The vision thing

Cartoon of John Howard dressed in naval uniform, looking through a telescope which is facing the wrong way. The telescope is labelled 'Vision for Australia'.If the government changes hands on Saturday, the pundits will make an immediate beeline for their retrospectoscope. Within a few short months and a few columns by Paul Kelly and Hugh Mackay we’ll have an official version of what went wrong. The Liberals will be trashed – as well they might be.

Anyway, amid the official cynicism, about what is and is not possible in politics, I want to argue – nay I want to spin a line – that vision matters. That it’s important not just to say you have a vision but to have one. If the vision itself is worth anything it will not only make your government a better government. It will make it a longer lasting one.

Today’s column which argues these things is below the fold.

Here we are in the midst of our longest boom in history and yet the government is in mortal danger. Its hard to find a precedent.

What went wrong?

There is always a large element of Rorschach test in how we read poll and election results. Some demographic information comes our way from comparing swings in different electorates. But as for those changes in national mood that are the subject of so much punditry our evidence is scanty.

Mired in our own ignorance, its hard not to let our wishes influence our analysis.

Those lamented by the right as reflex Howard Haters will tell us that duplicity and divisiveness, the embrace of plausible deniability have finally caught up with Howard. Perhaps. But why didnt it happen last time around?

Then theres that haven for the complacent the its time explanation. If politicians come equipped with some pre-set its time date theres nothing much to be learned from their demise.

I think my own explanation fits the facts, but, its also built around a bit of preaching I want to do. For the art of politics and political punditry is for nothing if it isnt about trying to bring politicians self interest into some constructive relation with the welfare of those they govern.

Though Howard was a conviction politician in the culture wars, hes actually been relatively uninterested in policy.

He had two major achievements in economic policy.

Its hard not to admire Howards political courage in launching the great tax adventure. Still its worth reflecting on the circumstances that brought him to that point an increasingly strident concern from the business community at Howards lack of policy vision. The GST provided Howard with a (very nearly politically suicidal) bit of off the shelf policy vision.

The other great economic reform was Workchoices. Its an ad hoc, 700 odd page mess full of arbitrary regulations and penalties for unions rather than a coherent economic and legislative labour market liberalisation strategy. Again there was a huge political price to pay. A more straightforward approach as proposed by the Business Council in 1999 and rejected by Howard of a wage tax trade-off would arguably have been better policy and certainly better politics.

But with the GST and WorkChoices in place we watched on in 2007 as Old Mother Howard went to the cupboard and, finding it bare, improvised one attempt after another to sledge or wedge his opposition.

Minister Ian Campbell resigned citing political tactics as the reason, amid widespread acknowledgement that hed done nothing wrong;

Plans were announced to takeover the Mersey Hospital in Tasmania;

Australian Electoral Commission plebiscites were announced to place pressure on the Queensland ALP Governments plans for local council amalgamations.

A campaign was hastily ramped up for expanding nuclear power only to ramped back down on learning of the electorates reaction.

The only time I can remember when I had less knowledge of what excursions might turn up in the next days papers was during the Whitlam Government.

When insisting on staying on in the top job, Howard said there was much more he wanted to do, but when asked what it was said there wasnt time to say. Six weeks of campaigning didnt improve the situation.

It is said that without vision the people perish. One interpretation of this Governments political history is that without vision it has been forced to make promises it could not keep and take political risks it otherwise would not have been forced to take, to hang onto government.

If people can see their government constructively engaging the problems of the future, that greatly relieves the pressure on it to buy its next election victory with election promises it cant keep promises that is which taint the victory and make subsequent defeat more likely.

This happened in 2004 and in 1993 with Paul Keatings L.A.W. tax cuts helping to seal his subsequent fate. Its happening again.

Politics is about gaining and maintaining momentum. And to govern well and successfully one must not just win the next election but do so with enough in the tank to win the next.

Let’s hope the winning party on Saturday has the ambition to learn these lessons.

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16 years ago

After months of bribes, promises and assorted other rubbish I am convinced that the vision of the candidates is really the only thing that I am prepared to back.

I am not convinced that Howard does not have a vision. It is simply that he is not game to talk about it too openly. He is smart enough to know that the community will not go for his vision of the future and thus he has had to find other ways to get us to vote for him.

Mark Bahnisch
16 years ago

I’d like to see some well funded qualitative panel research in the lead up to the next election. We can get some idea of why what happened happened with the AES after each election (for instance, interest rates weren’t as important to the Howard victory as everyone thinks) but there are limitations to judging “the national mood” and complex intersections of factors via surveys.

You may be right about the vision thing, Nick, and I agree with the analysis underlying it, but I’m not so sure that you need to downplay the other two factors – which are related. Paul Kelly’s rant on the intellectuals missed one key thing in Raymond Gaita’s case. The more you lie and stuff up, the less likely people are to trust you again. “Howard hating” aside, if, as I think we would all agree in personal relations, that’s the case, I see no good reason why it doesn’t apply to governments.

Ken Lovell
16 years ago

I tend to agree, although it’s all speculative really and it’s easy to forget that there might be hundreds of thousands of individual reasons why people vote as they do. Voting behaviour has proved stubbornly resistant to macro analysis and modelling.

However a lot of your thoughts are consistent with what we know about leadership (which isn’t all that much, but anyway). Leaders seldom inspire followers with their charisma; mostly they articulate the vision of the future that followers have already developed for themselves, but they take these half-developed thoughts and articulate them in a coherent fashion. People aren’t persuaded by an effective leader to change their goals and opinions; they hear something and say to themselves “Damn that’s right, that’s exactly what I’ve always thought and this bloke puts it so well.”

Since 2004, Howard’s expressed vision has become murky and to the extent that people can understand it, a lot of them don’t like it much. Suddenly instead of being a leader he’s regarded as a slightly deranged old man, out of touch with the 21st century. Serendipitously, Kevin Rudd came along as a new leader capable of articulating the new thoughts that people had about their future, involving climate change and education and so on.

I do however think it’s important to distinguish between vision and policy. People follow the vision and tend to overlook or make excuses for behaviour that is quite inconsistent with it. I believe this explains the success of people like Bjelke Petersen; his effectiveness as an administrator might have been mediocre but hell Queenslanders liked the man’s vision for their state.

16 years ago

Those lamented by the right as reflex Howard Haters will tell us that duplicity and divisiveness, the embrace of plausible deniability have finally caught up with Howard. Perhaps. But why didnt it happen last time around?

A shot at an answer for that. Vision to some extent did exist last time around. It was Latham’s, and it had to do with relationships – reading books to kids, getting the work/life balance right, etc. Personally I think there’s merit in that, but the suburbs didn’t want Latham, and found him a risk – rightly so it turned out. And there’s an argument to say that the suburbs knew something of Howard’s deceit, and a stronger argument that the suburbs didn’t. Why? Because Howard drew the focus back onto ground which made the Coalition appear and feel a safer bet.

A key factor of change in Australia occurred in three areas simultaneously, after the Coalition won control of both houses of the senate. The first was unrelated, being Climate Change. It came home, bedding into the suburbs, finally. Howard’s control of the senate then brought with it WorkChoices, which in the very least brought about the third change, which was that people began to sit up and take notice of this man Howard and what he was up to, beyond the easy swallow almost platitudes that broadly characterised his unopposed and unquestioned tenure to that point.

These changes helped bring a nation into clearer political focus, and with that focus came the natural response of the interface between politics and people, the media, serving the public with a change in political diet. It wasn’t strong, but it was there. Its effect was profound, resulting in the theretofore largely numb and disconnected public realising the ploys Howard had long played. Let’s remember that the media diet was primarily, for drought years, a copy paste of the Howard line. This changed significantly during the last term, including for reasons beyond this, such as too many failures for too long etc.

Ken Lovell has hit the mark on vision. Vision, expressed well, reaches into the hearts and minds of people and they respond as Ken has said.

As in Latham’s case, a vision needs not only be expressed well, but the public need to feel it can and will happen, if they invest their trust in their thoughts and feelings as Ken’s paraphrased.

I’d add that vision of course comes in different sizes and shapes. In that context I don’t know that Australians are big on vision, they may be, the thinking being that we haven’t as a nation faced the lengthy and extreme challenges for which a grand/great (in the old use of the term ‘great’) vision serves. We’ve had it pretty easy, in comparison with many countries – where, while those countries or regioins may not have accepted and implemented a vision of greatness, their suffering gave rise to it, or helped to, elsewhere. Still does, the greatest being the vision of world peace and no poverty as ongoing.

It is important to raise the question of vision. What we have to acknowledge is that for a vision to exist, there must be an identity through which it can be born, and upon which it leads. Nicholas, you’ve raised here the point thereby of national identity. Without a clearer identity, a stronger sense of self, we cannot as a nation begin to form a grand vision.

Instead, we have mini-vision, if you like, from our political leaders. Vision nonetheless, but not, obviously, of any magnitude of what you’ve implied in the post (given you haven’t stated your vision as such, that would alleviate your concerns raised).

Inherent in what Ken Lovell says is another key ingredient of vision: that it focuses on the positive. (Given the vision is not to drive the country down).

This marries with identity: if we had a leader who looked into our nation, saw the positives, and saw where and how they could go – to where and how he or she could lead them – we’d have a chance, yet again.

Back to the above paragraph and question. Keating had a vision for the country, but he failed to bring the public into it. It still lives, as all vision does; whether it happens or not is another thing. But in failing to bring the public along with him, while he (inspired by it, for the public nation) walked towards it, the public sought refuge for their vote somewhere else. We know where that all lead.

Perhaps, after tomorrow, we can once again speak of vision, and be not afraid of what makes it. Contrary to Howard’s platitudinous fallacy, we have questioned our national identity. We just haven’t had the free, open, fearless public opportunity to do so.

The stopper for national greatness is John Howard. Interestingly, his extreme vicegrip on national dialogue has provided, is building (has built?), the opportunity for our national greatness. He’s showed us what we do not want to be.

Vision lives, always and all the time, around us. Ready.

Remove the stopper, within moments the magic flows again, passion and courage comes with it, and grand vision awaits.

16 years ago

.. grand vision awaits beholding, expression, and enacting.

16 years ago

Howard’s vision was the same as Bush’s. Use the mighty wedge to hang onto power. Start wars, screw the little guy, divert money to corporate supporters and lie constantly. That worked both here and in the US for a while. By late 2006, the strategy stopped working, as evidenced by the US election results and the Australian opinion poll results.

People here and in the US had seen enough objective reality to realise that Bush and Howard were liars who were doing things that most of the people just didn’t want. The Iraq war, climate change, Workchoices in Australia and the attempted abolition of Social Security in the US were the key factors.

16 years ago

BTW, I think that the 2004 elections in Oz and the US could both have gone the other way, had not the opposition parties in both countries decided to run on a “just like the other guys, only better” strategy. John Kerry’s promises to manage the Iraq war better, and the sudden silencing of Latham on Iraq meant that the public felt there was no good reason to vote for the opposition.

16 years ago

it didn’t happen in 04 because of latham. you’re right about howard’s lack of vision, but don’t forget that carton of keating leaving the PM’s office with his big picture, and howard strutting in with his little one. he wasn’t elected on vision.

he has been reactive, guns, east timor, tax, workchoices are his big ones, maybe surpluses, but that is more likely costello as the pre-83 howard treasury haemorrhaged money. all but surpluses and tax were opportunistic, workchoices only came due to the senate victory.

believing in the efficacy of government, even within howard’s high taxing big-spending 1% surplus limits, big picture rudd can deliver technocratic gains in education, health, and foreign affairs not possible for howard, because they wouldn’t even occur to him. he wasn’t elected for the vision thing.

Ken Lovell
16 years ago

… howard strutting in with his little one. he wasnt elected on vision.

Well ordinariness can constitute a vision. Vision doesn’t have to be some grand utopia. A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage was a powerful vision for Herbert Hoover, until the crash buried it.

Maybe after the years of change under Keating, enough people to deliver office to Howard were ready to embrace a conservative vision in which they were protected from further social reforms. Don’t underestimate the longing of older white Australians for the days when life was a lot less complicated and the Asians knew their place. Hanson got up to 20% of the primary vote in some electorates in 1998 and it wasn’t because they liked her dancing. It was because she was selling a return to a mythical Australia that many people thought would be marvellous. Most of those people subsequently gravitated to Howard of course.

16 years ago

Howard’s vision only encompasses Howard as PM.