I haven’t paid much attention to Telstra’s participation in the public policy debate. It usually manages to get itself seen in a fairly poor light at least if one is not paying much attention as I haven’t been. Even so, I’ve just read this speech by Phil Burgess (pdf), and I’m impressed. I’m impressed with it because its argument is interesting, and quite persuasive – except for one thing. He outlines some differences between Australian and American political culture. He does so in a very informed and perceptive way (at least for someone who’s only been here a while – and I presume he had some decent research assistance, and indeed wonder whether, as such leaders often do he’s passing off research assistance as his own wide reading. But I may be being ungenerous.)
In any event, Phil thinks that Australian debate is not vigorous enough. That people defer too much to what the government and senior government figures think. He points to the greater engagement with leading business people’s views in the US. And to its greater separation of powers, it’s greater corralling of political power with umpteen checks and balances. I think all this is very interesting, enlightening. I think he’s right, though at least to some extent – for instance in his criticism of our think tanks – he neglects to mention that a lot of their shortcomings here are a function of a much smaller population and as a result a much shallower market.
But I have a problem – one might call it a problem of tone. It’s not just bad manners and bad politics to turn up somewhere in a powerful position and tell the locals that they don’t quite measure up to standards back home. It’s bad in another sense. I think Phil makes his case about our shortcomings well. But it’s also unbalanced and simple minded. Because these are the downsides of a way in which Australia is different to the U.S., not an illustration that it’s worse. It is a bit amazing that he couldn’t have popped a few lines into his speech about the sorry state of US political culture. Try catching a taxi in the U.S. and you find out about all those marvellous checks and balances when you pay double once you cross the county line. When you have a free trade agreement with a country but if you want to export ships to the US, they’re banned by the Jones Act. When the checks and balances are such that the voting system is in such disarray that a national election in 2000 was held hostage by the political connections of one of the contestants and some dodgy state officials and we landed one of the biggest turkeys in the history of modern Western democracy.
I’m not saying these things out of wounded pride for Australia. His criticism is welcome and valuable, but it would have been more impressive if it had been a musing on differences rather than a naive assertion of one being worse than another even in the respect he is speaking of. Checks and balances are a good thing, but we’ve got them too. And our politics doesn’t seem as feverish as U.S. politics. McCarthyism wasn’t as bad here. And Australia’s reaction to Bali was dignified, sombre and sane in contrast to the hysteria of the US’s reaction to 9/11.
It reminds me of the scene in Annie Hall in which Woody’s mother finishes an argument with his father by saying “Have it your own way, the Atlantic Ocean is a better ocean than the Pacific Ocean”.