It is a while since I have written a companion post addressed to one of my fellow bloggers. In this case, the inspiration is Winton Bates’ Is Australia's political system broken?. But first some other matters.
Sunday night was the grand final of the Australian National Rugby League competition. I rarely watch league now. I stopped watching a few years back when the rules were changed in a way I didn’t like. Still, and like my friend and fellow blogger Neil Whitfield, I followed on Sunday night to see if South Sydney could complete its fairy tale journey by winning. They did, and it bought tears to my eyes. The story is well known in Australia. Perhaps I should write a short post at some point for the benefit of my non-Australian readers. It really is a good news story.
On a less positive note, it appears that the changes that have been made to the Australian VET (Vocational Education and Training) system may be emerging as the latest administrative mess associated with current Australian approaches to public policy and administration. My attention was drawn rather forcibly to these changes when a VET college recruiter (they have recently proliferated in Westfield Parramatta) tried to enrol me in a VET course in return for a free lap top! I don’t understand the detail of the changes; as always with our modern “simplified” systems they are complex, but they do appear to be having perverse results.
Turning now to my main theme,Winton’s post begins with a quote from Paul Kelly’s new book, Triumph and Demise, The broken promise of a Labor Generation:
“The process of debate, competition and elections leading to national progress has broken down. The business of politics is too de-coupled from the interests of Australia and its citizens. This de-coupling constitutes the Australian crisis”.
I am not going report or comment on Winton’s arguments in full. You should read the post for that. Rather, I want to comment on just three things that interest me.
According to Winton, Paul Kelly writes of “volatility and fragmentation” as being “the new driving forces” of Australian politics. Mmm. How does that fit with the historical record?
Take the Liberal Party. In 1909 we had the Commonwealth Liberal Party formed by a merger of the Protectionist and Anti-Socialist Parties. In 1917, this morphed into the Nationalist Party of Australia. This lasted until 1931 when it became the United Australia Party. In turn, this lasted until 1945 when it became the Liberal Party. These weren’t just brand changes, but political changes.
One of constant features of Australian politics is the way that the changes in the major political parties create disenfranchised groups on the edge of the party that combine with others to form new political groupings that merge and coalesce over time in the kaleidoscope of Australian politics.
Leave aside the Country now National Party, since the Liberal Party was formed in 1945, the political spin-offs that drew from the Liberal Party support base include the Australia Party, the Liberal Movement,, the Australian Democrats and, most recently, the Liberal Democrats and Palmer United Party.
Volatility and fragmentation are hardly new.
The Power of Special Interest Groups
Paul Kelly apparently argues that the political system has evolved in ways that have given sectional interests more power than ever before. He mentions technology and campaign techniques in this context, and brings fragmentation of the traditional media and the rise of social media into the discussion. He also makes the point that it has become more difficult for leaders to talk honestly to the community as they have become subjected to greater media pressure to rule out any action that might disadvantage any powerful interest group.
Have special interest groups become more powerful, distorting political activity? Well, yes, but not (I think)in quite the same way that Mr Kelly argues.
Special interest groups have always been important. The biggest change, and its happened over the last forty years, is the proliferation to the point that there is a special interest group or groups covering every aspect of human life or experience. A second related change is that they have become far more professional.
Government itself has played a major role in their emergence because of its varying policy approaches and need to consult the “stakeholders”.
To illustrate, take technical, further and higher education. So long as this sector was Government owned, there was no role for special interest groups beyond the then conventional bodies such as the institutions themselves, unions who expressed the interests of their members or local bodies arguing particular causes. Now there are dozens of bodies that need to be consulted and who argue a special case.
The rise of the NGO sector in general is another example and one that deserves a post in its own right. Promoted and supported by Government, the NGOs argue for a variety of controls and measures that will advance their particular causes and then, success achieved, oppose anything that affects their particular interests.
Winton focuses on economic issues. But how do you reduce Government controls, free parts of the system up, reduce spend, when you have created an entire system whose very existence depends upon the maintenance and extension of Government controls and programs that meet their particular needs across the spectrum of human activity?
Convergence and the emergence of Lib-Lab
The idea of party convergence, the disappearance of real difference between the main political parties, actually first emerged back in the seventies. Then, and this is just from my perspective, it became an issue in finding the best way for the Country Party to re-establish and maintain its separate identity based on its traditional roots.
When parties converge, the challenge is to find a point of differentiation that will achieve success in a competitive environment. If there is no real difference in basic product, then you have to try to sell the sizzle in combination with price and features that appeal to particular voting groups. I have called this the supermarket approach to politics.
In reality, life is not as simple as this. Politics is about values and ideas as well as staying in power. When the contest becomes one between well oiled machines fighting over what is in fact a standardised product, people drop off. This, I think, is where Mr Kelly misses the point.
The New England independents or, for that matter, PUP are not weaknesses in the political system, but recurring symbols of change and the need for change. Parliament and especially the Senate temper the desire of those in control to do what they will, they articulate new needs, reinstate old needs and views. To my mind, that’s not bad, although the results in particular cases may be. It’s part of the process of reinvention that is critical to the health of our democratic system.