Phil Ruthven explains why Australia needs reform for greater progress and the return of rational, visionary and courageous leadership.

    Ideologies and political direction

    In order to understand Australia’s stumbling and confused political direction, it helps to understand the motivation of politicians and parties. Ideologies are relevant. In the industrial age, the dialectic or ideological fight was between capitalism and socialism. Adam Smith – via his Wealth of Nations masterpiece of 1776 – is regarded as the father of capitalism, but was clearly a realist and pragmatist. Karl Marx – via his Communist Manifesto of 1846 – is regarded as the father of socialism, whose utopian intent bred communist states that failed ironically under the yoke of tyranny.

    But two new “isms” have come to dominate politics in democratic nations in the post-industrial age after the mid-1960s, as the exhibit below suggests. These are rationalism and emotionalism. What was a left-and-right paradigm is now a top-and-bottom paradigm: the top involving the head and fact-based logic and the bottom being gut-feel, the heart, intuition and willfulness.

    Socialism vs capitalism

    The fight between socialism and capitalism ended as the new infotronics age of service industry domination and IT emerged in the mid-1960s. Capitalism had won the fight, and socialists conceded that the ownership of the means of production would not be by the people via government business enterprises (GBEs) and general government, but by private enterprise. This is because it achieved better outcomes.

    The business world did concede, however, that higher business taxes would be paid to help the under-privileged, and workers had to be given safer working conditions, greater care and respect.

    Socialism, the underpinning ideology of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), restricted the party to being in power for 18 per cent of the 65 years to 1965, when the industrial age was displaced by our new age.

    It is ironic then, that the “people” are increasingly owning the means of production anyway via the growing superannuation pool – now over $2.2 trillion in value – via the ownership level of public companies.

    A new paradigm

    Terms such as “the left” and “the right” do not explain what is happening in politics today, and haven’t done so for half a century. Yet we, and the media, still use them. Politics today is driven by either rational (fact-based) or irrational (emotion-based) thinking.

    Rationalism will win in this new age, just as capitalism won in the industrial age, otherwise all the tertiary education, information explosion and artificial intelligence software will have failed; and it won’t.

    Australia is now stuck at the wrong end of the new age ideological spectrum: the bottom emotional-irrational end.

    So, with this new age political paradigm for our new age economy and society, where are the various political parties on the spectrum?

    Prior to 2007, the nation had two rational parties in power for almost a quarter of a century. We had the left-leaning ALP rationals (led by Hawke and Keating) from 1983 to 1996, then the right-leaning Coalition rationals (led by Howard and Costello) to 2007. The former did most of the international relations, monetary and social reform, the second most of the economic and fiscal reform.

    We then went to the bottom, to the emotional zone: the Rudd and Gillard-led ALP left-leaning emotionals and then to the Abbott and Turnbull-led right-leaning emotionals. It is hard to find much rational thinking or pragmatism over the past decade – from either party.

    Australia is now stuck at the wrong end of the new age ideological spectrum: the bottom emotional-irrational end. The Greens have been at that end for over a decade (mostly rational on the climate change issue, but mostly irrational on other issues). They have been joined more recently by the irrational Hansonites and Xenophonites, and independents.

    Hansonism is seen by many as an ideology of ignorance and bigotry, but nevertheless a triumph for the protest vote. Xenophonism is an ideology of opportunism, and a triumph for the populist vote. The independents represent an ideology of individualism (narrow interests and causes). All of them are in the emotional end, the result of the absence of democracy (one person, one vote) in the Senate, where these fringe parties and independents have most of their representatives.

    The upper house has been a mess for a very long time. Only the Howard Government had a majority – from 2005–2007 – in the 36 years since the Fraser Coalition Government in 1980, and none is in sight. Up until 1980, a major party had controlled the Senate for more than 80 per cent of the time; since then, less than 6 per cent of the time.

    The Senate does not serve the purpose intended in the 1901 Constitution. It was created to protect state rights and powers – states were given an equal number of seats – and as a house of review for legislation from the House of Representatives. From inception, however, it has been an unrepresentative and undemocratic institution, once referred to by Paul Keating as “unrepresentative swill”. It would be easier for the House of Representatives to govern the country if we had the Westminster protocol where the upper house is limited to reviewing legislation rather than being able to veto bills. But fat chance of that, as they say.

    Australia elected a new government on 2 July, effectively a hung parliament due to the slim one-seat majority of the Coalition in the House of Representatives and the minorities-dominated Senate where no party is in control. So, there is little prospect that there will be any meaningful reform undertaken during the life of this Parliament.

    More’s the pity, since we haven’t had any reform of significance for a decade and the clock is ticking on deficits, debt, jobs, productivity, growth, the energy mix and social issues such as same-sex marriage.

    Spin and spoiling tactics by politicians need to be countered by fact-checks, vision and explanation of the benefits of reforms. Statesmanship involves using media to bring the electorate along with fact-based ambitions and policies.

    The problem at present is that neither major party has the vision or courage to do the rational things that will put the nation back on a progressive path.

    The ALP and the Coalition were rational for almost a quarter of a century from 1983 to 2007. Neither are in 2016, and the talent to take the nation out of the doldrums is not evident in either party.

    Fortunately, it is businesses that create most of the wealth and jobs – around 85 per cent of them each year – so the absence of good government is not the end of the world. Our consumer confidence is okay, without being exciting. We need reform for greater progress. That calls for the return of rational, visionary and courageous leadership. It’s long overdue.

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