Australian political dysfunction hurts our reputation abroad
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Australian political dysfunction hurts our reputation abroad

Australian political dysfunction hurts our reputation abroad

Michael Fullilove

The Australian

10 October 2015

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Executive Summary

I wrote my Boyer lectures between, and sometimes during, the five Test matches of this year’s Ashes series.

For my Canadian wife, Gillian, the appeal of cricket is a mystery. She thinks it is merely a game, and an odd one at that. But in fact cricket explains much about the universe — and it contains important lessons for Australia about our role in the world.

Like foreign policy, cricket is a long game. Things are opaque in cricket, as in diplomacy: sometimes a draw can be a win.

The weather conditions and the state of the pitch are critical. The ball swings in the air and moves off the seam. In foreign policy, too, the decision-making environment is fast and fluid. It is difficult to see the choices before you, let alone make the right one.

Cricket and foreign policy require many of the same qualities: intelligence, skill, patience, discipline — and toughness. Few cricket matches are won through sweet reason alone. In world politics, leverage matters as much as logic. Of course, assertiveness comes in different forms — spin bowling as well as pace, forceful diplomacy as well as force.

Finally, a country’s success in international competition relies on the strength of its domestic game. It depends on the national psyche, the local cricketing culture, the excellence of the national academy, the health of the domestic competition.

As Richard Haass has observed, foreign policy begins at home. Australia’s reputation and influence overseas are underpinned by the quality of our society and our economy.

For all our strengths as a country, we also suffer persistent afflictions that we must address. We need to rebuild the domestic foundations of Australian leadership. If we want to pursue a larger foreign policy, we first need to become a larger country.

Unfortunately, in recent years our politics have become smaller. Between 1983 and 2007 Australia enjoyed almost a quarter-century of stable and effective government. The Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating remade the economy and developed creative social policies. They won five elections at a time when conservative political parties governed most of the developed world. A stream of social democrats — including Tony Blair — made the pilgrimage to Canberra to watch and learn.

The Coalition government led by John Howard ran up four election victories. David Cameron admired Howard’s record of deft political and economic management. Barack Obama has praised his gun laws.

The situation today is very different. Dysfunction stalks the parliamentary corridors in Canberra and the state capitals. The leadership churn is unprecedented. In the past three years the country has had four prime ministers. None of the previous three looked comfortable for long, or served a full term. They spent most of their time in survival mode, clinging to office from budget to budget and from poll to poll.

Consider how this clouds international perceptions of Australia as a reliable and credible interlocutor. In the past eight years we have had four foreign ministers, whereas in the preceding 19 years we had only two.

This means the average tenure of our foreign ministers has gone from nearly a decade to a couple of years. Consider how this retards their ability to form deep relationships and develop long-term initiatives.

In the same period, we have had six defence ministers. Consider how this inhibits well-informed and far-sighted decision-making about our national security. Government policy on the issues facing our country has lurched from one pole to the other. Few truly significant reforms have been enacted, and most of those that were stood up were subsequently torn down.

Politicians have become more skilled at opposing than governing. They rarely try to win over the public with sustained arguments on difficult issues.

Governments seem incapable of exercising their authority. Vested interests are off the leash. The conventions that once governed appropriate political behaviour have broken down. Our public life has acquired a brutal and pitiless character.

Meanwhile, a parade of clownish characters has been elected to parliament and brought a circus atmosphere to the national debate. A few months ago, the latest ringmaster, or Speaker, resigned in disgrace. The House of Representatives has just elected its fifth Speaker in four years.

The pattern is similar at the state level. Once, being premier was a big job, filled by big characters who did big things.

I first encountered Neville Wran at the Sydney Fish Market when I was a boy. The premier walked by, shook my parents’ hands and patted my head. Even to a child, it was obvious he was a giant.

Now premiers flit across the sky like comets, their periods in office usually brief and inconsequential. NSW has its sixth premier in a decade; Victoria is on its fourth in five years; Queensland is on its third in four years.

One-term state governments are no longer anomalies.

Once, Australia’s political system was an object of respect and admiration from international observers. Now most regard it as a curious spectacle.

We need to turn our politics from a dispiriting conflict of personalities into a robust battle of ideas. We need to make our politics larger. Ultimately, this will take politicians who are game — leaders who possess imagination, courage, policy ambition and the power of persuasion.

It will take a government with the wherewithal to marshal its resources and promote a coherent agenda. It will take a prime minister who can carry the country.

But this is not all up to the politicians. It’s also up to the rest of us. We are not innocents in all this: we are accessories. We cannot escape culpability for the condition of our public life.

As a people, we seem to have lost the patience required to engage on big topics; for example, the fact our health, education and welfare bills are projected to grow faster than government revenues. Perhaps a quarter-century of unbroken prosperity has distorted our expectations of what the government owes us.

The rise of new media has vastly increased the sources of information available to us. It has not made us any wiser or more enlightened. We certainly have become very cynical about our representatives. We are too quick to talk down politicians we elected. We invariably put the worst pos­sible interpretation on their conduct. If we are always negative about our politicians, then our politics will always be negative.

Most MPs and senators are public-spirited individuals who make real sacrifices to serve in politics. We should have high expectations of them — and be open to the possibility that they will live up to those expectations.

Recent years have seen the dwindling of Australian politics. I would prefer all of us to think big.

I began by talking about cricket. This year’s Ashes series demonstrates that success should never be taken for granted. If Australia is to reclaim the prize, we need to take a larger view of our potential — and not only in the sphere of cricket.

Edited extract from the third of four lectures in the 2015 ABC Boyer Lectures series, A Larger Australia, by Michael Fullilove. The audio and transcript of the full lecture is available on ABC RN from noon;

Areas of expertise: Australian foreign policy; US politics and foreign policy; Asia and the Pacific; Global institutions