Gormenghast on Lake Burley Griffin

“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.

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6 Responses to Gormenghast on Lake Burley Griffin

  1. I don’t agree that minor parties are taking over. Not at all. In the 2017 Queensland state election One Nation got 1 seat and about 14 percent of the vote. In the 2018 South Australian election, Nick Xenophon got about 13 percent of the vote and no lower house seats. The Greens have consistently failed to get more than 15 percent of the vote anywhere. The place however where minor parties can change legislative agendas is in the upper houses, such as the federal Senate. And they always will have to work there with the two majors, who have shown in recent elections that they are still the only games in town. The article you reference is completely unconvincing in my view.

    • innotecture says:

      I don’t think they are “taking over” but I agree with the authors that the signs are not good. I would also note that UKIP at its peak had 13% of the UK electorate and only ever held a tiny number of parliamentary seats. It still had an impact on the UK political environment. If our political system is an ecology then it’s not just about the apex predator(s) – the smaller players impact the system. N.B. Our senate structure is particularly advantageous for smaller parties. The reason I put the Hemingway quote at the start is that complex systems degrade slowly and then collapse quickly – that’s what we’ll see with our politics.

  2. Another thing they get quite wrong is the suggestion that there is an ideological echo chamber on social media. One thing that you will always find there is a diversity of views, even if the people you follow have an ideological position that agrees with yours, because they will post items that come from a different point of view in order to generate comment. And then of course there are hashtag streams, which fill up with a very diverse range of viewpoints. So you unavoidably get to see a wide variety of viewpoints. No matter what the usual clique of media pundits aver.

  3. One thing that comes to mind in the light of this post is the question of the desirability of keeping the British royal family at the head of government in Australia. I have a friend who has quite gone off the idea of a republic due to the rise of Donald Trump. At least with the Windsors you know pretty much what you’re going to get each time, although Charles has demonstrated a rather regrettable surfeit of opinion on occasion.

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