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The politics we deserve

By Peter McMahon - posted Monday, 19 June 2006

Australia is one of the most over-governed places on earth, with enormous funds going to support the various levels of government. We also boast a highly developed (albeit highly concentrated) mass media claiming to keep us informed, and getting paid plenty for it. Why then is politics in this country so debased and what, if anything, can be done about it?

I’ve just read The Latham Diaries. I wanted to wait until after the hubbub died down, and read the book with a view to discerning any lasting contribution to Australian political culture. After all, it is not often the recently retired leader of a major political party writes such a raw appraisal.

I supported Latham’s rise to ALP leadership. My reasoning was this: Labor was in terminal decline after 1996, and Beazley was simply the undertaker; Labor had to reform, and the only two real candidates for leadership were Lindsay Tanner and Latham. Tanner didn’t want it enough, and so Latham it was.


The events following Latham’s end appear to have confirmed that I was right about Labor, although like most I had no knowledge Latham was so fragile, physically or emotionally. As I write this he’s just escaped a criminal record for bashing up a camera - clearly life after politics is not turning out the way he had hoped. At least he was different; when I met him he displayed intelligence and humour, a rare thing in the modern politician.

The Latham Diaries sees nothing positive in current trends in national politics, or Australian society for that matter. Although we can take or leave his personal account as to who said what, from my perspective every substantive criticism of the process of politics rings true. As he argues, Australian politics is utterly bankrupt, corrupted by factionalism, careerism and a far too cosy relationship with the mass media.

The end result is that the Australian political system neither represents popular opinion (whatever that is) nor does it respond to substantive problems. It is entirely dysfunctional, neither democratic nor providing good governance, while making a great show of doing both.

So what, if anything, can be done about this?

The most obvious problem is the symbiotic - or mutually parasitic - relationship between the political process and the mass media. The media focus on trivia and personality, mostly in a negative way. This promotes careful, soulless people who don’t take risks (like putting forward coherent arguments or acting on principle). When on occasion, policy is announced it suffers the death of a thousand cuts, a victim of ridicule or indifference.

Not that the media is without its own ideological barrows. The way the mainstream commentators took to the neo-liberal (economic rationalist) position in the 1980s is revealing. Of course, their assault on or ignoring of new ideas leaves neo-liberal pragmatism as the only viable option.


The factionalism problem is an extremely difficult one. Such secretive angling for power can only be dealt with by open debate in a context of sustained action towards a collectively agreed-upon goal informed by a relevant and coherent ideology. Fat chance of that happening these days.

Careerism also arises out of an ideological failure. When individuals see no genuine common aim, no open and fair process, they opt for personal success. This then becomes the culture, and those who would seek genuine debate get squeezed out.

The two major parties, supported by our preferential electoral system, oscillate in power. When one stinks too much, the other takes over for a while. Historical differences (which made the conservatives the “business as usual” government, Labor the temporary emergency government) have paled as the exigencies of contemporary political power drive them to look, sound and behave the same.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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