The unbearable thinness of modern politics

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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”.
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5 Responses to The unbearable thinness of modern politics

  1. Matt Moore says:

    This “lowest opinion” was on full display from Amanda Vanstone in the Fairfax media today:

    I’m not sure that agreements in politics have ever had “solidity” – esp. around questions of leadership and power. It is actually hard to think of a political relationship (Hawke & Keating, Howard & Costello) where promises have not been broken.

    What is different is the insecurity and isolation of political parties. There is the sense of mainstream politicians lacking a clear reason for existence beyond simple self-preservation. Vanstone’s article has that in spades – “we may be mediocre but we are the least worst alternative”.

    I wasn’t around at the time but my impression is that the current turbulence in Australian politics (which becomes visible in 2010 and simply never stops) is echoed by events back in the late 60s and early 70s. So it is not wholly unprecedented but neither is it the same.

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    I’m not fussed about ‘volatility’. Not really talking about that. But I am aware that what I’m alleging to have been true in the past may not have been or have been less than I thought.

  3. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Yeah I am not the first person to write about the decline of our political class.

    The usual problem put up is on both sides you have players who have had no proper job. They have been in student politics and then a staffer and then a politician.

    I would add party officials as well to that list.

    I would not add union officials as if they do their job it is a job that needs a lot of different skills.
    I would not being with the ACTU to that. except for Bob Hawke , our best PM, the rest have been duds. Jed it is not looking god for you.
    Also being a successful businessman also means being unsuccessful in politics.

    My best guess is most do not do an ‘apprenticeship’ and so get to cabinet status well before they should.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      All true, but hardly of the essence as to how the incentives have changed – which is surely about the adaption of media – both mainstream and social – to optimise ‘engagement’ and the consequent need to pump out all kinds of dreck to keep up your visibility and the general level of demonisation, resentment and narcissism.

  4. I am and will always be Not Trampis says:

    Lets us add very little interaction with the ordinary people and so people do nothing until the latest focus group ‘research’ comes through.

    Where is the modern day Paul Keating who for al his many faults went very big on trying to persuade the electorate on what was good policy was good politics.

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