I watched Ken Loach’s film I, Daniel Blake again recently. Again, I cried. A sick bloke with talent and decency ends up dead before he can argue his case to be treated not as a client, customer, service user or national insurance number but as a citizen, no more no less. Surely our citizens can expect more from governments and public servants than mindless process and indifference. In the age of automation ought not compassion be precious? In the age of big data, shouldn’t it be easier to tailor public services to the individuals who pay, or have paid, taxes? This essay explores the malaise in our polity (part one) and argues for doing things differently (part two).
In this age of ‘disruption’ we need better governance. Instead, we have less and less of it. Worrying about this reminded me of an exchange I had with Donald Horne in 1996. Our letters were prompted by an allegation in Brisbane’s Courier-Mail that the historian Manning Clark had acted as a covert ‘agent of influence’ on behalf of the Soviet Union. There was no evidence to back the claims: fake news is not new. It was also the time of the first rise of Hansonism. I was angry that the Howard government was not standing up against ignorant racism and intolerance. Horne wrote back:
I keep having this fear that Australia (well – not Australia, but some bits of its public culture) will suddenly go mad, as the hidden rises to the surface – without the appropriate denunciations from the guardians.
Today, Horne might have concluded that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
Horne had more faith in ordinary Australians than in our leaders. He saw the elite as conventional, second rate, conformist, unable to draw the good qualities of Australians into play. In 1964 he listed these qualities in The Lucky Country, things like tolerance; a sense of family, pleasure and fair play; an interest in material things and in nature; adaptability, when shown the way; a talent for improvisation; scepticism, courage, stoicism.
The guardians – the political class, both elected an unelected ‒ are failing us. They are not making the decisions the people delegated to them – changing the Marriage Act is the most obvious instance. They are not leading us through the frenzy of modern life.
Horne championed civic discussions – about Australia’s place in the world, its sense of the fair go, and how we keep making our own luck. These are not happening, despite the public chatter about everything: on talkback radio, in twitter feeds and online comment boxes. The plethora of media outlets has not increased tolerance; it seems to be reinforcing factionalism. It is too easy now to hear only what you want to hear. Dissent is taken as a hostile act not an exercise in civic duty.
Sure, the community gets consulted by pollsters and governments, ad nauseum. The result is mainly babble: emotion and prejudice spewed directly from the finger to the screen, unfiltered by fact or reflection. This outpouring of words isn’t creating better government. Just the opposite. Policy development and implementation are in crisis. And it’s having ill-effects on citizens’ psyche.
What can be done to stem the madness? The job falls into two parts: leadership and governance. We need politicians with ambitions for the country (not just themselves), who can talk about their visions to the voters and exult us as a nation to strive to do more good than harm. We need public servants able to advise on how the government’s ideas can be made into policies and how to turn these into meaningful actions. The language of the politicians should inspire; the language of the bureaucrats should analyse and explain. Instead, both speak in slogans and jargon. It’s nigh impossible to pierce the obfuscation and know what to believe or what to do. We need the truth. Ordinary citizens can deal with the facts, good and bad.
This is not a new phenomenon. Horne wrote a novel in 1965 which parodied the inability of both bureaucrats and politicians to communicate: the former because of a hierarchy of subservience; the latter being too busy competing to say anything rational. Before Horne were Kafka’s chilling exposures of how a bureaucracy can become detached from its raison d’être: to serve human needs.
Today the digital record has suffocated plain speaking and spontaneity. An elected or public official straying from the script risks interrogation and ridicule, not just scrutiny. A slip of the tongue can be turned into a misleading soundbite, easily retrieved and replayed later. Information is reduced to robotic talking points; public debates have become infotainment. In this world, the most outspoken and absurd suck the air from the wise and considered.
Words do matter. So do ideas. The two go together. Good public policy relies on a combination of evidence, observation, experience and, in this era of information overload, an occasional blindfold, which filters out the peripheral and the ephemera. Horne composed The Death of the Lucky Country with his eyes bandaged: ‘I could think straight thoughts in total darkness’. Thinking straight helps clear prose flow.
The popular view of public servants is that they are grey, rule bound and generally incompetent. The best are, in fact, sophisticated thinkers, able administrators and polished negotiators. Most are good people: highly educated and often overworked. While they get up each day intending to do a good job, they don’t always serve their own cause when they put pen to paper. In their haste, or out of habit, they cut and paste other people’s weasel words. The busyness of office life – the endless meetings and emails – leaves no time for thinking. Under the pressure of the immediate, governments have lost sight of the important. This freneticism explains the air of lunacy in today’s public life.
Could everyone just slow down a bit to gain better traction on the issues or is there a more embedded malaise in our governance? Has the Westminster system become sclerotic, no longer able to respond to the pressures on our representatives and their public servants from the 24/7 media cycle and the lobbyists and the pollsters? Do too much data and too many consultations and too many expectations threaten the body politic? Have we lost sight of what we value as a society: that fair go for everyone?
Or is an epidemic of narcissism corroding the arteries of our democracy? Are our politicians too wrapped up in their celebrity status to say no to a media interview or admit they are wrong or to listen? Have they lost their compassion for the ordinary person; do they still remember why they entered parliament?
Like our public servants, most politicians start out, I think, with fundamentally good motives. Just turn to their maiden speeches to hear how the ups and downs of their own lives have chiselled their values and ambitions. Soon though these raw sentiments are honed by day-to-day politics. They must watch the numbers in the polls and in the chamber; they trim their opinions to fit into a 30-second grab for the cameras.
In our representative democracy, the government of the day, once elected, must work for all Australians, not just its supporters. In his critique of the Howard years, Horne warned against the tendency towards majoritarian democracy. Today, when politicians are repeatedly referring to their ‘mandate’, his words deserve re-stating:
Working against the majority in a good cause is one of the ordinary perils of liberal-democratic statecraft, calling up skills of tact and patience and a certain amount of guile. The new majoritarians sometimes seem to suggest that governments should never go ahead of public opinion…That is naïve and dangerous enthusiasm. If it was carried out seriously the whole place would fall apart.
The place is falling apart: not only because of the virulence of some public opinion but also because too few have mastered the art of compromise. Unsophisticated reactions to a change of mind magnify the problem. Witness the opprobrium scientists are subjected to when they cite research that casts new light on earlier findings. Those in charge are urged to act on the evidence then derided for ‘breaking promises’.
Public servants, who must adhere to the policy of the day, can find it difficult to cut through these realities. To avoid the appearance of inertia, they consult. Instead of reform, sometimes a pilot is introduced to test the waters. Rarely does a pilot become a fixture. Once completed, it is shelved. If it fails, no lessons are learned. Then it is time for another consultation. These are not the conversations with ordinary people Horne advocated. Instead they perpetuate Canberra’s isolation from the rest of Australia (which turned Horne off the city in the 1940s) and compound the difficulties governments face in bringing the people along with them when they try to confront the tough, intractable problems.
Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat and senior aid official. She is an historian by training and works as tertiary education policy analyst. She is co-director of Make Your Point, a consultancy that offers training and coaching in clear communication. She is working on a study of the links between pre-Soviet and post-Soviet history.