbent—who exhibits a genuine curiosity about people, who is inherently social, who rides public transport because it gives him opportunities to have spontaneous conversations outside the bubble, is at least capable of conceiving a more community-centred politics. Whether he’s capable of overcoming deep institutional resistance to such utopian notions is another question entirely—but there are some working examples to draw on internationally.
Locally, the citizens’ assembly Gillard proposed in 2010 as a mechanism to build community consensus around the need to act on climate change—the one foolish journalists, including me, mocked mercilessly and sought to bury in the bin of crazy campaign notions—was an idea ahead of its time.
Perhaps if that mechanism had been permitted to run its course, if the public had been given time to consider evidence, to work though the various possibilities and policy options, it would have been harder for Abbott to play short-term politics with carbon pricing in a manner that was destructive to Australia’s long-term interests. We’ll never know.
A model like that could also put some structure around a national conversation about the urgent and necessary task of budget repair. I’m enough of an optimist to think that if you deliver facts and information to people they are capable of separating ideology and prejudice from substance. And if the media are a significant part of the problem, if we can’t get out of our ‘here comes the chaos’ rut and our minds out of the platitudes rut, technology gives politics unprecedented opportunities to step around the filters and speak directly to the public.
Politics has never before had the power it now possesses to publish and broadcast to a mass audience without filters. Foolishly it has largely used the opening phase of this power to spam people with pap and propaganda rather than seek to connect and explain and listen in meaningful ways. Just as journalism is learning the new art of practising in a crowd, gradually having democracy and humility thrust upon it, so must politics.
Bringing people into a deliberative process does not in and of itself lessen the capacity of politics to lead. I’m not an advocate of mob rule. To my mind engagement is a strengthening activity that helps deliver politics a mandate to do its work. If politics is under siege from media bullies and sectional interests, it makes sense to go back to basics, to turn to the people at the bedrock of the system.
Perhaps a durable connection between politics and the citizenry might also help to restrain our collective worst impulses: the febrile outbursts of panic, restlessness, cynicism. ‘My solution to the problem of disenchantment with politics is deceptively simple. It is to expand the opportunities for citizens to have a say in the issues they care about,’ Stoker says.
We need a politics that allows citizens to have a say over what is important to them, not what professional politicians, lobbyists or journalists or scientists tell them is important. Having a say does not mean, for most people, having a veto or being the final judge. As amateurs, citizens are cautious about claiming decision taking responsibility. Having a say means wanting to influence, but not having to decide.
We also have to talk about money, and we have to talk about freedom. The two issues are connected. It’s a most extraordinary state of affairs that a profession in the middle of an acute public crisis in its integrity can’t act in its own interests and get the money out of politics. Money is killing politics in several ways at once. It’s diverting resources from meaningful focus on the big issues facing the economy. Senior players have to chase the cash for their party organisations, and I would prefer they were working on policy solutions rather than tolerable seating plans at elite dinners for important cheque-writing people.
There is also a significant problem of perception that I can illustrate with a couple of examples. Abbott probably tried to kill the renewables industry during his two years as prime minister because he couldn’t quite accept the science of climate change. The prospect of randomly inflicted catastrophe doubtless offended his deep belief in salvation for the chosen. But because the Liberal Party takes donations from the resources industry and mouths the industry’s talking points to reassure somebody or other, it fuels the perception you can buy influence.
Labor faces a similar problem. Was the recent foot stamping about the China free trade agreement a function of a flawed text or a function of the fact the ALP relies on the union movement for money, for campaign workers, for predictable factional blocs at the national conference? Like Abbott and renewables, the FTA fuss is probably a function of questions about the text, but who could have any confidence that is the case? The major parties are too much in hock to their respective bases, and modern Australian society is a much more complex organism than a ritualised fight between capital and labour.
There are entirely viable alternatives to the current system of funding and disclosure, yet the major parties can’t seem to come to terms on prescriptions that would strengthen their position at the expense of the puppet masters. In this obstinacy they are the ultimate boiling frogs. Increasing public funding, restricting donations to individuals at low thresholds and implementing a system of continuous disclosure wouldn’t solve the influence and rent-seeking problem, but it would give the public some confidence that there are boundaries.
The other thing the party of Menzies could consider seriously is encouraging the culture of the free vote, rather than merely tolerating it. Too much freedom makes any country ungovernable. A bit more freedom oxygenates politics. It raises the stakes in any serious policy discussion, and experience shows it also raises the tone of big debates. The Australian Parliament’s finest hours are always found during free votes.
Of course the Turnbull regime is thinking far more modestly about new politics. This opening phase is about drawing lines, of dialling down the clamour in an effort to be heard, and creating space to think and reflect between now and facing the voters some time in 2016. Such a compressed timeframe doesn’t permit revolutions. It does allow time to deal with some obvious deficiencies. Turnbull has the opportunity to craft a different conversation. To do that he will have to maintain the courage of his independence, to be both of the system and, somehow, above it. He will have to be the man prepared to lose the leadership of the party over a principle, but a wiser man—one with the patience to build coalitions to get things done.
Does he have the patience? I don’t know, quite possibly not. Does he have the intelligence? Yes, absolutely, with one caveat. The problem with being the smartest guy in the room is your company quickly confounds and disappoints. Will the government rally around him out of self-interest if not for any higher motivation? Possibly, but don’t bet the house on it.
Can he pull us out of our collective funk? Left to his own devices, I believe he can. His record indicates his politics has purpose. He’s ambitious enough to want to be the man for the times, and pragmatic enough not to be a hostage to the constraints the moment will impose on him.
But how does anything change? Ultimately it changes with individual action. It can’t all be left to one man sweeping up the debris of a period many of us would prefer to forget. It’s about me stretching to serve readers every day with truth and clarity and focus, owning my deficiencies and limits. It’s also about your decisions and actions, and the politics you are prepared to hope for. Change isn’t about one man, it’s about all of us, and it’s about time we had the courage to raise our voices and ask for the politics we deserve.
Ezra Klein, ‘A theory of how American politics is changing’, Vox, 28 September 2015.
Gerry Stoker, Why Politics Matters: Making Democracy Work, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK, 2006.