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We live in a particracy – the party-room rules and we are run by clever politicians, not leaders with courage and the fortitude to make tough decisions. Or as Charlie Chaplin put it in The Great Dictator – “we are run by machine men, yet we need kindness more than cleverness”.
It is impossible to envision Australia pulling off a project of the magnitude of the Snowy River Scheme today. Our most recent attempt at nation building, the National Broadband Network, proved that the imperatives of party politics takes precedence over investing in the future.
Our current crop of political leaders, on both sides of the aisle, are bereft of vision, lacking in courage and often without the prerequisite skills required for long term planning, nor the motivation. It’s been a long time since we had a Government interested in genuine nation building projects.
Since Julia Gillard’s valiant attempts at education reform, our schools, vocational and academic institutions have failed to keep up with changing times. The aspirations of the Gonski reports have been nothing but convenient talking points with little action. The teaching profession is screaming into the void at the inadequacy of NAPLAN as the arbiter of learning outcomes, and our universities are left to pursue enrolments from foreign students to make ends meet.
Slowly, but surely, the current Government is dismantling one of the achievements of the Whitlam Government’s short, chaotic but visionary tenure: free education for all. Health in particular and welfare policy in general is going the same way, inadequately funded and forever caught in the twilight zone between state and federal budgetary priorities.
Our energy policy is in disarray in the face of the biggest challenge the world community has ever faced. Energy Minister Angus Taylor is on recent record to say that renewables have gone too far and is threatening our future.
Our banking system hasn’t seen meaningful reform for decades. The “four pillars” remains a policy that may have been a good idea at the time, but now serves only to limit competition and prop up the super-profits of the big banks; whilst doing nothing to encourage innovation or good customer service.
The Financial Services Royal Commission revealed the problems in the financial sector run deep and flow wide. But the Government is dragging its feet addressing them, cherry-picking the recommendations based on those meeting least resistance, devoid of any big picture thinking.
Our economic policy remains stagnant, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg focuses on the optics, spruiking the dubious benefits of a balanced budget not yet achieved, while ignoring our record debt levels. The Reserve Bank can no longer impact much either, as interest rates are approaching zero. “Quantitative easing” – a euphemism for printing money – soon their only option.
Foreign policy has remained a beacon of bi-partisan consistency over the years. Until know. With Marise Payne Minister for Foreign Affairs in name only, Scott Morrison spoke at the Lowy Institute recently and dismantled much of that accord with his history-less and uninformed view of the world. Replacing it with some vague, poorly articulated anti-global stance echoing his new best friend, Donald Trump.
Almost 120 years after Australia gained its independence from our colonial overlords, the majority of our political class still fail to see where Australia is on the map. We remain ignorant of our closest neighbour Indonesia, we do little trying to understand and foster non economic relations with the de facto most powerful nation in the world, China. We plan big mines to export coal to India and continue to see our Asian neighbours only through an economic lens or as tourist destinations – if at all.
And back home, indigenous relations remains as troubled as ever, with little or no progress on any front since the fleeting promises of Kevin Rudd’s apology on Sorry Day in 2008.
It’s a shambles. And it has been coming for a long time.
It has been coming as we have allowed our democratic institutions to wither. It has been coming as we have been blinded by economic growth as our main determiner of happiness. It has been coming as we have been lulled into the false notion that those we elect have our collective best interests at heart.
The combination of a flawed Constitution coupled with the archaic conventions of the Westminster system, the intersection of big business interests with the operations of Government and the usurpation of the democratic process by party politics, are the main causes of the malaise. They have served to fuse two of the three pillars of democracy – the executive with the legislature, whilst the fourth – the press – remains conspicuous in its failures to hold Government to account.
Laying down the law of the land was meant to be the prerogative of the people through their elected representatives. But we have very few independent representatives in either house of Parliament. Instead, we elect party delegates beholden to the self-interest of the party, not their constituents.
Executive Government positions are held by party politician selected on political merit, not competence relevant to the portfolios they hold. It is why we have a Treasurer who has never run a business, let alone having actual first hand knowledge of finance, an Education Minister who has barely set foot in a school or university since he finished his Political Science degree, and a Minister for Agriculture who is a former teacher.
The list goes on and it is the same across the aisle, more than half of the Labor front bench are lawyers, only four have a career background outside of politics or unions.
Whereas once upon time elected office was a privilege of the monied elite, it is now the prerogative of the political elite, enabled by business interests and a complicit media. We are ruled by men and women who have made politics their life long career. It is not their job to be visionary, it is not in their self-interest to pop their heads up above the party parapet. They are best served by toeing the party line, their career prospects determined more by who they support in the party hierarchy than actively advocating for causes in the national interest, let alone the interest of our planet.
It is a system that throws up visionary and principled leaders by accident, not by design. Ben Chiefly understood what the Snowy River Scheme could mean for the country and backed it even if it almost lost him his job. Robert Menzies was a steady hand on the tiller for a nation that needed healing. Gough Whitlam spent such a long time in opposition that he came to the Lodge brimming with ideas for real reform. Hawke and Keating continued on the same path. They were all leaders who could see beyond the next election. Howard could, too, and some would argue he had vision. I wouldn’t, but he was a very clever politician.
And that is the crux of the problem of “modern” democracy. Being a clever politician does not equate to visionary leadership. Too often quite the contrary. Many of those elected to lead us over the last two decades are very clever. But very few of them are visionary, the majority of them blinkered by the demands of their party and their own career aspirations.
The way we run our democracy does not foster good leaders, it does not embolden those with a vision, nor does it reward it. It just fosters clever politicians with the next election their goal, the rear-view mirror their guide.
The particracy has taken control, we live in a democracy in name only. We are run by a political elite whose myopia is reinforced by donors, big business and the sectarian interests who makes the most noise, with mainstream media complicit in the deceit.
Until we, the people, stop electing self-serving parties to rule us and start electing representatives, until we get money out of politics and hold those we elect to account, there will never be another Snowy River, nor will we find the leadership to help get us out of the mess we are in.