The outsourcing of politics

Bernard Keane, writing in Crikey, has broadcast a clever and timely critique of the policy malaise infecting what traditionally has been referred to as political debate. Our politics has been outsourced, he asserts. And his argument is sound:  Keane writes …

We’re all familiar with one of the basic social changes of the last 50 years: we stopped joining things. In particular, we stopped joining political parties and other community organisations.

The memberships of political parties have collapsed and aged dramatically. The Liberal and Labor parties memberships are old; they’re retirement homes for people born in an age when joining a political party was still common, when being ‘Labor’ or ‘Liberal’ was akin to following a footy team. Even the Greens, who attract strong support from young voters, have a graying membership.

This has had the unforeseen consequence that we have progressively outsourced the business of running the country to a new class — professional politicians. There have always been career politicians, of course. And political leaders had frequently worked within their parties before becoming MPs. But the hollowing out of political party memberships, the rise of branch-stacking (unthinkable in mass-membership parties), public funding per vote for political parties, the rise of the lobbying and consultancy industries and the remorseless growth of ministerial advisers drove the creation of a new political profession. It’s one that has its own career ladder, from uni politics to researcher or adviser, to pre-selection, to ministry, to satisfying post-political career on government boards or as a lobbyist.

And being a politician is only one branch of this new governing class — it includes ministerial advisers, PR and media advisers, lobbyists and appointees to advisory and government agency boards.

The ‘professionalisation’ of politics occurred in another way, as well. It became less an art and more a science, subject to careful measurement and quantification. Polling was the most obvious example, but the language of managerialism began entering politics as it also entered the public sector. Key performance indicators became important. If it couldn’t be quantified, it couldn’t be policy — literally, as government moved to a budget framework that was expressed in Outcomes, Outputs and Performance Indicators.

The minimal differences between the major parties from the 1980s onwards accelerated this process, because ideology and key policy differences became harder to see as points of product differentiation.

In this new profession, boldness or vision equals risk, and risk is something to be managed and reduced, not embraced. Reform is only pursued when the political calculus says it should be — that is, when it is popular or the losers aren’t powerful enough to threaten the government (think teachers). What seemed remarkable about the RSPT was that a complex, potentially risky reform, which had significant but diffused benefits across the entire community but one small and powerful group of losers, was adopted at all by a government that only ever played the percentages. As we learnt later, however, it wasn’t policy bravery that drove the decision, but a miscalculation about the government’s own capacity to effectively sell even the simplest, most transparently beneficial policy in the face of a well-resourced counter-campaign.

This was the same mistake the Howard government, which for its first two terms was a genuinely reforming government, had made with WorkChoices. You can bet that political professionals on both sides have learnt the lesson.

The void created by the absence of real reform, the lack of genuine ideological difference, by the inability to provide an authentic narrative of governmental progress, requires filling; thus the reliance on spin, on constant announcement and re-announcement of minor policies, each one inevitably oversold and overhyped, or declarations of war on minor social irritants intended to earn voters’ enthusiasm.

As the importance of ‘messaging’ has grown, so has the importance of ensuring the appearance of unanimity. This is why political journalism is increasingly a sterile exchange between a politician adhering rigidly to a pre-prepared set of talking points and a journalist trying to find the tiniest nuance on which to catch them out. This is amplified in an election context in which trigger-happy journalists are quick to declare a ‘gaffe’ or ‘stumble’ — my favourite headline of the campaign so far belongs to the Australian Financial Review, which portrayed Gillard saying “Nauru” instead of “East Timor” as Gillard’s Nauru gaffe rocks asylum stance’.

This is why the seeming difference between the current generation of politicians and their 1980s forebears isn’t just the nostalgia of middle-aged journalists who remember Paul Keating in his pomp, but reflective of a seachange in Australian politics toward a political culture that is risk-averse and indifferent to genuine reform outcomes. Labor led the way after losing power in 1996; the Liberals, held back by Howard’s death-grip on the leadership, started from behind but under Tony Abbott are catching up quickly.

Gratifying the media has become the primary purpose of the professional politician, a purpose journalists are only too happy to encourage and adopt as the essential measure of political success. This is why the media and politicians have the mutual dependence of the feeder and his obese partner. Politicians have acquired a crippling self-enfeeblement driven by their dependence on the media, in whose interests it is for politics to remain in a permanent cycle of spin, conflict and commentary, while actual problems are never resolved (remember, nothing irks the mainstream media more than problems being solved).

In the end, though, maybe it’s not the politicians who are stuck helpless and immobilised. They have business opportunities, lobbying positions, board directorships, advisory roles to move on to when they leave politics. It’s us.

We’ve outsourced running the country because we’re too busy. Too busy raising the kids and paying the mortgage and the school fees and working to afford that ever-bigger plasma telly. Too busy chasing our tails in the endless circle of aspirational consumption, all driven by the media which has a vested interest in keeping us convinced we always need to be consuming more.

But don’t blame the media. That’s just the parasite we allow to use us. The fault lies much closer to our oversized, over-stuffed homes, and our own learnt helplessness in the face of the system we’ve allowed to spring up around us.