Regrettably, I believe the voters set to choose our next national parliament public are more disillusioned about politics than any electorate in the 40 years since I first voted in a Federal election
This political malaise has many symptoms:
- apathy and cynicism in an electorate which too easily abdicates its democratic obligations;
- an impoverished contest of political ideas often reduced to an appeal to narrow and shallow materialistic aspirations;
- mistrust of the major parties who appear to be agents of the big end of town rather than the popular will;
- the demise of political party membership;
- presidential media driven politics emphasising image over substance.
While there are certain structural reforms to the political process which might contribute to a cure, I maintain the core cause of the disease in our body politic is more deep seated than simply correcting the mechanics of our democratic system.
Perhaps unreasonably I have always clung to the faith that the Machiavellian instincts which often overtake those on the treasury benches are ultimately challenged by what the former poet-President of the Czech Republic, Vaclev Havel, termed “a politics of meaning...not the art of the useful, but politics as a practical morality, in service of the truth”. Across my lifetime there have been a few political leaders who have embodied this quest, just as there have been those who represent its antithesis, exploiting fear while vociferously espousing their moral convictions.
In my view, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen and our present Prime Minister are exemplars of this latter type. Both shamefully used social division to their electoral advantage pursuing a governing style which corrodes probity and accountability. Nevertheless, in the forthcoming election “truth in government” is unlikely to figure prominently in how people vote because there is a widespread sense that “both sides of politics practice deception”.
This electoral disillusionment is not simply the product of political chicanery. Rather it flourishes because mainstream politicians in this country generally fail to inspire hope in their communities, or relate to the issues which dominate people’s lives. It is time for a new generation of political leaders, from various points of the political spectrum, to address both the disconnect between the electorate and elected representatives as well as the invisibility of vision in public life.
At least one contemporary political practitioner, the Federal MP for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner, has identified the need to refocus politics. In his view politics needs to engage with matters that matter to people, like “teenagers going off the rails” or “access for grandparents” separated from their grandchildren because of messy family break-ups. He has recently published Crowded Lives, which asserts that the missing ingredient in political debate is a focus on “relationships”.
In an extended essay on social phenomena such as loneliness, youth alienation, parenting and national identity, Tanner calls for “relationship impact statements” in public policy. He writes, “As we struggle to adapt to the domination of the bottom line and to constant economic, social and technological change, the factor invariably omitted from the equation is human relationships. We’ve managed to insert the environment into our political calculations, but we still neglect the factor that drives and sustains our existence.”
Another voice providing a promising prompt to political discourse is Clive Hamilton, Director of the Australia Institute, who challenges the preoccupation of social justice advocates with economic poverty. Whilst accepting the importance of fighting poverty, he insists that the more urgent challenge for Australia is to deal with our over-consumption, a state of affairs that has not made for a happier society and is certainly ecologically unsustainable.
Hamilton insists that social progress requires a more holistic approach to politics, which, while still promoting a just distribution of social goods such as health and education, also supports the adjustment he calls “downshifting” to a simpler lifestyle. According to him, “We need a politics for a society in which the citizens are committed to a rich life rather than a life of riches”.
Secular prophets like Tanner and Hamilton recognise that our lives are driven by more than market considerations or consumption of the latest technology, and that most of us want leaders and political representatives motivated by a social vision we can believe in.
Their sentiments are echoed by Tony Fitzgerald QC who recently reminded the audience when launching a book entitled Not Happy John - Defending our democracy: “We are a community, not merely a collection of self-interested individuals. Justice, integrity and trust in fundamental institutions are essential social assets, and social capital is as important as economic prosperity”.
Now there’s a yardstick for evaluating the political debate over the next week!