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Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 21:41 | SYDNEY
Thursday 17 Aug 2017 | 21:41 | SYDNEY

Policy in the age of trivia



18 January 2011 08:57

The last three issues of Quarterly Essay have been real agenda setters. David Marr's biography of Kevin Rudd contributed materially to Rudd's downfall, and Hugh White sparked a debate about China in a way no one else has managed.

Then came George Megalogenis' essay, 'Trivial Pursuit', published in November 2010 but which I read only last week after hearing numerous recommendations. Coming right after Hugh White's QE about the profound implicatications for Australia of China's rise, Megalogenis' essay is the despair-inducing bookend. For if White's essay is an urgent call for serious policy change, then Megalogenis has shown why that change is so unlikely to happen.

The theme of 'Trivial Pursuit' is the smallness of Australia's politics (illustrated perfectly by our vacuous election campaign) and the danger that this will condemn Australia to mediocrity. One of Megalogenis' strengths as a political reporter is his devotion to data, and the use of opinion polling, election results and economic statistics makes the argument of 'Trivial Pursuit' hard to dismiss. It is strange, then, that in concluding his essay, Megalogenis sets aside this preference and reaches for a more anecdotal explanation for his dark mood:

What makes me pessimistic about the nation's politics now is the character of many of the people in it. The crew that delivered us such a silly campaign have to behave like adults to make the hung parliament work. They will need to overcome a generational instinct for instant gratification.

Instant gratification and a lack of patience are in fact recurring themes in 'Trivial Pursuit', yet Megalogenis presents no evidence that this generation of politicians (or voters) is less patient and more selfishly impulsive than those that came before.

If there is evidence, I would love to see it, but on it's face, I'm sceptical of this claim. Human nature changes very slowly, if it changes at all, so when behaviour changes (in this case, a decreasing willingness among voters and the political class to endure tough but necessary policy change), the explanation can more reliably be found in structural factors and incentives rather than in people's values.

So if Australians as a people have become less patient and more demanding of instant gratification, maybe the structure of our economy explains it. (Foreign Policy's Dan Drezner made this case well in response to claims that the GFC marked a decline in traditional American values of thrift and hard work.)

As for the structural factors that explain Australia's policy malaise, Megalogenis actually lays out many of them himself — the narrowing talent base of our political parties, the 24 hour media cycle, the graying voter base, poor leadership. That's plenty to worry about without questioning whether our moral fibre is fraying.

If this interpretation is right, it's actually a good news story. To again borrow Drezner's argument, values are very hard to change, so if they have indeed declined, the future is grim. But, by comparison, structure and incentives are easy to change. So, as long as we work hard to correctly identify the problems that ail our polity, the solutions will follow.

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