“How did you go bankrupt?”
“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
So the article by Lachlan Harris and Andrew Charlton in today’s SMH is heaps better than most of the political commentary that we normally get but it is still incomplete.
The things they get right:
- The democratic breakdown is international.
- There will be no return to politics as normal. This is not a temporary change.
- The disconnection between electorates and the traditional major political parties is a key element of this dysfunction.
- Collective activities as whole that used to support or intersect with political activity (e.g. unions, churches) are in decline.
What’s missing from their analysis?
There’s no mention of the economic and social changes of the past 40 years:
- As a nation, we are so much richer than we were in the 1940s or even the 1970s. Most of us have experienced some of that wealth.
- At the same time, inequality has been growing since the early 70s. We are not as bad as the US but wage growth has started to flatten out.
- We are aging as a population and wealth increasingly sits with the older generation.
- We are more diverse. Since the end of the white Australia policy, our origins are more visibly non-European.
- We are ever more urbanized and sorted – moving to locations where we mix with those demographically, economically and ideologically similar to us (again to some extent and not as much as the US).
We are not the same nation that elected Menzies, Whitlam or Hawke. That is the reason that we cannot go back to those times. We are no longer the people who made those decisions. Out decisions therefore must be new ones.
The article doesn’t talk about anxiety. For all its faults, Yascha Mounk’s recent book on a similar topic is right to focus on the appeal of populists to those worried about their economic well-being or their national identity. David Marr’s article on Pauline Hanson highlighted that her supporters have a profoundly pessimistic view of the future. Scared people do crazy things.
Like many articles about our political malaise, the recommendations are underwhelming.
“Major political parties will also need to adapt their structures. Over the last quarter century, they have allowed their membership to dwindle and their organisational wings to succumb to hyper-centralised control, opaque preselections, divvying out of political favours and dubious donations. In an increasingly ideological world, major parties can’t rely on compulsory voting to bring out their supporters. They will need to re-build their structures in ways that build respect, trust, authenticity, conviction and participation”
Too easy! If only someone had thought of that before. I suspect that political parties can’t just do some procedural spring cleaning and have a few outreach sessions at village fetes and surburban festivals. Their logics of operation are too engrained. The apathy of the general public is too far gone. They will only be reborn through a catastrophe, through trial by ordeal. Or they will be replaced by something different. Something that may be better, worse or both.
“Whoever they vote for, people will also have to adjust the way they assess and reward politicians if they want our national parliament to function more effectively. Rather than reward absolutism, voters will need to reward politicians, and political parties, who can cooperate and achieve agreement across political battle lines.”
Why would they do that? Because two gentlemen writing an article in broadsheet tell them to?
Why are the solutions to our current political predicament proffered so desultory? It is because no one really knows what to do. And that’s OK because there is unlikely to be one simple solution. This is a Super Wicked Problem. This is a complex problem that requires new ideas and new ways of doing things. Most of those new ideas will fail. That’s also OK. That’s what happens. But some will work. And the future will not look like the past.