Like most Australians born in the 1960s, I grew up trusting in public institutions. In my family we didn’t always agree with the decisions they made or endorse every individual decision-maker, but on balance, we thought they were doing their best to advance society’s interests. Even when errors were made, there was genuine hope for better outcomes next time. The twin emotions of trust and hope worked together.
In effect, we delegated part of our citizenship to powerful people elsewhere, expecting them to do the right thing on our behalf. How could it be otherwise? We lived in a fibro home in a public housing estate in Sydney’s western suburbs. Until I got to Sydney University in 1979, no one on either side of the family had been past high school. Even if my parents and grandparents had wanted to get involved in public life, they lacked confidence in their understanding of issues and political decision-making. If pushed to participate, they would have said they weren’t well-educated enough.
Across the family, robust opinions were expressed about politics and current affairs, but no one felt sufficiently self-assured to take these views into the public arena. Public life was seen as a different world, best left to those with better qualifications and speaking skills. We practised the Australian habit of cynicism about powerful individuals, often expressed through dry larrikin humour, but only ever in private. This approach was balanced by a strong residual faith in the system of government. We might not have liked every politician (my maternal grandfather, for instance, was very critical of Bob Menzies), but we liked the idea of democracy and party politics. If we couldn’t actively participate in public forums, it was reassuring to know that ‘the system’ would produce others who could.
This was a common outlook in Australia 50 years ago. People grew up preparing to work in the same jobs and live in the same suburbs as their parents and grandparents. Expectations of economic mobility were low. For this generation of citizens, trust in public institutions was a substitute for political activity and workplace agitation. Other, better credentialed people were expected to make the big calls and get on with running the country.
Thus society functioned by an unwritten compact: working people would live relatively simple lives, undisturbed by feelings of disillusionment and protest, so long as the major organisations around them discharged their duties effectively. Political passivity meant that the working class had no choice but to delegate power to trusted authorities. I found out at university that this is what neoMarxists called ‘hegemony’ – the perpetuation of social order. Less pretentiously, in our national conversation, it goes by the phrase ‘she’ll be right’.
This book is about the collapse of trust and hope in Australian politics. It charts the way in which, over the past 20 years, the major political parties have broken the social compact and discredited themselves in the eyes of the electorate. Things are not right in the parliamentary system. A Monash University survey in October 2013 found that only 3 per cent of Australians had ‘a lot of trust’ in political parties, while the corresponding figure for Federal Parliament was 7 per cent. Those inclined to trust the Federal Government fell from 48 per cent in 2009 to 27 per cent, with just 4 per cent of people saying they ‘almost always’ trusted the administration in Canberra.
These statistics are supported by anecdotal evidence. In my local community in south-west Sydney, people often come up to me wanting to talk about politics. Rarely do they express faith in the system or optimism that either of the major parties is acting in their interests. They’re not just ‘having a whinge’. It reflects a fundamental change in belief. Citizens are better educated and more confident in their views, more inclined to challenge the political system and its shortcomings. The passive delegation of authority to ruling elites has been broken.
What was once seen as a credible form of governance – entrusting others to make important decisions on our behalf – is now seen as illegitimate. The notion of democracy as a force for good has been lost, replaced by a new, adversarial way of looking at parliamentary politics. Whereas for much of the last century, people thought the system of government was on their side, they now think it is working against them. Class struggle still exists, not in the workplace, but in the popular perception that Australia’s political class is undermining the public interest. The famous formulation of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ has been replaced by ‘government versus the people’.
While undoubtedly the turbulence of the Rudd/Gillard era has added to the level of disillusionment, the problem runs deeper than the work of one party or one parliament. It goes beyond the contingencies of minority and majority governments. The electorate has given up on both sides of politics – a crisis in democratic faith. This can be seen in the public’s reaction to the change of government in September 2013. No sooner had the Australian people elected a new prime minister in Tony Abbott, who for three years had insisted he would rebuild popular trust in politics, than they realised they had put a rorter in the role.
Abbott could not be trusted to use his taxpayer-funded travel entitlements properly, having claimed for attending wedding receptions and participating in sporting events. The nation’s new leader agreed to repay some but not all of the outstanding money, confirming that, in terms of ethical standards, his government would be no different to its predecessors. When asked in October 2013 what plans he had for cleaning up the abuse of MPs’ entitlements, Abbott said he had none. He even defended a proven rorter in Don Randall, the Western Australian Liberal MP who misused his entitlements in travelling to Cairns to purchase an investment property. The thud of collapsed public expectations could be heard around the country. People had been watching the first steps of the new government to see if, as Abbott had consistently promised, things would be different this time. Instead, the prime minister associated himself with the worst features of the old system. He defined his administration as no less self-serving and self-absorbed than the thousands of MPs before him whom the electorate had grown to distrust.
This is the problem with modern politics. It operates as a tribal institution, a closed club in which the comfort of its members is a bigger priority than the interests of outsiders. Abbott is very much a club-man. In March 2014 he marked 20 years in the House of Representatives as the Member for Warringah. In the 20 years prior to his election, he was active in public life as a student politician, journalist, press secretary and constitutional monarchist. That’s 40 years of living and practising the values of Australia’s political class, a major part of which is featherbedding the system.
During his two decades in parliament, the prime minister has been a true believer in the entitlements system. When in 2004, as opposition leader, I moved to bring parliamentary superannuation into line with community standards, Abbott was a vociferous opponent of reform. He wanted to maintain the old, overly generous defined-benefit scheme, instead of ensuring that newly elected MPs would operate under the same arrangements as the rest of the workforce. Three years later, following the defeat of the Howard Government, he complained he could not afford to live on a backbencher’s remuneration package of $185,000 per annum – a stipend that placed him among the top 3 per cent of income earners in Australia. As a minister, he must have grown accustomed to an extraordinarily plush lifestyle.
In 2011, as Liberal leader, Abbott agreed to a cross-party deal to increase politicians’ salaries by 30 per cent and create a new 25 per cent salary loading for shadow ministers – a further pampering of the system. It was one of the few issues in the last parliament on which he didn’t take an oppositionist stance, trying to score points against the Gillard Government. While the Coalition’s Treasury spokesperson, Joe Hockey, has been promising to end ‘the age of entitlement’, Abbott has been busy improving political entitlements, including his own.
In March 2014, he moved his family into the Sydney harbourside mansion Kirribilli House – the grandest, most picturesque accommodation available to an Australian prime minister. Like the Howards before them, the Abbotts preferred the comforts of Kirribilli to life in Canberra. While Abbott has tried to cultivate an ‘action man’ image through his bushfire fighting and bicycle riding, a more accurate picture has emerged of a North Shore blue blood. In his values and lifestyle, he is a rusted-on part of the Tory elite.
This is clear not just in the debate about travel rorts and other parliamentary entitlements, but in the policy malaise surrounding the Coalition government. Like most conservatives, Abbott has a stronger sense of what he opposes (the Republic, the carbon tax, same-sex marriage, etc.) than what he supports. He has found it difficult to articulate what he wants to achieve for the nation. During the first months of his prime ministership, there were few initiatives of any value to the political mainstream – more a sense of drift and confusion.
Given his 40-year background in politics, the electorate expected Abbott to deliver something new and valuable as a freshly minted prime minister – a creative idea, a defining issue, something to set him apart from his predecessors. But instead, his opening period in office was more like Louis XVI’s (apocryphal) diary entry for 14 July 1789: ‘Nothing happened.’ Remarkably, the government fell behind Labor in the polls, having wasted its honeymoon period on the dross of travel rorts and other low-grade controversies. As the experienced FairfaxNielsen pollster John Stirton noted in March 2014, the Coalition was ‘performing worse than any government in 40 years’.
Expectations that new national leadership would give Australian politics a defining purpose, a narrative with which to inspire its people, were not being met. It became clear that Abbott had used his four decades in public life primarily for personal advancement. His driving goal had been the attainment of power, rather than genuine policy work aimed at social improvement. Promises to restore trust had been made only to belittle the Rudd and Gillard governments, not for the purpose of reforming Australia’s political institutions.
Even worse, Abbott’s leading innovation had nothing to do with the public interest. It was a political ploy, an attempt to combat the 24-hour news cycle by chloroforming government chitchat. The new prime minister thought if he slowed down the pace of government media announcements, the political world around him would also slow down – a delusional judgement. Once sworn into office, he empowered his staff to act as gatekeepers on cabinet, requiring ministers to seek approval before they could accept invitations for interviews and speeches.
A party that had protested about the suppression of free speech under Labor denied its own ministers the freedom to speak for themselves. But then, as events developed outside the government’s direct control – most notably, the travel rorts scandal, Indonesian spy controversy and imminent closure of Holden’s car manufacturing – it became clear the Coalition could not slow down the news cycle. Its strategy had been a waste of effort, a failed insider’s attempt to manipulate the system for electoral gain.
This episode said something telling about Abbott’s priorities. One would normally expect a new prime minister to define himself through policy programs. But not Abbott. His big thing was media management, trying to mould perceptions about his government. For the average Australian, this is irrelevant. If they don’t like political news (fast or slow), they simply turn it off and find more appealing alternatives in the media – their favourite TV show or sporting team.
By the time of the May 2014 budget, Abbott’s media strategy had been discarded, with the government reverting to the traditional pattern of pre-budget leaks and media spin. The budget itself confirmed the public’s worst fears about Abbott. As with the travel rorts scandal, he had little commitment to political integrity. Promises that had been made just eight months earlier were abandoned, seemingly junked once the polling booths had closed on 7 September. A series of new tax imposts broke the prime minister’s covenant with the Australian people: that, unlike his predecessors, he would keep each and every one of his pledges. In addressing the budget deficit, Australia’s democratic deficit grew exponentially larger.
It became clear that the Coalition had gone to the 2013 election with promises it had no intention of keeping: its ‘no new taxes’ pledge had been made solely for the purpose of winning office. If Abbott had told the electorate the truth about his support for new income taxes, medical co-payments and petrol tax increases, he may not have won the election. He sacrificed the trust and confidence of the Australian people for the sake of his own political interests. For three years he had identified a single core issue in national politics: restoring public trust in the system. But once in power, he ran a government of broken promises and distrust.
Importantly, questions of institutional integrity are not restricted to the political system. This is a broader trend affecting most forms of governance. Listen to any news bulletin in Australia and the problem is clear. Organisations that were widely admired in the 1960s and 70s have been shaken by scandal. The conversations I remember as a child about trusting in our institutions have been replaced by dismay and confusion as to what has gone wrong with so many national bodies.
The word association game is devastating. The Australian army: widespread sexual abuse and bullying. State police forces: allegations of corruption and malpractice. Corporate Australia: Gina Rinehart’s family feud and bribery scandals at Leighton Holdings. Trade unionism: Craig Thomson, Michael Williamson and the Health Services Union. The Catholic Church: a royal commission into paedophilic priests. The mass media: phone-hacking criminality at News Corp.
Almost without exception, old institutions in society have become more inward-looking, more resistant to public scrutiny and accountability. In particular, this pattern is evident in the scandals involving the Australian military and Catholic Church. Despite systemic problems of sexual abuse in both institutions, there is no sign of either implementing significant reform. This is typical of the tribalism of traditional organisations. Faced with chronic internal difficulties, they become more cynical and less responsive to community standards. Their first instinct is to manipulate media coverage and gather powerful allies around them, rather than facing up to the nature of the scandal.
These recent controversies have added to a longer-term, more disturbing trend in civil society: a loss of connectedness – the social habit of belonging to collective organisations and trusting in other citizens. In an important study of Australian community life published in 2010, the ANU researcher (and now federal Labor MP) Andrew Leigh concluded that, since its postwar peak, the nation has lost large slabs of social capital. Organisational membership and volunteering rates are down. Religious participation and trade union membership have been hardest hit, with the latter falling from 50 per cent of the workforce to less than 20 per cent. Leigh also found:
Evidence of a decline in the number of close friends and neighbourhood connections from the 1980s to the 2000s. On average, Australians shed two friends who would share a confidence, and half a friend who would help them through a difficult patch. Compared with respondents two decades earlier, the typical Australian in the 2000s has 1½ fewer neighbours of whom they could ask a small favour and three fewer neighbours on whom they could drop in uninvited. We are also more likely to live alone.
I could write about these issues in detail, but politics is what I know best. I joined the Australian Labor Party in the late 1970s, thinking society’s shortcomings could be solved through parliamentary service. Twenty-five years later, I left the system as disillusioned as most of the electorate. Having had an insider’s view of how a major party operates – in my case, leading the ALP in 2004 – I feel obliged to help explain what’s gone wrong with the institution of politics.
When people leave parliament they usually follow one of two courses. The first and most conventional is to remain part of the political class, securing paid appointments to government bodies or working on the system’s fringe as a lobbyist – that is, monetarising one’s access to decision-makers. I chose a second, less comfortable path: publishing my diaries in 2005 as a frank account of my time in parliament, emerging as an outsider looking in on a system with which I was thoroughly familiar. My chances of becoming head of the water board or being appointed to a diplomatic posting were (and remain) zero.
But ostracism is not without its advantages. It gives me a chance to play a different, more instructive role: writing objectively about the changing nature of power and public trust. In an era in which the traditional social compact has dissolved, it is important to reflect on how this occurred, not just as a matter of historical record but to understand what it means for the future. Indeed, not all of the changes in the community have been negative. While this book is critical of the insular, self-interested nature of modern politics, it also identifies a countervailing trend of lasting value: the rise of self-reliance in society. Part of the reason politics looks so bad is that people are in a better position to make judgements about it. With the rise of mass higher education, the naivety and helplessness of earlier generations has dissipated. In their formal qualifications and knowledge, fewer people feel inferior to the political class. They have the skills and confidence to match it with anyone. In their daily lives, they want to make decisions for themselves, ending their reliance on institutional power.
In mid-2013, I was standing on the platform of Campbelltown railway station, in Sydney’s south-west, a place traditionally associated with working-class culture. A group of young go-getters was standing nearby, in loud conversation. They were talking about their work with IT companies in the city’s centre, using a lot of technical, sophisticated language. I felt like a Luddite watching a new generation pass me by. As our train approached, one of the thin white dukes recognised me as a former federal MP for the district, curious to know if I was still involved in politics. At the end of a long conversation on our lengthy commute, he summarised his attitude to public life with typical nonchalance. ‘It just doesn’t matter for me and the people I know,’ he said. ‘We’re doing really well with work and stuff, so why get involved in politics when it looks so silly.’
This is a common attitude among younger Australians. Even on university campuses, the broad-based radicalism of student politics has faded. In March 2014, the National Union of Students held a day of action to protest against proposed tertiary education cuts. In a sector with more than one million students, only 1500 attended the rallies nationwide. Even in the post-budget protests, student numbers were relatively small – attracting media attention for skirmishes with Liberal politicians, rather than large protest marches. An ANU student leader, Ben Latham, calls this phenomenon ‘slacktivism’, whereby ‘political activity becomes simply the act of liking a post or sharing a video without ever having to leave your computer screen or think deeply about the issues’. Across society, new technologies have coincided with the growth of political disengagement.
Armed with information access and the confidence that comes from a successful education and working career, the electorate is now more discerning, pulling apart the faults of its representatives. A vicious cycle has formed: as citizens have become more capable, they have less need for government largesse and less interest in politics. Whereas the major parties used to enjoy broad-based membership numbers, this has fallen away under the pressure of busy lives and apathy. Political meetings, once a staple of community life, have become a niche activity – a strange, night-time ritual acted out in Dickensian halls and back rooms.
At its peak in the 1930s, the ALP had more than 150,000 members – a number matched by the Liberal Party in the 1950s. Today, membership of both parties has declined, even though Australia’s population has increased. Labor and the Liberals each have about 45,000 members nationally. As Leigh has noted, ‘Across all major parties, official membership numbers have collapsed [and] among those who remain, many are inactive. Australians have low levels of confidence in politicians, which will make it difficult to reinvigorate our democracy.’
With the hollowing out of political participation, vested interests and ideologies have found it easier to control the old parties. Labor is now dominated by union-based sub-factions and a cadre of dedicated feminists who judge public issues through the prism of gender politics. The modern Liberal Party features three main groupings: the religious right, corporatist deal-makers and feral authoritarian types – the Australian equivalent of the US Tea Party. While politicians from both sides talk about society’s ‘mainstream’, increasingly, their own members are on the extreme edges of public opinion.
These tribal influences have weakened the representative nature of democracy. In attending polling booths every three or four years, a diminishing proportion of voters think they will end up with MPs genuinely representative of themselves and their interests. Voting has become a solemn, disgruntled activity, devoid of the underlying trust and hope of earlier generations. The public reputation of politics and politicians has been transformed. What was once seen as an honoured vocation, reflecting the ancient ideals of community service, has become a punching bag for public disquiet – an oddball activity useful only for media infotainment and ridicule.
This, in turn, has made parliamentary work less satisfying. No one likes dealing with a hostile and deeply cynical constituency. As trust in MPs has diminished, the political class has responded by withdrawing further into its tribal groupings. Immersion in the language, values and social networks of the tribe has become a substitute for broader community contact. This is a key motivation in modern politics: people under pressure finding solace in the company of those who share their worldview.
Not surprisingly, as these ideological prejudices have been reinforced, Australian politics has become more dogmatic, with the emergence of fanatical fringe groups – such as the Greens, the Palmer United Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Liberals’ feral-right faction. The major tribes have become more rigid in their beliefs and more hysterical in their attacks on each other, further discouraging young people from involvement in public life.
Ultimately, politics is a reflection of human nature. Members of parliament are no different from anyone else in wanting recognition for their work. In a presentation at Munich University in 1918, the sociologist Max Weber spoke of those in public life who strive for ‘power for power’s sake, that is, in order to enjoy the prestige-feeling that power gives’. As public support for politics has declined, many of its participants have sought rewards from inside the tribal system – enjoying the ‘prestige-feeling’ of holding office. Too often this has involved the misuse of entitlements, trying to live the high life as a way of compensating for what MPs see as their mistreatment by the media and the public.
Elsewhere in the system, prestige is sought through a certain personal style, adopting the methods of machine politics. Instead of seeking satisfaction from the development of public policy, powerbrokers look for status inside the party, exercising control over their underlings and patronage within their tribal grouping. Their reward is to be seen as the smartest, most powerful person in the room, someone who demands and receives deference from factional subordinates. They have the power to allocate positions, deciding who should advance through the party machine and who should be punished for insufficient loyalty. At this level, modern politics is intensely feudal – an exercise in command and control.
It is not difficult to understand how the social compact underpinning democracy has fragmented. The liberalisation of individual skill and mobility has been matched by the tribalisation of public life. Whereas citizens once passively delegated authority to political institutions, they now distrust the system’s work and motivations. For younger Australians in particular, the best kind of politics is the one they can ignore. We are witnessing a major disruption in democratic practice. The formal structures of politics still function by their traditional rules and conventions, while the people they supposedly represent have moved on to a new world of self-reliance and institutional distrust.
These are complex changes, ones which, after nearly four decades studying Australian politics, including 17 years in elected office, I am still grappling with. I often think: if democracy’s transformation looks bewildering to me, how must the general public feel? If I’m struggling to get my head around these fast-changing trends, then the easiest response in the electorate must be to lose interest altogether. Hence this book – my best attempt at offering an explanation and some suggestions for rethinking the democratic project.
It is important to drill down into the tribal practices of modern politics. To achieve this goal, I have presented a series of case studies – telling examples of how the system has distanced itself from society’s middle ground. I believe this methodology is the best way of outlining how parliamentary democracy has lost touch with the people it is supposed to represent. Nothing beats a real-life account of the tribal instincts and motivations that have so thoroughly discredited party politics.
Chapter One examines the changing nature of power, how new technologies and economic realities have diminished the role of government and the capacity of the state to solve social problems. In Australia and elsewhere, the political base has shrunken to a dedicated core of apparatchiks: rusted-on fanatics who pursue parliamentary control and status ahead of community concerns. As a result, democracy has decoupled itself from the public interest. The chapters that follow present case studies drawn from recent events and controversies in our national politics.
Chapters Two to Six examine the Coalition and its right-wing cheer squad – in particular, the corrosive role of media partisans, climate change propagandists, vested business interests and the politics of smear. Particular attention is given to the ancient AWU/Slater & Gordon matter and the way in which the feral right has made a series of malicious allegations against Julia Gillard. In recent Australian history, this is the definitive case study into the obsessive politics of personal destruction – hence a lengthy analysis of the smear campaign in Chapter Five.
Chapter Seven analyses the tribalism of the left. It examines how the Greens got things so tragically wrong on the question of boat people arrivals – in theory, wanting to show compassion to asylum seekers, but in practice, advocating policies that have caused thousands of drownings on the seas between Australia and Indonesia. This was a victory for wrongheaded abstract thinking over common sense. The chapter also studies the two tendencies dominant in the modern Labor Party: union-based factionalism and narrow feminist dogma. Given a choice between the public mainstream and the tribalism of the party machine, the ALP has a habit of choosing the latter.
Finally, in the book’s conclusion, I make some recommendations on how parliamentary democracy should reposition itself in society, bringing its responsibilities and processes into line with community expectations – a new system of minimalist politics. This is very much exploratory material, looking at ways in which the seemingly irreconcilable tension between the electorate and its elected representatives might be eased. I don’t pretend to have all the answers for improving our democracy, but hopefully, some of my ideas can be of use.
Whatever one’s views about policy issues, the first responsibility of anyone interested in modern politics is to help overcome the debilitating sickness inside the system. Left-wing, right-wing and everything in between – ultimately, none of it matters unless people have reason to trust in the democratic process.
Please note: footnotes have been removed for the purposes of this extract, but can be found in the book itself.
Excerpted from The Political Bubble by Mark Latham. Copyright © 2014 by Mark Latham.
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