Phil Burgess and what’s wrong with our political culture

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”.

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Craig Malam
Craig Malam
13 years ago

My partner is American so I often compare the two countries. But as with comparisons between any two countries (and we have lived in other countries), we have found time and time again that those comparisons always find one better than the other, but only along one dimension. Surely enough the other is always better in some other way.

Perhaps Phil hasn’t travelled enough, or he wasn’t careful enough to note that he is only comparing along one dimension. But I would certainly agree that he is on shaky ground when comparing US and Australian politics. There are just too many examples to list here (gas tax holiday anyone?)

patrickg
13 years ago

Yeah, those close business links and that awesome lobbying system have resulted in some really bonza outcomes for poor people, minorities, reduced costs and subsidy systems, and voter empowerment.

Cripes, how many tabs of acid did he drop before he wrote that?! Complaining about the fact the government doesn’t listen to business lobbyists enough. Ha!

Stephen Bounds
13 years ago

Nicholas, I’m surprised at you.

I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be greater civic engagement in Australia. And I don’t doubt that the tall poppy syndrome is still alive and well.

But Phil’s speech sounds very much like sour grapes to me. Phil imagined he could just lobby the government to get what he wanted, and in Australia he couldn’t.

It’s true that we have a very powerful public service in Australia in the best traditions of Westminster and “Yes Minister”. That public service is very rarely corrupt in any significant way, which makes it far harder to buy outcomes.

I think people underestimate the usefulness of having a public service that can give strong pushback against idiotic edicts from their leaders and lobbying from billion dollar corporations.

Personally, I cheered the obstructionism of our government and regulators in refusing to let Telstra exploit their natural monopoly on our communications infrastructure. I’m sure many others did as well.

And I didn’t see anything “interesting” in that speech except that Phil thinks we should import American culture over here. To which I can only say, he can take his American culture … “and stuff it”.

Bill Cushing
Bill Cushing
13 years ago

So the US got a turkey?

The alternative was a goose.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

I tried to read the paper, but couldn’t cope with the bold-type phrases everywhere. What on earth is that all about?

Stephen Bounds
13 years ago

Hi Nicholas,

How is “arrogance” any less of an easy assumption to make than that of “sour grapes”?

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

It’s the same principle as with italics or underlining. You’re not supposed to use them unless the operative term is ambiguous, or unless the point is so novel, surprising, or crucial that you have to draw special attention to it. But in general, if something isn’t important it shouldn’t be there at all. That’s what I was taught, anyway. Maybe you disagree, but if it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, why doesn’t everyone do it? He looks as if he’s doing it to save time for busy executives who just want to skim.

Joshua Gans
Joshua Gans(@joshua-gans)
13 years ago

All right, I concede everything. It’s fun and efficient, and above all it really brings out the poetry of the text. Let’s make sure every classic gets the work-over, to make it even greater. I’m starting here:

Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.

Then Pilate entered into the judgment hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews? Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me?

Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?

Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence.

John 18: 31-36

Gummo Trotsky
13 years ago

The italics are a form of rhetorical punctuation. They indicate words that should be stressed when the passages are read aloud (or when you’re subvocalising as you read through the text).

Gummo Trotsky
13 years ago

Nick,

My assertion is based on what I know of the history of punctuation (from a course reader) and second, readings of McLuhan.

History of punctuation in a nutshell:

Inthebeginningwasscriptocontinua
(the first punctuation was rhetorical – the addition of marks to indicate pauses and stresses required in reading aloud – but that was done by the reader).
Irish monks started putting spaces into written text in the seventh and eighth centuries CE to assist their Gaelic speaking readers. This conversion of rhetorically punctuated scripto continuo (with positurae to mark the ends of statements, phrases and questions) made the development of silent reading possible.

The next big phase after that is the development of standardised typographic punctuation, and attempts to standardise grammar in the eighteenth century.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan describes the process of book production before the printing press, in the universities of the Medieval schoolmen. One interesting feature is that students in the universities learnt grammar before they began to write; it was a preparation for accurately recording the words of the lecturers who would dictate their texts to them from memory. I’d suggest a more subtle emphasis is indicated for “… all our days are passed away in they wrath; we spend out years as a tale that is told“: one where pitch and volume wane towards the end of the statement.

So, I figure what you’re seeing in those old bibles is the use of typography to convey rhetorical inflection. Actually delivering the correct rhetorical inflection in reading the text aloud would depend not just on the use of italics, but also an intimate knowledge of established rhetorical conventions. Some of those inflections are obvious to a modern reader, e.g:

I will fay of the LORD He is my refuge and my fortrefs…

The inflection of your verse 9 is less obvious. That’s possibly because we moderns work with a very narrow range of rhetorical emphases; we emphasise statements by asserting them more loudly, “raising the pitch” (quite literally). It may be that the intended inflection there is for the speaker’s voice to wane away a little on “that is told” (almost, but not quite, plainsong) to enhance the metaphor.

jc
jc
13 years ago

But I have a problem – one might call it a problem of tone. Its not just bad manners and bad politics to turn up somewhere in a powerful position and tell the locals that they dont quite measure up to standards back home. Its bad in another sense.

Have you seen Phil Burgess’ bio? He taught comparative political systems at university.

Laura
13 years ago

Italics in the King James Version bible (which this is) signal words the scholar-translator committee nominate as other-than-literal translation (from Hebrew in the case of the psalms): they are insertions, I understand, in places where Hebrew doesn’t require such words but English does in order for the sense to be conveyed. The headnote passages are glosses from the same author-translators.

You can get a sense of the music of the psalms by not saying these phrases, and by reading them as antiphonally sung, with one voice saying the call up to the caesura (these poems are very carefully pointed in the same place as the Hebrew text) and a second voice saying the response.

I recommend saying both voices yourself, and basing each of them on your choice of character actors from the Carry On movies.

Laura
13 years ago

And Dang I agree with James; if emphasis doesn’t emerge from a block of writing as a logical consequence of its content, syntax and pointing, then flinging the bolds around isn’t going to do much to fix things.

If it’s the unrevised text of a speech, though, I understand and forgive the bolding.

jc
jc
13 years ago

But I have a problem – one might call it a problem of tone. Its not just bad manners and bad politics to turn up somewhere in a powerful position and tell the locals that they dont quite measure up to standards back home.

Nic, It appears he was asked to give a speech on the subject -comparing the two nations. He could be considered an expert seeing he says he was an academic teaching comparative political systems.

F

or 15 years, during the academic part of my career,
I taught comparative politics. We always covered the various forms of parliamentary
government, including the Westminster system practiced in the UK and throughout most of the
Commonwealth.7

Put another way, I understand very well the differences between the presidential system of the US
and the parliamentary system of Australia and I especially understand how the fusion of
powers in the parliamentary system concentrates enormous power in the hands of a
minister. That is very different from the US.8

Its a fine speech that seems to have been given by a thoughtful man. If he thinks the US system is far more open to debate etc. hes probably right especially with the congressional function of oversight playing a more important role over there than it does here. Furthermore one could make a strong case against majoritarian system we have here compared to the US.

And Australias reaction to Bali was dignified, sombre and sane in contrast to the hysteria of the USs reaction to 9/11.

Bali isnt Australian territory. 250 marines were killed in Beruit in the 80s and US reaction wasnt hysterical. Our reaction is exactly what one would expect of a nation with almost next to no means of projecting power.

He has a pretty reasonable bio to be talking on this subject.

Phil has a long record of leadership in public policy and communications with broad experience as an academic, business executive, media commentator and writer on economic, political and cultural trends in the US and around the world.

Prior to his appointment with Telstra, Phil served most recently as president and chief executive of the National Academy of Public Administration in Washington, D.C. Phil also served as President of the Annapolis Institute, a U.S. think tank established in 1993 to help leaders manage change – at every level in both the public and private sectors.

Phil also serves as a Visiting Professor of Policy Studies at UCLA’s public policy school, where he teaches in the graduate program on communications and culture.

jc
jc
13 years ago

But you basically accuse him of being bad mannered because he’s suggesting the US system has certain advantages. That’s not being bad mannered for a person of his background: he’s calling it as he sees it.

Gummo Trotsky
13 years ago

Wrong again!

SLloyd
SLloyd
13 years ago

Nic just wanted him to acknowledge that the US is currently a dictatorship, but only Lefties agree on that. So I don’t see why a political scholar would.

jc
jc
13 years ago

But you basically accuse him of being bad mannered because hes suggesting the US system has certain advantages. Thats not being bad mannered for a person of his background: hes calling it as he sees it.

To which Trotsky says:

Wrong again!

Referring to this:
B

ut I have a problem – one might call it a problem of tone. Its not just bad manners and bad politics to turn up somewhere in a powerful position and tell the locals that they dont quite measure up to standards back home.

You wanna try again, Trotsky.

Gummo Trotsky
13 years ago

jc,

My comment was in response to Laura’s. Yours, I didn’t bother reading.

jc
jc
13 years ago

Yours, I didnt bother reading.

Then why did you read the last one, Trotsky.

armagnac esq
13 years ago

“we landed one of the biggest turkeys in the history of modern Western democracy”

See, not so much difference after all…

bradley conquest
bradley conquest
13 years ago

umpteen checks and balances in the us? more vigorous debate?

sorry but have all you people at club troppo been asleep since 911?

umm, you know, the patriot act, the dangerous concentration of executive power in a warmongering president’s hands, the usurpation and belittlement of the congress by the president’s authoritarian whims, the stacking of the supreme court with neoconservative stooges who are willing to shred the bill of the rights and the consitution in general, the total corruption of the us electoral system to corporate bribes and the american israel public affairs committee
(see video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2894821400057137878. god, the list could go on.

where the hell have you “experts” been?

suggest you take a rather large dose of paul craig roberts as quickly as possible, make a very strong cup of tea and sit down. the news is not good.

bradley conquest
bradley conquest
13 years ago

oh and i forgot to add: amid all this, the consenting (and facilitating)silence of the corporate owned media which when not promoting false fears of wmd and terrorism does everything it can to stiffle genuine discussion and debate about the real and serious issues and instead promote public obssession with celebrity gossip and sport.

let phil burgess go back to america and his wet dreams.

I do some work for Telstra so putting my name to this would be commercial suicide
I do some work for Telstra so putting my name to this would be commercial suicide
13 years ago

I think the important thing to realise about Phil Burgess is that nothing he says is just for the hell of it. Indeed, everything he says is calculated to advance Telstra’s position.
So while I agree that he raises some interesting points, he only does so because he thinks his argument could strengthen Telstra’s position if his desired outcomes ever came about.
What he wants is more ways to get his case heard and more avenues of appeal. Sure, they represent checks and balances. But they also represent corruptible and/or stackable fora in which influence can be exercised.
I’m happy with Australia’s funnelling of influence. Happier than I am with the USA’s unbridled capitalism.