We are born with the schizophrenia of good and evil within us, so that each generation must persevere in self-recognition and in self-control. In ceding to the automatic reassurance of our logic, we have abandoned once more those powers of recognition and of control.
— John Ralston Saul
To govern is the technical process of managing an organised society. Politics is how people govern. Good governance is to take a genuine and honest interest in people, and that definition isn’t associated with the word ‘politics’ because it has received a bad rap, which I don’t think was intended.
Polis: (Greek) City-state: the highest or most desirable form of social organization.
The noble polis has been transformed into politics; that crummy, cold and uncomfortable word we know today. We’re not completely sure how we got there, but let’s see what history can tell us.
A Bit of History and Geography of Politics
Before our complex societies required a police force, military arms, cities, financial hubs and administration centres, we had tribes, bands and chiefdoms. They were still complex in their own right (like Sparta in 400–500BC), but they had none of that delicious bureaucratic stuff we get to indulge in.
The only job the early societies had were to keep their people sustained with a productive food environment. That’s why they flocked to coastal areas first — to be near water and away from arid land.
Although governance slowly evolved over the next thousand years, the chiefdoms (bigger than tribes) were still alive and well in the United States by the 1400s. By this point they were a bit less egalitarian, and a little more beaurocratic. The chief had a responsibility of ensuring the people’s services were provided — services that would otherwise be too expensive for an individual to pay for themselves, like roads and basic administration services. But they also redistributed food and wore visible signs of their position and power. In Rome, the noble wore purple-dyed tunics; on Rennell Island the chief wore a large fan on his back, and of course, monarchies wore crowns. Once hereditary power died down, people who wanted to rule or make changes in society had to start campaigning for the opportunity.
The first published campaign may have been around 1776, when Thomas Paine published ‘Common Sense’, a pamphlet about American independence.
We have a dumbed down version, now.
Before the public knew it, politicians were no longer honourably taking care of the people. They worked their way to the top of the least trusted list, sitting alongside lawyers, bankers and real estate agents.
In Australia, anti-corruption fighter Tony Fitzgerald attempted to sign our politicians up to a set of ethical standards, which didn’t seem too far displaced from, well, common sense.
The Fitzgerald Principles
- To act honourably and fairly and solely in the public interest
- To treat all citizens equally
- To tell the truth
- Not to mislead or deceive
- Not to withhold or obfuscate information to which voters are entitled
- Not to spend public money except for public benefit
- Not to use your position or information gained from your position for your benefit or the benefit of a family member, friend, political party or other related entity
Fitzgerald asked 226 members of parliament to sign up. Of that number, 53 agreed, 36 refused to commit and 137 did not reply (even after repeated requests). I don’t need to match each of those standards to evidence of politicians doing exactly the opposite. The distrust has created a deep wedge between the public and politicians, and it might be time to consider a couple of problems and what we might do about it.
The Problem of Tax
Luxury car tax was introduced in Australia to encourage us to support the local industry, which died out after 69 years in 2018. This was due to the government taking a strangely opposing view that actually, we shouldn’t really support the local industry. The luxury car tax hasn’t gone anywhere. Despite the criticisms many of us share of American politicians and America in general, the government would save GM and Tesla before they ever went down the same sad way that Holden did — protectionism isn’t always a bad thing.
The one that always gets me though, is payroll tax. The government collects upwards of $9 billion annually so that we can create jobs and wealth in our local communities. That’s a lot of money collected for employing other people. What seems to continue to bypass governing bodies consistently is the idea that tax is an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to show the public that governing bodies can be trusted with our money, and our government wreaks havoc on it no matter what promises they start with. No wonder the public-politician relationship is a bit strained.
Never mind, though, the ones with a lot of money will find a way to avoid paying the taxes, some might even get a neat $880 million dollar ATO payout, and others might have an avoidance scheme generated to limit tax to a measly 7%. At the same time, Australia can keep out of the list of the world’s largest 100 digital companies, because of the conservative policies and taxes on every stage of business growth. Until taxes and labour costs face some serious change, these two factors will continue to drive Australia deeper down the innovation list.
Why Good Ideas Get Ignored in Politics
The Overton Window
Good ideas don’t get proper air time in politics because they’re usually slightly unpopular, a bit radical or exclude a possible voting class. And they’re usually specific, which is always a no-no for politicians, who require an idea that’s vague enough which — if it fails — should be easy enough to squirm out of.
Hugh Mackay proposed a system where we choose people at random from the election roll, like our jury duty system. I think he’s right — we should become a more compassionate nation and expect better from our politicians. But when it comes to making really important decisions about Australia, I don’t think you can be appointed at random. This goes for business, for family, for friends. No, you need to have an active interest in it. Jury duty is acceptable (perhaps) because it’s a limited scope with a beginning and an end in sight. Governance is quite a different beast, and it deserves the enthusiasm our country truly needs. But I think some ideas he proposed would still work for people who really do want to improve the state of this country.
We should demand better parliamentary behaviour and keep on demanding it. We should insist on more… courtesy in debates both inside and outside parliament.
— Hugh Mackay
The Future of Politics
I cannot fairly say that Australia is a poorly functioning country because of our government. Despite all odds stacked against us for the last couple hundred years, we’ve survived.
But surviving isn’t enough, especially with a new generation coming and other countries having far more proactive policies in place. New generations have a desire to see conservative policies done away with.
We need to start by reconsidering some old ideas, and trying out some new ones. What if:
- we realise that older governance practices are dying out with the older political generation (but it’s true). We can try and embrace new ideas now. Let’s try this one: future politicians won’t succeed by dragging the opposing politician through the dirt.
There is widespread public contempt for politicians who themselves repeatedly assert that (other) politicians act improperly and accuse each other of misconduct and egregious character defects. Nonetheless, the major parties stubbornly resist effective oversight of politicians’ conduct.
— Tony Fitzgerald
- we don’t actually need a binary system of political parties. Labour and liberal are an incredibly narrow way of looking at how to govern Australia, and there are more collaborative ways to consider future policies.
- we treat the country with proactive measures for our wealth, not just build the country’s ‘wealth’ on the promise of debt in housing, and then cry ‘run’ when interest rates go into spasm and the market crashes.
- we change the way we view our politicians by actually electing politicians we trust and keeping them there. And while we’re on that — we actually find politicians worth keeping.
- we had a political system where governance is considered intrinsically tied to ethics, and is not just a label:
Political ethics is merely an amusing oxymoron. Power provides a rich opportunity for personal and political advantage: cronyism, the sale of access and influence and the misuse of public money are now scandalous.
— Tony Fitzgerald
- we reduce (better yet, eliminate) our adversarial system of politics and think about making it collaborative. I wonder which tactic would be more productive for Australia?
- we stop taking the piss out of the public with ads like Clive Palmer’s ‘Australia’s not going to cop it’ ad (I wonder how that lawsuit went).
- we think about becoming more liberal. Australia has some of the strictest laws for driving and alcohol in of any secularly-governed society. For progression in any society, you need to have an accepting culture and relatively liberal standards. Younger generations can start pushing harder for this.
- we try a Deliberation Day, an idea floated by Dr Andrew Leigh. It will bring very different groups together and actually push forward interesting ideas, rather than just have really conservative policies pushed from the top down year after year.
Perhaps one of the best things we can do is remain positive. Despite the consistently negative view of politicians and governance, now is a good time to encourage people with an eye for the Australian future to step up to the plate. If we have an eye for an optimistic future, we might actually build a better Australia. There’s still a lot we can learn from other countries.
- Utopia for Realists
- 2062 The World that AI Made by Toby Walsh
- Australia Reimagined by Hugh Mackay
- Girt by David Hunt
- Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul
- Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond
- Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
EndNotes: This essay is part of a series in my own Masters program. I developed my own Masters because I couldn’t find the right solution to educating myself in our slow-moving and irrelevant tertiary education. I deferred a Masters of Law (Corporate and Commercial Specialty) to focus on areas that are more relevant to the conceptual age. I’ll still be learning about the law, but in a way that’s more relevant and connected to the outside world. You can follow along with my progress on Medium.
Dedication: It’s a long dedication, but I have a big family:
To Dad, thanks for teaching us the power of persistence and Dettol. To Mum, I really loved my quattro-flavoured sandwiches. I never exchanged any of my quarters with anyone. To Jeremy, thanks for being prepared with the promise of a power wedgie if anyone tried to harass me (they never did). To Jules, thanks for introducing me to Mr Bingley’s confession: ‘I have been the most unmitigated and comprehensive ass.’ I hope to return the same value to your life someday. To Mat, thanks for sharing my love of bacon. Keep cooking until crispy. Maybe one day we won’t have to hit the fire detector with pillows. To Dora, there’s a lot more to you than soap bombs. If you’re not careful we might start randomly posting your art around Sydney. To Tim, your flatulence may be powerful, but your inheritance of Dad’s persistence is even more powerful. May the force be with you. To Luke, your passion for fact books and finger pointing will take you far. Never give up your sense of curiosity.