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Australian politics: a lack of narrative

By John Töns - posted Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Tony Jones writing in The Weekend Australian magazine (September 20-21) noted that our current crop of political leaders lacked the soaring rhetoric that seems to be part and parcel of American politics. Leaving aside the question whether or not rhetoric can be a substitute for substantive policy one has to admit that he has a point. Both the Government and Opposition frontbenches are unlikely to make that one incisive comment that will force the nation to sit up and take note.

According to Jones, Paul Keating has the reason for this blandness - a lack of narrative. I believe Keating is right but for different reasons. Keating had a narrative and he had a vision as did Bob Hawke before him. But apart from these two one struggles to find any sense of narrative from any of our other former prime ministers. The reason for this is that as a nation we do not have a political narrative hence the temptation for prime ministers like both John Howard and Kevin Rudd to be little more than apparatchiks.

Of course there will be those who argue that Howard lost the last election precisely because he failed to take into account that our political narrative centres on fairness: and the Union movement did a good job in highlighting that. Through WorkChoices, his government betrayed that sense of fairness.


However, the actions of the Rudd Government to date shows that this is not its perception: it has not moved to, for example, bring construction workers back into the common ambit of industrial relations; it chose not to increase pensions (until its hand was forced) and its much touted education revolution has done nothing to restore a sense of fairness.

If fairness is part of our political narrative then quite clearly it is not sufficiently mature to enable people to use it as the centre piece for their political campaigns.

The concept of a political narrative is of more than just a passing interest. Countries like the UK, France and the USA have a well developed political narrative, a narrative that has been forged in the crucible of revolutions. At the same time that narrative is not fixed, it is continually being reshaped and remoulded in response to changing conditions, but it remains the benchmark against which policies are judged.

Germany and Russia provide powerful examples of the importance of a political narrative. Hitler was able to portray the Weimar government as having besmirched Germany’s honour in accepting the Peace of Versailles but even at the time populist graffiti read “Ein Volk, Ein Reich Kein Fuhrer” (One Empire, One people No Fuhrer) It was not until 1945 that Germany finally became reconciled to democracy as its political narrative. With regards to Russia its political narrative remains inclined towards autocracy - the ideology of the autocrats may change but to regard contemporary Russia as a democracy is to allow for a broad conception of the term democracy.

With respect to the current global financial crisis we see another dimension of the role of a political narrative. The push for globalisation has been largely driven by the USA: it has basically endeavoured to export its political narrative globally; or more precisely, that version of its political narrative that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan concocted between them.

In essence that narrative held that both the British and USA economies were at their most robust when they allowed market forces free reign. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” was what had made these two countries strong. Not only was this a misreading of their own economic history, the premature opening up of domestic markets could, and did, have the effect of driving emerging economies into a poverty spiral from which they struggle to emerge.


This has been well documented by two former World Bank economists (in P. Collier’s The Bottom Billion and J. Stiglitz’s Globalization and its Discontents). If one adds to the equation that those self same governments are attempting to define a role for themselves both on the world stage and domestically one should not be surprised that the economic failure leads to a rejection of whatever political narrative is being promoted.

But perhaps the most significant problem with the lack of a political narrative at the global level is demonstrated here in Australia. A global economy requires a global political narrative. That this is absent can be gauged by events such as the Bangkok Declaration of 1993. This meeting of Asian leaders asserted on the one hand the need for social justice on a global scale but on the other rejected any attempts by Western nations to tailor their aid to countries on the grounds of perceived shortcomings in domestic social justice.

Is this all that different to the way the various Australian state governments behave? On the one hand state premiers are masters at asserting that they will not enter into any agreements which may disadvantage their state but on the other demand that the Commonwealth act in the interests of all Australians.

The election of Malcolm Turnbull has given Australia the opportunity to begin to think seriously about the sort of political narrative that should inform our governments. Both Turnbull and Rudd are committed to a republic. A republic requires a referendum - instead of merely focusing on how we will appoint our own head of state, why not also address the question of what the objectives of our governments should be; and how can we test that nebulous concept of a fair go?

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About the Author

John Töns is President of the Zero Carbon Network a network established to promote clear thinking about the issues associated with climate change. In addition to operating the only zero carbon boarding kennels in South Australia he is also completing a PhD at Flinders University in the area of Global Justice. John is a founding member of a new political party Stop Population Growth Now.

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