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.