There’s been a great thinning out of our political culture. Once built up from the life-world with hundreds of thousands determining party policy feeding up from branches to politicians – though leaders obviously had quite a lot of power, particularly in the conservative parties, the process is now reversed. Brand management dominates from the top and the brand managers manage as best they can, ‘positioning’ and ‘repositioning’ themselves depending on whether or not their carefully focus group tested talking points get ‘traction’ and so on.
One bit of road-kill from this thinning out of the institutions and culture of politics is that parties aren’t solid institutions with which one can do business. Neither are politicians. Of course, there was never a time when there wasn’t some mucking about, but there was a time (I’m thinking – perhaps someone can provide me with clear counter-examples to prove I’m just wrong) when agreements made in politics had some solidity. That they have next to none any more was nicely demonstrated when Tony Abbott took over as Leader of the Coalition.
As you’ll recall, Malcolm Turnbull had concluded a deal with the ALP Government to allow the carbon pricing regime through the Parliament. One might have thought that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was negotiating with the authorised representative of the Coalition when they were negotiating with its then Leader and that there might be ethical qualms about going back on this. After all, that’s a bit of a problem for an organisation if everyone knows that a deal with it might not be worth the paper it’s written on.
What seemed significant to me at the time was the more or less complete absence of any sense that there was a serious ethical issue to be addressed here.1 I thought of this when Brian Burston defended his refusal to renegue on a deal he says he thought of himself as making. Now I’m aware that he might just be saying this, but let’s take him at his word. He says that he wouldn’t follow his Great and Fearless Leader Pauline Hanson because “once I make a handshake with somebody, that’s it. I stick to my word”.
As I wrote a while back, although the political class have the lowest opinion of these strays from outside the upper middle class who keep turning up, unannounced and unexpected in Parliament, they often deliver the voice and mores of ordinary people. And that’s often of a higher standard than the political pros. Thus you’ll recall all the back-slapping of Malcolm Turnbull when he ‘faced down’ the randos with a double dissolution in which they’d probably lose their seats. Surely that would lead them to buckle in defence of their own self-interest. But that’s rare in people’s conception of what it is to do the right thing in politics. Meanwhile, amongst career politicians it’s de rigueur – it’s pretty much what makes their world go round. 2
- No doubt it was raised as a talking point by the ALP and by one or two journos, but, to quote John Foster Dulles in a different context, their heart wasn’t in it. ↩
- I recall once talking to a cabinet minister when a particular operative was behaving in a particularly irrational fashion. He was uninterested for quite a while until I continued describing what was going on. Then he said abruptly. “So you’re telling me he’s no longer acting in his own interest”. “Yes” I said. His tone immediately changed. “We’ve got a problem”. ↩