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The politics of hope

By Peter van Vliet - posted Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Something is happening in American politics at the moment which might be the world’s best hope for change in decades. Australians, turned off by the boorish behaviour of our cricket team, can find real inspiration at or on the endless political coverage at America’s ABC network website.

Americans in New Hampshire are queuing for more than a kilometre to hear the magic and charisma that is Barack Obama. Could it be that the hope is finally gaining ground against the pervasive cynicism that presently characterises much of the western public’s attitude to politics?

For the first time since Robert Kennedy we have an American presidential candidate inspiring real interest in previously disconnected segments of the American population. Rising from the managerialism that has characterised much of our politics for the last few decades we have a presidential contender who is reenergising his people with speeches on values rather than talk of tax cuts.


Maybe for the first time in a long time John F. Kennedy’s timeless mantra that you ask what you can do for your country, rather than what your country can do for you, has found a new voice.

For Australia’s political parties there are many lessons to be learned. Isn’t it great to see the American primaries system in action where the preselection processes of political parties are opened up to a large chunk of the community, rather than left to the current motley crews of branch stacks, apparatchiks and a few odd well meaning party members?

Ultimately the scrutiny of candidates and the seeding out of talent arising from the primary system means you end up with much better candidates who have proven their worth through a much more rigorous preselection process than is presently the case in most of Australia’s preselection arrangements.

A primary process implemented by our major parties would improve significantly the quality of candidates in our parliaments. Primaries reduce the dead hand of over-zealous factionalism and political patronage. Concerns about the advantages of finance in the primary system can be addressed by stricter rules on campaign funding and advertising than are currently found in America.

For the republican movement in Australia, the excitement that direct election can elicit in a population, as shown through the Barack Obama campaign, might inspire us to find a direct-election model that works - and win over some of the waverers in the parliamentary appointment camp.

A president in an Australian republic would of course have mostly ceremonial powers unlike the powerful president of the United States. But a direct election process would ensure that Australians could take ownership of the process and genuine excitement could be generated around our future presidents such as we are witnessing in America today.


It’s a long way from Iowa and New Hampshire to the White House but if we do get President Obama in 2009 maybe our world will be a slightly better, safer and more inspirational place to live in. America could return to its place as a leader of nations and Australia could have a more mature relationship with a more enlightened ally.

Whatever the outcome, Barack Obama is reconnecting an entire new generation with the importance and value of democracy and politics. That can’t be a bad thing!

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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