1Q: Does the country really change when the government changes?

Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy has started a trial aimed at generating some cross-blog conversations on specific questions. He’s posed the first one, and asked a number of different bloggers to post an answer on their own sites.

Q: Tim Dunlop – My first question is picking up on something said by both John Howard and Paul Keating, namely, that when the government changes, so does the country. Both made the comment at a time when it looked to them like they might be about to lose power and so there was, of course, a sense of warning in their observation. So that’s my question: Does the country really change when the government changes?

My answer: “Yes”.

This cross-blog question answering thing is easy! (I expand on my answer below).

For some other responses, which take quite a diverse range of positions on the question, see Tigtog at Hoyden about Town, Joshua Gans at Core Economics, Ken Parish at Club Troppo, Harry Clarke at his eponymous blog, Robert Merkel at The View from Benambra, Kim at Larvatus Prodeo and the questioning man himself, Tim Dunlop at Blogocracy.

I don’t think one could dispute that the country will change if there is a change in government. The real question is how much will it change, and the answer depends on what things you focus on and how much weight you give them. The sun will come up in the morning regardless, but will we have more solar panels around to make better use of it?

Given that the question revolves around choices at election time, it should also be said that changing the make up of the parliament also changes the country. The government didn’t change at the 2004 election, but the composition of the Senate did, and that has led to some significant changes in the country that would not have happened otherwise. Workplace relations is the most obvious, but far from the only, example. Since 1996, the Senate kept workplace laws relatively balanced amongst the competing interests and rights, constraining the extremist urges of the government and delivering good outcomes for the overall economy and in most cases for individuals. Changing the Senate at the 2004 election meant the government could indulge in a major ideological frolic. This has led to worse personal circumstances for some people – which might not be as dramatic as ‘changing the country’, but feels just as important if you happen to be one that’s affected. More significantly, it is leading to a big change in the culture of the workplace.

I think this broader issue of the potential social, environmental and cultural change is where the heart of the question really goes to, as there is only so much a government can do with the economic levers and there aren’t many major differences between the two major parties in this area in any case.

Whilst I’m clearly of the view that changing governments changes the country, I dno’t want to overstate the likely level of change. It is silly to suggest that the government equates to the crew of the Good Ship Australia, and all of us in the community are just passengers being steered around wherever the government chooses to take us. Governments have a lot of power – and that power is dramatically increased if they also control the Senate (and thus the Parliament), as is currently the case. However, this power is far from unlimited, and there’s only so much they can do with it – particularly if they want to hang on to it for a decent length of time, as Mr Whitlam found out (sooner rather than later, thanks to John Kerr, but he would have found it out soon enough in any case).

We also should not ignore the many other things which generate and influence change, not least the wider community. Whilst governments can influence change, it is also true to say that the community generates a lot of change, which governments then respond to. This is particularly the case at the moment – in many areas there is more following than leading happening (which is not necessarily a bad thing). The nature of politics at the moment seems to be tilted more towards cautious, short-term outlooks, with priority given to public relations and what will play well in the mainstream media over substantive longer-term outcomes – something of a polar opposite to Whitlam’s ‘crash through or crash’ approach. A change in government won’t necessarily change this cautious approach, and may even entrench it further – in which case a change of government will bring less substantive change than it otherwise might.

Those wanting change need to also focus on other agents that are capable of generating positive shifts, whether through social institutions like churches, business, unions, non-government organisations, independent media, research bodies and academia, or through society at large.

Having said that, a change in government means a lot more than a change in some letterheads and a few cosmetic tinkerings. I don’t think anyone can credibly argue that all major things would be the same in Australia now if Paul Keating had won in 1996 instead of John Howard, or if Labor had stayed in power since then. As one example, while we wouldn’t have the sort of sensible humane refugee policies that I’d like, we also wouldn’t have had the Tampa turnaround and many thousands of refugees and their families would not have endured the extreme and unnecessary trauma inflicted on them as a consequence of the changes flowing out of that incident.

However, we shouldn’t ignore the “only Nixon could go to China” syndrome either. Because this by definition involves counter-intuitive actions, it is almost impossible to predict which sort of paradigm shifting actions might occur with a change in government. It is also in the nature of this type of change that it requires a change of government for it to occur. To use some examples from the past, widescale privatisation would probably only have occured under a Labor government, even though the Coalition is more philosophically inclined this way. One could probably say the same about some of the market liberalisation that occurred in the Hawke/Keating era.

One example under the Howard government would be the dramatic increase in the centralisation of power that has occured in recent years. Some other examples come in the environmental area – which in itself sounds counter-intuitive, as on the whole the Howard government’s performance on the environment has been abysmal. However, the federal environment laws were significantly strengthened (and also broadened, in another example of the Commonwealth taking on more power) with the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act introduced in 1999. One can never tell, but there’s no particular sign that Labor would have gone down this path, and they opposed the legislation when it came in. (It also should be said that this is another example where the final result was much stronger only because of the role played by an independent Senate). The large increase in the areas protected in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is another example – a major environmental achievement which came at the political cost of some seriously pissed off commercial fishers (not to mention the cost of over $100 million to try to make them less pissed off). A Labor government may have done this, but there’s no guarantee they would have, and it would have been politically much harder for them to do so, as the Coalition would have hammered them about how much harm they were allegedly doing to the commercial fishers.

On a larger scale, it is hard to say there’d be no difference if Al Gore had won the Presidency of the USA in 2000 instead of George W Bush, even if it might not be as big a difference as some might suggest. If nothing else, we’d undoubtedly have had more action on climate change (which is somewhat ironic, given that it was the splitting of Gore’s vote by the Green’s Ralph Nader that helped deliver the win to Bush). September 11, 2001 would probably have happened anyway, but whilst there would most likely still have been some lashing out in response, it’s unlikely that something as monumentally destructive and stupid as the invasion of Iraq would have occurred.

The question notes the similarity of the comments by Paul Keating in 1996 and John Howard in 2007. But one other similarity is that Kevin Rudd in 2007 is also trying to do what John Howard did in 1996, trying to convince people that things won’t actually change dramatically with a change in government, except that the new government won’t be as arrogant as the old one (or will provide a “resetting of the moral compass”, as Paul Keating might now put it).

There is an element of deceit in this, as a new government inevitably would make some major shifts in some key areas which they won’t make much noise about now. However, there is also an element of truth in this assertion – most governments seem incapable of avoiding a descent into arrogance, cronyism, contempt for basic honesty and a general born-to-rule mentality as their time in office lengthens. There are plenty of current examples of this amongst Labor governments at state level, as well as the Coalition federally. Hitting the refresh button from time to time is an important act, as long as people are confident enough that the system won’t crash if they do it – a confidence voters obviously didn’t have at state elections in NSW and Queensland, to pick a couple of recent examples.

My concluding observation contains some obvious self-interest, but fortunately its accuracy is backed up by history. The risk from a change of government is much reduced if that government is overseen by a balanced Senate which is able to function independently and take a common sense, evidence based approach to scrutinising what the government is doing and proposing. Similarly, the chances of change being more balanced and properly thought through also increases with the greater checks and balances that an independent Senate can bring. So regardless of whether we change the government at the coming election or not, we need to change the Senate to return it to a balanced independent body that can help the public keep a proper check on what that government is doing.

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  1. I’m glad you made the point about the role of a balanced Senate that’s not compelled to follow the party line. As my post was taking a very broad brush answer to Tim’s question I didn’t cover it, but I’ll certainly be surprised if Labor takes the Senate as well as the House (which I do think is most likely barring the wheels falling off Labor entirely).

    The nation has had a rude shock the last few years since giving Howard the Senate – perhaps every generation needs a reminder of what an unchecked legislature can do.

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  3. Excellent comment about change of composition of the government at the last election changing the country. Getting control of the Senate was the provision of absolute power to Howard. Workchoices is the corrupt result.

  4. Too general a question,which focuses the mind on either sameness or difference to use two further generalities.Economic bunkum will make some see the happy center where very little changes and this depending on income may have deeper signifance.There are other ways to assess the failures of government in that ,if government sets the background tone,by legislation or lack of it what then follows as a resultant mix.Have the attitudes of those who call themselves Professionals changed in ways that represent a higher order of both professional ethics and standards and in areas of life where, their skills could be useful volunteering in a manner, that, represented something other than self interest? And isnt just the mathematical increase in numbers or wealth?Inflation and drought for example ,on another matter,can sting much harder for low income and business,and non represented groups like Australian fruitpickers and the endless requirements of that industry when conditions are good.I dont think fruitgrower interests attitudes to workers change very much ,because when the seasons on everyone is a dole bludger again. It doesnt matter how well you present new evidence on behalf of seasonal workers the notion of itinerant rages like inflation.There are bad apples, of course,but then again,state and federal bureaus are really lacking in just getting people to do the work,and forget the bloody shit.I therefore use the observation of seasonal work as the only accessible matter to see if any enduring change is manifest to keep the vitamins and minerals fibre and antioxidants up to the populace…And well the hard task every year has been really not met.Doctors across election times hold the whole population up like bank robbers,and no wound seems to have inflicted on them in the pursuit of a failed operating philosophy.

  5. Very little changes because the public service doesn’t policies mite be a little different its getting through to the public service that is the hard part I think Howard has fallen on his sword with work choices the saying far go for all has left this liberal government or was it there in the first place. The biggest mistake we made was giving the senate to the liberals I dont think the Australian people will make that mistake again

  6. Spending $370 million of taxpayers money to pay other people to check up if employers are honest is really a good look for the primeminiature I don’t think.

    This way he might shut out the unions but the awards were all set with union consultation during a period when we had increased wealth, productivity and housing affordability.

    Howard is a humbug and Australia is a lesser nation with him in the leadership, or should I say follow ship.

    Roll on the days when we get a balanced senate again.

  7. According to my computer clock it is 7:53pm. and any addition from the Senator isnt up this Tuesday.The following as information follows my last posting and the fundamental problems facing Australia and indeed the problem pointed out by the Senator on the video of the budget and this weblog question.Personally,I really do not want to promote a industry before my own interests,or anything else that may mean further personal disadvantage…but,this may not be the case with the following,and is a sock in the eye at those who will make coal redundant.I may have suggested something similar …..From http://www.freepatentsonline.com METHOD OF COMPOSITION FOR USING ORGANIC,PLANT DERIVED,OIL EXTRACTED MATERIALS IN COAL BASED FUELS FOR REDUCED EMISSIONS.my capital letters…document type and number7144434 and the link I couldnt get up, is http:// as above.com/7144434.html.I was essentially chasing how to use bromelain from pineapples and went through the enzyme related patents to see if there was any in relation to metals,such as alumina ,and anything else I could dredge up…Telstra will be happy.I discovered other stuff I have bookmarked in case I find the mental eloquence to expand on patent finds.It sort of got up my craw that Pearsons effect in Queensland is now blundering into anti wild rivers and maybe real forest and land conservation.There are other ways of even seeing wild rivers ,like a great big shade cloth building over them where the ecology permits,and bring horticultural production to the river for water needs then hang them from very thick branches in protected but approved lands and forests.The aboriginals in their minds, are scaling up in a damaging way to lands and rivers,another approach, as vision, is needed.The common unemployed generally do not see much change from election to election.Being seen as as problem rather than tomorrows designers and scalers of new human heights.Please let them be encouraged by Buckminster Fuller and softer approaches.

  8. A wonderfully philosophical piece, Andrew, which trips very many of my triggers.

    In my opinion there have been three major shifts in our country’s direction since I began voting 50-odd years ago.

    Whitlam government – mostly uplifting – voted them in voted them out;

    Australian Democrats numbers reduced – deep sense of unease;

    Howard senate majority – disturbing & deep disintegration in our society. When I travel I now state that I am a New Zealander – too ashamed to admit to being a subject of these weird legislations.

    Whoever gets back in in really unimportant. We need more Democrats there again to ensure >we the people

  9. [Hey! – Why U chop my post? As I was saying ]

    (cont) >we the peoplePlease. Get re-elected.

  10. Andrew, well put. I have however played over an aspect of the senate vis the Constitution, that the central role of the Senate was it was to be the States’ house of review, and that my interpretation of the constitution was supported by a constitutional lawyer. This intepretation is that the States COULD constitutionally direct the senators to act in the interests of the states, rather than in the interests of a political party as is currently the case. I see pros and cons of this process – a hung senate is in most cases a good vehicle to retain checks and balances against what we have now; a senate majority is an anethma to the intent of the consititution based on my interpretation and potentially an anti democratic organ of the executive. I argue this as based on your article the country will change with a change of government, and potentially could develop a more extremist position if the government holds a senate majority, than if a balanced senate exists.
    Constitutionally a state could direct its senators to act in a certain way if the central government imposes legislation that it is not happy with. On the other hand, with a representative Senate which is balanced, you are more likely to deliver a capability which is tune with the politicalopinion spectrum which voted in the parties. What are your thoughts on this vis the likelihood and where a government is imposing a policy on which it has no mandate (such as the IR legislation)?

  11. Of course, one could also say that when the country changes, the government changes too – as evidenced by JWH and co. suddenly finduing themselves out of favour with a public that have moved on the topics of climate change for example. Thirty years late of course, but countries do change slowly.

  12. yes and no – yes becasue obviously there will be policy nuances and changed direxctions.

    no becasue the drveirts of change aer far beyond the capabilites of a small nation state like Australai.

    The sghift in regional marktes and the massive growth in consudemr in our north, the competion ofr scarce natueral resource sand the conflict beteween saving and using them, technologcail innovation and connectivity, the massiev chnanging of the demographiscc of the world and our opwn country, dislocation and politcal worl conflict etc etc the list goes on.

    these aer the drievers of chnage in our society irrespectiev of who is in power here.

    i’m laregly surpised by the lack of stratgeic understadning in most of these posts, not surprised by the self interest however. I guess at least we are margiannly ahead of the lcoal councillor desiging the garage roof – but not much

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