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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16 comments

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    • acotrel says:

      06:06am | 16/11/12

      ‘The phrases “moving forward” and “stop the boats” might summarise its recent depth. But blaming Australian politicians is naive. ‘

      ‘Naive ?’  - Those two sentences say it all.  One slogan is constructive and indicates a vision for our future , the other slogan is negative , and indicates an intent to divert attention from the real issues facing our country. So who is to blame for the bullshit use of Hanson’s policies and misinformation about carbon pricing, and dragging the debate to the lowest possible levels ?

    • TimB says:

      07:07am | 16/11/12

      ” One slogan is constructive and indicates a vision for our future “

      It does nothing of the sort. It’s an empty meaningless platitude.

      At least ‘Stop the boats’ is linked to something tangible, whether or not you agree with it or think it’s feasible.

    • sandy says:

      08:35am | 16/11/12

      @ acotrel

      ” So who is to blame for the bullshit use of Hanson’s policies and misinformation about carbon pricing, and dragging the debate to the lowest possible levels ?”

      Busy busy bee this morning on your mission to destroy the Opposition Leader. In racing through the Punch articles you left out the word ‘misogynist’ the one you have picked up from PM Julia Gillard.

      Perhaps if the ALP is serious about a constructive vision for our future our Parliament should first sort out the ‘misogynist and sexist’ tag - have a debate as I am sure many of us would like to know whether Tony Abbott is for real or not. What say acotrel? It is only fair that before we can move forward as a nation is to give Tony Abbott a chance to explain himself. No one wants a misogynist or a sexist as our future PM.

    • A Concerned Citizen says:

      08:56am | 16/11/12

      Actually the reverse is true;
      The first statement is just a vague, pleasant slogan; while the other is a vague insinuation of a policy.

      The only difference is the first one makes you feel good, the other you personally disagree with.

    • willie says:

      12:00pm | 16/11/12

      That’s hilarious.
      Moving forward is a bastardisation of going forward. Going forward is redundant corporate speak favoured by beuracrats and footballers. There has never been a sentence that became clearer with the use of going forward.
      The only possible time when going forwards may be useful is after entropy stops increasing.

      Stop the boats is pretty terrible too.

    • Mahhrat says:

      06:31am | 16/11/12

      “For the individual politician, the rich short-term rewards of winning outweigh whatever damage the country endures in the long-run.”

      This here is the number one issue, closely followed by the culture of responsibility avoidance.

      I advocate paying politicians more, but requiring far better performance.  I would also remove all the “nice sides” like this good article discusses.  I don’t get a Christmas Bonus, neither should a politician - who, after all, is a public servant just like me.

      Although that might not be for much longer…

    • A Concerned Citizen says:

      09:05am | 16/11/12

      Won’t work. It isn’t like our current politicians are going to resign if they get a big enough pay rise, you know.
      The idea we need to pay more to get better politicians only holds water when we can actually FIND a competent reliable person for the job.
      Our politicians are rubbish at the moment because they sincerely ARE rubbish. If you pay a monkey, you get peanuts.

    • iansand says:

      07:35am | 16/11/12

      This:  “Professions of outrage across the political divide obfuscate fundamental agreement on almost everything.”

      There is less and less to make noise about when the expectation that more and more organisations want to secure our attention with noise has become a usual part of our lives.

    • Kipling says:

      08:06am | 16/11/12

      So in short, political debate is in fact crap, however, that is because life has become too good for our politicians that they don’t want to rock the boat (aside from not letting anymore boats in….). Hmm, htat about sums it up.

      My goodness, it is a struggle to see a solution in all of this really….

    • Arnold Layne says:

      08:25am | 16/11/12

      It sounds like he’s saying that we get what we deserve.

    • DexteR says:

      10:09am | 16/11/12

      This is why I never listen to what politicians say, they all lie or speak a multitude of words but actually say nothing.  What I find hillarious is that they think by doing this they are doing anything except turning people off.  As soon as a politician starts to speak I usually switch off, I really can’t be bothered listening to them blather. 

      What I do look at is the underlying philosophy of the party, generally they will always hover around this, political manouvering aside, and also what they have actually done or are doing currently, but never to what they say

    • Big Jay says:

      12:58pm | 16/11/12

      “This is why I never listen to what politicians say”

      I agree. Unfortunately I learnt this the hard way as a naive young man voting for Kevin Rudd.

      Affordable Housing? - Pffft
      All States and Federal have Labor Govt’s - Still can’t agree on anything.

      So yeah, I still prefer the Labor philosophy over the Coalition but I’ll they both will be closer to the bottom of my preferences list.

    • Gianna says:

      12:12pm | 16/11/12

      “Stop the boats” is a policy….one carried over from the Howard years.
      I notice no mention of a raving fishwife rant….unwarranted and untrue, plus totally out of context doesn’t get a mention.

    • Esteban says:

      12:39pm | 16/11/12

      Adam Creighton you have articulated the only viable path for Australia.

      Smaller Government and smaller taxes.

      Whilst I am 100% certain you are correct there is no cut through to the ignorant public. Check out the thread by Acotrel that does not even address the central tenet of your post.

      It is time to realise that your well written atricles are not going to initiate change in this country.

      While you are young and full of vim and vigour it is time to seek pre selection for the Liberal party.

      “There are times they say when the Phantom leaves the jungle and walks the streets dressed as a normal man. This is one of those times.”

    • mikem says:

      01:55pm | 16/11/12

      We live in an era where image has become more important than substance and most Party leaders are carefully stage managed to portray the image their Party gurus think is important.  The problem with spin though is it is a dangerous game because it only works if you don’t get found out and once you are found out your credibility is shot to pieces, and you also need to get it right and when you don’t it can be very ugly.  Tony Abbott has found that out the pitfalls of spin the hard way because he blithely followed the lead of BS artists like Credlin and Jones and thought they had it right when they didn’t.  Mitt Romney also fell into the trap of believing his own Party’s spin and from recent reports still doesn’t get it that it was wrong. 

      The great thing about democracy is that people at the extremes usually get found out and the voters take their revenge.  Thus policies like Work Choices led to the demise of the Howard government and the Liberal Party’s policies of advantaging a small proportion of the population at the expense of the rest of us will probably lead them to defeat at the next election.  Spin won’t carry the day.

    • Esteban says:

      03:08pm | 16/11/12

      Mikem. You are the perfect living example of how spin in fact does carry the day.

 

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