Captains don’t always know best

by Julianne Schultz

AMONG THE MANY slights and injustices Australia’s most recently deposed prime minister now has time to mull over, the irony of being defined by a phrase that was not of his own making must merit some consideration.

Tony Abbott will forever be tagged with the phrase ‘captain’s pick’. In quiet moments of contemplation, it must hurt the sports-mad former prime minister to recall that the phrase was first used by the woman he hectored out of the job, and then adopted by the man he defeated. The Australian National Dictionary Centre shortlisted it as the Word of the Year for 2013, after Julia Gillard used it to justify Nova Perris’s pre-selection, Kevin Rudd used it to pre-select Peter Beattie, and Tony Abbott used it to describe his grandiose, yet ill-conceived, attempt to garner the votes of women.

As is often the way with academics, the Centre was ahead of popular opinion; it took another two years for the phrase to really enter the national lexicon. After the Liberal Party opted to replace Abbott with Malcolm Turnbull, not only did the incoming Prime Minister declare that the days of ‘captain’s calls’ were a thing of the past, but the list-loving media and blogosphere brimmed with tallies of bad decisions made with a captain’s unfettered freedom, shaped by personal loyalties and beliefs, and symbolised by the ill-judged knighthood for the Duke of Edinburgh

 

IT IS UNUSUAL for a prime minister to be so effectively defined by one phrase – the complexity of the job means that there are competing narratives, competing and sometimes contradictory moments. In this case, the phrase suffices. Not because of the ‘mistakes’ but because it went to the heart of the former prime minister’s approach to national leadership. It demonstrated that he did not have sufficient mastery or respect for the processes of government – of rigorous, evidence-based policy-making tested by a robust exchange of views – or the essential skill of a politician to negotiate, compromise and find solutions that achieve the desired end while alienating as few as possible.

This modus operandi found favour with other ministers who also seemed frustrated by the checks and balances of best practice and, in too many cases, seemed to prefer patronage. So the Attorney-General, without the usual consultation or selection processes, appointed a fellow traveller Commissioner for Human Rights and subverted years of carefully considered and calibrated arts policy on what seemed to be a whim. Others were less successful at sidestepping established processes. The former education minister tried and failed to introduce wide-ranging university funding changes without consultation, as did the former health minister, Treasurer and others.

It was behaviour that suggested the elected officials felt it was appropriate to behave more like monarchs than representatives – to rule, not govern – to be guided by the certainty of ideology, not the nuances of pragmatism.

In the process, many conventions were jettisoned as power moved, with speed and little oversight, to the Executive, particularly the Prime Minister’s Office. The ditching of conventions, and many of the tried-and-tested rules of best-practice governance, often occurred with little protest, for fear of retribution. Political inquiries were launched into decisions made by the previous governments, mates were appointed and long-standing policies overturned on a whim, often cloaked in the garb of tackling self-interest.

For Australians who have seen American political dysfunction play out in the news and as screen entertainment as though it were our own, it was easy to jump to the conclusion that the system was broken. The brilliant ABC Working Dog production Utopia reinforced this view – with well meaning, but fearful, public servants skewered by venal politicians and their fixers. And so another tabloid phrase entered the lexicon, the one we have adopted for this edition, that there was a need to ‘fix the system’.

 

BUT, AS HAS become clear in recent months, the politicial system was not as broken as we had been led to believe. With goodwill and respect for expertise, it is possible to have difficult conversations about competing interests and reach conclusions that satisfy many people, much of the time.

There are still operational challenges – improving the political process, reviving the independent expertise of the public service, reforming federation and the tax system – and other challenges that are enmeshed in a more complicated way with history, psychology and national identity, and pivot on the mature and compassionate treatment of the most vulnerable.

As those brought up in the Christian tradition learn, we should expect to be judged on how we treat the weakest amongst us. In this regard, Australia has some stellar achievements – it has crafted an effective and well-targeted welfare system, maintained an egalitarian ethos and created a rich, cosmopolitan society.

It also has some spectacular failures, most notably the inability to come to terms in any enduring and meaningful way with the fact that there were people living on this continent before settlers arrived. The fact that their descendants have not only survived, but continue to maintain the oldest living culture, demands respectful engagement. Sadly that remains frustratingly out of reach.

Meanwhile, daily news reports from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse provide heart-rending examples of the brutal reality that those with power have the capacity to mistreat the powerless. This shocking truth is not confined to the past. The witnesses before the Royal Commission echo and amplify the reports from the isolated offshore islands where refugees, forced by war from their homelands, also recount being known by number, not by name, of being bullied and threatened. But somehow the dots rarely seem to be joined: we decry the past while replicating it in the present, forgetting that systems are human constructs, shaped to address complex problems and to enable us to shape our own destiny.

None of these issues is beyond the ability of a rich, well-educated society to solve; but they sit as undigested gruel, in part because of an unwillingness to ask the right questions, or listen to the answers and act in a considered way with courage and vision. Other, less well-endowed countries have managed these and more complex problems without retreating into fear-mongering or comfortable denial.

For some years Australia has seemed stuck, as if leaders were hoping for off-the-shelf solutions that could be imported, rather than doing the hard work of devising approaches unique to this time and place. Meanwhile, the world watches and wonders what went wrong: why did Australia fail to fully live up to its early promise as a global leader with an innovative, egalitarian social democracy? The time is right to pick up this mantle and re-imagine what it might look like in the twenty-first century.

As the reaction to the departure of Tony Abbott illustrated, sometimes the people are ahead of the politicians (and those I refuse to call the ‘political class’), but learning from them requires humility, respect and a willingness to ask the right questions, listen to the answers and accept accountability. It requires maturity and that good old Aussie virtue, pragmatism. In this volume, and companion e-book, the writers illuminate the issues and propose approaches that might ensure that the political, social and economic system we make is, in future, better fit for purpose.

25 November 2015

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.