Shortly before the last Australian federal election, I wrote an article for the ABC about how disgusting the state of politics in Australia had become. This time I can’t even muster the enthusiasm to be disgusted. I’m far from alone in this of course, which is heartening – since last time we’ve had Lindsay Tanner’s ‘Sideshow‘, Laura Tingle’s ‘Great Expectations‘ and a wealth of books, articles and speeches about how pitiful all of it is and why.
Before we embark trepidatiously upon another election year voyage of insipid campaigning, recriminations and broken promises, point scoring and the usual media sideshow, and before they start perpetrating Q&A again every week, I’d just like to get my thoughts on the matter on the record and out of the way.
If, as the polls suggest, voters have already made up their minds long ago, no-one will be listening during the campaign anyway. But we’ll all go through the motions in some sort of ghastly national ritual nonetheless, because what else is there?
No-one will be talking about what any of it is for. That we’re all stuck here together for a while so we’d better talk about how to get along.
Richard Livingstone once said (and it is still true) that if you want a characterisation of our age, it is that of the civilisation of means without ends. Australia is materially one of the richest countries in the world, but we don’t appear to have any idea what to do with it or how to make it last. It’s not that we disagree over questions of freedom, fairness and flourishing, it’s that no-one is asking these questions in the first place.
To take just one example that will occupy much of the campaign but which will have almost no effect on how people eventually vote, consider asylum seekers. We will talk endlessly about the process of what should be done with them and to them, but no-one will ask the question ‘what, if anything, is our obligation to strangers?’ That’s the conversation we should be having.
No-one will ask what education is for. We’ll talk instead about HELP fees and job placements and MySchool rankings and private school funding, if we talk about it at all. No-one will ask what people are actually able to do and to be in their lives. We’ll talk instead about housing prices, interest rates, the level of Newstart, hospital waiting times and parental leave entitlements.
In short, Australian politics is a perpetual proxy for a larger conversation that never happens and that we have forgotten how to have.
But we’ll still be fed up and noisy and looking for someone to blame. And our ‘leaders’ will indulge us, because they never fail to do so. No matter who emerges as the winner of this election, Australia itself will lose.
That is, unless we remember that the purpose of government is to act to secure the opportunity for the flourishing lives of its citizens. Maybe that resonates with you, or maybe you disagree entirely. Either way, let’s have that conversation.