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The NSW election and Australian democracy

By Reg Little - posted Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The circumstances of the NSW state election may have left little room for doubt about its outcome but they do invite some reflection on the democratic processes of Australia government. By most international standards, Australia remains comparatively well governed but there are no grounds for complacency.

Neither of Australia's two recent Labor Prime Ministers seems to have had any capacity to utilise the administrative resources of a large public service to give substance to any form of policy vision Both seem to have been lone riders who have fallen before the hurdles of practical implementation, leading to growing electorate disillusion.

Labor government in NSW has long had a similar problem, relentlessly exhausting its leadership aspirants in an attempt to find a saviour. Despite her emotional success in responding to the recent floods in Queensland, Premier Bligh has earned a similar reputation. In the area of water alone, she has introduced fluoridation as it comes under increasing criticism in its main stronghold the United States, has increased the state's debt with a poorly functioning desalination plant on the Gold Coast and has overseen management of the Wivenhoe Dam in a way that is increasingly attracting attention as the likely cause of the flooding and devastation of large areas of Brisbane.


At the same time, 21st Century American administrations are increasingly criticised, even mocked, for spending America into bankruptcy, being under the control of Wall Street's casino financiers, leaving themselves at the mercy of a spendthrift and corrupt military industrial complex, overseeing the demise of the US dollar as the global reserve currency and condoning the impoverishment of a growing proportion of the American people. Things are not that bad in Australia.

Problems at the state and national level suggest, however, that the warning signs are there. It is unfashionable, even politically incorrect bordering on disloyal, to comment on the implications for Australia's position in the world of America's increasing problems. Yet Benjamin Reilly, Professor of Political Sciencein the Crawford School at ANU, and currently a Visiting Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DCrecently had published in The Canberra Times a piece titled "PM faces 'frugal' superpower headache". This drew attention to the reality that loyalty to the US alliance will not necessarily protect Australia from the fallout of America's budgetary tribulations and broader mal-administration. It is far from clear how the Foreign Minister's gung-ho approach to Libya is going to ease this frugality.

Michael Smith, CEO of the ANZ Bank and the Australian banker with most Asian experience, had an article in The Australian on 17 March titled "Get ready for a rising yuan and waning dollar". It foreshadowed a major shift in global financial relationships, with possibly even wider consequences than those identified by Professor Reilly. When one reflects on the implications for American access to energy of the shifting politics of the Arab world and the sudden cloud over nuclear energy, it becomes clear that Australia has no sure shelter from American problems but that there is little clear thinking about this at the level of Prime or Foreign Minister.

The deeper problem for Australia is that many of the ideals that it shares with the United States are proving dysfunctional in the contemporary world. Foremost amongst these is the tendency to trust in an electoral system that places politicians with limited relevant experience in charge of large administrative machines that they neither understand nor trust. Their dependence on corporate funding and media endorsement for election, and their accessibility to well briefed and well paid corporate lobbyists, makes it inevitable that they become, in one way or another, puppets of a variety of contending corporate interests.

At the state level in Australia this often leads to poorly considered privatisation and misjudged investments. At the national level, it can leave governments at the mercy of well-funded corporate campaigns if initiatives like a mining or carbon tax are not very well coordinated between their administrations and interested corporate powers.

Australiahas been most fortunate that Prime Ministers like Bob Hawke, Paul Keating and John Howard were all experienced and astute enough to avoid most of these pitfalls. Their successors have been nowhere near as successful.


It should be noted that most of Australia's successful Asian neighbours, and particularly China, have forms of government where local tradition ensures that their administrative elites have an authority that is beyond challenge. This may lead to excesses of corruption, but rarely on the scale of Wall Street. It has not, of course, protected Japan from abuses of safety needs in its nuclear industry, one area where the powerful Japanese bureaucracy seems to have exercised little authority. The Asian tradition of government does, however, provide a form of cohesive, practical strategy that has overseen the transformation of the region while Australia's Anglo-American allies have floundered in a quagmire of misjudged and impractical policy.

Australia is not going to follow the example of Communist, or Confucian, China, but it has to face the reality that competitive standards are now being set in that part of the world. Both state and federal political leaders in Australia need to learn how to work productively with their administrative resources in an increasingly complex and competitive environment.

While the institutional and motivational power of the private corporation has been responsible for many of the benefits of contemporary life, America's decline and Japan's nuclear disaster can both be identified as a consequence of administrative failure in managing corporate interests. In Australia the brewing problems over the coal seem gas industry and the pollution caused by its fracking technology and the takeover by corporate interests of important national bodies like the Pharmaceutical Goods Administration offer a warning about the challenges that will increasingly face Australian governments at all levels.

Barry OFarrell, together with colleagues in Western Australia and Victoria, now faces the challenge of showing that Liberal National Party governments can manage the growing demands of contemporary government. The growing pressures of corporate interests must be guided in ways that do not obstruct productive enterprise but also in ways that protect Australians from the excesses that have become too apparent in Australian Labour Governments and much more frightening in the governments of some of our friends in the Northern hemisphere.

In meeting this challenge it may be necessary to undertake an early review of the quality, integrity and aspirations of state administrations that have been long subject to serving a range of political priorities. Australia has had some outstanding public servants but one might wonder whether public service culture has not been weakened by a process of politicisation, often disguised as managerial or some other type of reform. In the end, new conservative governments will be judged by their performance in an increasingly demanding environment, just like their predecessors.

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About the Author

Reg Little was an Australian diplomat from 1963 to 1988. He gained high level qualifications in Japanese and Chinese and served as Deputy of four and Head of one overseas Australian diplomatic mission. He is the co-author of The Confucian Renaissance (1989) and The Tyranny of Fortune: Australia’s Asian Destiny (1997) and author of A Confucian Daoist Millennium? (2006). In 2009, he was elected the only non-ethnic Asian Vice Chairman of the Council of the Beijing based International Confucian Association. His other writings can be found on his website:

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