Our politicians have been coddled into banality
It is fashionable to mock the quality of political debate in Australia. Just as bad money drives good money out of circulation, asinine sloganeering and personal attacks appear to have crowded out the serious political debate.
The phrases “moving forward” and “stop the boats” might summarise its recent depth. But blaming Australian politicians is naive. The standard, the complexity, even the eloquence, of political discussion have been decaying throughout the West for many decades.
No longer is an Australian political leader willing or permitted to sit on the Opposition benches for a length of time partly for reasons of ideology or principle, as Arthur Calwell and Bert Evatt did in the 1950s and 1960s.
Once fiery debates about the merits of free trade, public ownership, welfare, foreign investment and the scope of government have given way to glib meaningless mantras.
Simple economics helps explain why: humans naturally want to maximise their well-being. Given the chance of winning a prize, the rational response is to curtail any behaviour that might reduce that chance. As the prize gets bigger, so does the desire to lift the probability of winning.
The iron law of rising prices and falling demand applies as much in the supermarket as it does in politics.
As the power, prestige and spoils of winning and holding office have grown inexorably, the price of political principle, the cost of candour, have skyrocketed.
Ministerial salaries have grown while the number of ministerial advisers has soared. When Edmund Barton was prime minister he was lucky to have a private secretary. The prime minister, an office not recognised in the constitution, was paid the same as other cabinet ministers.
Prime Minister Gillard has over 50 personal staff, excluding the vast, 165,000-strong departmental public service waiting at beck and call. The total number of ministerial advisers has grown by around 80 per cent to around 450 since the early 1980s, when by most accounts Australian political debate was better quality.
The number of ministers has exploded from a handful to around 40 at the federal level, making backbench MPs became ever more careful to toe the political line, however crooked it might be, for fear of forfeiting a lucrative ministry now or later.
The proliferation of sinecures subject to ministerial appointment in the growing menagerie of authorities, commissions, departments, and institutes now numbering near 230 provides a further leaver of power and influence.
The fraction of national income confiscated by government in Australia has grown from around 5 per cent a century ago to around 36 per cent today. Command over resources means power.
The explosion of regulations and legislation is further inducement to sit on the Treasury benches for as long as possible. Vested interests will wine and dine ministers whenever they can to lobby for to maintain or alter them, rendering ministers’ fat salaries mere pocket money.
In his treatise on politics Max Weber wrote in 1919 “the career of politics grants a feeling of power ... the knowledge of influencing men [and] of participating in power over them”. Outside totalitarian countries, never has attaining political power been so attractive.
If a politician takes a principled stance, he risks alienating voters who are naturally hostile to that stance without picking up new votes elsewhere. No matter how strongly some might agree, they only can only vote once. The growing prize of government convinces politicians of all stripes to appear as innocuous and vapid as possible to maximise their chances. Big government has priced principle out of the market.
Professions of outrage across the political divide obfuscate fundamental agreement on almost everything.
The Commonwealth government taxes and spends to the tune of almost $370 billion a year, yet the entirety of Australian political debate revolves around new spending totalling around 1 per cent of that. Fierce debate is underway about a (minerals) tax which raises almost no money rather than massively damaging taxes that do.
For the individual politician, the rich short-term rewards of winning outweigh whatever damage the country endures in the long-run.
It is curious that the same people who criticise the poor quality of political debate tend to support more government spending, ultimately making government even more attractive.
In dictatorships, when governments are all-powerful, the trappings of power become so great politicians conspire to kill or gaol each other and dispense entirely with any genuine political debate.
Robert Menzies wrote in 1970 “to criticise a person is easy ... but to criticise [or advocate] an idea one must first understand it, which requires study and serious thought”. To that he might also have added “the risk of losing”.
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